I Know You: An Interview With Novelist Russell Govan
The latest novel from Scottish author Russell Govan offers a wonderfully heart-warming read about a feisty young Scottish woman, Eilidh, who keeps travelling back through the timeline of an elderly man with dementia, Walter, falling in love with the younger him in the process.
It's a brilliant premise for a novel with a dramatic dilemma for Eilidh about where she truly belongs – in the present with her family or the past with Walter.
Thankfully, Russell found time to answer some questions about I Know You, which has just been published through Guernica World Editions, from Gwyneth Rees, independent book reviewer.
Q. You come from a corporate background. How did you come to become interested in pursuing a writing career?
A. Like many people, I had always had the thought that I might like to write a book one day, but never acted on it. When I moved to Oxford I started attending lots of courses run by the university, including one in creative writing. That provided the spark – I learned an enormous amount and received masses of encouragement.
Q. You credit Dr. John Ballam, director of the Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford University, as an instrumental figure in your development as a writer. What would you say is the greatest writing lesson you learned from him?
A. John is a remarkably gifted teacher and it’s hard to single out just one of the many pearls of wisdom he shared. I think I learned from John that, while it’s okay to better at some aspects of writing than others, it’s important to take a holistic approach. Your characters and dialogue might be wonderful, but it matters not a jot if your plot is rubbish.
Q. Since the course, you have become an active member of a writers’ group. Why do you think it is important to have this ongoing dialogue with other authors?
A. I’m very fortunate that the group consists of genuinely talented writers. Everyone wants to do well and to help each other. We know each other well enough and have sufficient mutual respect that everyone feels free to be honest in their feedback. Critical feedback, particularly at an early stage, can save an enormous amount of wasted time and effort later on. Another important thing, often overlooked, is that writing can be quite a lonely experience. I’m very lucky that our group has no big egos and is at least as rewarding socially as it is from a writing perspective.
Q. To date, you have published two thriller novels and one sci-fi romance. What is your preferred genre, and why?
A. I’m not sure. I definitely prefer sci-fi to thrillers, but I haven’t really explored other genres. The reason I prefer sci-fi to thrillers is because I’m lazy! With sci-fi, it’s much easier than ‘real world’ writing because there’s more scope just to make things up.
Q. You are currently working on a sci-fi novel. What can you tell us about it at this stage?
A. I’ve actually just finished the first draft (any interested agents, please get in touch!). It’s set in the relatively near future – 25-30 years from now – and features telepaths involved in an existential struggle for survival in a world dominated by a hostile artificial intelligence. I’ve written it with a view to it being the first in a series.
Q. What has been the biggest writing challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?
A. I used to think that I was lazy (which might still be the case), but I think it’s more that I can struggle to focus on writing. I was very recently diagnosed as having ADHD, which was a bit of a surprise but did help to explain a lot. Being a member of a writing group that requires me to generate new writing on a regular basis provides me with the discipline that I need.
Q. Having previously penned two thrillers, what inspired the change of direction with your new novel, I Know You?
A. I actually wrote I Know You between the two thrillers, Bank on Nothing (Sharpe Books, 2020) and The Best Laid Plans (Sharpe Books, 2021). It got great reviews but, being honest, I hadn’t particularly wanted to write the first thriller and I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience. As soon as I finished it, I resolved to write something that would be fun to do and that I’d enjoy producing – that’s where I Know You came from. The irony is that when the thriller was subsequently picked up by a publisher, the deal required me to write a second book in the same genre! Despite misgivings about writing another thriller, I had sufficient ego and desire to become a published author that I agreed to do it.
Q. Your new novel features two characters suffering from dementia. Why did you want to explore this illness, and how closely did you draw upon your experiences of your late mother in portraying it?
A. I didn’t set out to explore the condition at all. Without wanting to sound like I was being exploitative, the two characters having dementia helped the story. It was convenient for me. That being said, I hope that readers will think that I treated the subject sensitively. My late mother suffered quite profoundly from dementia towards the end of her life. She ended her days in a home where many of the other residents suffered similarly and that increased my direct exposure to people with the condition. It was important to me that the two characters in the novel had dignity and that they were portrayed with compassion.
Q. Your new novel also explores dyslexia. Again, why did you think it important to address this in your story?
A. The answer is pretty much the same as for the previous question. I didn’t set out on a mission to address dyslexia – it was simply expedient for me to do so. One of the central characters in the novel is highly intelligent but was unsuccessful academically. Dyslexia was a convenient explanation. Again, I hope that I was sensitive in how I portrayed the condition.
Q. Your novels are noted for their strong female characters. What has inspired this motif?
A. This is something that has been pointed out to me that I hadn’t been conscious of, so it certainly wasn’t something I set out to do deliberately. My dad died when I was 10 and my mum raised my brother and me alone, with some help from her mother. I’ve been lucky enough to work for and with some very talented and strong women, and I have two very capable adult daughters. I suppose that exposure to a succession of strong, impressive women must have had some subliminal effect on my female characters. I’ve never actually applied the mako mori or Bechdel tests to my writing, but I hope that I’d score well.
Exclusive Extract From I Know You
With his third novel, author Russell Govan has confidently stamped his name on the list of Britain’s best storytellers. Here is an exclusive extract from I Know You, describing Eilidh and Walter’s first encounter, to give you a flavour of this compelling and emotive time-travelling romance.
I go downstairs. Gran’s still in the living room in front of the telly. She’s probably not moved since breakfast. Her glass of water hasn’t been touched. What a selfish cow I am. “Gran?”
“Yes?” She looks round and smiles. She knows I’m her grand-daughter because I call her Gran, but she doesn’t remember my name. She calls me “the lassie.” George and Archie are “the boys,” and Scott is “the wee man.” We make a joke of it among ourselves. But Mum was heartbroken the first time she realized Gran had forgotten her name too.
“I’m going to make a sandwich for my lunch. Cheese and ham.
Would you like me to make you one?”
“Yes. A cheese and ham sandwich. Your favourite. And a nice cup of tea?”
“A nice cup of tea. Yes, dear.” She smiles and turns back to the TV.
I go to the kitchen, put on the kettle, and start on the sandwiches. No ham. It’ll need to be cheese and tomato. It takes me no time. I cut the sandwiches into quarters because I know Gran likes that. She thinks it’s dainty. I put a plated sandwich and a cup of tea on opposite sides of the table so we can face each other.
“Gran! Lunch is ready.” I go to her and guide her from her armchair to her seat at the kitchen table.
“Dainty.” She nods and smiles approvingly at her sandwich.
“No ham. We’ll have to make do with cheese and tomato.”
“I like cheese and tomato.” She’s already almost finished her first quarter.
“Mind and drink your tea before it goes cold.” She’s not been drinking her water this morning. I need to get fluids into her.
“Still too hot.” A frown.
“Let it cool for a bit first, then. After we’ve finished our lunch, would you like to go for a walk?”
“Go for a walk?”
“Aye. Just a wee walk. It looks a beautiful day out there.” I nod toward the window, and her eyes follow. “It would be good for us both to get a bit of fresh air, wouldn’t it?”
“Fresh air. That would be good for us both.” The second quarter-sandwich is nearly gone. It’s good to get her to eat at the kitchen table. The food is right there in front of her. No telly to distract her.
“We could maybe walk down to the Stoorie Burn and back. You can tell me what it was like there when you were a lassie. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“That would be nice.”
We finish our lunch, and I fetch Gran’s walking shoes. Sturdy black lace ups. She still knows how to tie her laces. She sits at the foot of the stairs when she puts her shoes on, like I did when I was wee. Her pixielike features are a study in concentration below her tightly permed grey hair, as she focuses on knotting her laces into bows. She’s in really good condition for her age. Physical condition, that is. In some ways that makes it worse. She used to wander, which was a real worry. But she’s not done that for more than six months. She stands up and smiles at me, pleased with herself. There’s about three feet between us. She looks right at me and smiles. Her expression changes to concern. “Have you been greetin’?” She steps forward, puts her arms round me, and gently pulls my temple down on to her shoulder.
“Oh, Gran. Gran.” I wasn’t before, but I’m crying again now.
“Wheesht, lassie. Wheesht. It’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”