‘Nina ran a mobile bookshop in the Highlands of Scotland. This was about to become temporarily tricky given that she had also fallen in love with a very attractive farmer, and it had been a particularly long, dark and cosy winter, and frankly, these things happen. Up in Scotland, she stroked her large bump crossly.’
The Bookshop on the Shore
By Jenny Colgan
Published by Sphere
You have just released a new novel, The Bookshop on the Shore. Can you tell us about it?
It’s about a single mother, Zoe, who leaves London with her kid to look after somebody else’s (slightly feral) kids, as well as run a little bookshop in the Highlands.
It’s not quite a follow up to The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, though the setting the same, and some characters reappear. Why did you want to revisit Kirrinfief?
That’s right. I just loved the town and location I’d come up with – a small village nestling next to Loch Ness – and wanted to go back there. Plus I like my little book bus, tootling about, serving remote communities who don’t have a bookshop of their own, so I wanted to write about that too.
You’ve set other books in the Highlands. What is it about rural Scotland that you find makes for good storytelling?
I think there’s a couple of reasons: partly because the beauty of the place really knocks you out. You can’t ignore it. We’re only in Fife, so practically sassenachs, but even so, it’s just so formidably lovely that even if you aren’t an outdoorsy person you can’t really help being affected.
The other thing is I like writing about slightly isolated communities where you have to get to know your neighbours and do things communally and so on, which is quite common in Scotland, and that means I get to write across the generations; older people and younger, richer and poorer and so on.
The novel also has bookselling at its core. Have you been a bookseller yourself? Why do you think bookshops are ideal as a romantic setting?
I have! I had a Saturday job at the bookshop in Ayr that eventually became James Thin’s, when it was at the top of the town. I wasn’t very good at it though I just read all the stock and ignored the customers. But the women who worked there were lovely to me. When I left to go to university they presented me with my entire first-year reading list as a going-away present, an exceptional act of kindness I have never forgotten.
The novel has been described as ‘heartwarming’, ‘sweet’ and ‘wonderful’, yet you don’t shy away from writing about serious subjects such as poverty and mental health. How do you balance tackling these themes and keeping your books positive?
Do you know I was thinking about that the other day! I’m known as a ‘feel good’ author; except in my books I have had catastrophic mental health issues; a middle-aged man who took two entire novels to die of cancer; a Syrian refugee who loses his wife and his children; infertility and African adoption; fatal fishing accidents and childhood abuse – so I am not entirely sure how I earned the tag! I suppose I try and come at life in a cheerful way. It’s never quite as bad as what we hear on the news.
You are a hugely prolific writer, and write in a number of genres for a number of audiences too. How do you keep all these many worlds clear in your head for each project?
Genre is imposed from the outside really, I’m just writing stories that I love, then they get parcelled into categories later on, so it’s not remotely difficult.
What writers inspire you as a reader?
Loads! Obviously in my work James Herriot, Douglas Adams and Enid Blyton but I read a lot of non-fiction. I break the fourth wall sometimes like CS Lewis – what DO they teach you at school these days, that kind of thing. Adams did that a lot as well, I am always a sucker for a bit of digression that starts, ‘The thing about X is..’ Oh and I loved Maeve Binchey too, I love her generosity towards all her characters.
What are you reading just now?
I’ve just finished Midnight in Chernobyl; I’m reading everything I can lay my hands on about the topic because the TV series was just so excellent. The real story was inevitably more complex but it doesn’t take away from how much the tv show got to the essence of the truth. And I’ve just read a run of really good crime – I love Denise Mina, and her new one is going to blow everyone away, and the new Nikki French is predictably excellent.
Do you think you’ll revisit Zoe and Hari in another novel?
They have cameos in my forthcoming novel The Switch, because I really love writing children, and The Bookshop on the Shore has a bunch of them.
The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan is published by Sphere, priced £12.99