Aye Write’s first – and sadly only – event this year took place in the Mitchell Library on Thursday, March 12th as Bernard Ponsonby introduced the work of author Theresa Breslin. Breslin’s work spans many subject matters from the historical to the ideological, seen in Remembrance and Divided City, just two of her works from 2002 and 2005 respectively.
Theresa began the event by putting on an old World War One gas mask, explaining how much it restricts your sight, hearing and breathing. At first I thought Theresa was making a comical reference to the corona virus – a precautionary measure to safeguard herself from mixing with the forty or so people in the room perhaps. But Theresa was actually demonstrating how she uses the gas mask as a prop when touring around local schools, talking about creative writing and encouraging youngsters to get into the mind-set of their characters.
This turned Theresa’s attention to major historical events that have defined her writing – from Battle of the Somme to 9/11. Theresa spoke about attending a book conference in New York on that fateful day, and how she was moved by the showings of both dismay and hope on the national news. Dismay came from general news coverage of the attack, which repeated images of the planes crashing into the towers. Hope came from New Yorkers and particularly young people speaking powerfully to news anchors, adamant that they would not be targeted or victimised by the day’s events. Theresa was struck immediately by their words; they were almost word for word what young people in the 1920s had said after World War One broke out. Theresa knew this from undertaking extensive research and consulting various primary sources before writing Remembrance. It made Theresa realise that defiance, resilience and the power of the people transcends generations and can be found all throughout history, even during the most desperate of times. The theme of the NY book conference Theresa was attending quickly turned to books, not bombs.
Theresa elaborated on how she researches her subject matters and decides on character identity. Bernard asked Theresa if, once she sits down to write, the words simply come flowing out. He said he had been interviewing Jackie Kay recently who said something that left Bernard utterly amazed; writing was a chore. The audience shared a knowing chuckle, and Theresa whole heartedly agreed. Bernard said that he thought of writers as always keen and enthusiastic about writing, rather viewing it as laborious and at times painstaking. It seems that for Theresa, and perhaps most other writers in the room, writing really is a labour, but a labour of love.
On Divided City, Theresa explained how she had had been approached to write something on Old Firm tensions as it was a subject so particular to Glasgow. As a football neutral with no experience of ever having gone to a game, Theresa wasn’t that enthused by the project. But, speaking to the children she taught at Drumchapel High School, she came round to the idea, attended a game and pitched the story to her editor in London. When the editor offered her an advance on a book, Theresa didn’t think it was for Divided City, but it was, and so she began writing. The editing process of the book was an amusing one for Theresa, considering her editor was London-born and London-based. A close – as in a tenement close – made her editor ask, how close? The Orange Walk, was that something to do with Orange Wednesdays, the cinema discount? But the various misunderstandings made for a more enjoyable process, and Theresa and her editor got there in the end.
Bernard inquired whether Theresa had received any fall out or backlash from writing about such a contentious issue in Scottish life. Theresa said surprisingly, no, only that since the book cover is green and blue, there had been objections here and there as to, that side has more green in it. Or, that side has more blue to it. People were looking for affiliations, but truthfully, Theresa never had any.
Bernard countered this with a story about a colleague and sports journalist who brought out a book on the Old Firm towards the end of his career. Bernard advised him not to; he had gotten through a lengthy and successful journalism career largely unscathed. Would he really want his last piece of work to tarnish his whole reputation, accused of not having been unbiased after all? His colleague said no, he had covered Scottish football and everything that was involved in it for over half a century. He had something to say, and he was going to say it. The anecdote harked back to the sound and resonant advice Theresa gave at the start of the evening – don’t write on what you know, write on what you care about