Sometimes a book just jumps out at you, and this is how it was when I spotted The Edinburgh Skating Club in this photo on Twitter.
Edinburgh, history, art! All things very close to my heart since writing In the Blink of an Eye. Then there were the references, not just to the iconic portrait of the skating minister (everyone’s favourite, surely!) but also to Duddingston Loch, the very same spot where Robert Louis Stevenson, subject of my recently completed novel, used to skate, as one observer put it, ‘disappearing and reappearing, like a melancholy minnow.’*
After all of that, there was nothing for it but to get hold of a copy of the book, which proved to be as fascinating and pleasurable as I could have hoped. As a result, I contacted the author Michelle Sloan who, I’m delighted to say, agreed to answer a few questions here today.
First of all here’s a taster of what The Edinburgh Skating Club is all about, taken from my own review:
When Mrs Alison Cockburn goes on a dash after her friend’s dog through 18th Century Edinburgh she realises how dull her life has become. Her friend’s brother, (philosopher David Hume) then challenges her claim to athleticism and before we know it she is passing herself off as a member of the opposite sex with the ultimate aim of joining the all-male preserves of Edinburgh, in particular the Skating Club. Living as a man turns out to be even more to Alison’s liking than she imagined but as she/he becomes the darling of Edinburgh literary society she fails to see how her transformation is impacting on her closest friend. Meanwhile, in the present day, university lecturer Claire is forced into investigating the attribution of Raeburn’s iconic skating portrait (which also forms part of the historical narrative) then unearths some fascinating facts which aren’t appreciated by the academic hierarchy.
The rest of my review can be read on Amazon.
Here’s some background on Michelle.
Originally from Edinburgh, Michelle is the author of several books for children including the picture book, The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee. Michelle originally trained as a primary school teacher before attending The Royal Academy of Music and Drama and Queen Margaret University College to study Drama and Theatre Arts. Here, she specialised in Arts Journalism and worked briefly for the List Magazine, reviewing and previewing Scottish theatre. She moved to Dundee in 2016 where she now lives with her family and three rescue dogs. And two hens! The Edinburgh Skating Club is her debut adults’ novel
I notice that up to now you have written for children. Did you always plan to write an adult novel and/or what brought you to this story in particular?
I started writing for children probably because my children were young and it felt like I had inspiration from them (the idea for The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee came from my youngest). But also because I had been working as a primary teacher and felt I knew my audience quite well. As a teacher, it felt like quite a natural progression. Writing for children though, you have to go out and promote those books quite intensively – around schools. And of course during lockdown that all stopped. The children’s market is incredibly difficult for a number of reasons and so it seemed like a good time to explore other ideas.
Writing The Edinburgh Skating Club during lockdown was a distraction – not just for me, but for my sister and mother. I wrote the 18th Century part of the book in instalments which I then emailed to them to keep us all entertained! And so the book just evolved.
Did you have any previous background in the historical or artistic background or did you have to start your research from scratch?
I’m no art historian, but I love art and I love history. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and have found fascinating. The research was the best part of the whole process as I could indulge my own interest.
I notice most of your characters are real historical figures. Did you have any problems in melding history and fiction?
This was a really fun part of the process. Obviously you find out as much as you can about the real historical figure and then begin to imagine them as real people. I found that really enjoyable. By all accounts, Alison Cockburn was such a warm, wonderful woman in real life, it wasn’t hard to imagine her in fiction.
Did you feel, like Claire, that you were challenging art orthodoxy and did you come up against any resistance to your ideas (e.g. with publishers or institutions)
No, I think most people recognise fiction when they see it! And it is just a bit of fun. However, we are living in a time when challenging institutions and orthodoxy is now acceptable and indeed sometimes welcomed. I guess we’ve all had moments in our lives when we’ve been frustrated with the ’stuffiness’ of fixed ideas. It was enjoyable imagining a scenario where this could be put into practice with satisfying results!
What about your road to publication. Did you use your existing channels (agent? publisher?) or find a new path?
At the time I didn’t have an agent so I went straight to the publisher with my concept. They were really helpful in steering me in the right direction. Luckily, I’ve now managed to secure an agent which is brilliant. It’s such a lonely job, it’s lovely to have someone to lean on – I definitely need that to help navigate the publishing world.
Your enjoyment of writing this book shines through. Anything similar in the pipeline or do you think this was a one-off?
I think this is the first book I’ve written that feels truly ‘me’. Very often you write to a brief. Or publishers can sometimes have very prescriptive ideas of what they want – particularly with children’s books. In this book, I feel there is a little part of me in every single page. I truly created characters that I felt I would like to have as my own circle of friends. I was bereft when I finished it. So, I would love to revisit the modern day characters and perhaps write another ‘art history mystery’ with Claire and Jen. We shall see!
Many thanks Michelle. Clearly some good things did come out of lockdown and ‘Art history mystery’ sounds like a concept with plenty of mileage. I look forward to hearing, and reading, more!
You can buy The Edinburgh Skating Club in paperback here https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-edinburgh-skating-club/michelle-sloan/9781846975950
Or as an e-book:
*Masson, R. ed. I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson, 1922. Edinburgh, Chambers, p.125