26th November 2018
In her latest novel, librarian turned novelist Ali Bacon marries two passions: fiction and photography. And this month, on An Author’s Mind, we are lucky to find out why and how.
A warm welcome, Ali, particularly from those of us drawn to the visual. Perhaps you could begin by introducing the novel you want to discuss, In the Blink of an Eye.
Ali: Thank you, Lizzie. After graduating from St Andrews University, I worked in Oxford’s Bodleian Library where I found a cache of famous Victorian photographs. This sparked a life-long interest in early photographers. And In the Blink of an Eye is a re-imagining of David Octavius Hill’s life in the words of those who were beguiled by his artistry and charismatic charm. Tender, tragic and sometimes humorous, these voices come together in a story of art and science, love and loss, friendship and photography.
The story briefly goes: He had Edinburgh at his feet, but who would be by his side? In 1843, recently widowed Edinburgh artist David Octavius Hill is commissioned to paint the portraits of 400 ministers of the Free Church. Only when he meets Robert Adamson, an early master of the new and fickle art of photography, does this daunting task begin to look feasible.
Lizzie: Which three words describe how you felt, having finished writing In the Blink of an Eye?
Ali: Usually I feel a little sad when I finish a novel because I am saying goodbye to the people I have lived with for so long. This time there was a less sadness and more satisfaction and elation at bringing the project to a close. And I have not lost these people – they were real people and I still give talks about them. They are with me still!
Lizzie: How would you describe the genre of your book, if any? What drew you to this genre?
Ali: It’s at the literary end of historical fiction and I was drawn to it through the power of one (real) man’s story; artist and photographer David Octavius Hill. The story is told in separate episodes through the voices of people who knew the ‘hero’. I really enjoyed writing it like this and have occasionally described it as linked short stories, although it has an overall story arc.
Lizzie: Who is your favourite character and why?
Ali: The most fun to write was Elizabeth Rigby, a writer and critic who became Lady Eastlake and may at one time been my hero’s ‘sweetheart’. She became well-known and left copious diaries and letters which betray a very lively and forthright character. Sometimes historical facts get in the way of fiction, but she seemed to give me more to work with all the time.
Lizzie: If you were a casting director for a film/tv version, who would you cast in which roles?
Ali: Lady Eastlake actually appears in the film Effie Gray (2014), played by Emma Thompson. Excellent casting – I would have her again!
Lizzie: What moments in the novel do you like best?
Ali: As a writer my absolute favourite moment is the opening two sentences. I had invented a new character to provide the last chapter and finish off the story. As soon as I began writing him, I realised he was the key to the structure of the book and needed to be at the start. Eureka! – the book was complete. After a struggle of several years that was a great moment.
Here it is:
“Before he left for Edinburgh, Malcolm Scobie, minister of the Free Kirk in Blairgowrie, spoke to his housekeeper and to his beadle, explaining he’d be gone for two days but back in plenty of time to compose his Sunday sermon. He also took it into his head to write to Louisa…”
Lizzie: They say all fiction is autobiographical. What is the most significant event/setting for you personally in the story and why?
Ali: As a historical novel this was never going to be autobiographical but the opening chapters are set in St Andrews which I knew well from my student days and the artists Noel and Amelia Paton, who play a significant part, are from the town where I was brought up [Dumfermline]. I enjoyed delving into what felt like my own history and hope this resonates in the writing.
Lizzie: Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
Ali: One reviewer has said that the novel is about bereavement and grief and as in all Victorian life this is an unavoidable part of the story. Towards the end, as the hero struggles to complete a commission for the Church, there are strong overtones of the importance of duty in both worldly and religious sense, but what I wanted to convey overall was a feeling of redemption and of hope for the future.
Lizzie: What do you learn about change and social classes in this book?
Ali: I have learned that the Victorians are more like us than I realised! Women, although not unfettered, could still take up all kinds of opportunities. International travel – you could almost call it tourism – was commonplace among the better off. Despite the gap in wealth, the fisherfolk of Newhaven (Edinburgh) could be on speaking terms with artists and social reformers.
Lizzie: What does this novel tell you about the difference between fiction and non-fiction?
Ali: One eminent photo-historian has said In the Blink of an Eye brings ‘colour and texture to a story previously known in black and white’. That’s very gratifying as I suppose it’s what I was trying to do. But D. O. Hill appears mainly in books about photography and my book is not about photography. It’s about a group of people who happened to come together in that milieu and how it might have been for them to be there. I hope it will bring the story to a new audience of novel readers rather than art- or photo-historians.
Lizzie: Does the book remind you of any other writers or novels you’ve read? What’s the same? What’s different?
Ali: Despite being a great fan of historical fiction I can’t think of anything similar to Blink in that field. However there are points of similarity with contemporary novels which use a form of linked short stories. I’m thinking of Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (2012) or Ali Smith’s Hotel World (2001). Very different in content but similar in form. One of my favourite historical fiction reads is The Physic Garden (2014) by Catherine Czerkawska which drew me into its world from the first sentence. If I can do that I’ll be happy.
Lizzie: What comes next?
Ali: Historical fiction was a new departure for me and one I did regret from time to time along the way, but although I write contemporary short stories, I can’t help feeling my next big project will take me back to a similar period – watch this space!
Lizzie: Thank you, Ali, for all these fascinating insights.
If any readers want to know more about Ali Bacon, please see her social media links: