Amanda ~ A huge welcome to Jaffareadstoo and thanks for chatting to us about
Tell us more about the background to The Flax Flower.
It’s inspired by a song – a 350-year-old folk song, the Scots ballad ‘Mill of Tifty’s Annie.’ I don’t want to reveal too much, but like most traditional ballads, it’s a tragedy. The reason I got so obsessed with it, though, is that it’s based on a true story. It’s linked to Tifty in Aberdeenshire – the ruins of the mill stand there to this day – and to the grave of Agnes (Annie) Smith, the miller’s daughter, who died in 1673.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing the story? How did you overcome it?
I was tinkering with the dialogue right up to the last minute. When I started writing, although people were using the occasional Scots word, mostly they sounded like something out of Jane Austen. Of course that didn’t fit with the period or with the location. Readers shouldn’t be alarmed – it’s not written in deep Doric dialect! It was more the rhythms of speech that needed work to make them convincing. I use voice recognition instead of typing, so that helped a lot, and I read the whole thing out loud a couple of times when it was nearly finished. Both techniques are a great way to work on dialogue, because anything that doesn’t sound like a real spoken sentence will almost literally stick in your throat.
Your writing is very atmospheric – how much research did you need to do in order to bring The Flax Flower to life?
A lot! Of course I had to visit Tifty and Fyvie Castle, where it all happened, and it was worth it when one of the locals got in touch to say that she could follow every path I took in the book.
I must have read everything ever written about the song, and listened to every recorded version. On top of that, I spent months in the British Library, reading books about ballads and all kinds of historical textbooks. The difference in social status between the lovers is an important part of the equation, so I had to understand that, as well as how people lived and worked.
Annie’s lover Andrew is a trumpeter, and there were no known historical records of him other than the ballad itself. But to find out what a trumpeter actually did, I read a Ph.D. thesis: ‘The Trumpet in Scotland from 1488 to 1800’. Pretty specialist stuff, but I wouldn’t have missed it, because suddenly I spotted ‘my’ trumpeter’s name listed there on the microfilm, living in Edinburgh just as the ballad indicates.
What would you like readers to take away from The Flax Flower?
I’d love it if readers who are familiar with traditional singing were to have moments of recognition. And I’d love it even more if people who have never heard or paid attention to traditional music – and I mean the real hard-core stuff, solo unaccompanied 50 verse ballads – were to go away and listen to them and experience their power and magic.
If you could pick a musical soundtrack to accompany a film version of The Flax Flower what would you choose, and why?
The Flax Flower would make a great film. It would be important to get the soundtrack right, because songs and singing run through every aspect of the characters’ lives. That explains why Annie’s story itself becomes a ballad, which would have to feature, but without giving away the plot. I can hear it playing while the credits roll. However, while I’d like some recognisable traditional songs and tunes in there, it would be great if one of the many fabulous modern day folk composers like Karine Polwart could be commissioned to write new music too.
The Flax Flower is your first novel. Do you have plans to write any more?
Yes. I’m hopping over to the west coast of Scotland and a Gaelic song for number two. The working title is ‘Wrack’, as in seaweed, so I seem to be favouring botanical titles! It’s a version of a murder ballad that is found right across Europe, but this one has a special Gaelic twist that sends a chill right up my spine.
I reviewed The Flax Flower on behalf of the Historical Novel Society and I'm pleased to say that it was chosen as the editor's choice in May.
Amanda is launching
The Flax Flower in Glasgow on Saturday 13 June 2015
She will be doing some readings and singing the ballad that started it all. And there will also be an opportunity for others to bring songs, music and poetry. More information:
and the address is:
Centre for Contemporary Arts,
350 Sauchiehall Street,
My thanks to Amanda for giving so generously of her time.
Jaffa and I wish you continued success with your writing and look forward to reading "Wrack" when it's published.
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