Perth as a cultural hub is full of great writers and a great heritage of storytelling. One such storyteller is Perth Pioneer Helen Grant, a highly successful author who lives in Crieff. Helen has written a number of young adult fiction books, often taking her inspiration from the Perthshire countryside around her. We’ve been chatting to her about her books and how much the City of Perth plays a part in her work. “I’m a writer; I’ve had six young adult novels published by Penguin Random House, the first in 2009. I’d describe them as Gothic Thrillers – I also write ghost stories for grown-ups too!
“I’ve led a bit of a nomadic life. I met my husband while we were both working in London, and since then we have lived in Spain, Germany and Flanders. We moved to Perthshire in 2011, where we do have some family roots in the area: my husband lived in Crieff as a baby, when his father was a young doctor working at a surgery in the town. I’ve seen his birth announcement in an old copy of the Strathearn Herald in a local library! I suppose we could have moved anywhere, but we wanted our two children to spend part of their childhood in Scotland.
“In my work, I’m very influenced by location. Nearly everything I have written has been inspired by actual places I have lived in or visited: my first three novels were set in Germany, the next three in Flanders, and I’ve set short stories in France, Slovakia and Turkey. For me, an interesting setting is like a stage set, waiting for the characters to walk on – for the drama to begin. It’s often the starting point for the narrative. One of my novels was inspired by a single moment standing at the foot of a 90-metre bell tower and thinking ‘wouldn’t it be horrible to fall from the top of that?’ I started to wonder how that might happen, and what someone might be doing up there in the first place, and the story just sprang from that.
“Since moving to Perthshire, I’ve begun to draw my inspiration from the natural and heritage environment here. One of my favourite places is the library in Innerpeffray, founded in 1680 by David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie. The library, which contains books from as far back as the 1400s, is housed in an 18th century building surrounded by open farmland. I fell in love with it the very first time I visited. It seems to sum up for me one of the things I love most about living in Perthshire: the fact that it is possible to have such a cultural jewel in this beautiful rural setting.
“In 2013, I was Innerpeffray’s ‘writer-in-residence’ for Hallowe’en. I spent the day in the upper reading room with its view out over the kirkyard, drawing inspiration from my surroundings. It wasn’t difficult to find. In that single day, I produced three interlocking ghost stories set in and around the library, which I read aloud by candlelight that evening. They were stories that could not have been set anywhere else.
“When I’m not writing, I love to explore old buildings and monuments. I’ve been to Elcho Castle and Huntingtower Castle, both on the outskirts of Perth. It’s important to me to touch the ancient stones and soak up the atmosphere of a place. I love the sense of so much history. A visit to one ruined church led to another ghostly tale, The Dove, which appeared in Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands. I find the ideas flow really well in wild and desolate places.
“Over the last two years, I’ve been working on a novel set in Perthshire. Perth itself is mentioned a few times! Like the ghost stories I’ve mentioned, the book could only really be set here. The story wouldn’t work at all if I tried to set it in Edinburgh or Glasgow. It needs the combination of urban and rural that is distinctively Perthshire. I guess you could say that is what it is about, really – the meeting of different things: the wild and the “civilised”; the modern and the historical. That contrast is the thing I love about living and working here.”
Helen is herself supporting our bid for City of Culture 2021. We asked her exactly why she thought about the rich and diverse culture Perth has to offer:
“For me, Perth is the perfect City of Culture. I’ve been to see a live performance of MacBeth here; I’ve been to see vintage films at the cinema, and listened to a concert in St. John’s Kirk; I’ve been to Perth Museum and Art Gallery to visit exhibitions which have been fascinating, moving and sometimes outright bizarre (I’m thinking here of a video of the woman in high heels treading on a strawberry gateau and baked beans and jelly – we must have watching that one half a dozen times!). I’ve walked around its historical castles and I’ve walked up Kinnoull Hill to admire the view from the Gothic folly. All these things are on offer within a stone’s throw of some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, and the wild places I need to inspire me.”
You can read more about Helen’s books at http://www.helengrantbooks.com/helen.php