Published: 10/08/2014 10:56 - Updated: 08/08/2014 11:22

Simon finds his writing stride with island thriller

Simon Sylvester
Simon Sylvester

THE Hebridean island of Bancree might only exist in the imagination, but if anyone from the Inverness area or Perthshire or some more solid islands could pay it a visit, they might find it a little familiar.

That is because author Simon Sylvester has drawn on his own background growing up in Inverness and memories of other parts of Scotland to create Bancree, the setting of his debut novel The Visitors.

"The original idea came to me almost fully formed when I was on holiday in Kintyre peninsula and I would have set it there, but I wanted it to be set on an island," Sylvester, who now lives in Cumbria, explained.

"We went on a day trip to Gigha, which was too small, then we went to Islay and that was starting to feel good, but I remembered going to Iona as a kid and even walking the dog around the plantations up at Culloden and all of a sudden I found myself cherry-picking bits of Scotland and it became all of these things put together.

"Where we were in Wester Inshes I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window and that landscape is very much built into the book. It’s also more than that as well.

"It’s the feeling I had as a teenager not being able to get into the Railway Club when Belle and Sebastian came — that sense of wanting to be away and wanting something bigger, then at the same time coming to realise that what you have got in rural places is really special."

So firmly fixed is Bancree in his imagination that Sylvester says he knows exactly what the island looks like.

"Where I would struggle is to identify it on a map in relation to the rest of the Hebrides. In that respect, was playing fast and loose with the geography, but in terms of the shape of the island, I feel I could drive round it. I know exactly what that’s like."


It could be argued that Sylvester faced a bigger imaginative leap than creating a new island in telling the story from the viewpoint of 17-year old Flora, who sets out to investigate a string of disappearances from her island.

"That’s a strange one. In about three-quarters of my stories I write female characters in the first person. I knew instinctively, when I thought of the story, that it was a teenage girl who was telling it," he said.

"It’s one of those things. When I think of stories, they tend to be women’s stories. I think part of that is that I’m a white man approaching middle-age and there are a lot of stories written from that perspective.

"Obviously my wife is female, my agent is female, my publicist is female — a lot of women have read the book. My wife, Monica, was most useful in the first instance because I didn’t know anything about fashion sense in teenage girls and she’d tell me that no teenage girl would wear that kind of jumper with those trousers — things like that.

"I also knew that I wanted to make it a mystery. It’s my first published book, but my third attempt at a novel and the first two were quite difficult and obscure stories. I think I felt that by making them serious, I was making them important. That’s not how I write any more and I knew with The Visitors that I wanted to take people on a bit of an adventure."

With the story coming into his head almost fully formed, writing came easy to Sylvester, at one point bashing out 11,000 words in a 14 hour period.

"The more time I spent with the characters, the more they felt real to me and I found them evolving. It was almost like they had taken the burden of writing away from me," he said.

"It’s almost as though the characters know what they are going to do and you just go with them."

His next book set in the English lowlands, but Sylvester promises he will return to writing about the Highlands.

"My next book after that is probably going to be set in Ullapool about a lady in an old folk’s home realising that an incident in her youth was solved incorrectly and setting out to put it right," he said.

"I like writers like Neil Gaiman who have strange things happening in the real world just out of the corner of your eye and I think that’s a direction I would like to go in for the future."

The Visitors by Simon Sylvester is published by Quercus Books, priced £16.99 hardback and £10.99 ebook.

The book has been shortlisted for The Guardian's Not The Booker Prize alongside another former Inverness resident Tony Black with his book The Last Tiger.

For more information on Not The Booker, click here:

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