Tuesday 14 April 2020

Author Spotlight ~ Elisabeth Gifford

I'm delighted to welcome back into our author spotlight

Elisabeth Gifford

Hello Elisabeth, it is so lovely to have you spend time with us today. 

Thank you for being our guest.

What inspired you to write The Lost Lights of St Kilda? 

My husband is from Scotland and we try to spend as much time as possible in the beautiful and remote Outer Hebrides, especially the island of Harris. Fifty miles out into the Atlantic beyond Harris is the most remote and spectacular island of Scotland, St Kilda, and I became fascinated by the history of the last people to live there.

Without giving too much away what can you tell us about the story? 

The story began for me with the image of a man in a dark prison in World War 2, who is longing to get home to the girl he met on St Kilda ten years earlier, as a student researching the island’s geology. It’s the hope of finding that girl again that gives him the courage to escape and make a dangerous journey across occupied territory, trying to get home. Thousands of Highland soldiers were stranded in France and taken prisoner by the Nazis during the Dunkirk evacuations and I wanted to tell their story also.

Chrissie Gillies is one of the main protagonists of The Lost Lights of St Kilda. Tell us about her and why you decided to tell her story? 

Chrissie is a young St Kildan who has her life forever changed by the arrival of two students from Cambridge one brief summer in 1927. The story is fictional, but the characters are based on real people. The island of St Kilda had to be evacuated in 1930 after the villagers were cut off from mainland supplies by the long winter storms and all but starved to death. I wanted to try and recreate what life was like on the island for the close-knit community. Their lifestyle was more like the nineteenth century than the twentieth, gathering sea birds from the cliffs and weaving their own cloth. Even though they were poor, they were a close and caring community with a deep connection to the land. The voice of Chrissie came to me as a voice representing her people, bold and full of life and love, and it is through her that the islanders’ story is told.

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is set in on the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. In researching the background to the story did you get the chance to visit the island and if so, did anything leave a lasting impression on you? 

Because St Kilda is so remote, a hundred miles out from the mainland, and in quite rough seas, it took two attempts to get out there as the first trip with Sea Harris was cancelled due to the windy weather. It has the highest sea cliffs in Europe, with spectacular scenery and wild life.

It was very moving to see the abandoned village after reading so much about it and I was able to walk along the row of house knowing the history of each family who had once lived there. In fact, having researched the village so extensively I was able to find the names and photographs of the last people to live in each of the houses and I’m giving that information to the National Trust who now manage the island to make a booklet for future visitors.

Is it difficult to find a balance between research and writing? Can you ever have too much historical detail in historical fiction? 

I think you can never know enough historical detail about the place and period you are writing about but you can’t put all of what you know into the story. You will be telling the story through the eyes of certain characters, so that on the page you only see and hear what they are experiencing at that time as the story unfolds. But as a writer you will need to have a full picture of the world that your character is walking through for the story to feel real and make sense, but of course you won’t have time to stop and mention every thing you know as a writer. 

You bring people to life so beautifully. Do your characters ever dictate how the story progresses or do you stick with a firm writing plan from the beginning? 

I begin with an idea and a broad story plan but as it’s the characters who drive the story through their individual choices, just as we do in real life, I have to be prepared to make some adjustments as they reveal themselves. That is what makes writing an exciting process for me and I can honestly say that I’m as surprised by any possible readers by how the story might turn out sometimes.

Your style of writing is very much ‘from the heart’. Does this take its toll on you emotionally, and if so, how do you overcome it? 

Generally I write about places and people I love and so I enjoy that experience of recreating a world. Or I might enjoy the drama of someone trying to escape something dangerous or each what they need and hope for. I reckon that if I am enjoying the story as I write it, then the reader might too. I did set a previous book in the Warsaw Ghetto, The Good Doctor of Warsaw, as I wanted to bring before the reader some remarkable people who endured that time. Researching the details was very difficult and took some recovering from, although I felt it was important to do it and not look away.

Without giving too much away, what do you hope readers will take away from reading your book? 

I hope it will give the reader a chance to experience something that is now otherwise lost to them, namely what life would have been like for the people who lived on St Kilda before their close-knit community was broken up and scattered across the mainland. They were not materialistic and faced great hardships, but were also rich in friendships, spirituality, and in their connection to the land and nature. At the moment everyone is self-isolating, and not even taking our food supply for granted, treasuring more than ever our connections with family and friends. The courage, ingenuity and values of the St Kildans seems strangely pertinent to the times into which the book has been published.

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March 2020

When Fred Lawson takes a summer job on St Kilda in 1927, little does he realise that he has joined the last community to ever live on that desolate, isolated island. Only three years later, St Kilda will be evacuated, the islanders near-dead from starvation. But for Fred, that summer is the bedrock of his whole life...

Chrissie Gillies is just nineteen when the researchers come to St Kilda. Hired as their cook, she can't believe they would ever notice her, sophisticated and educated as they are. But she soon develops a cautious friendship with Fred, a friendship that cannot be allowed to develop into anything more...

Years later, to help deal with his hellish existence in a German prisoner of war camp, Fred tells the tale of the island and the woman he loved, but left behind. And Fred starts to wonder, where is Chrissie now? And does she ever think of him too?

About the Author

Elisabeth Gifford grew up in a vicarage in the industrial Midlands. She studied French literature and world religions at Leeds University. She has written articles for The Times and the Independent and has a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford OUDCE and an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway College. She is married with three children. They live in Kingston upon Thames.

Twitter @elisabeth04liz #TheLostLightsofStKilda


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