I’m delighted to have the opportunity to showcase one of the authors who has been shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year 2020.
I reviewed Francine Toon’s Pine at the start of the year and you can see my review here.
The judges said of Pine: ‘an impressive and atmospheric novel, with a portrait of remote rural Scotland, bringing in issues of school bullying, mental health and alcoholism. Very readable and engaging, It’s also beautifully written.’
Francine Toon grew up in Sutherland and Fife. Her debut novel, Pine is shortlisted for the 2020 McIlvanney Prize and the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Debut of the Year and longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award. Her poetry, written as Francine Elena, has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Best British Poetry 2013 and 2015 anthologies (Salt) and Poetry London, among other places. She lives in London and works in publishing.
I am thrilled that Francine has kindly agreed to join me on the blog for a chat, so without further ado, let’s dive in!
How does it feel to have a debut novel shortlisted in both the Debut category and for the McIlvanney Scottish Crime Novel of the Year? Did you think you were writing a crime novel when you started?
To be shortlisted for both feels absolutely incredible. I am so grateful to the judges. I really hoped that Scottish readers would connect with Pine, so being recognised by Bloody Scotland, of all places, made me feel quite emotional, to be honest.
I have always loved crime and thrillers, so I set out to write a book that would be page turning, with a dark mystery at its centre.
How long did Pine take you to write and what prompted you away from poetry and into prose?
Pine took me about five years to write, on and off. I am a fiction editor by day, so was always drawn to writing a novel, I just felt as though I had to psych myself up for it. Writing poetry was like getting good at sprinting while I was planning a marathon.
How much of Pine was informed by your growing up in Sutherland and do you lean towards a belief in the mystic yourself – do you, for example read the Tarot?
A lot of Pine is informed my childhood in Sutherland, in terms of the places and small details. The local town is a darker, beach-less version of Dornoch, the last place in the UK to execute a person for witchcraft – Janet Horne. I named the town in Pine, Strath Horne, after her. The forest is an even bigger version of the sprawling pine woods by my old house in Clashmore (a happier version of Clavanmore, where Lauren and her father live). Like the children in the book I used to play in the woods with my friends, every chance I had, building dens, reading the Beano and daring each other to eat dog biscuits. We also used to tell a lot of ghost stories, Scottish myths and urban legends that inspired me to give Pine a creepy, supernatural twist. I also paid homage to tropes in urban legends, such as the Vanishing Hitchhiker, babysitters, mysterious dripping sounds . . . I love all that stuff, maybe in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of way.
I learnt tarot while writing Pine and the tarot reading scene in the book is the result of a ‘live’ reading I did as I wrote it and dreamt up the characters spontaneous reactions’ to the cards I pulled.
Pine works on a number of levels – as a coming of age novel; with Gothic overtones full of folklore and mysticism – but at the same time it’s a contemporary novel about darkness and sexual violence and about women staying strong amidst a small patriarchal community. What was your starting point?
My starting point was imaging a house I lived in when I was nine and the empty road at the end of my drive that stretched into the mountains, a wild place of pine trees and wild goats. On that empty road, I imagined a woman walking, wearing an oversized man’s dressing gown that she had grabbed as she fled, escaping danger. I started imagining who this woman was and where she came from. I knew that her story was going to be painful and dark, but I wanted it also to be cathartic for female readers and ultimately – without giving too much away – I wanted there to be a sense of power and revenge.
You work in publishing and have given advice to writers on what is important when writing a book. Are you good at taking your own advice?
I will just take a moment to laugh ruefully. I tried hard to take my own advice, but I think that editing your own novel is a lot like cutting your own fringe (something I have done a lot over lockdown). You ideally want someone else who has a bit of distance, because they’re going to do a much better job. One thing I did do was keep my cast of characters small and make them work hard for the narrative. I only wrote a new character if the story really needed it. But you can read all the creative writing books and listen to all the advice and writing, when it comes down to it, is just a real slog. I have more sympathy than ever for the writers I publish and their conscientiousness.
Tell us about a typical writing day – what’s your process and are you a plotter or a pantster?
As I work full time, I don’t really have a typical writing day, I just grab weekends, early mornings and evenings where I can. I find it hard to switch into the right imaginative mindset, so while I was writing Pine I listened to music to evoke a mood or place – everything from traditional fiddle playing to the Nine Inch Nails. I also listened to the true crime podcast My Favorite Murder religiously. I am obsessed with how women tell stories about things that scare them. I am also 100% a plotter. Writing by the ‘seat of my pants’ makes me nervous just thinking about it. But just because you have plotted something to the nth degree, doesn’t always mean it’s right for the novel and you have to be open to change.
Any plans for a second novel?
Yes, I have just started to write another book. I came up with what I thought was a completely different scenario to Pine, but then realised I am particularly drawn to themes of small communities, power, strong young women and a big, dark mystery.
My thanks to Francine for joining me. Pine by Francine Toon is published by Doubleday (£12.99)
The winners of both The McIlvanney Prize and the Debut Prize will be announced in the evening of Friday 18th September. The Bloody Scotland Festival is online this year and the programme and tickets (free of charge but please make a donation) can be found here: Bloody Scotland 2020