Source: Review copy
Publication: 17 June 2021 from Sandstone Press
I am really delighted to be participating in the blog tour for Fiona Erskine’s new novel, Phosphate Rocks. I’m hosting The author’s own intrduction to the book – but first let’s have a look at what the blurb says:
During the demolition of a factory, a shocking discovery is made: a mummified corpse encased in a carapace of hardened dust – phosphate rock – surrounded by ten objects that provide tantalising clues as to its identity…
Now doesn’t that sound both intriguing, fun and also a bit different? I love the premise and Fiona’s experience as a chemical engineer is sure to add lots of authenticity to this fascinating novel.
Here’s Fiona to tell you how the book came to fruition:
Phosphate Rocks: Introduction
In early 1988, I was rattling down Leith Walk on my Honda 90 motorbike (0–11 miles per hour in 1 millisecond, although it took longer to get above 11) towards Edinburgh’s dockland and the Scottish Agricultural Industries (SAI) fertiliser factory. I could tell what sort of shift it was going to be from the factory chimneys. My last one.
Five years previously, when I first informed the deputy manager that I planned to work shifts like the male graduates, he paled. A five-foot-three-and-a-half, sixty-kilo, twenty-something, cocky, over-educated feminist alone at night in a factory of hundreds of big, rough men… he was terrified for them. So, he appointed a trusted, experienced shift foreman to keep me out of trouble: John Gibson.
Many years and several jobs later, after a skiing accident and an even more bruising first brush with fiction, I was persuaded by my partner in life to write down the stories I used to tell arriving home from a twelve-hour shift in Leith docks, caked in phosphate rock.
I embarked on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) armed only with the words ‘I remember’, and it all poured out.
NaNoWriMo is a bit like a Honda 90. You can race ahead with extraordinary speed and exhilaration; tens of thousands of words can be knocked out in a month. Unfortunately, it took me almost a decade to knock that first draft into shape.
The person I found it hardest to write about was John, my mentor and shift companion – enigmatic, infuriating, charming, capricious, obstinate, kind and wise – until I found a way to illuminate him by putting him centre stage, where he belongs.
Like the shaggy dog stories that John shared to get us through a night shift, not all of what follows is exactly true. Names have been changed because the real people involved are still bigger than me. Dates have been changed because my memory is appalling.
I am going to pop up from time to time, like the James Gillespie’s High School and Cambridge University educated smart arse I am, to explain some of the technical stuff. You’ll be able to spot me by the thud of Perry’s 4.46-kilogram Chemical Engineering Handbook (Version 6), the motes of dust (atishoo!) and the rustle of its 2,240 pages.
Inspired by Primo Levi, in the style of Dan Brown, this is the portrait of a factory in all its complex, glorious, interconnected, messy entirety. A hymn to the forgotten, the unknown and the misunderstood, this is the story of a fertiliser factory in decline and some of the fine people taken down with it.
I asked John to read this, to see if he wanted to change anything. He refused to even look at it.
‘I trust you, doll,’ he said.
OK, then. Gloves off. Carte blanche.
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I’m laughing already and looking forward to reviewing it when space allows.
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A professional engineer with forty years of international manufacturing experience, Fiona Erskine’s first graduate job was in the factory described in Phosphate Rocks. Born in Edinburgh, Fiona grew up riding motorbikes and jumping into cold water. After studying chemical engineering at university, she learned to weld, cast and machine with apprentices in Paisley. As a professional engineer she has worked and travelled internationally and is now based in the North East of England. Her first novel, The Chemical Detective, which was shortlisted for the Specsavers Debut Crime Novel Award 2020, was followed by The Chemical Reaction.