Marsali Taylor will be a familiar name to Mystery People members. Until last year she was a regular contributor to this newsletter, with vivid descriptions of her daily life in the UK’s northernmost reaches, the Shetland islands, where she has lived most of her adult life with her composer husband Philip, three spoiled cats and a wilful Shetland pony. Although not a native Shetlander – she was brought up in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh – she has been an integral part of the island community since she moved there to take up her first teaching post after reading English at Dundee University, followed by teacher training at Craiglockhart College, Edinburgh. Sailing is as much a part of Marsali’s life as of Cass’s; like many Shetlanders, she has her own yacht, Karima, and has made voyages on the longship Sørlandet as a trainee. And if you believe her popular crime fiction series featuring sailor Cass Lynch and her police detective boyfriend Gavin Mccrae, Shetland is a dangerous place to live!
Lynne: Thank you, Marsali, for taking time out of your very busy life for this interview, especially when you have the extra work involved in the run-up to publication of a new novel. I’m interested to know how the past year or so has panned out you. Has Covid taken over the lives of Shetlanders as it has in most of the UK? How has your own life changed? Has it given you more time for writing, or has it got in the way?Marsali: Like many writers, I did find it difficult to stay focused on writing while the world changed around us, and it became harder with each successive lockdown, as the collateral damage grew, and the likelihood of getting ‘normal’ back diminished. Brexit didn’t help. I’d struggled with The Shetland Sea Murders anyway, just because of feeling so dreadful, and it needed a serious rewrite. I was very glad to get it finished. After that, and a summer spent messing about in boats, I launched straight into the next book, and enjoyed writing it hugely. It stars young people, led by Cass’s friend Inga’s children, teenager Vaila, her sister Dawn and of course the indomitable Peerie Charlie – you can tell I was missing my grandchildren! I did have more time to write in the evenings, as our usual village panto had to be postponed. It’s still not happening, but we’re talking, tentatively, of a Christmas variety show – basically, bits of panto, like the slapstick scene and the lovey-duet, without worrying about the plot – stuff which can be rehearsed in small groups. Over last winter our drama group did play-reading evenings on Zoom, and our readers’ and writers’ groups kept going on Zoom too – we’ve only recently had our first ‘live’ meeting, and oh, it was good to see everyone face to face again.
Lynne: Plays, journalism, novels: you’ve been writing in one form or another since you could lift a pencil. If you had to choose one and abandon the others, which would it be?
Lynne: Why choose crime as your main fiction genre?
Marsali: Two reasons: the first, that I love puzzles and was hooked on Golden Age detection from my teens, and secondly, rather prosaically, after two unwanted eighteenth-century romances, that crime seemed to be what would sell.
Lynne: Your first Cass Lynch novel was published nine years ago – but overnight success is rare among writers. Had Cass been part of your life for a while before that?
Marsali: No. I’d written a series of three Shetland-set crime novels, narrated alternately by a great-aunt, Tess, and her student great-niece, Verity. Tess is the person who’s an entrenched part of her small community, and Verity comes up to get over a failed love-affair, and plays detective instead, in among sailing Tess’s boat and attending the local regatta. I had a lot of fun writing them, but my agent, Teresa Chris, reckoned that she wasn’t selling them because they were too cosy. She suggested something a bit darker, which is where the idea of a loner heroine with a death in her past came in. Verity is a sort of younger proto-Cass but they’re quite different characters; I suspect if the body in Death on a Longship had been on someone else’s foredeck Cass would have been happy to walk away from it, whereas Verity would have been in there, like a natural mongoose.
Lynne: Did you always intend that first novel to be part of a series?
Marsali: Yes. “Has it got legs?’ my agent asked, when I described my idea to her. Series are what publishers want – though it’s planned book by book, rather than as an overall story. I really don’t know how Cass and Gavin will work out!
Lynne: Would you ever write about a different main character?
Marsali: I’ve had fun creating other characters in short stories and using third-person as well as first-person narrative. I wrote a Norse-era novella, Footsteps in the Dew, where the main character was a teenage girl,
Rannveig, the eldest daughter of a soapstone carver and, with her mother dead, the lynch-pin of a lively family. I’d love to write a full-length novel about them. I’d also like to write about Rupert, Prince Palatine, Cavalier general, sea captain, scientist, painter, linguist and, in his fifties, lover of one of England’s first actresses. I wrote half a dozen short stories using him as a narrator, to explore his character as it was formed by his early life and experiences, including three years as a prisoner of war. Other starts include a WWI woman ambulance driver, based on the diaries of my intrepid Aunt Ysabel, which I published as Forgotten Heroines, and a suffragette on the run from the police. Ah, if only every day was ten hours longer...
Lynne: What kind of writer are you? Are you organized, methodical, with everything planned out before you start the actual writing – or do you just put fingers to keyboard and see what happens?
Marsali: Half and half. I’m keen on structuring a book, and that often happens first. Death on a Shetland Isle, for example, is based on the Viking game Hnafatafl, where the king (= the murderer) has to try and escape, and the attackers (= Gavin, Cass and allies) have to surround him. Each section has two moves from each side, so that helped me think what I needed to happen next. Death from a Shetland Cliff is a sailing race, winner takes all, so I knew that in the middle of the sections which represented the upwind leg, there would be a total change of direction, whereas in the downwind legs Cass would be following the same suspect or action throughout the section. I spend a good deal of time beforehand creating my characters, know roughly who’s going to murder who, and then, well, wind them up and see what happens.
Lynne: You balance the sailing background with the mystery with great skill, but I’m sure you envisage a wider readership than seafaring folk. Who is the reader you imagine picking up your books in the local bookshop?
Marsali: Do you know, I’d never really thought about that! I”m just delighted that my books are enjoyed by such a range of folk here in Shetland, from retired folk, both male and female, down to teenagers. To be “Shetland’s most borrowed” in our Library ratings is a huge honour.
Lynne: It’s very clear indeed that Cass Lynch’s adventures are set against the background of your own experience. And you play an active role in day-to-day life in Shetland. Between that and your recent health issues, I wonder you still have time to produce a novel a year. How do you fit it all in? Does the familiarity of the setting mean you don’t need to spend time on research?Marsali: My favourite ‘scheduling’ got a bit put out with that last bout of illness, but what I have done, and got back to last year, is to spend the summer messing about in boats and thinking up a plot, then settling down to serious planning in September as the winds get stronger and the evenings darker, and beginning to write in October. With luck the first draft is finished by spring, and then I can redraft (twice at least before it goes to my agent) before the summer hits. I work best first thing, so I do a solid two hours at my desk from 9 to 11, and then go back in the afternoon and again in the evening. I still need an afternoon lie-down (the cats insist on it) and I can’t do late bedtimes, but if it’s all flowing well. I can manage 1000-1500 words a day. I keep up the morning session even in summer, but after that the water calls me. Life is far too full of interesting things to spend at a desk. For research, yes, I do need to. Each book is set at a very specific time of the year, so I spend that fortnight taking notes: the colours of the hill, the weather, the birds and flowers that are around. Otherwise, when I’m writing in my sleeping bag in the hert-hol o’ winter, with Miss Matty keeping my lap warm and a freezing draught creeping around my legs, I forget what it was like in May with the sky blue and the sea dancing. I also need to visit the place it’s set, searching for ideas, so that’s a fun day out with Philip – we take a picnic and explore, and I think of ways Cass could get into trouble here.
Lynne: Some writers love research, hate writing; others prefer the redrafting and editing. What is your favourite part of the process of getting a new novel to the publication stage?Marsali: The redrafting, definitely. The writing is exciting, getting the story out, and as I’m writing some of the big action scenes it feels like an acting job (Philip says I”m bolshier in winter when I’m “being Cass”) but it feels so good when the complete story’s finally in the bag, and I can go back and add the brilliant ideas I had as I was writing. During the first writing, I print out as I finish each chapter, so that I can flick back easily and scribble things like ‘have Cass spot footprint here’ at the top of a page; then I go back and revise, and once that revision’s finished I put it into the Kindle to read it as a reader would. I do another broad revision, then a fussy one, checking spelling and sorting out repeated words and phrases. Only then does it go to my agent, who will suggest more changes, and finally to Headline, where I”m lucky to have a fantastic editor, Celine, who is a wizard at spotting inconsistencies and weak places. I really enjoy getting such helpful feedback. As a teacher I was one of a team, and it’s good to get each book to the stage where it’s a team effort again.
Lynne: Writing a series, especially one that’s set somewhere with such a low crime rate, can mean it’s hard to find new crimes for your protagonist to be involved in. Is that why you decided the novels would move between the islands and Cass’s training ship, the Sørlandet?Marsali: That was part of the reason, but the Shetland background is so central a part of the series’s selling pitch that I had to give up the idea of letting her get involved in crimes elsewhere. However, she’s in line for a job aboard the Swan, which will keep her within Shetland. I do agree that between Ann Cleeves and me, the Shetland crime rate has rocketed well beyond plausibility, but then so has Edinburgh’s with Ian Rankin, and Inverness’s, andAberdeen’s, and ... well, everywhere. It’s what we crime writers do, and the reader accepts it. It is hard to keep Cass plausibly involved every time (her personal body-viewing count is getting as high as any forensic pathologist’s) and I did speak in one book about local folk beginning to see her as a kind of Typhoid Mary, but I think I can’t press that one. I hope the reader will just go on accepting it. With Gavin moving up to work in Shetland, she’ll be in contact with the kind of crimes that she might not otherwise meet. If ever I feel short of crimes, I just need to read the Shetland Times, our local weekly paper, which has plenty of interesting skulduggery going on, and themes for a novel: the rising need for food banks in our prosperous community, the position of women, fights between local and foreign fishermen, someone vandalising boats by sinking them... now if I was to use that one, and Cass’s Khalida was damaged (I couldn’t bear to sink her!) Cass’d be chief suspect if the perp’s body turned up.
Lynne: A new book is a very special thing, more so when it has your name on the cover. How does it feel when the postman delivers that box of first copies? Do you ever re-read the books?
Marsali: It still feels fantastic. I’ve read the text till I could practically recite it, and seen the cover, but actually having it in my hands is so special. Re-reading ... I’m rather scared to, in case I spot dozens of things that I want to alter, but I did re-read the first four reasonably recently, and was pleasurably surprised.
Lynne: At first glance, your new novel, The Shetland Sea Murders, appears to be a kind of hybrid of the
Marsali: In this novel, Cass is giving a hand for a weekend on board Shetland’s Swan, a converted historic fishing boat skippered by her retired fisherman friend, Magnie. It’s a charter birthday trip on a golden October weekend, round the ‘west corner’ islands of Vementry, Papa Stour and Foula. The guests aboard have various links with Papa, and Cass returns there to help investigate. My particular structure for this one was the history of women’s suffrage, and each section is based around the things women fought for: child custody, women officials, women’s education, violence against women, etc.
Lynne: Finally – much as I’d like to see Cass make a go of it with her lovely policeman Gavin, please say you don’t have plans to make them settle down and not solve any more crimes! At least, not for a while yet.
Marsali: I have absolutely no plans for making them stop solving crimes – I’ve already started work on the next book, provisionally entitled Death under a Shetland Moon, and bringing in the Book of the Black Arts, a fabled book which gave you everything you wanted, but if you died with it in your possession, the devil took your soul. You couldn’t give it away, and in some versions of the story, you could only sell it for less than you paid for it, or for one coin. If you threw it into the sea to get rid of it, it just reappeared on your mantelpiece, and the man who had the clever idea of lending it to a friend, so that neither of them owned it, well, he was met on the way home by a snarling black creature with glowing red eyes, who held the book out to him. He stumbled home and died of fright the next day, and that’s what’s on his death certificate. According to our wonderful Shetland Archives, it was last heard of in Yell, an island that hasn’t had a Cass visitation yet, buried in the kirkyard with a Bible on top of it. But suppose someone dug it up and used it...? Now there’s a story to run with!
Lynne: Thank you for taking the time for this. The best of luck with The Shetland Sea Murders. I’m really looking forward to reading it.
Marsali: Thank you! I haven’t mentioned how much I’ve missed live crime festivals, but it makes me feel like a proper author to be interviewed again.
has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.