By Peter Ross

“See?” says Ever Dundas, pushing back a sleeve. “I like the way they catch the light.” The skin on the back of her left forearm is cross-hatched with pale scars. Horizontals and diagonals; tally marks and lightning bolts. The pattern appears artful. These marks were made with strategic intent. They are self-harm scars, some more than 20 years old. An observer might interpret them as a manifestation of pain; Dundas considers them beautiful, both in themselves and in the narrative of survival they tell. They are a story, and she – novelist, essayist – is a storyteller. Flesh is no longer her medium. She no longer cuts herself, or burns the insides of her wrists with cigarettes, but would like to explain why she did, how it felt, what it meant.

“I’m not ashamed of them,” she says. “I suffered from depression, and self-harm was about healing and helping myself. I was suicidal, had a lot of suicidal thoughts, and self-harm kept me from that. It kept me alive.”

We are in her Edinburgh flat. Dundas is 39 with a gentle manner and a forceful look: goth Virginia Woolf. Her fringe, worn just above her eyes, is streaked blue; her lower lip is pierced. A black and white cat, Belle, impatient for lunch, yowls and scratches a table leg as we talk.

In 2017, Dundas published her novel, Goblin, a brilliant picaresque set, in part, in the London of the blitz, where the title character, a semi-feral girl, finds solace from traumatic loss in rubble and trouble and the power of her own imagination. One review called it the best debut by a Scottish author since Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, and predicted, correctly, that it would win the Saltire prize for first book of the year.

Dundas is working on a follow-up, HellSans – “My Hollywood action thriller by way of David Cronenberg.” The novel’s anti-hero, Jane, is disabled. That is a word which Dundas uses for herself, in reference to the “disabling” effects of fibromyalgia, the chronic illness from which she suffers. Symptoms include flu-like exhaustion, problems with memory and concentration, and pain all over the body all the time. Bright light or loud noise or something as mundane as reading a book can bring on what she calls “a flare-up”, an intensification of pain. “It feels like your nerves are on fire and you just want to shut out the world.”

She will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss disability. Dundas feels that when the publishing industry champions diversity, it almost never means writers who are disabled, despite the fact that they face particular challenges. In particular, she says, they can find it difficult to earn enough money on which to live and write, often being unable to teach, to take on freelance journalism, or to keep a regular day job. This was Dundas’s own experience. Poor health forced her to give up part-time office work, and she was on disability benefits (“a horrendous process”) until receiving Creative Scotland funding to assist in the writing of HellSans. She would like to see a fund of public money made available to which writers who are disabled can apply. Otherwise, she says, many voices and experiences will not be heard.

Dundas is also keen to challenge stereotypes about disability: too often, she feels, disabled people are presented as either superhuman Paralympians or objects of pity; through her writing, and her own example, she wants to bring a different, more complex perspective. “I am a queer sick scarred woman and I’m in the public sphere,” she wrote in an essay, Frankenstein’s Children. This is a statement of intent. Ill at ease in the public eye, she is nevertheless forcing herself to break cover. “I almost feel it’s a duty,” she says. “I’ve got this platform and, politically, I think it’s important to use it. But, personally, as a shy introvert creature, it makes me slightly nauseous.”

She grew up in Edinburgh, mostly, the youngest of four children, but felt like an only child because the age gap was so wide. The sibling to whom she later grew closest, her sister Rachel, died in 2013 at the age of 40, while Dundas was writing Goblin; her grief sounding a dark harmony with that already present in the book. Also in 2013, Dundas married Paul Wilson, who she had first met in the library of James Gillespie’s High School, where they were pupils: “We wanted to do something lovely that year after such a devastating loss.” A graphic designer who sometimes makes art the name Cinnamon Curtis, Wilson's work includes the seductive jacket for Goblin. They married in Venice, one of the settings in Goblin. Dundas is bisexual, but more often uses the word Queer (with a capital Q) as this “doesn’t simply refer to sexuality – it’s a rejection of identity politics: identity is multiple, unstable, fluid”.

Her father was an RE teacher, later a minister, now retired. Before Dundas was born, her parents had been missionaries in Taiwan. It was, therefore, a deeply religious upbringing – in the Church of Scotland. “I was intense about it as a kid,” she recalls. “It meant a lot to me. I eventually lost my faith, as a teenager, quite purposefully rejected it.”

Why? “It felt like a second-hand religion.” Her parents’, not hers. “It also bothered me from a very young age – though I wasn’t able to articulate this – how patriarchal it was.” For a few years she continued to attend church, so as not to disappoint her parents, but it was no longer meaningful. Nevertheless, leaving the church was a wrench, and left a God-shaped hole in her life. This she filled with art: books and music.

“Since I was a teenager, music has meant so much, and helped me through so many things,” she says. “The Manic Street Preachers saved my life. I think it was the drive they gave me, the ambition; helping me to get to university. The Holy Bible is probably my favourite album of all time. A lot of people think it’s really grim, but it’s always invigorated me and kept me going.” She had underperformed at school, but later did OU courses before attending Queen Margaret and Napier. She has a first-class degree in psychology and sociology, a masters in creative writing.

Dundas had been slow to learn to read and write, but once she cracked it there was no stopping her. From the age of seven, she knew she was a writer. “I used to make up plays that I would get friends to act out. I was a bit like Goblin: making up my own little world to help me cope with the real world.” Her living room is full of books. One notices titles by key influences: Angela Carter and Shirley Jackson. The interior of doll’s house is stacked with copies of Goblin, spines visible through the windows.

Her teenage years were difficult. “I was badly dressed and bookwormy and a bit strange.” A target for bullies. “It’s underestimated how much bullying damages people. We think, ‘Oh, it’s just kids.’ I didn’t really get much help or support from teachers or anybody. I think it took me 15 years or so to recover from my experience of high school.” When the old James Gillespie’s building was demolished, Dundas went to watch, and found it cathartic. Still, there had been some pleasant moments. “Fifth year was a lot better. I met my husband, and some other cool friends, and we formed our little grungey clique … I was much happier when I finally found my creatures.”

In her mid-teens, she started calling herself Ever, and would prefer that her original name does not appear in this article. “I just don’t think it’s relevant … Ever is my real name.” The name she has taken for herself feels more like who really she is – the essence of her – than the name from the Bible which was chosen by her parents. “It felt too attached to that religion I was brought up with and which wasn’t mine. I felt quite alienated from my own name. Also, because of my difficult experience of high school, I wanted to leave all that behind. Choosing my own name felt like a form of strength.”

She made the change legal when she was 21. “Holding my new birth certificate was amazing. It felt a bit like being born again.” She experienced something similar when she first held a copy of Goblin and saw those words, “Ever Dundas”, on the front. “It’s my name. It’s not a pen name. It’s me.”

A couple of weeks before this interview, Dundas spoke at an event at Edinburgh University: the launch of a book by Dr Amy Chandler, a sociologist with whom she is friends, on the subject of self-harm. In front of a small but appreciative audience, mostly women, she read from her essay Self-Harm Triptych, which emphasises what she sees as the positives of the practice, and redefines it as “self-care”. Afterwards, in a quiet moment, a young woman approached in tears. Dundas gave her a hug. “That was so lovely,” Dundas explained later. “She said she had never heard anyone talk about self-harm like that before.”

For Dundas, cutting herself was about feeling in control, and it came with an endorphin rush. “The blood coming out was a kind of release,” she says. “When I was suffering from depression I felt a bit numb. This woke me up and brought me back to life, and kept me from killing myself.”

She is talking from her own experience, not suggesting that others follow her example. As she has written, “Self-harm isn’t a long-term solution; while it might provide initial relief, it can often become a damaging coping mechanism that’s difficult to give up.” She doesn’t want you to copy her, but she would like you to understand.

Often, when interviewing an artist, trying to find out what drives them, there is an unspoken question: “Please, will you show me your scars?” Ever Dundas makes that figurative expression literal. Meeting her, in person or through her work, is not a bleak experience, however. There is a palpable creative energy about her – and Goblin – which is rooted in darkness but catches the light.

“I feel like at 39 I’m only now starting on the career I’ve always wanted,” she says. “After all I’ve been through, I’m finally doing what I want.”

Goblin is published by Saraband, £8.99. Ever Dundas will discuss disability, with Robin Spinks, Innovation and Technology Relationships Manager at the RNIB, as part of he Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 26, 7.30pm