Welcome to Justin’s Debut-Dance Ball, a virtual party to celebrate SCBWI-BI members’ debut publications. This month, Justin is thrilled to welcome YA author (and friend), L. J. (Liz) MacWhirter to a special Scottish ceilidh and invites her to take a turn on the dance floor, whilst he asks the questions only a newly-published writer can answer! 

Liz, this is your party and you get to choose the tunes. Is there a piece of music you like to dance to, or perhaps a song that gets you in the mood for writing?

Hey Justin! It’s great to be here. While I love writing to the moody and atmospheric Hans Zimmer, the way I feel is too upbeat for that. So I’d like Elvis please – the funked-up remix of A Little Less Conversation.

Many congratulations on your debut novel Black Snow Falling. You began writing the novel in 2002. How does it feel to finally hold it in your hands?

Thank you! It feels incredible. My whole life has pivoted around books and so to actually hold my own is momentous. Weirdly, it arrived at the publisher’s when I was away in Venice on my honeymoon. It was so tantalising to see it on social media when, oh wait, I can’t really complain about that… To be honest, my journey to find my soulmate involved many more years as a knackered single mum than the journey to publication. This is a happy time!

Black Snow Falling by  L.J. MacWhirter, published by Scotland Street Press, 2018

In what ways has the novel evolved during those years? 

Major rewrites and minor tweaks all served to strengthen the characters, plot and voice, and made this book a thriller. Time slips changed: originally the story switched between the present day and 1543, but this became just a 50-year gap, slipping instead between 1592 and 1543. (That was one publisher’s idea, following a nerve-wracking lunch with a very nice editor.) Another publisher suggested that the ‘fantastic concept’ at times overshadowed the main character, Ruth. In response, my agent, Lindsey Fraser, suggested introducing another point of view – Silas, Ruth’s secret love. This last rewrite changed the plot again and made the story ready. I hope this encourages all you yet-to-be-published writers that, even though getting rejections feels really hard, the knocks can serve to strengthen our writing.

How did you celebrate landing your publishing deal?

I read the email at 11.15pm at night on my phone. I was on my own. I sat there on my bed, chuckling with joy. Two Japanese Airbnb guests were staying with me and for a nano second I was SO tempted to knock on their door and tell them – thankfully, sanity prevailed. I texted Rupert saying CALL ME, CALL ME!!!! Fortunately, he did. That weekend we celebrated with a nice bottle and meal out at our favourite Indian.

Ten seconds to describe Black Snow Falling. Go!

In this Elizabethan fantasy, 15-year-old Ruth is betrayed and trapped by monstrous sexism. Her devastation splits apart time itself, where she sees evil dream thieves at work.

Black Snow Falling is an intriguing title. What's it about?

Earlier drafts were called Stolen Dreams, but I wanted something more mysterious. Ruth, my main character, is haunted by a sinister dream about black snow, which becomes really significant. So I chose to use that image instead. It feels more alive and enigmatic.

The Tudor period retains its ability to fascinate us. Is there something particular that drew you to this era in our history?

Most definitely yes, although I’d say first of all that Ruth faces universal problems – how do you cope when you’re betrayed? What can you do when your friends are hurting? I located her story in the 16th century because the ‘hopelessness threshold’ is closer. With absolutely no safety net, less had to happen for my characters to lose hope, making it easier for more readers to identify with Ruth. The tectonic plates of culture were grinding, and my characters are caught up in it. Early science was seen as heresy; the discovery of the New World came with the subjugation of indigenous people; the ‘middling class’ was emerging but the feudal system was still dominant. A privileged girl like Ruth would be educated – and this enabled me to expose the monstrous sexism of the time.

Let’s talk research. How much? For how long? Did you have someone to check the details?

I love research – it’s half the fun! As my agent always says, research should give shape, but never reveal the petticoat! After the first rejection, I dug deeper into the history and unearthed plot-changing facts. I knowingly took three liberties with the facts to serve the story (the coach, Jude’s attic, and the mechanical Armillary Sphere were all a tad early for his storyline in 1543), but I was confident in the rest, so I didn’t ask an expert to check it. Hopefully, not an unwise decision!

Liz, you won a Scottish Arts Council New Writers Award in 2007. What role has that played on your journey to seeing this book published?

It was important. As a single mum working full time, the bursary funded time to devote to writing fiction. It also gave me much-needed confidence.

You will be taking part in not one, but two events at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. Can you tell us a bit about them, and how you plan on preparing for them?

It’s all very exciting and scary but I’m so up for it. Feisty Fantasy with Alice Broadway (Ink and Spark) takes place on the 11th of August and has already sold out! On the 15th of August at 17.30 I’m taking part in an Amnesty Imprisoned Writers reading, sharing poems by a woman imprisoned in Soviet Russia for writing about her faith; her later poetry took a political turn. The prep for Feisty Fantasy is to make the gear-change from writing to speaking about Ruth’s story. Black Snow Falling is nominated for the EIBF First Book Award – please vote for it!

And now, as the music fades, there’s just time to for you to tell us what’s up next for L.J. MacWhirter, the author. Are you working on a new project?

Yes, three novels are bubbling away. Uppermost is a love story set in warring medieval Scotland. There’s also a contemporary thriller, which I’ve set aside, and a follow-on to Black Snow Falling. Meanwhile freelance copywriting helps pay the bills.

Thank you, Liz for joining me at the Debut-Dance Ceilidh, and for leading me in the Gay Gordons – I always turn the wrong way (and it has nothing to do with that third wee dram).

The fourth dram’s on me ;-)

Debut author and feature writer enjoying a post-interview lunch

Black Snow Falling is out now, published by Scotland Street Press

Follow Liz: 
Twitter @LizMacWhirter 
Instagram @LizMacWhirter
Facebook @LJMacWhirter 
Website https://ljmacwhirter.com 

L.J. MacWhirter

L.J. MacWhirter was born just outside London, grew up in the North of England and today lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family. The stories started as soon as she could write. Black Snow Falling is her debut YA novel. As a child, her engineer father introduced her to science and the vast machines of the industrial revolution. On a trip to Florence many years later, she saw a mechanical Armillary Sphere, made for the Medicis in the 16th century, which embodied the long-held belief that the earth was at the centre of the heavens. Early science, in opposition to this dominant view, was cast as heresy. Together with the misogynist sexism of the time, it became the setting for this thriller.

Justin Nevil Davies leads two distinct lives. In one, he flies around the world as cabin crew. In the other, he writes middle-grade novels with the aim to make kids laugh. Sometimes, his lives converge. Justin is co-coordinator of SCBWI South East Scotland. 

Follow Justin: 
Twitter: @flyingscribbler 
Instagram: flyingscribbler 
Blog: The Flying Scribbler 

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures
Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org 
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy 

Feature Illustration by Louisa Glancy

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, and so different from the usual YA in subject matter. Can't wait to read it.


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