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Writer, journalist and Reporting Scotland newsreader Sally Magnusson talked about her books at the last author talk in the St Duthac Book and Arts Festival programme


By Margaret Chrystall

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REVIEW: Sally Magnusson

Carnegie Lodge Hotel, Tain

St Duthac Book and Arts Festival

Early in her talk to a packed crowd on Monday night in Tain, BBC newsreader and writer Sally Magnusson revealed that the first St Duthac Book and Arts Festival should have been her first book festival too.

But postponed from March to September, the St Duthac event had apparently lost out to another festival in Richmond, Yorkshire which she had attended first.

And this wasn’t Sally’s first trip to Tain, either, she told Stuart Fernie who had introduced her.

Sally Magnusson was introduced by Stuart Fernie at St Duthac Book and Arts Festival last Monday. Picture: Mark Janes
Sally Magnusson was introduced by Stuart Fernie at St Duthac Book and Arts Festival last Monday. Picture: Mark Janes

“I came here not long before the first lockdown and was also visiting Ardgay and Bonar Bridge doing research for my next novel. Not long after that I got your book festival invitation and I think book festivals are so important and bookshops and I thought ‘Great, a chance to come back to Tain!’.

"But I’ve got the same feeling here I had in Richmond – isn’t it lovely to be beside each other again in a community?”

Sally’s latest book is The Ninth Child, another novel after The Sealwoman’s Gift which was her first fiction after writing her moving account of her late mother Marnie’s dementia Where Memories Go – Sally’s experience of looking after her leading to a legacy where music is used to reach and help dementia sufferers.

Sally founded the charity Playlist For Life in 2013 which works to share the power of music to bring pleasure and soothe sufferers and their families. The idea is the charity wants everyone with dementia to have a unique, personal playlist and everyone who loves or cares for them to know how to use it.

A journalist’s idealism shone out when Stuart asked Sally what the highlights of her broadcasting career might be. They included looking into and writing about a method, the Buteyko, to ease asthma symptoms.

“I still have people coming up to me saying ‘I tried it and haven’t had to use an inhaler since’. Or heading to Africa when she presented Songs Of Praise and getting to meet Desmond Tutu. Or heading to Bangladesh to feature the man who had pioneered micro-banking, lending small sums of money to help small enterprises, usually set up by women – an idea it was hoped to bring to Glasgow.

And when Sally was asked if her five children were following her into writing and journalism, the writer described how one of her sons with dyslexia had drawn cartoons to help remember information for his exams and now runs his own comic company doing the same for others.

But if trying to help others has been inherited by the next generation, it’s easy to see why writing and journalism – which have ended up as parallel careers for her, she agreed with Stuart – might have seemed an obvious move for the young Sally, inheriting her parents interest in writing.

“Storytelling was been part of my life for such a long time,” she told the audience.

“Both my parents were journalists, my mother slightly senior to my father at the Scottish Daily Express.

“I grew up to the clacking of typewriters. And my father [the broadcaster Magnus Magnusson] was an Icelander and he was translating the sagas too.

“The whole idea of making stories and using stories to communicate was there from the beginning."

But for Sally, letting go of the research and scrupulous truth-telling that goes into non-fiction books, hadn't been easy, she revealed.

After the book about her mother's dementia, her publisher had asked: "What do you want to write next?"

Sally talked about a book she was reading about a true story where 400 Icelanders were kidnapped by Algerian pirates in the 17th century and were taken back there as slaves.

“I wanted to tell their story," Sally said. “And my publisher said ‘Tell it!’, but I didn't want to spend a year in a library in Istanbul researching it. So my publisher said: “Write it as a fiction."

But Sally didn’t find it easy to write fiction at first.

“For too long, I’d been a reporter. And I wrote the first draft as if I was seeking the approval of an Icelandic professor!” she laughed.

“It was just reportage and that is not what a good novel is.

“For me, it meant setting aside the research and forgetting I am a journalist. For me, the telling moment came when I got to the end of the book and I realised the end was flat.

“And I started it again!

“I had a mental image of me at the top of a tree and flying off it. Nothing to do with Reporting Scotland or truth-telling.

“Then, once again, the book began to flow.”

For her latest book, The Ninth Child, Sally has challenged herself to bring a series of random elements and characters together.

“I wanted to explore different voices. I had the voice of Robert Kirk, a minister from Aberfoyle, a great historical figure who found out about old Celtic beliefs and was rumoured to have been stolen by the fairies.”

Other characters in the book include the wife of a navvy building Loch Katrine Waterworks, that was to provide water for Glasgow, and Isobel Aird, the wife of a doctor sent to take care of all the navvies building the waterworks. And Queen Victoria is also in the book.

“It was a bit of a challenge to make a story about an engineering project interesting, but I had become entranced by the story of Robert Kirk.

“So I started with these completely different things!”

Talking about the book she is working on next, Sally outlined an important event when an act of violence – and it’s future consequences – sound as if they might prove central.

And where might that take place?

Tain.

MC

I watched Sally's event remotely online.

More on Sally's books: www.sallymagnusson.com

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