At first reluctant to swap fact for fiction, Sally Magnusson has a hit novel on her hands
An exclusive interview with author Sally Magnusson, the pick of the Edinburgh Book Festival plus the latest reviews
IT’S fair to say that the celebrated Scottish broadcaster and presenter Sally Magnusson has a way with words. The daughter of Icelandic Mastermind legend Magnus Magnusson lives just outside Glasgow and has had a highly successful career working for the BBC, presenting Reporting Scotland along with a number of other shows including Panorama and Songs Of Praise.
A lover of stories, Sally is frequently seen at book festivals across Scotland, interviewing authors and unravelling the inspiration behind their work. But this year the tables are turned. Sally appears at Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time as a novelist, to discuss her fiction debut The Sealwoman’s Gift.
Based on one of the most traumatic events in Icelandic history, the book tells the story of what happened after Barbary pirates kidnapped some 400 Icelanders in 1627 and sold them as slaves.
Having already written a number of non-fiction books, Sally was tempted to write a factual account of the abductions, but with a lack of source materials, decided to reimagine the events in this beautifully evocative piece of fiction.
“The Icelandic abductions are an incredibly interesting piece of history, that I’ve known about for some years. But, when my editor at Two Roads Books suggested I write about them in a novel I threw my hands up in complete horror! I just didn’t think I had the right equipment to be a novelist. I’ve been a reporter for so long and we’re trained not to make things up!”
After some gentle persuasion, Sally began crafting her stunning debut. Focusing on the real-life character of Ásta Egilsson, the book imagines her journey through this disturbing period of European history.
“It was really important to me to write about a woman’s experience. Before I’d started writing The Sealwoman’s Gift, I’d read the diaries of Icelandic pastor Ólafur Egilsson. In them, he describes his family’s experiences of being kidnapped – how his wife Ásta was forced to give birth on the ship over to Algiers, how their 11-year-
old son was sold as a slave and how he felt when he had to say goodbye to his wife and remaining two children as they too were taken away.
“Whilst it was great to hear about Ólafur’s experiences, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ásta and how she must have felt as a mother – the horror of bringing a child into the world on a slave ship, of having her first-born child ripped away from her.
“And it wasn’t just her, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the other thousands of women slaves and the indigenous women, too. I wanted to know about their experiences. But there are no accounts that speak for these women – all the source material is written by men. That really propelled me on to tell it from a woman’s perspective.”
When trying to imagine the life of Ásta, Sally used her own experiences to connect with the character.
“I really wanted to tell her story but then, of course, I thought, how on earth can I imagine a woman’s experience 500 years ago? What I tried to do was find these points of connection which are beyond culture.
“So I looked at my life and my own experiences of being a woman, a mother and half Icelander, along with my understanding of the powerful role that story plays there, to connect with Ásta.”
Using her great knowledge of Icelandic stories, which she was brought up hearing as a child, Sally weaves folklore throughout the book, providing Ásta with a way to escape her ordeal.
“On the long cold dark winter nights, story is what Icelanders lived in. I made the assumption that if you were ripped away from the life that you’d always known, these stories are what you would carry away with you.”
Sally explains that even today, these tales still thrive in Iceland, a country which she loves dearly and visits whenever she can.
“You only have to walk through Icelandic lava fields and see the strange shapes in the landscape, to understand where the stories about trolls come from. You only have to crunch your way along a black shingle beach and see the seals bobbing along the water or clambering across rocks to understand how stories of seal folk have percolated down the generations.
“Even in the towns, you can still see preserved mounds in gardens, where the hidden people are said to live. These stories are still very much alive and that delights me.” Sally Magnusson will appear at Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday August 19, 7.15pm, at the Spark Theatre in George Street
from the life you’d known, stories are what you’d carry”