An interview with award winning author Sue Peebles
The Arbroath-born author talks about success, psychology and inspiration
This article is from 2013.
Sue Peebles was born in Arbroath in 1955 and spent some of her childhood in Detroit before returning to Scotland, where she now lives. Since graduating in psychology, she has worked as a social worker and university lecturer. Her debut novel, The Death Of Lomond Friel, which explored the aftermath of a father’s stroke, won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Book Award and was shortlisted for the Scottish Book of the Year. Her latest novel, Snake Road (Chatto and Windus) is a tender, sharp and moving portrayal of a young woman’s need to uncover the true history of her family. Told through the unflinching eye of Aggie, it explores the effect of memory on our identity, and whether memories can ever be a true reflection of the past or only reconstructions of imagined events.
After the success of your first novel, did you feel any pressure when you began Snake Road?
I began writing Snake Road before my first novel was published. At that time I had no idea how The Death Of Lomond Friel would be received – I just wanted to keep writing while the going was good.
I am now aware of a certain expectation, although there is no force bearing down on me other than my own desire to write a good book. I always have my best book just ahead of me, dangling at my point of optimum visual acuity like a carrot on a stick (or something tastier like a Yum Yum).
The Death Of Lomond Friel and Snake Road both explore the importance of memory in constructing personality. What impact has your background in psychology had on your writing?
A significant impact I’d say, not only in terms of informing character in fiction, but in the way I construe meaning. Being interested in the way the mind works is an essential curiosity when you are creating a world populated by imaginary people.
Not only do you explore the effect of dementia on an individual, but also the impact of the disease on those in close proximity. Why did you choose dementia in particular, and how did you go about researching the illness?
The research for Snake Road was as diverse as for any novel (it included fruit growing, lambing techniques, psychiatry in the 1930s, and the particular qualities of the dress Ginger Rogers wore in Lady In The Dark), but in relation to dementia I already had much to draw from. The illness has impacted my life for a very long time, both personally and professionally.
My grandfather, Willie Melvin, was my hero. In the 1980s he developed Alzheimer’s and, despite the wealth of good intentions, his care was at best clumsy and ill-informed. Although we have come a long way since then in terms of our understanding, we are still struggling to empathize.
One of the relationships that interested me the most was the one between Aggie and her mother. Did you know that you wanted to explore a mother-daughter relationship before you began writing or did this evolve naturally?
Both. Things did evolve but I also wanted to try and capture the contradictions and frustrations that often define mother-daughter relationships. Aggie and Mary are under tremendous strain – they want more from each other but struggle to express how they feel, a familiar dynamic I think. My feelings for Mary grew as the story unfolded.
While I certainly don’t draw wholesale from people I know, my experience as a social worker has informed my writing and means I can smell a stereotype from far off (it is that stench that rises from the asinine stuff we use to fill in the gaps in our knowledge).
Were there any particular books you read which informed or inspired Snake Road?
Every book that has, sentence by sentence, left me gasping.
Some inspirations endure – the melancholic wit of Lorrie Moore for instance, the clarity and wisdom of Alice Munro, the poignant observation of J G Farrell. In particular, I have long been inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s subtle depictions of non-conformity.
Beyond fiction, I have been greatly influenced by the work of the late Professor Tom Kitwood, a pioneer in dementia care whose remarkable insights brought me closer to understanding what it is to be human. I had the privilege of meeting him in the 1990s; he was a true inspiration and, in one sense, having lost one hero, I found another. Come to think of it, perhaps the book is a kind of atonement for what happened to my grandfather?
Snake Road is out in August 2013, published by Chatto and Windus.