Jura in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides is an island forever associated with George Orwell. It was here, in 1947 and 1948, that Orwell – soon to die of tuberculosis – wrote his bleak science-fiction masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Fast-forward to the 21st century and the Jura Malt Whisky Writers’ Retreat is aimed at getting authors to write new chapters in the island’s literary history.
The latest writer to sample life on Jura is Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod, who last autumn spent a week at Jura Lodge. “Imagine the holiday home of a wealthy family with improbably good, if eccentric, taste and a magpie’s eye for Victoriana and natural history,” noted MacLeod in his blog, The Early Days of a Better Nation . MacLeod, whose latest novel Intrusion was recently published by Orbit, took time out to tell us about the experience.
To win a three-night luxury break for two in the writer’s retreat
on Jura yourself, click here
SFX : How were you selected for the retreat? Did you have to wrestle Iain M Banks, Margaret Atwood and John Lanchester in order to prove your chops or was the process disappointingly civilised?
Ken MacLeod: “Definitely the latter. The invitation came as an email out of the blue from Marc Lambert of the Scottish Books Trust. I have no idea how I was selected – perhaps Marc had noticed me sipping a whisky at some point. Actually I was one of several writers invited for 2011, and by the time I had made up my mind the others had snaffled the summer-time slots, so I ended up with October.”
Did you look at the work that writers who had gone before you did on Jura?
Ken MacLeod: “Not before I went. While I was there, though, I greatly enjoyed browsing a fine anthology called Spirit Of Jura: Fictions, Essays, Poems from the Jura Lodge . Knowing that writers like Will Self, Kathleen Jamie, Liz Lochhead and Bernard Crick had stayed in that very house before me was inspiring, as well as a bit daunting.”
Why did you want to do the retreat?
Ken MacLeod: “Free holiday in a totally amazing house on the shore of a scenic Scottish island, free breakfast and lunch supplies and free dinners across the road in the Jura Hotel, and a week of free time... and in exchange, all I have to do is write an SF story set on Jura? Yeah, that’s an offer that takes a lot of pondering.”
What’s the island of Jura like? To judge by your November blog entry, it’s less of a windswept and rain-lashed invitation to die of TB than many suppose...
Ken MacLeod: “Oh, absolutely. The climate is mild, albeit wet and windy, and it’s nothing like what the bleak place that some people have imagined – or, come to that, some of the Western and Northern Isles are! I even saw a toad beside the path in front of the Lodge one evening, and you don’t get toads in very cold places. Basically, Jura is a mountain range surrounded by sea, with rough moorland on the lower slopes and some quite pleasant sheltered stretches along the shores. You can see seals any day, otters sometimes, and deer everywhere.”
Talking of lung disease, it’s a place associated strongly with George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four . What’s your take on Orwell? I’m interested to see – and correct me if I’m overstating this – that you suspect he’d be far less well remembered, even thought of as a minor writer, if it weren’t for Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm .
Ken MacLeod: “Yes, that is a slight over-statement. Orwell’s novels and memoirs are good, but I doubt if they’d stand out from other such work from the 1930s if it weren’t for the impression we tend to have that nothing else worth reading was written in the 1930s, an impression that Orwell’s influence has done a lot to create. I can read and re-read his political journalism and enjoy it every time, but his political views weren’t at all original or unique – not that he claimed they were, but he had a knack of writing as if being a liberal-minded, patriotic, democratic socialist close to the left wing of the Labour Party was a stance of splendid isolation and dangerous heresy.
“In fact it was a mainstream minority position. If it hadn’t been for the success of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm , his political writings wouldn’t have been read or reprinted by anyone but the kind of people who published them in the first place: those on, or a bit to the left of, left-wing Labour. (Younger readers may have to look up “left-wing Labour” in history books, or like Winston Smith go and talk to some old guy in the pub.)”
What did you write when you were on the retreat? Not an SF story we understand.
Ken MacLeod: “While I was actually there I mainly relaxed, and took long walks in the hills around the village or along the shore. When the weather drove me inside I read, made notes for a projected novel, and thought about the story I was going to write. The original idea was that the writer would write the story on the island and read it in the bar of the Jura Hotel on their final evening there, but that would have left the writer very little time to enjoy the island and get some inspiration, so it was very sensibly dropped before the scheme started.
“And in fact, I did get the idea for the story while I was there. ‘The Jura Recovery’ is part science fiction, part tall tale.”
How did the location affect the story?
Ken MacLeod: “Very much: the details and the whole idea of the story came from things I noticed while wandering around. To find out more, you’ll have to read it, it’s free at the Jura site” (You can read it on the Isle Of Jura website )
Is it possible to write coherently while drinking malt? Or, if that’s too silly an idea, can quietly supping malt in the Islands aid creativity?
Ken MacLeod: “Over the years I’ve written a few quite coherent pages while sipping whisky – not malt, though, which deserves closer attention – but generally speaking, drinking while you write is not recommended, as the later careers of all too many writers who’ve got into the habit testifies. However, a relaxing and meditative dram in the evening can sometimes bring inspiration, and in good company can fuel conversation.”