Some authors are inspired by music, or paintings, or historical research. But for Fletcher, who grew up in a suburb south of Birmingham, literature came alive on a family holiday to Wales.
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“I remember being 11,” she says, “and coming into the Brecon Beacons and feeling woken up somehow, having a very physical reaction to the landscape. And I vowed, actually, at that point, that if I ever was to become a writer I’d write about there. That’s what made me want to write. I started to keep a diary and to note things down, so, in a way, if the writer in me had a birth it was probably in Wales.”
The books she loves the most are the ones that transport the reader to a different place, conjuring up a location so vividly you could almost believe you were there. It’s what she tries to do in her own work, and she’s succeeded in style with her new novel, Corrag, and its compelling evocations of the Highlands. Just to be clear, this isn’t the Susan Fletcher who lives in Oregon and writes books about dragons. Our Susan is the 31-year-old author of Eve Green, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award for 2004, and who followed it up three years later with the equally acclaimed Oystercatchers. Corrag shares their reflective style and strong female central characters, but the book marks Fletcher’s first foray into history.
Set in 1692, it looks at the massacre of Glencoe from the perspective of a tiny, 16-year-old child-woman accused of witchcraft. Her name is Corrag, a name her mother invented by combining “Cora” and “hag”, and she witnessed the massacre with her own eyes. Her evidence would thus be crucial to Charles Leslie, an Irishman who makes his way to Inveraray to interview the accused witch before her execution in the hope that he can establish a link that will connect William of Orange with the murders.
At first, as a man of the cloth, Leslie is repulsed by Corrag, but he is compelled to come back day after day to the stench and filth of her prison to get the testimony he wants. Corrag, though, isn’t just going to hand the evidence to him on a plate, and in the week leading up to the date of her execution she tells him her life story, about how she was raised by her herbalist mother in the English village of Thornyburnbank, and was urged to flee “north and west” when a villager with a grudge accused her mother of witchcraft.
Although there’s no proof that they ever met, both Corrag and Leslie did exist. And, based on the scantiest of historical details, Fletcher has made her Corrag an unforgettable character. As well as her incredible affinity with nature and her understanding of the properties of herbs, she’s possessed of a naïveté that’s almost noble. She’s skittish, but trusting, always believing the best of people until events prove otherwise, so unlike the devil-spawn her captors accuse her of being.
“I wanted her to be without doubt the kindest and most giving person in the book,” Fletcher explains, “and although she has this label of witch from the moment of her birth, and she’s hunted from the moment of her birth, and she’s called hag and whore, I wanted her to be the complete opposite of all of that. In many ways, even though she doesn’t adhere to a religion, she lives the most spiritual life in the book. She’s loving and generous despite the treatment she receives. She’s not cowed by it.”
It’s when Corrag arrives at Glencoe that Fletcher’s ability to summon up a landscape really takes flight. Corrag glories in nature, whether scouting for herbs or just taking in the magnificent views, and capturing the feel of the area was so crucial to the book that Fletcher moved to Glencoe and lived there for two years.
“It’s hard to talk about, because it sounds very clichéd, actually. But it was June 2007, and I was with some friends in Glasgow. I’d driven up from Cornwall, so it had been a long journey. I’d always wanted to go to the Highlands and see Glencoe specifically, so I carried on driving north. At this point, I was researching a new book and it was going to be set in Zambia. I drove into Glencoe and parked in one of the car parks opposite the Three Sisters, got out the car and just decided that Zambia would have to wait.”
She worked in a pub in the evenings (a great antidote to writing, she says) while doing much of her writing outdoors and researching the history of the area. She had to train herself to portray Corrag’s extraordinary powers of observation and now feels she perceives landscapes differently from before. She did, however, stop short of putting herself in hazardous situations up mountains, relying on accounts from local climbers for authenticity. “I did a fair bit of walking. An awful lot of trying to see it the way she would have seen it involved just being very still and very quiet. I did do my fair share of Munros and what-have-you. There’s a place halfway up the glen where there’s an amazing rock with a fantastic view down the glen looking west, and I’d go up there with a notepad and a thermos flask and sit there for an hour, perhaps, and write down everything I could see.”
Fletcher, who felt she was “winging it” until winning the Whitbread Prize gave her much-needed confidence, says writing Corrag has also helped her mature as a writer.
“I came to Eve Green, my first book, fresh. I hadn’t written any other book before, so I threw myself into it. The second book was much more reserved and cerebral. I wasn’t really writing instinctively, I was writing with an acute awareness of a reading public and of a publishing house, so in that respect it does seem more at arm’s length. In this one I’ve gone back to the writing style that I had for the first book, so again I’ve thrown myself into this one.
“These are subjects that I am fascinated by, and I had a real appetite for this book. I do actually feel really impassioned by it and, in that respect, it feels like a first in some ways. I do feel like I’ve grown up a bit, actually.”
Nevertheless, she’d be the first to admit that she’s still got a lot of growing to do. Her next book – she’s not giving away whether this will be the Zambia story – will be written in the third person for a change, and Fletcher has already noticed a change in her approach.
“I’m starting to be really interested in dialogue now and how we talk – not only realistic language, but language that just sums something up. In that respect I’m turning more to poetry as well, because that’s about the exact word. I suppose I’m starting to turn away from the landscape being the crucial part of books – I think it always will be for me – but you’ve got to change and evolve as a writer otherwise you get stuck.”
Fletcher still draws on her experiences on the Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia, where she was taught by former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and had to run the gauntlet of having her work picked apart by her classmates. So far, she hasn’t given much thought to teaching herself, but that day may be coming. “It’s something that you need to feel ready for,” she says.
“Probably, after this book, I’m starting to feel ready. I do feel that something in me has grown up now. I do feel like I can call myself a writer. So probably from now on I would feel ready for that. Up until now, I’ve still felt quite embryonic, like I’ve not got anything to teach people, but I think that, hopefully, is changing.”
Corrag is published by 4th Estate at £12.99. Susan Fletcher will be giving readings from the book at Waterstone’s, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow on Tuesday; Borders, Edinburgh on Wednesday; and the University of Dundee on Thursday.