“This was the beginning of the fairy tale, he thought…”

Assassination Scene, Jason Atkinson

New Ghost Stories IV
Lynsey May, photo by John Need Media

Photo: John Need Media

Many years ago, Lynsey May’s short story ‘Two Buses Away’ was the very first story featured in our very first anthology, Various Authors. Now her debut novel, Weak Teeth, has been published in its paperback edition, and this month it’s been selected as Waterstones’ Scottish Book of the Month. We thought it would be interesting to catch up with her for a chat about her experience of publication and her approach to writing, among other things…

Q. Firstly, congratulations on the paperback publication of Weak Teeth. How have you found the experience of publishing your debut novel?

A. Thank you so much. I’m incredibly grateful for Waterstones’ support and for the support of all the fantastic indie bookshops who’ve been so good to me and the book. It’s such a joy to see it out in the world.

I’ve been writing with the hope of being published for a long time and I have a lot of friends who’re writers, so in many ways I was well prepared for the experience. That said, I still feel like I’m coming out of a period of suspended animation. There was almost exactly a year between the publication of the hardback and the paperback, and I felt a little like it was a sentence opened and not closed. This feels like a full stop to the experience, or perhaps a comma.

Q. That’s an interesting point about the difference between hardback and paperback publication. How does publication in the two formats feel different to you as an author?

A. I think the big difference is the feeling that I’m getting a second bite of the apple, as it were. The launch of a new format gives you an excuse to have another little party and, in this case, it very luckily also gave me a shot at being selected as Scottish Book of the Month by Waterstones. That said, with the cost of living so drastically reducing people’s spending power, I’m not at all surprised to see lots of publishers opting to go straight to paperback for all sorts of titles. On the other hand, we’re also seeing lots of special editions and spredges. It will be really interesting to see how these two trends play out in the next wee while.

Q. Prior to publishing Weak Teeth, you’ve also had success over the years with your short stories. How did you come to write a novel, and how did you come to write this particular novel?

A. I’ve always enjoyed writing both short stories and longer pieces. I’d say I was drawn to novels first, because I didn’t know about all of the wonderful shorter works out there. I then went through a phase of reading and writing a lot of short stories before, finally, settling into an alternation between the two.

For Weak Teeth in particular, I knew from the start I wanted it to be about a family and that teeth were going to factor prominently. I could also tell straight away that I wanted it to be a novel, although it took a little longer to work out exactly what kind of novel it would be.

Q. On the subject of length, when you find yourself with an idea for a story or a situation or a character, and you start writing it, do you usually make a conscious decision at some point about how long a story you’re going to write, as you did with Weak Teeth? Or are you more inclined to just set your ideas down, and see what happens?

A. Hmm. I think that most of the time, it’s a visual or a particular feeling that comes to mind first and often I can tell if it’s going to be something short or part of something longer straight away – but I think that might often have more to do with my mindset than the content. If I’m in a shortform state of mind, then I’m thinking about how to turn that fragment into a small whole. When I’m getting stuck into something longer, I’m looking at those little ideas through a different lens and working out whether they’re thematically or tonally relevant. If they aren’t, but the idea continues to glimmer, then I’ll see if it’s a short story in its own right.

Q. Something that’s always struck me about your writing is your attention to character: you give the impression of really caring about the people in your stories, and as a result they come very much to life. How would you describe your approach to creating and writing your characters?

A. This is a wonderful compliment, I very much appreciate it. I’m definitely a very character-driven writer and reader. I’m fascinated about all the commonalities we can recognise in each other, as well as the endless variations that make us all ourselves. I very much care about the characters I write and also the ones I invest in. I’m terrible for crying at movies, TV shows, books, theatre; my heartstrings are very tuggable.

Q. The other thing that comes across strongly in your writing is your connection to Edinburgh. It’s one of the great cities in terms of literary heritage, but it’s also been through a lot of changes over the years, both culturally and economically. The city has been hit particularly hard by the cost of living crisis, with the council declaring a housing emergency last year and rents rising steeply – which isn’t great given that fiction writing is rarely a high-income activity. But there’s something about Edinburgh that can get under your skin… what do you think of today’s Edinburgh as a city for writing in, and writing about?

A. I’ve always lived in and around Edinburgh and have been in Leith for over a decade now. It’s amazing to be connected to a place with such a strong literary heritage and I hope that we’re able to continue to invest in current and future generations of writers and creatives in the capital, as well as throughout Scotland.

While Ellis in Weak Teeth is lucky enough to have a parent who owns a property now worth a sizeable amount, she’s one of the many people who can’t afford to buy a home on her own salary. It was important to me to reflect a little of the current housing struggles, even though it wasn’t the main thrust of the book. Many of the people I know, especially (although not exclusively) those in the arts, are struggling to exist in their own city. If we want people to be able to authentically write about Edinburgh, we need to make it somewhere that those writers can afford to live.

Q. As well as writing fiction, you’ve also done a lot of work in related roles: you’ve been books editor of The List, and you’ve worked with Scottish Book Trust, The Edinburgh Review and the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust. Do you think that those experiences have helped to shape your approach to writing?

A. I think that these experiences, all of which have been part time, have massively shaped my understanding of the literature sector and the importance of the creative arts in general. They’ve been so valuable, especially in exposing me to writers and arts workers I might never have come across otherwise.

When it comes to approach, though, I suspect my process is more shaped by the fact I’m a freelance copywriter by trade. I used to manage a copywriting department for a large online marketing company and struck out on my own over ten years ago. The nature of the job means that I have to work to deadlines and not be too precious, while also being open to criticism and change – all of which has come in very handy when it comes to fiction. I treat my own writing like a different beast to the copy work, but there are few things better for curing the fear of the blank page than having to sit down and string sentences together every day.

Q. Finally, are you working on any fiction at the moment? And do you have any upcoming publications that people should look out for? (Once they’re done with Weak Teeth, naturally.)

A. I am currently working on a second novel, which I did intend to have finished ages ago. Life does have a habit of uprooting the best laid plans! But I hope to be finished soon and then I look forward to immersing myself in some shorter fiction again. I’ll be launching the paperback at an event chaired by the fab Lucy Ribchester at Waterstones, Sauchiehall Street on 17 May at 7pm.

You can find out more about Lynsey on her website: lynseymay.com.