Ex-police officer turned novelist Karen Campbell used last year’s referendum campaign as the backdrop for her latest thriller exploring escape and belonging, identity and nationhood writes Janet Christie
Glasgow, its housing schemes and wealthy suburbs, the tramp in the bus station, the Somali refugee struggling to find a home among strangers. And Argyll, with its standing stones and villages where the neighbours know if you sneeze. Both locations are settings for Karen Campbell’s books and loom every bit as large as her characters and plot. In fact, Campbell couldn’t have written these books about anywhere else.
A former police officer, who later returned to Glasgow University to do a Creative Writing Masters, her home city of Glasgow and a more recent rural address give her novels a sense of place that permeates every page. Along with place, she writes of escape and belonging, identity and nationhood.
Campbell’s experience as a bobby on the beat gave rise to her crime books, Twilight Time, After the Fire, Shadowplay and Proof of Life, published between 2009 and 2012, and won her a Best New Scottish Writer Award in 2009. She also reflected on the refugee experience in Scotland, in last year’s This is Where I am, which was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.
“I always wrote about Glasgow,” says Campbell, “because there’s always somewhere that fits. I love the city and loved being in the police, so I wrote about beat cops because everyone else writes about detectives. But wherever they are set, the books I have written are about layers of life being lived concurrently, whether its Glasgow or Kilmacarra, with its standing stones and windfarms.”
Now Campbell has gone beyond the city to explore new territory in her latest novel, Rise. Set in a mythical Highland village called Kilmacarra, it was actually inspired by the real village of Kilmartin in Argyll and Bute and coincided with her relocation from Glasgow to Galloway. If place is important, so is time and the novel has a distinctly contemporary feel with a backdrop of the Referendum on Scottish independence and the sustainable energy debate raging as the plot unfolds.
“I had written a fair chunk of the book before we moved out here so it’s not about where I actually live now,” says Campbell. “What inspired it really was Kilmartin Glen where I had been on holiday with my family in 2000. We were exploring at Inveraray and discovered Kilmartin. It’s a hidden gem and peppered with standing stones. I found it fascinating and took a lot of notes with a view to writing a story on it, but had no idea for it, no character or plot, and put them away for eight or nine years. Then the idea for the story came and I thought it would work in a small place like that.
“I changed the name because I found it a bit restrictive. I wanted to make the geography a bit different and not rooted in one place. You want authenticity, facts, but changing things a bit frees you up to make the place serve the story rather than the story fitting a pre-existing place. It also means you don’t have to worry about things like the actual bus timetables,” she says.
Campbell’s move was prompted by her children leaving home and her desire, with her husband, to explore a country lifestyle, but Rise is peopled by characters with more pressing reasons to search out a rural idyll. There is Justine, who is running for her life from her drug dealer boyfriend and washes up in the home of Michael and Hannah, who are also searching for a new start, while their marriage and family disintegrate around them.
“These characters are all trying to get away from something, but when you do that, you bring your past with you and in a small place you are actually more exposed. People talk about a fresh start and being a new, unknown person, but you can be more anonymous in a city. Feelings also become more intense and can’t be brushed over in small places.”
Written in the run-up to the Referendum, Campbell embraced the theme of separation and union on both a personal and political level in Rise, anchoring it very much in the here and now of Scottish politics.
“I finished it before the Referendum campaign started proper but there was still that sense of people holding up a mirror to their country and thinking about what kind of place they lived in and wanted to live in. I wanted to depict a wave that was gathering and knew things would be different afterwards whatever happened.”
Campbell voted Yes, but wanted the book to reflect the differences of opinion and points of view of her family and friends and the country as a whole.
“I didn’t want the book to be too didactic or to deride anyone’s point of view. There will always be a kernel that comes through from the writer but I have never wanted to write something that’s a piece of polemic because that’s not fiction or entertaining. It was such a momentous throwing together. And for a whole country to get that chance to pause and think, where have we been and where are we going, was amazing.”
While Scotland tried to work out whether it wanted a divorce, Campbell’s characters have their own marital breakdown to cope with.
“It’s about taking marriage for granted, plodding along and something happens and you suddenly realise that you do have choices. I wanted the referendum to be almost a whisper behind the marriage problem. When a marriage or a country is in flux, it’s also liberating because boundaries are being questioned. I also wanted to get in the idea of thin places, where things are in flux and you can slip between worlds.”
Rise is a book about vision, and also literally about visions, as Campbell shines a light on schizophrenia and mental illness. Michael, one of the main characters, might be a preacher, but the last thing he expects to see is ghosts or angels in his church or manse when the stress of his life overwhelms him.
“Religion encourages us to listen to voices and imagine a world beyond this one so it’s not a huge stretch to go to actually seeing them, if you’re open to that. Most religions encourage people to put a huge amount of faith in something you can’t touch or hear, and people are actively striving to be spoken to.”
Observing others in crisis was an everyday occurrence for Campbell in her days as a policewoman in Glasgow, when she got to see behind the closed doors of the city where she grew up.
“You see people at their worst and best. It was the city I had always known but it was as if someone had lifted the rug to show what was underneath. You are digging away at the archaeology of a city and seeing under the layers,” she says.
Campbell’s parents were both police officers and, newly graduated without a clear idea of a career path in her head, she decided to follow them into the force. “People’s perceptions of you change when you put on a uniform,” she says. “Inside you’re still a daft lassie that was up the dancing last week but this week you’re in charge of Glasgow city centre. People make assumptions about you and expect you to take charge.
“I was trained for it and the uniform does give you a sense that you are carrying more than yourself and you have power. To be a polis, you have to be ready for anything and I could run into a pub fight because I was fit and trained. But I also felt vulnerable about getting things wrong.”
When Campbell had her first daughter, there was no part time position or job share available and she gave up policing, going back to work later as a council PR officer.
“Nothing shocks me now about how people will behave. Policing taught me great observational skills and you are privileged when you see people in very private spaces,” she says.
If Campbell experienced a shift in perceptions of her identity as soon as she put on a uniform, the Somali refugees she writes about in This Is Where I am Now were similarly assessed.
“People make assumptions about who you are and where you come from. Words like migrant or refugee have negative connotations and people assume you’re illegal. They judge you but they’re not seeing the real you,” she says.
Campbell didn’t want to make the same mistake and spent a lot of time finding out about the asylum seekers’ experience.
“With crime stories it was more familiar territory, but when I came to write about asylum seekers, I tried to do as much research as possible. I spoke to refugees but didn’t want to steal anybody’s story and put it in a book because that would make me a tourist. So I took details such as when someone said the moon was so small here, whereas at home it was big enough for them to fish by. For them Glasgow had a small, cold moon. I took comments like that and made it into a story.”
Campbell is about to leave Scotland behind for the location of her next novel after a holiday in the Italian Apennines sparked her interest. Funded by a Creative Scotland Artists bursary, she plans to research the Buffalo Soldiers who fought there during the Second World War. “They were the only unit of black US troops to see service and it’s set in the Sesia Valley where they fought. I didn’t know anything about the history so it’s a huge amount of research. Most books I start with the story and research as I go along, but with this, I need to really write myself into the period. It will take me over a year to get it all together,” she says.
And no doubt a trip or two to Italy to really get that sense of time and place.
• Rise by Karen Campbell is out now, published by Bloomsbury, hardback £16.99, ebook £14.99