There was quite a stir in the world of literature recently after a young writer’s debut novel, ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ prompted a bidding war between publishers and led to rave review in the national broadsheets and beyond after it went on sale last week.
Author Emma Healey’s main inspiration for her crime novel was her paternal grandmother who lived in Creetown and her desire to come to Wigtown’s September Book Festival connects Emma back to her solicitor grandfather Irvine McDavid, who was the town clerk there in the 1950s.
Emma is the daughter of Irvine’s son Jack, a journalist, and she grew up in London before graduating with an MA degree in Creative Writing and Prose from the University of East Anglia three years ago.
Twenty-eight year old Emma’s book was launched last week in a blaze of publicity but she took time out from a hectic round of promotions, TV and radio interviews and personal appearances to talk to Gazette reporter Louise Kerr about her memories of her Creetown family and her inspirational grandmother Nancy.
Emma said: “My dad was born in Creetown, where three generations of his family ran a tailoring and kiltmaking business. His father was a solicitor in Newton Stewart and town clerk of Wigtown from 1948 until his early death in 1962. My grandmother, Nancy, who provided the inspiration for the book, grew up in Castle Douglas, where her father and grandfather were master bakers. And in the present day, a great uncle is a retired bookseller and stalwart of the Galloway Preservation Society and a cousin is co-owner and general manager of the Selkirk Arms Hotel in Kirkcudbright.
“Nancy gave me the initial inspiration for the book when she was in the car with my father and me one day. She was showing the first signs of multi-infarct dementia – forgetting things that had just happened and finding herself in a muddle – and she was worrying aloud about a friend. Flora was missing, she said. She had tried phoning her, but had got no answer. It didn’t take very long to discover the solution as Nancy still had a lot of friends at the time and we soon got hold of someone who knew where Flora was (staying with her daughter in another town). So that was the end of the mystery, but the episode brought her situation into sharper focus for me, and as her dementia got worse I began to wonder what that was like from the inside. Fiction seemed like a good way of exploring some of the questions I had.
“My favourite memories of Creetown are from one beautiful sunny summer I spent there with my dad when I was 12. I particularly remember walking up the narrow road towards Gatehouse station, and, near the old lead mines, Dad stopped on a bridge that used to cross the railway at a spot known as Rory’s Cutting. He showed me the carving on the parapet of the bridge which he remembered from his childhood. It is a tiny depiction of Hitler in his coffin - which, as it was dated 1940, clearly suggested some wishful thinking on the part of the carver.
“That same summer I went to ‘help out’ with the fishing as two of my great-uncles were involved in commercial salmon fishing on the River Cree. I quickly got tired of the work though and wandered along the muddy banks, and I found a long bit of old twisted wood which I was convinced was an ancient fossilised tusk. I made my dad carry it to the car and drive it all the way back to London. It’s still in my mum’s garden, surrounded by alpine plants.”
Press reports suggested Emma received a six figure sum from the highest bidder after her book was previewed at last year’s London Book Fair but a modest Emma downplays the hyperbole surrounding her phenomenal talent.
“Ha ha! It wasn’t quite a million pounds”, she laughs, “I think the figure has been hugely exaggerated via Chinese Whispers. I am lucky enough now, though, to be in a position where I can write full time and I have been able to give up my ‘day job’.
“Having said that, I’m getting very little writing done at the moment. I’m due to visit a hundred bookshops throughout the UK in the next few months and I’m also giving lots of interviews and taking part in author events and book festivals. It’s very unexpected and quite strange, but also incredibly exciting. In some ways it’s exactly what you hope for as a writer and I’m so grateful to everyone for reading and responding to the novel.”
Having been invited to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, Emma is very keen to add Wigtown, with all its personal connections, to her itinerary.
“I’d really love to be a part of the Wigtown Book Festival and I hope very much to be invited to participate.”
When the Gazette asked the Wigtown Book Festival if that was a possibility, Festival Manager Anne Barclay
said an invitation had already been sent to Emma.