Acclaimed author, Dilys Rose’s brilliant third novel, Unspeakable, is a fictional account of the true story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man in the British Isles to be tried for blasphemy. Aikenhead was executed in Edinburgh in 1697. Here we talk to Dilys about this extraordinary historical novel.
What drew you to Thomas Aikenhead’s story?
I wanted to try to make sense of what happened to him. He was shopped by fellow students and forfeited his life for little more than a loose tongue. Thomas Aikenhead wasn’t trying to convert anybody. Unlike the principal witness, Mungo Craig, he wasn’t publishing pamphlets advocating his beliefs. Engaging in debate about matters of belief is something students of my generation did as a matter of course. Part of the draw was to challenge the status quo; part of was to test our powers of reasoning.
When fleshing out the figure of Thomas, was there any part of him you felt needed greater focus?
Facts about somebody’s life offer little to go on when it comes to building character. Given the brevity of Thomas’s life, I wouldn’t say his family life features heavily. He was barely an adult – indeed he claimed he had not reached majority – when he was sentenced.
Are there aspects of Unspeakable that we have encountered in your previous work? Do your protagonists share any similarities?
I really couldn’t say. If there is any similarity between protagonists – and others may be better placed to spot this – it is coincidental and unconscious.
What were the challenges of writing about a real-life event?
The obvious challenge was making it work as a story.
Writing historical fiction hasn’t featured in your fiction to date – what motivated the change of direction?
Thomas Aikenhead wouldn’t go away. I didn’t decide to write historical fiction.
And what did you enjoy most when writing about 17th Century Edinburgh?
Mooching about the city and trying to imagine how it operated at the time.
What challenges does historical fiction bring to the writer?
You can’t visit the 17th century. You can’t take in the sights, sounds and smells of the city, though given how stinky Edinburgh must have been then, perhaps that’s no bad thing. It takes quite a leap of the imagination to realise the period. I found the research fascinating but highly seductive: you open one door and find another dozen behind it, beckoning – Sin in the City? The Social Life of Coffee? It’s not just the many differences in the stuff of life you need to factor in but also the belief systems and, of course, the language.
What do you think the Scots brings to the novel?
I first tried the dialogue in English and it just didn’t feel right. I’m not saying that the Scots I’m using is ‘true’ to the period. I spent a lot of time checking for anachronisms but ultimately made the decision to go with a version of Scots that sounded right to me and is, I hope, fairly accessible. It’s possible that how people spoke at that time would be unfathomable to a 21st century reader. Fictional dialogue is always a construct and we have little idea how people spoke in late 17th century Scotland, even if we have records of how they wrote.
Is there a character or voice you particularly enjoyed writing?
Pitcairne’s insouciance was fun to write.
Unspeakable’s themes of religious oppression, intolerance and fear transcend the novel’s period of history. Were current events present in your mind?
I began the groundwork on this nearly ten years ago and contemporary parallels have been disturbingly present throughout the process.
You’ve written drama, poetry and prose and, recently, libretti. Does one form leak into another or do they stay separate in your head?
The word ‘leak’ suggests to me that something isn’t working very well! Overlap, or cross-fertilisation is natural. If work comes from the same source it would be odd if there weren’t some connection between material in different forms.
What have been the challenges and rewards of teaching creative writing?
The main challenge has been finding time to write as well as to do the day job properly and teaching takes a good deal of creative energy. On top of this, teaching can take second place to admin. It is rewarding to see writers develop and come into their own – and I don’t just mean those who end up as published writers. Writing can be a lonely business and I have been fortunate to have worked alongside some wonderful colleagues.
What’s your favourite part of the writing process?
I’m not a planner and don’t have a favourite part of the process. There are good moments, when I feel I’m making progress in the drafting and editing process, and not so good moments, when I can’t decide on the best way forward. Seeing the finished product can feel oddly anticlimactic. When the book is done, it no longer feels as if it belongs to me.
Do you know what you would like to write next?
I’m working on a couple of stories to add to a collection. After that, I have an idea of what I want to write but it’s too early to talk about it.
Unspeakable is published on the 9th March 2017. Dilys Rose will be appearing at Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival on Sunday 12th March at 6.30pm / tickets £6 Book here
For more information about Unspeakable click here