Family, famine and living with history at the WSP panel event

16th June, 2018

The Friday panel of Walter Scott Prize shortlisted authors is one of the most anticipated events at the annual Baillie Gifford Borders Book Festival, and the 2018 panel saw another packed marquee for Jane Harris, Paul Lynch, Rachel Malik and Benjamin Myers. Led by insightful questions from host and Prize judge Kate Figes, the wide-ranging discussion explored the surprising and in some cases shocking origins of four of this year’s shortlisted titles.

Rachel Malik topped the list of startling catalysts for her debut novel MISS BOSTON AND MISS HARGREAVES (Fig Tree Books), which sprang to life when Rachel’s mother admitted, over a cup of tea, that her own mother hadn’t died, as Rachel had been raised to believe. “She ran away from us,” Rachel’s mother said. “And I think she killed someone.”

That crime, and her grandmother’s abandonment of Rachel’s mother, intrigued and troubled Rachel, who dug deep into historical documents and her own imagination to bring to life a fictionalised but feasible Miss Hargreaves, and the country life she and companion Miss Boston lived as itinerant farm workers during World War Two and after.

Jane Harris told the audience how she drew doubly on her own identity; growing up with the push-and-pull of a sister informed the vivid central brother characters at the heart of SUGAR MONEY (Faber), while Jane’s own Scottishness was one reason she wanted to explore something few people discuss: Scotland’s complicity in the Caribbean slave economy.

Scotland may tell itself that it was the English who bear responsibility for the horrors of slave-era Grenada, Harris said, but the Grenadian phone book “is full of MacFarlanes and Rosses,” and those who made fortunes in slave economies “were the same ones who went back and built mansions in Glasgow.”

Writing the unimaginable

GRACE (One World) author Paul Lynch described another untouchable, and how he brought himself to confront it: famine Ireland, and what survivors did to endure. Paul explained how his reading about famine in Mao’s China fed into his thinking about the on-the-ground stories of Ireland’s Great Hunger, stories that have been lost.

He knew that his mind was brewing a story with a 14-year-old girl as protagonist, but when he began to write and realised her journey would be through the famine, he walked away from the writing, feeling the same shame and guilt, he said, that many in Ireland still feel about that time. He returned to his character, Grace, only because she wouldn’t let him go. “You discover the book you have to write is the one you’re afraid of,” he said. The result is a powerful famine narrative where Grace herself is both a vitally real girl and an allegory of transgression and redemption, with strong echoes of Irish myth, from the Táin bo Cúailnge to The Wandering Aengus.

THE GALLOWS POLE (Bluemoose Books) author Benjamin Myers described how history came to his doorstep — and inside his home — when he was researching the Cragg Vale Coiners, the 18th century artisan forgers who toppled the British economy, creating a fortune in counterfeit coins that were indistinguishable from the genuine article. Astonishingly, Benjamin’s research revealed that his main antagonist, a “coiner” who turned state’s evidence and betrayed his fellows, had once lived in the house where Benjamin and his wife now live.

Like all the shortlist panel, Benjamin explained that his story evolved the more he learned about his period: what he’d envisioned as a “cops and robbers” story changed when, he said blithely, he found that in the 1760s “there were no cops. Or robbers.” The charismatic gangster at the heart of the forging gang, “King” David Hartley, was a real figure whose character Benjamin had to construct the best he could, a man who was part Robin Hood, part Tony Soprano, and unavoidably “a bit of a bastard.”

Festival attendees have the opportunity to hear readings from all six of the shortlisted titles at the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize award ceremony, which is open to the public at the Borders Book Festival on 16 June. For live coverage of the prizegiving, follow the Prize on Twitter at @waltscottprize or on Instagram at @walterscottprize. For more details on each of the shortlisted books, visit our 2018 Prize page (