Scot­tish Book­shelf

At first re­luc­tant to swap fact for fic­tion, Sally Mag­nus­son has a hit novel on her hands

The Scots Magazine - - Contents - By DAWN GED­DES

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”

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