Barbara Henderson was born in Germany and has lived in Scotland for 30 years. She's now based in Inverness where she splits her time between teaching drama, writing, and author events at schools and festivals. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels for children and won the prestigious Young Quills Award in 2021 for The Siege of Caerlaverock and in 2022 for The Chessmen Thief. Her only book for adults, Scottish by Inclination, is a non-fiction title celebrating EU immigration to Scotland.
LGT: Hi Barbara, the last time we spoke on the Smorgasbord in 2017 your debut novel Fir for Luck had just come out. Quite a lot has happened since then, would you like to give us a quick recap?
BH: I have reduced my teaching time to two days a week and have kept writing! I feel very fortunate that I have continued to have books published with Cranachan, my main publishers, and also with Luath Press. It’s important to be honest: I still get rejections and not everything I write gets taken on. But I am delighted, that for the time being at least, things are working out well. I also write a fortnightly book column in local newspapers. Oh, and I now have an agent down south – although I still deal with my existing publishers directly up here.
LGT: What have you learned about writing since we last spoke?
BH: That it’s best not to fight the way things are going. Fir for Luck was a historical book, so I was a ‘historical writer overnight. I went with the flow for a bit before managing to get my eco book Wilderness Wars taken on too. Most of my money comes from school events and festivals, so when the lockdowns happened, I pitched a book about EU immigrants to Scotland to a publisher. They wanted an autobiography strand. I wasn’t at all convinced, but I had a go and Scottish by Inclination is the result – and Creative Scotland funding for the project meant I could pay myself a small wage when events weren’t happening. I have projects I want to do, but I think it’s important to be open to the opportunities which present themselves too.
LGT: How would you describe your style of writing?
BH: Present tense, immediate, actions and cliffhangers. Usually inspired by history or the environment in some way, often both!
LGT: Are there any historical periods you are interested in but haven’t yet explored? Any favourite periods?
BH: Many! I’d love to tackle something around St Columba, for example – but I particularly love the Middle Ages, and the Victorians had such a sense of momentum, with fast changes in the world they knew.
LGT: What does literary success look like to you?
BH: Having the next book out. And then the next. As long as I can write books and do events, I’m happy!
LGT: What are you working on now?
BH: Editing a Victorian book about a boy involved in building the Forth Bridge. It’ll be out in February. I’m also halfway into a book about Mary Queen of Scots and have begun a series for younger readers set in Elizabethan London.
LGT: What advice would you give to your younger self?
BH: Start writing seriously much, much, MUCH earlier! Turns out being a writer is actually possible.
LGT: If there was one person (contemporary or historical) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
BH: I love stories, history and the theatre. Probably Robert Louis Stevenson – it would be a dreich winter day in Edinburgh. We’d walk around with him telling me atmospheric stories. We’d grab a drink at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern (the red leather seats upstairs would still exist and it would be all but empty as the sleet soaks the cobblestones of the Royal Mile) and we’d finish with an evening at the theatre.
LGT: Now for the name game.
Name three authors who inspire you:
BH: Ally Sherrick, Catherine Randall, Jenny Robertson.
LGT: Three books that stunned you when you first read them (hallelujah moments):
BH: On Writing (Stephen King), The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, The Executioner’s Daughter (Jane Hardstaff).
LGT: Three favourite books not included above:
BH: The Bible, The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (RL Stevenson), The Beast on the Broch (John K Fulton).
LGT: Three favourite films:
BH: Dead Poets’ Society, Awakenings, Charing Cross Road.
LGT: Three recurring songs on your playlist:
BH: Anything by Emily Smith, The River by Springsteen, Movies by the Hothouse Flowers.
LGT: Any final words of wisdom?
BH: Change it up. And always, always have a go – what’s the worst that can happen?
LG Thomson is the author of seven novels, including Boyle’s Law, a noir thriller set in the Highlands. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of anthologies and literary publications including Wyldblood Magazine, Epoch Press, and Art North. Her latest book, Modernist Dreams Brutalist Nightmares, is a narrative memoir about being part of the first generation to grow up in Scotland’s most ambitious New Town. It will be published by Outcast Press in fall 2022. Find out more here.