Writing Nature Memoir With Merryn Glover

How can we bring a place alive in our writing? How can we tackle the challenges of writing different types of books at different times in our writing career? Merryn Glover talks about her experience in this episode.

In the intro, Kobo launches Kobo Plus in the US and UK; Amazon is closing Book Depository; Amazon layoffs in devices and books; end of Kindle newsstand; Moonshots and Mindsets with Emad Mostaque; Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation by Kevin Roose.

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Merryn Glover is the award-winning author of historical fiction and narrative nonfiction nature books, as well as writing plays and radio drama. Her latest book is The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Writing a book based on someone else’s work
  • How Nan Shepherd’s books started in obscurity and later became well-known
  • Hallmarks of the nature writing genre
  • Legality of using someone else’s name and works in your novel, copyright, and permissions needed
  • The process of writing a sense of place
  • Radio drama and dramatic adaptations of written works
  • How to deal with a failed publisher

You can find Merryn at MerrynGlover.com or on Twitter @MerrynGlover

Transcript of Interview with Merryn Glover

Joanna: Merryn Glover is the award-winning author of historical fiction and narrative nonfiction nature books, as well as writing plays and radio drama. Her latest book is The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd. So welcome to the show, Merryn.

Merryn: Thank you, Joanna. It’s just a real joy to be here to chat with you today.

Joanna: This is a fascinating topic. But first up—

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing and publishing.

Merryn: Well, like probably most of your listeners, I have loved words since I was very little. I love books, reading. I grew up in South Asia, and Nepal, and India, and Pakistan. My parents were working in linguistics and literacy, so being surrounded by other languages all the time, I guess that really added to the sense of love of words and communication and language.

I was always talking to myself as a child. And I think as I’ve grown up and become a writer, it’s just the adult version of talking to yourself in lots of ways. I wanted more siblings, I’m the youngest of two, and my parents didn’t comply. So I had to invent all of the other 10 children in my family to keep entertained.

So, I just always loved stories, but I’m also really fascinated by inhabiting experiences beyond my own. So I think that is a big part of where my writing has come from.

I went to university in Australia, and I did English drama and dance there. Part of the drama course there, we were always devising material, making up plays and shows and things like that. So in a sense, that kind of led to my first major piece of writing work, which was a stage play after I’d finished university.

But that actually came out of doing a lot of reminiscence work with elderly people living with dementia and capturing a lot of their life stories. That became the ground of this first play, because it was about a woman with dementia and her sister who cares for her. 

That was a stage play initially, but then it was adapted for BBC Radio Scotland. And so the plays that I went on to write after that were all radio plays. And so, that was kind of the first sort of major piece of writing that went out there. 

Then I did one of those correspondence courses in writing that you can get, shows how old I am because it was in the days when you literally had to type out your work and send it off to the tutor and then they would send it back. I was back working in Kathmandu at the time, so it was Air Mail. That would take weeks to hear back from the tutor. 

The early phases of that course were journalism. So then I had some little articles in The Guardian Weekly, Letter from Nepal and things like that, and a few other pieces of journalism that came out of doing that course. It was really valuable, but it also made me realize that what I loved writing was more imaginative material, was the stories, the stuff that I wanted to make up from my head. 

So that led to my next kind of major project, which was a series of short stories set in Nepal. Most of them have been as individuals, published in anthologies, or competitions or broadcast on the radio. And I think at some point, I would love to bring out the collection of that early set of stories.

So that was the early stages. And then I went on to write novels. And now it’s this nonfiction book, The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd.

Joanna: I love this. So you’re not sticking within a genre at all. You’ve basically done almost everything. I mean, that’s brilliant. Because look, to be honest, this is the creative process, right? It’s, I’m interested in this, I’m going to write this, and I’m going to see where it goes, and that it’s unfolded this way.

But tell us, why did you write The Hidden Fires? Because for me, it seems it’s related to the Nan Shepherd book, and some people might not have heard of her.

What drew you to Nan Shepherd? Why write a book that is based so much on someone else’s work?

Merryn: Sure. So I guess the simple first answer to the question is because my publisher of my last novel invited me to submit a proposal for this book.

So to fill in some background for the listeners, Nan Shepherd was an author from Aberdeen. She was publishing novels and poetry in the late 1920s, early 30s. She was a very recognized figure in the Scottish Literary Renaissance at the time, a modernist author. She was very well respected back then. Some of the reviews compared her with Virginia Woolf, she would be reviewed over in America as well as here. 

Then there was this period of a long time when she didn’t publish any more books and she kind of fell out of recognition beyond university literature departments.

But she’s most famous now for her nonfiction book, The Living Mountain, which is about the Cairngorm Mountains in the Highlands of Scotland. She’s been a hill walker and a lover of mountains since childhood, but she wrote most of that book during the Second World War.

 Then post war, she sent off one query letter to a publisher about it, who declined to even see the manuscript.

She put it away in a drawer for 30 years, and then eventually in 1977 when she was 84, she took it back out, reread it, and then she self-published it by paying for a print run of 3000 copies to Aberdeen University Press.

Because at the time, they were actually printers, rather than taking on publishing costs themselves.

So that’s something a lot of people don’t necessarily realize, is that she did actually self-publish it to begin with.

But she wasn’t very good at marketing and promotion, and by the time she died four years later, there were hundreds of copies still sitting in boxes. She probably had no premonition of what would become of them, because it’s now been translated into over 16 languages, sold millions of copies, and has spurned countless works in response, from academic papers, to art exhibitions, musical albums, dance productions, and of course, more books like mine.

So for me, I guess I responded to my publisher’s invitation initially by really thinking about it, because she’s so well respected internationally, but particularly in Scotland, like the Royal Bank of Scotland five-pound note has her face on it. You know, in a way, it’s kind of daunting to respond to somebody like her, to her writing, and particularly to such a well-loved and famous book.

I felt there was really an interesting vein there to follow, and that was the very unique way in which my life intersects with hers. In that we have some things in common, and we’re both women walking and riding in the Cairngorms area, which is where I now live.

We both loved mountains since childhood, but I come to these ones from a very different background because my childhood mountains were the Himalayas. And also I’m now writing 70 years later and a lot has changed in this area and also for women being in the outdoors.

So my book just charts very different routes into the same place and looks at the ways in which I, in contrast to her having been so earthed in this area in Aberdeenshire and then in the Cairngorms, how I also can come to this place and find a sense of home and a sense of belonging. And in her kind of kindred spirit across time, in what sort of emerged as a conversation between us. So it became a real sort of adventure in itself, to not just follow her, but to kind of talk with her across time.

Joanna: A couple of things to follow up on that. So first of all, you said she self-published at age 84, and then she died, and then the book got out there. So how did it get out there?

Was it a child or a relation who got it out there? Or was it just, you know, somebody stumbled across it?

Merryn: Well, she had given away a lot of copies. It was reviewed in a few places, and well-reviewed, but I guess it landed fairly quietly because she hadn’t been prominent as an author for a fair chunk of time at that point. So there wasn’t great fanfare and noise. And I guess because she didn’t have a publisher doing much marketing for her, and she was not a good marketer of her own books.

She had always been great at championing the writing of others, particularly the Scottish authors at the time. She did a lot of reviewing herself and making sure that the Scottish literary canon was being taught in the Teacher’s College where she taught. She just wasn’t great at pushing herself and her own work.

Enough copies I think had got out there, and there are people that still have some of those original copies, and they are now worth a lot of money. But you know, I think it was recognized, as I said, it was included and studied in universities and so forth. It just gradually gained ground, but it wasn’t really till more recently where some more prominent figures cast light on it.

So Robert MacFarlane, in particular, really championed her work. He has written about her. He made a BBC program, a television program, walking in the Cairngorms and talking about The Living Mountain. It was things like that that really then meant that her book took off. But that wasn’t till about 2011 it really started to accelerate this interest in her. 

So all around the world, there will be university departments doing all kinds of conferences and events about her writing. And it’s amazing who you bump into, who have discovered her. Robert MacFarlane did a Twitter book group during lockdown at one point about The Living Mountain. I was astonished by how many people all around the world had read and loved that book.

It’s one of the reasons why I think it’s becoming such a classic is because it has such a capacity to speak to people in all kinds of different contexts, regardless of the landscape that they are in.

It gives them a sense of the vitality of the more than human world of nature and our place in it.

Joanna: It’s interesting. I mean, there’s been a huge renaissance in nature writing. I mean, you and I are here in the UK, I’m not sure about in the US, but you walk into High Street Waterstones here, and I found your book, I tweeted you the other day.

But there are whole sections on nature writing now. And it’s almost like it’s become a huge genre. So is that why the publisher invited you to write a book is because it has become such a huge genre? So why do you think that is? And also—

What are the hallmarks of this nature writing genre?

Merryn: In terms of hallmarks, probably controversy now, actually.

You’re right, it is a burgeoning genre. I guess what happens with any genre that becomes hugely popular, is then you will start to get critics within it and of it. So there’s been some quite heated debates about what it does and what it’s for. And some people feel that certain aspects of nature writing can be too much navel gazing, can be too much about people on their own introverted spiritual search, but not actually grappling with the challenges that the natural world face in this day and age. So there is a fair bit of controversy around it.

I think in terms of your question as to why it’s become so huge, I think there’s a lot of factors at play. And I think part of it is that in what we kind of call the West, although that’s a bit of a clumsy term, there is a profound sense of disconnection and fragmentation, socially and emotionally.

And although all of our modern tech does help us connect really well on one level, on another level, on a deeper level, we’ve kind of lost the gift of presence of actually being wholly physically present to one another, and to the world around us. 

I think finding our place again in the natural world literally grounds us, it earths us again.

So I think that’s a big part of that appeal.

Secondly, I think because we face these massive climate and biodiversity crises, there is that sense of something deeply precious and fundamental to our survival that is being lost, that is threatened, and an urgent need to hold on to it, to restore it and to restore ourselves. So this writing, these books, are like a testament to the value of what we have and its precariousness.

I think also, there’s such a yearning for healing of ourselves of our world, and a recognition that we can only really do that together, not in isolation. I think it speaks to a kind of spiritual longing to find home, to actually recognize that we belong here, we are of the earth. 

One of the challenges around nature writing is the idea that we, as humans, venture into nature as though it’s something that’s different to us or separate from us.

Whereas actually, we are of nature. We belong on the earth.

We’re not aliens or a foreign invasive species. We are nature too, and I think a big part of the nature writing is to find our place in that whole world, and what our relationship with it is, which is so fraught. So yeah, I think these are all some of the reasons, and more, why it’s had such a resurgence.

Joanna: It’s so interesting. You mentioned the controversy. I think I read certain types of books, I mean, I always think of the nature books I read as travel. So for example, I haven’t walked in the Cairngorms so, you know, looking through your book, there’s obviously amazing descriptions of this place, and I can see how your sort of background in Nepal has come in there. 

It’s so funny, I was just thinking, you mentioned Robert MacFarlane, his book Underland, which is just incredible, and probably one of my favorite books. And also Merlin Sheldrakes’s Entangled, which is about fungi.

Both of these books, to me, are completely foreign. And although I agree with you that yes, we are animals, we exist in nature, we are part of nature, when I kind of read these books for the same reason I might read a thriller, which is escapism into a different world. And I read a lot of nonfiction for that reason, to learn about things I don’t know about.

So it’s interesting. I mean, I don’t pick up the nature books where I might feel something is familiar, or I don’t want to read the end of eco, sort of depressing ones. I read for the sense of escape. I mean, that’s my personal choice as a reader. What do you think? This is a travel book for anyone who hasn’t been to the Cairngorms, right?

Is it more travel than nature, really?

Merryn: Yeah, well, those are really interesting questions. And I guess those are the sorts of things that publishers trying to make decisions about in terms of where they locate books, whether it’s travel, or whether it’s nature writing, or whether it’s memoir. Because my book does tell a little bit of my story as well, in terms of how it relates, particularly to mountains, into some of these experiences.

One of the interesting things about The Living Mountain is it’s been famously difficult to classify because on the one hand, there is nature writing in it, but I feel like more than being just about the life of nature, it is about the nature of life. It’s profoundly philosophical. It really is exploring the ideas and what it means to be human, and what it means to be. The last chapter of The Living Mountain is called “Being.”

That was one of the things that really interested me in responding to her work, partly for me, being brought up in South Asia or surrounded by major world religions. And I know that’s been a real fascination for you as well in all of your writing, and it is for me. These are some of the ideas that Nan Shepherd taps into. She talks at the very end of The Living Mountain about how she understands to some measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to the mountain. I know about your fascination with Pilgrimage, and I’ve loved your book about it as well.

So that’s something that I think is definitely part of her book, but also my own writing is, what does pilgrimage mean? And where is pilgrimage something deeper and different to just travel, or to just observing nature, or just going for a walk? So there’s those philosophical spiritual ideas that underpin her work, and mine, in response to it.  

I think you’re right about that sense of escape. For me, it’s partly that, but it’s also about discovery.

And that’s a hugely important thing in Nan Shepherd’s writing, is what it means to know something. How you come to understand more about a place or about people or about anything, because it’s far more than just intellectual acquisition of information. It’s far more than just ticking off a list on a bird ID chart, or I’ve been here, I’ve done that. It’s so much about a dynamic relationship and what she calls a process of living.

So even though there is on the one hand, this desire to go somewhere completely different and completely new, both in our travel and in our reading, she also challenges us to go back to the same places and to keep seeing new things there. And so she says, for example, about the Cairngorms, these hills hold astonishment for me. However much I walk on them, they’re new every time I go.

So it’s both that journeying out that you’re talking about, but it’s also that journeying in, and finding that there is always something more to still know, to discover, and that the mystery only deepens. We never complete it.

So yeah, I think there’s that kind of push/pull around nature writing, the venturing out into the unknown, and the plumbing the deeper depths of our own humanity.

Joanna: I wanted to ask you about the difficulties of, I mean, you quoted Nan Shepherd there, but you have your own book about the Cairngorms, which you said is a conversation with her book. What was the difficulty in writing your own descriptions? Because you must have imbibed so much of her words that these quotes come up when you’re writing. So how do you then describe a mountain that she’s described? It just seems like a real challenge.

What was the difficulty in writing your own descriptions? Where does Nan end and Merryn begin?

Merryn: Yes, so I was really aware right from the outset that I did not want to, and there was no point, trying to write a copycat version of her book, because she’s done it, and it’s beautiful, and you couldn’t do better.

So it was really about finding my own story, but also recognizing, and I think it was very clear to me very early on that although I love her book and her writing, we have very different voices. And so in one sense that was quite straightforward, that even though I do refer to her a lot and quote her a lot, I do think you get a sense of a conversation between two quite different women, with quite different voices. 

I think it was also just important for me to be free to tell my own story and to look at the ways in which we not only intersect, but we diverge.

And I have a huge respect for her, but I don’t always agree with her, nor do I always agree with the narratives about her. So some of the time, I’m challenging some of the received wisdom or some of the ideas that are out there. And that is part of what kept it stimulating for me and made it my own book and gave me a sense of ownership about it. 

I think she would have loved that because she had this incredible intellectual rigor and endless curiosity. I think she would have really invited other people coming to the mountains and discovering new things and sparking off her, even if that takes them to different directions. So yeah, actually, it proved to be a really stimulating challenge. But yeah, recognizing that it had to be my story was a big part of that.

Joanna: And in a way also, I was reflecting on the authors who co-write with bigger names as such, because some people, in terms of fiction, people are like oh, if I co-write with James Patterson, for example, that will mean my books will sell. But often what seems to happen is that’s not what happens at all. It’s that people still remember the big name. So do you feel like your other work has sold more? Or is it too early to tell?

Do you think people will find you through picking up this book because of her?

Merryn: I hope so!

Joanna: I hope so, too!

Merryn: As we’re talking, it’s just been two weeks since The Hidden Fires has come out. And undoubtedly, there is a lot of interest because of Nan Shepherd. That name opens doors, unquestionably. And it’s great, it’s great to ride in on her coattails and see where that takes us.

It’ll be interesting because it is nonfiction, and my other two books are novels. The most recent one, the novel Of Stone and Sky, is set in the same area. And really, it was a two-book deal with the publisher for the novel which I had already written and this nonfiction book which they had invited me to propose.

So it was a two-book deal because they’re both Cairngorms books. And so I guess I hope that as people discover one or the other, then they will be interested to see what else I have written about the Cairngorms. Then the one that is set in India, A House Called Askival, is also set in the mountains. So in a sense, the mountain are kind of a thread through all three books.

But like you, I write across genres. So I’m kind of earlier in that journey, I don’t know where that will go and what people will discover. But yeah, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Joanna: It’s interesting too, again, you said the publisher invited you to submit a proposal, and then obviously wanted you to write that book. But I was just checking, so she died in 1981. That book is obviously still in copyright.

What happened around the permissions for using her name? Is that the publisher who publishes her book, or how does that work? Is it just fair use because you’re commenting on her work?

Merryn: I ended up having to produce a massive spreadsheet, with the help of my dear dad who was visiting last summer, in which we basically listed every single quote that we used. Because I didn’t just quote from The Living Mountain, I quoted from her three novels, and I quoted from her poetry, as well as correspondence and other things like that.

So The Living Mountain is published by Canongate. So we had to get permission, the publisher’s got permissions for all of those. And we literally had to submit all of the quotes that we used.

Similarly for the other books, the novels are now published by Canongate, so they held the rights to those. Poetry, it’s a different publisher, and then some of her other work.

The executor of her estate, she had no children of her own, but there was a family that she was very, very close to, and so it’s a member of that family. Erlend Clouston is executor of her estate, and is incredibly helpful and generous to all of the many people who’ve come along wanting to find out more about her and respond to her work. So he also gave permissions for the things that he has the rights to.

So yes, so that’s a complicated process and something people need to be aware of if you’re wanting to quote extensively from somebody else’s work. You do need to get permission for that. And sometimes there may be a fee involved.

Joanna: Yes, and for people listening, I mean, if you just quoted one line from her original full-length book, that would have been fair use. But the extent to which you’ve worked with that material, or even if it had been one line from a poem, that would have been an entirely different matter. So people listening, you can’t just go and do this unless it’s someone who is well out of copyright.

I also just wanted to ask about your own writing process about the Cairngorms. And you mentioned that’s in one of your novels as well. So how do you write about a place? Do you take photos? Do you write when you’re moving? Do you dictate?

How do you write sense of place?

Merryn: It’s an interesting one, and I’ve tried different things. I do have like an A5 nature journal, but it’s kind of a little big for taking up on big hill walks and things like that, and a little bit cumbersome.

When I’m out on a mountain walk, particularly in the conditions in the Cairngorms, I take a much smaller notebook and then just try and scribble things in as we go. Then sometimes when you’re up there in the wind, and the rain, and the cold, and snow, you know, even to be writing notes just is impractical.

So I take lots and lots of photos, and then I try as soon as I get back from a walk to type up notes, from memory and from the photos, as quickly as possible to recall it. There was one walk that I did up there where my phone battery died because I was sleeping out overnight, and by the end of the second day, the phone battery had gone.

In a way, it was really good because I just knew I had to observe, I really had to look closely and remember. There’s a Simone Weil quote, “Attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity.”

And I just felt really challenged to learn to give my full attention to the places that I was in and the things that I was looking at so that they would remember them more closely. So it did mean I often was walking a lot slower than I might otherwise in order to capture those things. 

Yeah, so it’s been a combination of different techniques, depending on the actual environment I’m in and how much of the clutter I can carry with me along the way. Learning to look closely is probably the most important thing.

Joanna: And then one of the things I’m absolutely fascinated with is the concept of truth with a small t and truth with a big T. So truth being forensically exactly what happened, and Truth with a big T is sort of trying to convey the deeper meaning of whatever you’re talking about. As in, did every single thing happen exactly in that way? Or have you put things together and changed things? Because this is the difficulty with memoir or even a sense of place, you know, things change or you have to put things together.

What do you think about this difference between truth and Truth?

Merryn: I mean, that’s an interesting one. And one of the things about The Living Mountain is that she doesn’t set out particular walk routes. She doesn’t tell that even the account of an entire day or an entire walk, she just kind of ranges across the hills, she dips in and out of all kinds of different ideas and themes and locations. So in a way, it kind of gave me liberty to do a similar thing.

Although, one of the things that my publisher had asked me to look at was a way of grounding the work a bit because hers is so sort of all over the place and esoteric to some degree. You often don’t know where she is. So they were interested in an account that was a little bit more pinned down in terms of location and the actual walk involved.

But because I have been in the hills quite a few times, some of the walks I’ve done many times, yes, so you’re right, sometimes you just piece together a variety of different experiences into one.

Or sometimes, like, for example, a chapter on the plateau, I just took a number of different experiences on the plateau and sort of threaded them together, but they were different seasons, different times, different trips. Or sometimes for one trip, there’s parts of it in different chapters of the book, just because that’s where they belong.

So I think you’re right that you definitely do not want to be misleading people or giving misinformation in any way, but sometimes for an aesthetic, you need to weave things together in a certain pattern. And as you say, that is a truer account, simply because of the way it holds together.

Joanna: Absolutely. Now I wanted to come back to earlier, you talked about writing the stage plays and the radio drama. And I wondered, like now there’s a renaissance in that type of production, I guess, but it’s full cast audio productions on Audible, Spotify, BBC Sounds, and all this type of thing. 

I wondered if you’re thinking of maybe turning your works into radio drama or audio-first productions again?

Merryn: Yeah, so writing plays is just kind of wonderfully different to writing prose, particularly fiction. And I think part of it is that, as novelists, we can be control freaks. We like to decide everything. But when you write a play, you then have to hand that script over to the director and the actors to put flesh on the bones. They give it its own life, and their interpretation of it may be different to yours. That’s part of the magic of drama.

You know, when you think about all the different versions we get of Shakespeare plays now, some of which would probably make him spin in his grave, with laughter or whatever. But that’s drama, that’s theater, that’s the way it works. And you have to allow directors and actors to do their work too. 

In a way, I think even though I said as novelists we can be control freaks, we also have to accept that that’s what happens in the head of the reader. They also bring flesh to it, they bring a voice to it, they bring their interpretation to it, too. So there’s a sense in which as a writer, you just release that work, and you have to let other people inhabit it in their own way. 

Writing drama definitely teaches you that discipline of letting it go to other people.

Also, I guess, there’s a difference in that with drama, particularly radio dramas, so much of it has to be conveyed through dialogue. And you just don’t have all these luxurious, long descriptive passages that you might have as a prose writer.

They say radio paints the best pictures because what you’re doing is you’re creating a soundscape, you’re creating a structure, where your listener is filling their head. They’re seeing everything. And you just want to give them just enough, it’s like something vacuum packed, and then in their own imagination it just opens out like a parachute and it fills the world for them. So that’s one of the really exciting dynamics, actually, I would say about radio drama, is the way it enters the head. 

So for me, my first novel, A House Called Askival, the one that’s set in India, it was put out by a traditional publisher, and then that publisher went bust, so I got the rights back. And that is kind of how my self-publishing journey began with bringing that one out by myself. And that’s been great. It’s been really fantastic to learn so much about that process and that world, and particularly from people like yourself, Joanna, and this amazingly supportive, energetic community of indie authors. 

I am planning to commission somebody to read that. And she’s somebody that I actually went to school with in India. She was a year above me in school and just a fantastic actress. And she does do kind of audio work. So I just got in touch recently and said, “Hey, would you be up for this?” We’re in conversation about that at the moment, and we’ll probably do some kind of Kickstarter or something to fund it.

That’s quite exciting to be able to take that book to that next level of audio, because as you say, it’s huge. And I know several people who say to me, “I’m not much of a reader, but I love listening to your books in audio.” Yeah, so that’s definitely the way I want to go with it.

Joanna: No, it’s interesting, because of course, a straight, single-actor audiobook read is quite different to a radio drama where you have multiple cast members plus sound effects, basically. I mean, those are quite different things, too, aren’t they?

Have you thought about adapting the book into a radio drama?

Merryn: Not really. Gosh, I just think that would be quite complex. I mean, that book spanned 70 years of history in India, including partition. I mean, I think it would be amazing, but I just quail the prospect. Not yet, perhaps.

Joanna: That’s interesting in itself because what you’re basically saying there is not every project is adaptable or is designed for that.

It’s like when I pitched my Mapwalker fantasy series to a film agent, and they were like, look, this is a really, really expensive project. To do this trilogy would be very expensive, and no one’s going to do that for a first-time pitch. And so their response was write something cheaper. And that’s kind of what you’re saying is it’s like, if you were to do a radio drama, it would be cheaper, essentially, than doing 70 years of Indian history.

Merryn: Yeah. But that said, I mean, you can do incredible things on radio much more cheaply than you can with TV or film because you don’t have to actually summon up millions of people. With the use of sound effects and all those kinds of things, you can actually create extraordinary experiences on the radio, so it’s vastly cheaper than visual media. So, never say never.

Joanna: I just think it’s another interesting way of looking at our work, given the rise of audio. For example, one of my favorite audiobooks is World War Z. We say zed, American’s say Z. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and it’s fantastic because each chapter is a different narrator from a different country. And it must have been so expensive to do, but obviously, that book was a real hit and there’s a movie and everything. But the audio drama is completely different to the movie with Brad Pitt, and again, completely different to the book. So I think these types of adaptations are just fascinating.

Merryn: And it is an adaptation, isn’t it? Because an audiobook reading is just a straight reading of the text, so that is fairly straightforward. But, to do a radio drama from it, you have to break it apart and make something completely new.

That’s the whole thing you find sometimes, people get really annoyed with film adaptations of books and things because they feel like it wasn’t the original story, and they left out this, and they added that, or whatever. But it’s a different beast, you know. And most film adaptations are terrible, but it’s a completely different work of art. It works in a different way.

In a way you take that whole story, but you remake it for a different medium. So that, in some ways, is almost more the challenge than, you know, that the cast and the production of it is reimagining a story that I lived with for years in the making of. It took me a long time to write that first novel. And to then actually, perhaps also, to kind of get the creative distance from it myself to see how to take it apart and rebuild it as a different thing. In some ways, it’s almost easier for a different person to do an adaptation sometimes because of the distance that you need from it.

Joanna: Yes, it’s interesting. So as you mentioned, it took you a long time to do that novel, you’re emotionally connected to it, and that’s the one where the publisher went bust. Tell us about that because that must have been a really hard experience.

A lot of authors, I think, consider like, oh, I’ll sign a publishing deal, and that’s it for the rest of my life, I’m done. Or, I got an agent, and I’m done. But these things happen and happen actually quite a lot. So tell us how was that experience?

How did you adapt to your publisher going bust and get the rights back?

Merryn: I mean, it was a huge journey with that first book because it took me a long time to write. And in the process of writing it, I was in a really fortunate experience that I had two different agents approach me, which seems like the absolute dream come true. But one of them, through discussion and looking at the draft of the novel, decided it wasn’t for her. The other one took it on. But after 18 months of sending it hither and thither, she wasn’t able to get a publisher for it.

So eventually, I just sort of had to say to her, well, I don’t think there’s anything more you or I can do for each other. Thank you so much, I think I’ll just have to take it back and work out what to do next. You know, so that was pretty devastating for me and for her. She’d done all that work for 18 months, but she hadn’t earned a penny from that process yet.

For me, I was at absolute rock bottom then, thinking I’ve just worked on this for years, and I just don’t know what to do. I felt utterly, utterly lost and devastated.

But then I kind of returned to final rewrite, saw this new independent Scottish publisher had emerged, sent it off to them, they took it on.

So yes, that was like incredibly exciting to finally get this breakthrough. They won Scottish publisher of the year, the following year, they were really going places.

As it happens with a lot of publishers, particularly smaller ones, it’s a really hard, hard game, and they went under. That was a stressful process for all of the writers involved.

But ultimately, for me, it was a liberating process because my book at that point had been out for three years. So to come out in hardback in 2014, paperback 2015, and the publisher went bust in 2017. So in a way, they weren’t probably going to do very much more for it.

The reality is that it had its time, it hadn’t done fabulously well, you know, it just hadn’t got very much attention when it first came out. That’s the other sort of gutting thing as a new writer, because you just think, wow, it’s all going to happen. And kind of nothing happens, you know.

So in a way, it was a liberating thing because then it meant, okay, I can do with this what I want to, what I need to, because really nobody else is ever going to care as much about your book as you are.

Publishers have got other priorities. They’ve got lots of other authors, they’ve got lots of other books.

And unless yours is really going places and really earning big money for them, they have to move on. They’ve got to focus on the next thing. They are a business, they’re not a charity.

So in a sense, once I kind of picked myself up and dusted myself off from that whole publisher going under, it was the opportunity to then, after I’d sold off the last of the paperbacks, to then republish it myself. My own imprint, my own designer for the cover, and all those kinds of things. So that’s been a great opportunity and I’ve learned a lot about it.

It means going forward I feel I’ve got more choices, that there are certain projects, like The Hidden Fires project and the last novel, Of Stone and Sky, where having had a publisher has been fantastic.

My publisher, Polygon Birlinn, are one of Scotland’s biggest independent publishers, and they’re brilliant. They’re an amazing team, and I absolutely love all the work that they put in. They’re a small enough publisher that they answer my emails, they talk to me, we have meetings. They’re really lovely. You know, it’s not like a big publisher where you can get completely lost and feel like nobody cares about you. They’re the reverse. They’re wonderful.

So I am really glad to have that experience, but I’m also glad to have learned enough about self-publishing as there are some projects, I think, like, for example, my collection of short stories.

Short story collections don’t really sell very well for publishers. And it’s often just something that they’re not prepared to take on because they just don’t get enough back from it. So that’s something I think, well, I could do that. I know how to do that now. I’ve learned those skills, and so I’ve got that choice. I think that’s a really privileged place to be, and I’m really thankful for that.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, lots for people to go look at.

Where can people find you and your books online?

Merryn: Merryn Glover. As far as I know, I’m the only one out there. So my website is MerrynGlover.com and then I’m on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. And you can email me, I really do love hearing from readers. That’s just one of the great joys that just feels like it’s what it’s all for, when a book reaches somebody, and they love it, and they get back to me.

Joanna: Brilliant. well, thanks so much for your time, Merryn. That was great.

Merryn: And thank you, Joanna. You have been such an inspiration to me and to so many of us. I love your podcast, and I love what you do for the community. So thank you.

Joanna: Oh, thank you.

The post Writing Nature Memoir With Merryn Glover first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • April 9, 2023