Alex Nye is an award-winning children’s author. She grew up in Norfolk by the sea, but has lived in Scotland since 1995 where she finds much of her inspiration in Scottish history. At the age of 16 she won the W H Smith Young Writers’ Award out of 33,000 entrants, and has been writing ever since. Her first novel, CHILL, won the Royal Mail Award.
She divides her time between walking the dog, swimming, scribbling in notebooks in strange places, staring at people without meaning to, and tapping away on her laptop. She is also a Creative Writing Mentor with the Scottish Book Trust, and delivers candlelit workshops featuring live ghost stories to thrill her young readers. She studied at King’s College, London more years ago than she cares to remember.
Interview with Alex Nye
Your books fuse Scottish History with the supernatural (that’s a winning combination). Tell us more; why do you want to write these stories?
When my son was a year old I moved up from London to Scotland, and rented a remote cottage on an atmospheric Scottish moor called Sheriffmuir, near Stirling, reputed to be haunted by battleground ghosts. This was a huge contrast to Greenwich, London where I had been living previously. It was a few days before Christmas and within hours the country was hit by blizzards. We were trapped up at Cauldhame for several weeks – the water froze in the pipes, our power failed, and we were stranded along with the other family who lived in the big house next door with the white tower. That was the family I was renting the cottage from. It was an incredible experience, and should have led to a disastrous Christmas, but in fact I had found my inspiration and my own Wuthering Heights to write about. Both CHILL and SHIVER are set on Sheriffmuir and feature two families trapped by blizzards, while the house is being haunted by a mysterious weeping woman whose story is bound up with the tragic Battle of Sheriffmuir fought here 300 years earlier. In my books the inhabitants of Dunadd are living under a curse which needs to be resolved by the two young people, Fiona and Samuel. In the sequel, SHIVER, two ghost children are haunting the house, wreaking mischief behind the scenes. They were locked in a room and left to die – so again there is a mystery to solve. Why were they abandoned?
DARKER ENDS, my third novel written for YA, is set in Glencoe and uses the tragedy of the 1692 massacre as its inspiration. Two children are waiting in a remote inn for their parents to come home, when a storm closes in and they are stranded. When a stranger crashes his car in the gully and heads towards the lights of the inn they are faced with a difficult decision. Should they let him in? The inn-sign has a picture of a line of raggedy figures heading off into the mountains – these were the so-called survivors of the Glencoe Massacre. For when the redcoat soldiers began slaughtering the villagers in February 1692 for not managing to sign the oath of allegiance to the English king in time, some of them disappeared into the mountains, where they may well have died from exposure. My tale is bound up with those ‘survivors’ and their tragedy. All is not what it seems.
I have a strong sense of injustice, and a lot of Scottish history is about unresolved injustices, so I think this fuels my imagination.
The idea of ghosts or a hint of the supernatural has intrigued me ever since I read Wuthering Heights when I was 14. I love a mystery to remain just that… a mystery… only partially resolved, tantalizingly glimpsed at.
Not surprisingly my favourite song writer is Kate Bush!!!
Where do you find your inspiration?
After I moved into the cottage I learned that the people who lived up at Cauldhame in 1715 actually watched the Battle of Sheriffmuir from their drawing-room windows as it swept from one side of the moor to the other. This one true fact inspired me, and when I heard this story the cogs began whirring. So it is often a single historical fact like this which can lead me down a path where more treasures may be discovered, and a narrative unfolds.
I get an awful lot from my surroundings. I have a strong sense of place, and I pick up very quickly on atmosphere.
I am also inspired by listening to the stories which people unconsciously tell about themselves – the deeper stuff which gives a real clue as to what motivates them as people.
And of course I am inspired by the skill and craft of other writers whom I enjoy; I always seek to emulate my favourite authors.
So what’s the best thing and worst thing about being a writer?
The best thing about being a writer is being your own boss. I have been in situations where I am working 9 till 5 with travel in between, and no time to write, and it literally hurt not to be able to finish anything, so it’s great to have the freedom to do what I love best in all the world.
The worst thing about being a writer – without a doubt – is the financial and emotional insecurity. Being a writer inevitably has its ups and downs. Your publisher can favour other authors and make that obvious; festivals can do the same. It’s very easy to feel ignored and rejected, no matter how well you write. That’s hard, and I know that a lot of writers feel it.
Changing the subject, apart from writing what do you love doing?
I know it sounds twee but I really do love Nature. So one of my favourite things is to walk my dog in wild remote places, or being solitary beside the sea on a quiet Scottish beach, collecting shells. I also love cycling – not in a big competitive way – but just to get from A to B where I live. And I love swimming – especially underwater as it makes me feel like a selkie.
I love Amateur Dramatics and performing. I love the tension backstage before going on to perform, and the whole business of waiting for the curtain to sweep across while you’re poised in character, listening to the audience just before the house lights go down. Love all that… I’m such a drama queen.
Also spending precious time with my two grown-up children who are great company, share similar interests and always make me laugh.
I love to read, of course – as every writer does. If I don’t have a good book on the go then it affects my mood. If I have the time I also love to paint and sketch – but not very well.
And what happens next?
What happens next is that I keep writing stories, and loving what I do until I die.
However, in the shorter term my publisher is about to launch my fourth title, which is an adult novel called FOR MY SINS about Mary Queen of Scots. The year is 1587 and she is sitting in an English prison cell awaiting execution for plotting against Elizabeth; she is stitching her tapestries while being haunted by the ghosts of her past, including John Knox and Darnley, the husband she was accused of conspiring to murder. I first wrote this with an absolute passion a long time ago when living in Edinburgh, and again I was extremely inspired by my surroundings – the gleam of the cobbles and imagining the political intrigues and conspiracies which unwound during Mary’s short and turbulent reign. I have revisited this novel with huge pleasure, and it should appear by the end of the year.
Tea or coffee?
Tea – Earl-Grey with lavender if I feel fancy.
What supernatural ability would you like?
Invisibility. Oooh, and time travel but exercised with caution.
The word that describes you best is:
Book you’ve read the most?
What’s the perfect cure to a bad day?
Sauna and swim.
Favourite meal (that you can cook)?
Any kind of vegetable curry
Do you ever re-arrange bookshop displays?
Yes, definitely, all the time.
eReader, yay or nay?
Which Scottish destination is a must?
Glencoe. Also… any of the islands.
And finally, what is the question you wish people would ask and never do?
What is the secret of happiness? But do I know the answer?