The Oystercatcher Girl by Gabrielle Barnby

It’s exciting times for Orkney as it’s in the middle of hosting its third book festival weekend.  A perfect time to talk to local author of The Oystercatcher Girl by Gabrielle Barnby.

”In the medieval splendour of St Magnus Cathedral, three women gather to mourn the untimely passing of Robbie: Robbie’s widow, Tessa; Tessa’s old childhood friend, Christine, and Christine’s unstable and unreliable sister, Lindsay.
But all is not as it seems: what is the relationship between the three women, and Robbie? What secrets do they hide? And who has really betrayed who?”

Set in Orkney the book is instantly familiar to me as I recognize the unique Orcadian language and words as well as places and names of recognition.  Along with this Gaby chose to use locations and sites that are not recognizable to a real place. (Coincidentally this was something we discussed yesterday at Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Aspects of fiction’ workshop I attended yesterday.  Ultimately the decision was the author can do whatever like, it’s their story.)

The book is ultimately about the fluctuating relationships between friends and family as it sways back and forth between the past and present day covering mental health, complex parent relationships, love, betrayal, and regret. There are wonderful descriptions of Orkney landscape and the challenges and benefits that come with living in a small place. I enjoyed the book group questions at the back too.  Always good for developing discussion. A great one for your Christmas list.


and below is an interview with Gaby.

Congratulations on your published book. How did the idea for your novel come about?

The idea came from two places really. The first was from an that observation friendship formed during childhood is different from later on in life. It has the power to mould and shape how a person develops and can remain somehow unfinished when circumstances change. The second place inspiration came from was moving to and living in Orkney and the way the climate and landscape can dramatically alter the way events sometimes turn out.

This combined with ideas about early friendships helped shaped the party scene at the heart of the book. The way each character kept or revealed their secrets as time went on then moved the story to its conclusion and once again the Orcadian landscape had a dramatic role to play.

What made you decide to set your story in Orkney?  Do you think it could’ve worked anywhere else?

I’ve set a series of stories in France before. The experience of travelling to new places is so stimulating to the imagination that this seemed more natural than plotting something set on my own doorstep – as doorstep I was only just getting to know at the time.

However, there came a point where I had to give myself permission to write something set in Orkney. It’s not an easy thing to do. For one thing I’ve lived here for only half a dozen years rather than half a dozen generations. I’m not an academic with in depth knowledge of archaeology and history or a scholar of the Orkney dialect (much as I like a crack at it now and again) or an expert in folk mythology. So to dip my toe in the water of Orkney writing was a risk. I haven’t even mentioned the giants who had gone before and written with a power and genius that I could only ever aspire to.

Having said all that, everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s difficult to see how this novel with its influence of the landscape and the sea could have been set anywhere else.

There was another writing decision that was hard to make. Do I stick to real landmarks or carve out a fictional Orkney? It’s hard to identify too closely with any place here because it’s maybe not what the people who live there want. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to go about it and in the end I had a shot at fictionalising a few things and along the way invented a brand new brough. 

Who is your favourite character and why?

Christina, Tessa and Lindsay are all strong young women, all with distinct characters. However, if I had to pick one of them to be at my side when things got tough it would have to be Lindsay. She’s Christine’s older sister who experiences the extreme highs and lows that are part of the spectrum of bipolar disorder. She’s anarchic, irrational and difficult, and is to blame for many things, yet beneath all this she is honest and perceptive in a way that Christine struggles to be and in a way that Tessa never really aspires to be.

Amongst the other characters I also have a soft spot for Dr Copik, another incomer to the Island, in fact, I have plans for him.

How does writing a book differ from short stories?

A different level of commitment and perseverance is needed for sure!

The technical challenges of plotting and sub-plotting mean that there’s a lot more behind the scenes work – a lot more planning and writing that is never used, for example sections about Robbie’s mother and Christine’s parents were written and then never included.

There’s a couple of other things as well. Within a novel the tempo and pace of a story needs variation and the timing of descriptions of setting and character and plot revelation all need to be controlled in a way that keeps the reader immersed in the story and caring about the characters yet surprised and satisfied by the unfolding action. It’s like very gradually giving someone the pieces for a jigsaw puzzle and trying to make sure that the one you leave until last is the one that gives the most satisfaction when it completes the picture.

Another thing which I find hard is keeping up the intensity of the writing. Part of this is due to the length of the revision process for a novel. A short story can be revised in a day – and will be over and over again. A novel takes weeks to go through, certainly in the early drafts, and keeping the whole world at my fingertips and then editing over and over again is an exhausting process.

Ultimately, finishing The Oystercatcher Girl was hugely satisfying and I learned a great deal from the process.

How much of ‘you’ is in the book?

Writing about any character requires some intuition, some understanding of what it is like to be another person and I suppose that develops from empathy. Of course my experiences shape the ideas and themes I write about, so in some respects when I write it is ‘all’ me. In another respect though, it is total fiction.

Writing is sometimes like smashing a mirror, sometimes there is only a tiny fraction of the author hidden away, often in the subconscious. Having the freedom to make things up and then trying to give them life is the ultimate challenge when writing creatively. Fictionalising something with origins in real life or from careful research offers the chance for adding authenticity. It’s often also a process of self -exploration as well, finding the opposite of my own beliefs, and tuning in to what the character is feeling.

What are you working on now?

I’ve had a crack at a couple of short stories over the summer and been working on a novel for 8-12 year olds. Already I’ve had one no thank you letter, but I’m hoping to get this sent out to more publishers soon. (It’s a very long process getting something published and there’s plenty of opportunities to ‘grow’ through criticism!)

Right now I’ve just begun the raw draft of a new novel set in Orkney. It’s daunting to be right back at the start again, but experience does help. I’m writing daily and enjoying researching at the Orkney Archive. I love the way that history and ideas from books are infectious and can inform and add new angles to contemporary drama.

Again the Orcadian landscape and ‘peoplescape’ are key in the narrative. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

Any tips for others?

A good idea will grow and incorporate more ideas. It will feed characters and propel them in new directions. Sometimes it can be hard to tell when you get stuck if you need to persevere and things will move on or if the idea was really not such a good one to begin with. Usually, it’s worth having a bit of a pause and a think.

In terms of practical tips for anyone wanting to develop their writing I’d recommend keeping a notebook for descriptions of people, places and ideas – these are all fresher if they are taken straight down there and then rather than conjured up in a comfy warm room in front of a computer.

I’ve also got into the habit of reviewing what I read, it helps when reviewing my own work.

Don’t forget to USE THE MAGIC DRAWER – leave writing to rest for 2-3 weeks. It will refresh your editing eye. You’ll be amazed at what you spot in your next revision.

Finally, keep writing, writing, writing…




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