‘Out of all the books I have written over my 25 year career, this was the most profoundly emotional to research and write,” says bestselling novelist Freya North, of Little Wing, the book that she was inspired to write after visiting the Hebridean island of Harris.
“At the end of a day’s work I had written the most monumental amount of words that I had almost no recollection of writing. It's like the whole thing was channeled. I would literally write myself empty every day and then just be refilled for the next.”
The author of bestsellers Pillow Talk, The Turning Point and Secrets was in Harris in 2018 working on a screenplay about district nurses who worked there 40 years before the NHS was established and it was the experiences she had there that stayed in her mind and to which she returned during lockdown three years later.
Gazing at the ocean from the vast expanse of the beach at Luskentyre, the 45 different plants in just a metre of machair, the origins of the dyes used in the tweed or Big Cloth, became entwined with characters and plot and the words began to flow.
“With lockdown, more than ever the Outer Hebrides had seemed just so far away because I wasn't able to go. And then I wrote the book.”
Her first novel in five years, the Sunday Times Bestselling writer returns to her territory of family and relationship drama with a story of secrets and survival that is hefted to the UK’s most Westerly landmass. North weaves a tale of secrets and shame, heartache and home across the decades and intertwines the story of Florence, a pregnant teenager banished to the Hebrides in the 1960s and of Nell in Essex and Dougie in London, early in the millennium, three apparently unconnected people whose lives are all linked by their connection with the island.
A sense of place is everything for bestselling novelist Freya North and each of her 15 and counting novels have been written with a location in mind, from Norfolk to Canada to the Hebrides.
“For me research is both a perk of my career and ABSOLUTELY crucial for both my characters and readers, I HAVE to make sure my research is up to scratch, and rather than just romanticise this extraordinary place, I wanted to to bring the realism of what it's like living there. I'm IMMENSELY grateful to the incredible people I met in Harris, who were so helpful and willing to give their time. I felt it was crucial to have Gaelic in the book and people speaking it, so, getting all of that checked and double checked was something that was fundamentally important to me.”
My previous novel Turning Point was set in British Columbia in Western Canada, and I'd never been to Canada, but I had this male character called Scott - and it would have been really helpful for me if he'd been in Californian because I'd just come back from a road trip there - but he was just Canadian, and there was no way that I was going to attempt to write a book set in Canada without going there.”
“I'm so glad that I did go because it was only when I went there that I then discovered the absolute importance in Canadian history, culture and politics and day to day living of the Canadian First Nations tribes. Where I'd gone there was a First Nation tribe called the L’il Wat Nation on a reservation just outside Pemberton, which was the village where I set my novel. When I finished I sent a copy to the elders and they gave me their seal of approval, which was so precious to me to have.”
Similarly, North has had feedback from the Hebrides with the people of Harris approving of her work.
“So far the response has been nothing but positive, which I find really humbling and almost overwhelming. They passed it to members of their family, both on the mainland as well as out in the islands. I couldn't have written the book without the help I received. I really owe a debt of gratitude to the people there.”
Speaking from her farm in Hertfordshire, where she lives with her now grown up children Felix and Georgia, dogs, horses and sheep, North recounts how Harris became a place of inspiration just before lockdown and of solace and sustenance during it.
“I knew Skye quite well, and Mull, and I had seem the Outer Hebrides, especially from the west coast of Skye at Neist Point, but I didn't have the opportunity to visit until I was researching this idea for a screenplay and went from Barra through South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray, Harris and Lewis.
“But there was something about Harris and I think it just had great emotional significance for me because it was after I'd had back surgery and it was eight weeks to the day, when I was standing on the sands at Luskentyre that I went for my first run.
“For me it was a place whose beauty prior to that had been unimaginable. I had no idea that this space existed. I was there on my own and mine were the only footprints on the beach. I went for my run and my body worked again. Then I stood there looking across the water and I thought this island is going to give me so much more than merely the research for my potential TV drama. This island is going to give me at least one if not two books.”
After the first lockdown lifted, with the book written, in September 2020 North was able to return to Harris.
“Even though the book was finished, I needed for my integrity as an author, to get back out there. I found it really emotional, because it felt like I was following in the characters’ footsteps rather than paving the way for them, these characters have become so fleshed and so real to me.
“It was very special to see the island through their eyes and to feel that they were just a little bit of the way up that hillside or around that corner or they’d just left The Anchorage restaurant in Leverburgh just as I went in. I know that sounds completely kooky, but they are that real to me. And to be back at Luskentyre. I don't care what the weather does out there, because it has this incredible grandeur and brooding beauty whatever. And I was dressed for it!”
With the mountains, beaches, crofts and villages of the Hebrides firmly in her mind, when it came to writing the novel it wasn’t long before the landscape in North’s mind was peopled with characters waiting for their story to be created and told.
“It's interesting because I don't write in an orthodox way,” she says. “Most sensible authors will write a book that’s centered around a specific issue because it gives structure. I don't start like that; my life would probably be easier if I did!” she laughs. “It's like the character’s on the horizon in my mind's eye and then comes more and more clearly into focus.
“The springboard into this book was the character of Florence, a 16-year-old schoolgirl in the late 1960s, in Essex, and she's pregnant. In that day and age it was a massive shame. And then I thought, what if they banished her to distant relatives in the Outer Hebrides? And what if I could have her story in her timeframe, running concurrently with a modern story in the modern timeframe, and how can I get these two to interweave?”
North gives voice to the banished 16 year old as well as forty years on, Nell, a woman in her late 30s who goes looking for answers in Harris, and thirty-something islander Dougie, who left the island and is reluctant to return.
“Nell leads a very spartan life and suddenly a Pandora's box is opened and she finds out she's not who she thinks she is - what would you do with that kind of revelation that most of your life has been a series of, if not lies, then hidden truths? So it was really amazing to follow in her footsteps.”
With this book North also fell in love with her cast of supporting characters, a gang of Care in the Community kids that run a cafe with her, and the district nurse in Harris.
“During lockdown in a time when I couldn't even see close friends, let alone family, I felt surrounded every day with this cast of characters who I really enjoyed getting to know. They gave me the opportunity to escape every single day into an imagined world, and that gave me respite from all the anxiety and worry of the real world. So, if writing is a form of escapism, and of course reading is a form of escapism. I tell you I wouldn’t have any other job in the world.”
With degrees in art history from the University of Manchester and the Courtauld Institute, North left off writing her Phd to complete her first novel and never returned to it, making writing her career.
“I seriously don't know what I would do if I didn't write because I don't believe that I'm employable,” she says and laughs. “I suppose as an author, ultimately, my skill is my imagination,” she says, then muses on alternative occupations.
“Well, mucking out stables I can do as I live on a farm but that doesn't really bring in an awful lot of money. I don't know, I just feel really privileged that I do what I do. Except sometimes…”
“Sometimes one of the most frustrating things if you write books that are what they call commercial fiction there is this AWFUL opinion by so many that if they're easy to read, they must be easy to write. And they're not. Every fibre of my being goes into these books and I really can feel extremely emotional during the telling of the story, especially when there are themes of grief or loneliness or fear or anxiety.”
“A lot of people think authors are these airy fairy souls that waft around waiting for the muse to alight, sitting gazing out of the window, whereas, actually, it's a really, really intense process.”
It’s also how North earns a living, and as a single parent, she can’t afford to let her focus slip.
“There are days that I’m just dog tired and don’t feel like writing, but I have to and it’s not the sort of job that you can do on autopilot. You have to be emotionally and mentally on it for your characters, otherwise their story is not going to get told.
“So on days like that I haul myself to the local library which is a 25 minute drive away with my laptop, and think ‘right, I've got four hours, I HAVE to write’. But I've taught myself over the 16 books that I can't afford the time to fanny around waiting for inspiration to come. Sometimes it is as mundane as sitting there thinking ‘come on, come on, come on, get ON with it’, and just putting one word after another after another until you crank up momentum and before you know it four hours are up and you've got kids to pick up from school.
“It's a funny contradiction because I write contemporary fiction, domestic drama, call it what you will, where a lot of it is about families and feelings and people and emotion, but actually I have to be brutally structured with my life because I have to meet my publishing deadlines.”
Writing has been with her through separation and house moves, single parenting, stress and grief and fear and North has seen her life inform her work, although she never writes directly about her own experiences.
“I think things come out subconsciously because these characters in this book for example haven't had any of the life experiences I've had. And I haven't had any of theirs, but I know what it's like to feel a really acute sense of what I call on-my-own-ness. I have had characters whose relationships have broken down, and my feelings have been able to inform the characters but I certainly haven't used my own details in any way. I think that would make me feel too exposed.
“And when I've been going through something hard in my personal life it's like a breath of fresh air to be writing about something completely different.”
North recently joined Ferne Cotton on her Happy Place podcast where she spoke about a breakdown and depression she experienced a few years ago and how she got through it.
“It was time to be open because I'm far enough away from to see it with a lot of clarity. And I feel that I can put feelings into words and perhaps be supportive or helpful to people who are going through similar things. If I'm able to be lucid about such things, it might offer some comfort and support to others.”
North attributes her depression to burnout and a series of life challenges that eventually took their toll.
“I think it was incremental in that I'd had quite a lot of stuff happening over a period of years - becoming a single parent, moving from the town to the country, having a relationship that ended with him ghosting me.
North pulled herself out of her depression by seeking help and building what she calls four pillars to support herself: counselling, antidepressants, exercise and mindfulness. She also does ceramics, “basically making the same pot over and over again, but I love it.”
“I asked for help in all those different ways and hauled myself back from feeling very broken to feeling very balanced. So, that's a story that I really want to share because it's within our control. We just have to have the will to start going for it.”
Re-energised, she’s now working on her 16th novel, Unfinished Business (“a love letter to youth”, partly set in Manchester in the 1980s), two screenplays, one based on her successful Canadian novel Turning Point and the other on Hebridean district nurses, and has planned the sequel to Little Wing, returning to Harris and some of the characters.
“The Harris screenplay would just make the most marvelous TV with this extraordinary setting, quirky characters, it's a medical drama, and it's true. Forty years before the NHS, there was state funded medical care out on the islands in the form of the district nurse who treated people and sometimes animals, used boats to get around, and that’s a story that I want to watch. And I would dearly love Little Wing to make it onto either the small screen or the big screen. I think it's ripe for adaptation. So we're keeping everything crossed.”
And being such a stickler for research, it surely won’t be long before North is hitting the high road to return to Harris once more, standing on the beach at Luskentyre.
Little Wing by Freya North is out now, published by Welbeck, £12.99 hardback