Interview: Lisa Ballantyne author of new book The Guilty One

Lisa Ballantyne has made a dream debut in her new career as a writer. By Janet Christie

Lisa Ballantyne has made a dream debut in her new career as a writer. By Janet Christie

What do you do when your debut novel is snatched up by an agent and you are offered a six-figure deal by a major publisher? When suddenly it’s the biggest book of the Frankfurt Book Fair, being billed as one of the most talked-about books of the year and already sold in 20 territories worldwide? Several laps of the room? Emit banshee whoops of delight?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Well I did do that, but I was at work and a bit busy so I didn’t get too carried away,” says Lisa Ballantyne, who sits opposite me in a Glasgow cafe, composed and calm, sipping herbal tea and discussing The Guilty One, published next week by Little, Brown. She’s still taking it all in, but her face cracks into a gleeful smile and as she laughs, her eyes shine at the memory of the call while she was working full time in the international office at the University of Glasgow.

“I just couldn’t believe it. It was a lovely day and I was standing on the grass surrounded by students sunbathing, hearing this most incredible news. It was absolutely ridiculous. You don’t write to make money and I didn’t expect to – I still think it’s going to be difficult but I’m going to give it a go.”

Ballantyne is still getting her head around the promotion of the book and what that might entail. Modest and self-effacing, she admits the publicity element isn’t her forte and declares she has no interest in writing about herself or people she knows.

“For me writing is about escapism, taking you out of yourself and your life. I hate having my picture taken; I don’t even own a camera, and this is my first interview. I’ve got a launch and then maybe a tour, but I don’t know what that entails. There’s a lot of expectation about the book and I’m nervous about how it will be received ...” she trails off, balking slightly at the prospect. Then she bounces back with “but it’s all amazing obviously, really cool. And it’ll be interesting and fun too.”

Some people scratch away for years with no hope of ever getting published but Ballantyne has scored a hit with her first novel. What’s her secret?

“Well, I don’t watch much telly, so I would go home from work and write for a couple of hours every night, and in the holidays. It took me 12 months, starting in May 2010. I was compulsive about it. I really wanted to get a bit more done every day, so that’s what I did.”

Her book is a psychological novel about a child accused of murdering another child, in parallel with the story of his lawyer, whose relationship with his mother has been fractured by what he regards as an unforgivable betrayal. Set in Cumbria and London, it deals with the themes of foster care, delinquency, and family relationships. None of it is based on Ballantyne’s own upbringing in Armadale or her life in the south side of Glasgow, which she describes as “very dull, normal”, six-figure book deals and work trips to Iran, Pakistan and China notwithstanding.

Despite an industrious daily writing schedule that fitted round her job, Ballantyne speaks as if the hard work was done by her characters and the book driven by them, rather than by her.

“This book came about because the characters started to get in my head. They inhabited me. I always wrote poetry and short stories but from the start this was obviously going to be a novel,” she says.

Considering the writer’s version of the chicken and egg conundrum – which came first, plot or characters – she says that with her it’s characters all the way, with the plot unfolding in her head as she starts to think more about them.

“I’m sure a lot of writers start with the plot and that’s a more sensible way to do it, but for me it’s more instinctive and I start with the characters. As in real life, you become interested in people and want to know more about them. It’s like I’m being let into their lives.”

With the main characters of mother and son, Minnie and Daniel, already established, the rest of the book followed, with its Bulger case overtones and legal themes and setting.

“The way it’s packaged you might think it’s about a solicitor and a boy, but it was Daniel and Minnie that came first,” she says, warming to her theme, describing how she “mused on the character of Daniel… a man in a suit, living in London”. “Then,” she says, eyebrows arching in surprise, “I discovered he was a solicitor.”

Wait a minute. Surely she must have known that from the start?

“No, when I found that bit out, I had to go back to chapter one and put it in. I’m not conscious of deliberately creating. As I discovered more about Daniel and Minnie, where they lived and what had happened to them, I realised if I had a child on trial for murder it would throw them into relief. I didn’t set out to write about an evil child – I’m quite an upbeat person – but I like tragedies. It’s not sensationalist but it is disturbing. I think pathos taps into life’s complexities and textures more clearly than comedy.”

With the characters themselves driving the direction of the book, Ballantyne ignored the old dictum of ‘write what you know’, and was led into a world she knew little about. This gave rise to attacks of writer’s block yet she never doubted she was in control of the process.

“I’d written about a third of it then realised I had absolutely no idea what a lawyer did every day and I needed it to be realistic. I was writing out of my comfort zone.

“It was a brick wall situation until I found a criminal solicitor who was fantastic in getting me over that hurdle. The legal aspects were difficult, the police station processes, courts and trials because it’s set in England, and it had to be checked out.”

Less confident types might have just moved the action over the Border but Ballantyne was true to her characters – “that’s just not where they lived” – and began visiting the Old Bailey in London to research her setting.

“It was amazing. I watched Helena Kennedy in court and she’s a huge idol of mine so it was brilliant to see her. Also the way the judges and barristers speak to each other was fascinating.“

With the book deal in place, Ballantyne felt confident enough to give up her day job in February to concentrate on writing her follow-up book.

Today she’s taking it a little easier as it’s her 39th birthday and she’s off to meet friends for a late lunch. Even someone as level-headed as Ballantyne must feel the urge for a retail splurge on the back of a six-figure deal, today of all days?

“I don’t like shopping. I’m allergic,” she declares.

I point out that she’s wearing a very stylish printed dress.

“Yes, thank you… but it is my only dress. I shop only when forced to and I usually just walk around with holes in my shoes,” she says.

When she’s not running or gardening in order to shift the occasional “brick wall”, Ballantyne is hard at work on the next book, which is about “obedience and rebellion”.

Ooh, is it another Fifty Shades of Grey?

“No!” she laughs. “It’s not that kind of book at all! I’m not interested in writing another blush blockbuster.

“I’m interested in characters and their lives. I never saw writing as a way to make a buck. There is intensity and passion in it, and there are similar elements to The Guilty One in terms of family dynamics and the rural setting, but no crime.”

Ballantyne has no idea if her nascent writing career will be a success but she’s going to give it her best shot and use her book deal to pay the bills.

“I loved my job but have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I appreciated things were going to become difficult to manage and it seemed easier to give the writing a go rather than doing both badly. I’m not convinced it will work out, but I know I will regret it if I don’t try. ”

And off she steps, feet planted firmly on the ground, into the Glasgow summer rain to see what the afternoon, and life, bring next.

• The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne, published by Little, Brown, price £6.99.