Lorraine Kelly makes a splash with The Island Swimmer, her debut novel set in Orkney
Lorraine Kelly is just as she appears on TV - warm, affable, chatty, enthusiastic and quick to laugh and never more so than when she’s talking about her latest project, her debut novel, The Island Swimmer.
“It’s very exciting. It was challenging but great to do. I’ve been wanting to do it for years,” she says, but admits that with a full time job appearing on our screens Monday to Thursday with her ITV show Lorraine, finding the time wasn’t easy.
Last year I just had be quite ruthless and carve out time, so I became a bit of a hermit, did a bit at weekends and in times off. You’ve got to. I am very disciplined and work well to deadlines because I’ve written columns for years and do a live TV show. But I wasn’t really prepared for how much I enjoyed it. I really loved it, especially dialogue. Because I’ve interviewed so many people over the years I think you get an ear for what’s authentic and what sounds convincing. So it’s helped me a lot, the job that I’ve been doing for god, 40 years this year.
Kelly has wanted to write a novel for a long time and has “all these stories buzzing about my head and they just had to get out. I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to write them down. But this one was the one that was shouting the loudest.”
The Island Swimmer is inspired by her love of Orkney and its people, a place she has been visiting for 40 years with her husband, cameraman Steve.
“I know I know I go to Orkney every year, but it’s been great to feel I’ve spent time there even though I’ve been on an iPad in my house,” she says referring to the home she shares with Steve and Border Terrier Angus in Buckinghamshire.
The plot follows Orcadian Evie, who has run away from her past to London but returns after 20 years after her father has fallen ill. In reconnecting with her roots she revisits past traumas and old and new friends, including a group of wild swimmers, which helps her reconnect with life. Along the way the islands are celebrated in the book, the people, places, history and culture, in what amounts to Kelly’s love letter to Orkney.
“I love it. We’ve been going since the 1980s and honestly I still haven’t seen it all. I’ve been to most of the islands, including North Ronaldsay, but not all, and there’s still a lot to discover but I feel very, very at home there. I could see myself when I’m older, sitting up there in a wee cottage. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t sugar coat it. I do say in the winter it is bogging and dark and the rain is horizontal and life can be tough, especially when you’re working the land or are a fisherman. But it’s a very sophisticated part of the world, people are very switched on. And the arts, for goodness sake, if you’re a photographer or painter, the light is out of this world. It’s just absolutely beautiful and the amount of craftsmen and women that are there… And the history and culture, it’s so rich. The St Magnus Festival is incredible - that cathedral truly deserves the word awesome - and there are so many other festivals throughout the year, and fantastic museums... Amazing things are going on. Honestly, I’m like an unpaid member of the Orkney Tourist Board,” she says and laughs.
“There are two places in the world where I would live if I could. Bizarrely one of them is South Georgia in Antarctica, because I loved it when I visited because I am a Shackleton nut and the other one is Orkney. I’d like to think that one day, I will be doing that.”
As someone who talks to people for a living, putting them at ease and helping them tell their stories, Kelly is definitely a people person so it’s no surprise to find that one of the strengths of the books is her ability to invent a whole world of believable characters.
“None of my characters are based on anybody in particular, and “no character is based on any of my family, apart from maybe the dog,” she says, referring to her gorgeous border terrier Angus. “They’re just characters that I liked or wanted to explore. But certainly little bits of the people that I’ve interviewed over the years will find themselves in there. I’ve not done it consciously but certainly doing the job that I do I hope has made me a better writer. It certainly gave me the tools to do the job if you like.”
The Island Swimmer’s characters include the traumatised returning runaway Evie, her embittered sister Liv, the handsome wildlife photographer you’d love to meet on the ferry over, a salt of the earth Polish handyman and one of the book’s biggest characters, the transgender Freya.
“Evie had to re-establish so many bonds she had severed. I want to shake her sometimes. But I know women who have been in that situation of toxic relationships and not wanting to tell their friends, so I think a lot of people will be able to identify with her. It’s easy for us on the outside to say ‘oh you should leave that person or friendship or job that’s destroying you and chipping away at you’, but when you’re in it, it’s very difficult, I’ve spoken to so many women, and men, who’ve been in those sort of situations and it’s easy to give advice but when somebody has chipped away at your confidence for so long and made you feel worthless it’s hard to step away. So I do feel very sorry for Evie and all the things that she lost.
“But I suppose the character that I really love, the character that is at the heart of everything, is my wise woman, my lovely Freya. I wanted her to be in her seventies, and even though she’s the go-to person for everybody in her community she can get it wrong as well.
“And there’s a lot more to Freya than her sexuality. She happens to be trans but that’s just a wee tiny part of her, so I go into it, of course, it’s an important part of who she is, but it doesn’t define her necessarily. She’s just who she’s supposed to be, and I wanted people to understand that and to realise that underneath it all - religion, colour, creed, sexuality, whatever it may be - we’re all just trying to get on with our lives.
“That’s what I think I’ve been able to learn from my job, from people trusting me and sharing their story. I’ve learned a lot from it, because I have talked to people from literally all walks of life. I really have. And all of these amazing people that I’ve talked to over the years have really helped me with my writing”
Kelly is grateful for ‘all the years’ she’s been doing a job she loves, crediting working with a young team on keeping her up to date, and is never one to dissemble about her age.
“Well everybody that went to school with you knows what age you are. So why would you lie? It’s daft. And actually it’s much, much better when you say I’m 64 and you would like to think people would say ’oh you don’t look it’, than pretending you’re 54 and everyone going ‘bloody hell she’s had a hard paper round’.
“It’s all about attitude. For goodness sake, I know 80 and 90 somethings whose outlook is young.”
As is suggested in the title, wild swimming features in the novel, and Kelly hasn’t been afraid to make a splash herself when she gets the chance.
“The first time I ever went wild water swimming, or as Freya says in the book ‘swimming’ - when did it become ‘wild swimming’? - anyway, was when I went to Antarctica and I went in at Deception Island [in the South Shetland Islands]. I went in in my bikini. I mean, honestly Steve should have said ‘behave!’. I kept my hat on and my gloves, and ran in because it had to be done. I was numb from the neck down, but boy was I alive! Jeeeeez! It was the most alive I’ve ever felt. I was all tingly.”
“And I’ve gone swimming in Orkney a couple of times, on Inganess beach which features in the book. It’s beautiful crystal clear water, just fantastic.”
Really? How cold is the water?
“It’s fine,” she says. “I’ve gone in with a wetsuit in February but it’s not the same. Of course you’ve got to be careful, for goodness sake, you don’t want to do yourself a mischief but you don’t get the same benefit. You don’t get the same tingle. It’s really good for you. It’s good for you mentally, clears the head. And there’s great camaraderie if you go with a bunch of girls and then afterwards have a wee coffee and cake and maybe put a little bit of brandy in your coffee you know, just to warm you up. I would recommend it, I really would.”
“And do you know what?”, she continues, on an Orkney roll, “I was just tootling around Kirkwall one time, minding my own business, buying a few bits and bobs and I heard this banging and it was a ‘blackening’, you know when somebody’s getting married, and they basically just grabbed me!” she giggles at the memory.
“They threw me in the back of a truck, in the nicest possible way, and gave me a can and a stick and a pot and we went round and round Kirkwall banging on them, singing songs, and then we got to the Cathedral and clingfilmed the bride to one of the posts outside and basically left her there. I loved that they did that, I just felt so sort of part of the community. That just shows you how really friendly and funny it is, and the sort of amazing things that happen to you that you don’t expect. It was hilarious. I was just part of the gang. But folks are really friendly up there and it’s beautiful.”
Speaking of wedding rituals, there is more than one romance in the book, so would Kelly describe herself as a romantic?
“Em… not really. Ha ha ha. I’m more like Kate - you know the characters Kate and Edwyn. The two of them are not very romantic, and there are misunderstandings in their relationship which we hopefully resolve. I’m not really. I think the most romantic thing in the world is when your man empties the dishwasher. And does the clothes washing properly [she emphasises each syllable of properly], puts the things right in the machine, takes them out and maybe even irons them. That to me is the most romantic thing on god’s earth. Not silly gestures that don’t actually mean anything. That to me is proper. Bringing me a cup of tea when you’ve not asked for it.”
So where did the heart necklace she often wears come from?
Steve bought me that a long time ago. I think that was for my 40th and it’s just something I always wear. But to be honest I’m not into expensive stuff. I’d much rather spend my money on things like travelling, the Antarctic trip and going to Singapore to see my brother, going to Australia, Alaska, all these places. Camping in Africa, that’s wonderful. You hire a truck and sleep on the top - pop it up but not in the open air because that would be dangerous and you just tootle about and it’s a joy. It’s just wonderful, and you camp and you make Pot Noodles and it’s just great.”
Another of the themes oher novel is about going back and revisiting past traumas and Kelly has revisited Lockerbie and Dunblane, both places that suffered traumatic events on which she reported during her career, making a documentary about the former last year.
“A few years ago I went back to Dunblane to talk about that because that profoundly affected me because I’m very friendly still with Pam, one of the mums, one of the mums whose daughter [Joanne Ross] was killed. And Lockerbie, it was different in the sense that I had blocked so much of it out. I’m very much of the kind that you just get on with things, that’s just the way I’ve been brought up, the way that I am, and it did open a can of worms. It made me think a lot about, not me, but the people there and how they didn’t get the help they needed.
“The reason I made the documentary is that I knew that that was a story that needed to be told because some of the people I work with, they’d sort of vaguely heard something may have happened in Lockerbie but weren’t aware of the sheer scale and the human cost and how it affected people and still affects people to this day. So I wanted to give the people of Lockerbie their place, the respect, the understanding, the sympathy, that they absolutely deserve, all of the people there, and of course all of the people who died.
“Again it’s that thing of people trusting me. Most of the people I spoke to hadn’t spoken before, certainly not on air, and it’s that trust thing. I never take that for granted. And I think that’s partly due to the fact that I’ve been here a long time and I’m familiar to people. Obviously things like that affect you really deeply, but I was lucky, I was only reporting on it. I’m not having to live with it every single day like a lot of people have to. But it was just very important for me to do that documentary and to say this is what happened, this is what these people went through, this is what they're still going through, please acknowledge that. That was all.”
Kelly is delighted that her publisher Orion is the same as that of one of her heroes Maeve Binchy who is one of her writing heroes.
“The reason I wanted to work with Orion is because they publish Maeve’s books. I felt as if that would kind of be a wee charm. I was lucky enough to interview her and she was so lovely and sent me a card to say thank you and it’s in pride of place, framed in my wee office. I wrote the foreword for a re-issue of one of her books and her lovely husband sent me a letter and it’s one of those things that you really treasure. I love her books and she’s just a brilliant storyteller. You just get to know the characters so well. Also, Marian Keyes I love, Kate Atkinson I think is wonderful, Ian Rankin, he makes it seem easy doesn’t he, and it’s an absolute joy when you get your hands on one of his books. And anything about Antarctica I devour.
“I like a good story, where when I turn the page I feel a mixture of gosh that was really good, and I want to find out more. I don’t want to say bye bye.”
That’s the stage she’s at now with her second book, in which she returns to Orkney and the characters she introduced in the first.
“I’m going to talk a lot more about them because there’s a lot more to them. We’ve all got layers, different things going on in our lives. We all show what we want to show to the world but there’s an awful lot going on underneath.”
“It’s been amazing and I’ve still not finished with these characters. There’s a lot more to them and I don’t want to say cheerio, it’s hard. It’s like saying cheerio to your friends, even the ones that annoy me, I still want to have them in my life. I want to know what happens to them all. Whether it works. So I’m already working on the second one, and enjoying that very much. I want to see what happens next.”
Lorraine Kelly’s debut novel,The Island Swimmer is published on 15 February in Hardback, £16.99, by Orion.
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