Kirsty Wark is often seen on our screens fronting Newsnight, a programme driven by serious factual reporting, but readers know that Wark is not averse to making things up, too, as the author of two works of fiction with a third in the offing. Hannah Piercy was at Durham Book Festival to hear how she navigates the lines between fact and fakery, past and present, and journalism and novel-writing.
How important is place to a novel? For Kirsty Wark, broadcaster and novelist, it is vital. Wark’s new book The House by the Loch could, she claims, only be set in Galloway. Dumfries and Galloway is an area of great personal importance to Wark (she was born in Dumfries), but The House by the Loch is historical fiction set at a distance from her own life. The significance of the Galloway setting is not its emotional importance for Wark: she chose this setting because this is where she thought it was plausible for a story like that of The House by the Loch to take place.
As Wark spoke to a packed audience at the Gala Theatre, what became evident was her focus on history within her writing. For Wark, her stories often start with historical truth. For example, the accident with which The House by the Loch opens is based on a real incident where a Spitfire crashed while training over Loch Doon in Galloway. Wark’s preoccupation with history and her anxiety about ‘fake news’ extends so far that sometimes she has to be reminded that she can, as a writer, make things up. Laughing, she spoke of her frustration at needing another settlement on Loch Doon for her novel, until her agent pointed out that, as a writer, she could invent one if she needed it!
While place and incident may be based upon historical fact, however, character is where Wark’s historical research turns into historical fiction: she is keen to assert that most of the characters in this novel are not drawn from real life. The chair, Jacqui Hodgson, proposed that Wark is quite tough on her characters: none are allowed a free pass, Wark agreed, but in The House by the Loch some turned out to be more likeable than she expected.
Wark writes about some big themes in The House by the Loch and her first novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle: trauma, family, guilt, alcoholism, agoraphobia, and gender, to name a few. She tries to approach these issues with honesty and empathy, she says, refusing to shy away from depicting the effects of these issues on other people, but also trying to be compassionate in describing the experiences of individuals with difficult problems.
Wark believes her journalistic training and career have helped her in this approach. As a journalist, she says, she has always felt it is important not to over-emote, as the tragedies you are describing are not your own. She is uncomfortable with journalism that tries to co-opt personal tragedy in this way, and aims to take the same detached but quietly empathetic approach to her characters as she would in an interview setting.
When questions were opened to the audience, several people were keen to ask about the relationship between Wark’s career in the BBC and her creative writing. One audience member wanted to know if there were any subjects Wark would avoid in her writing in order not to impinge on her job at the BBC, mentioning the recent race row as one possible such subject. While Wark was clear in asserting her position on racism, saying for her you have to be anti-racist rather than just not racist, she also felt that this was not her story to tell, and as such it is a subject she probably will not write about – at least for the moment.
For her, the real question, she says, is whether she will ever write a contemporary novel. Both of her previous novels, and her forthcoming third book, which she has already begun work on, are historical fiction. She is tempted to write a contemporary novel, she says, partly because she is drawn to the hypocrisy of the way we live now. As an example of this, she cites the environmental impact necessitated by her career, demonstrating that she is not afraid to turn a critical eye upon herself. However, as minded as she might be to address the problems of modern life through her fiction, what she will write in her potential fourth book remains a mystery for now.
At present, however, Wark is hard at work on what will be her third novel. This will maintain both the multigenerational time-span and Scottish settings of her previous books: she reveals it will start with the Great Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888, but she is reluctant to say too much because the novel is in its early stages. If the audience at this Durham Book Festival event are anything to go by, her third novel will be eagerly awaited and warmly received when it is published.
Kirsty Wark’s novel The House by the Loch is published by Two Roads.