The Bookshop Bed & Breakfast

The Open Book ShopOne of my goals this year is to feature fun, unusual and quirky ways that people are sharing the reading experience around the world. This week I’m talking about a really cool holiday destination in my home country of Scotland.

The Open Book is a small, independent bookshop in Wigtown on the west coast of Scotland which offers a unique vacation experience. Visitors can stay in the bed and breakfast above the bookshop at night and spend their days volunteering in the shop itself. With help from staff members, guests are given all the day-to-day responsibilities of running a bookshop, including opening/closing, selling books and restocking shelves. They are also encouraged to make their mark on the shop by writing about their experiences on the shop’s blog, getting creative with window displays and even hosting readings or musical performances. What better way for a booklover to relax, destress and have a great experience!

The idea behind this is to draw attention to the value of unique indie book retailers and to encourage people to play a part in keeping them alive. Guests are asked to stay for at least a week so they can learn their way around the shop and get the chance to really contribute. The price is £28 (approx. $40 USD) per night and includes a room for two with access to a laptop, free wifi, breakfast, use of a bicycle to explore the surroundings and a truly rewarding holiday experience. You can find full details at their Airbnb listing here.

Wigtown itself is something of a literary haven. In 1998 it was designated as Scotland’s National Book Town and hosts over 20 book-related businesses including a number of first and second-hand bookshops.  It also has its own book festival (Wigtown Book Festival, now in its 17th year) which runs over 200 events over a 10-day period and attracts authors such as Ian Rankin, Matt Haig and Kirsty Logan. Some of the more unusual events last year were a shadow puppet show, a Doctor Who trivia session and a bookshop dinner! Wigtown Book Festival

This year the festival will run from 23rd September to 2nd October and you can find out more at their website here.

Stay tuned for more features like this in the coming weeks!

Borders Book Festival Part 2 – Matt Haig

Festival Sign 2

This is the second post I’m writing about the Borders Book Festival which took place last weekend (11th – 14th June) in Melrose, Scotland. You can find my first post about the talk I attended by author Kirsty Logan here.

On Sunday night I attended a talk by Matt Haig about his latest book Reasons to Stay Alive. This post took me longer to write than I thought it would – partly because I haven’t had a lot of time this week and partly because the subject of the talk is difficult for me to discuss.

Reasons to Stay Alive is a candid and emotional account of Matt Haig’s struggle with the ‘black dog’ of depression and anxiety. If you’ve read one of my previous blog posts, you’ll know I’ve struggled with this myself and would likely not be here today if it hadn’t been for a particularly serendipitous moment 12 years ago involving Star Trek: Voyager and the wonderful Kate Mulgrew. Over the years I have found ways of reading and talking about depression without having it trigger a response within myself (I have plenty of other triggers to make up for those), but somehow listening to Matt talk about his experiences in person made me feel … something. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what that something was.

Matt Haig Talk

Firstly, the setting, though very nice, threw me off and felt incongruous with the nature of the event. All the round tables with red velvet chairs, white table cloths and flower centre pieces made me feel like I was at a formal dinner rather than a book festival event (the set up for Kirsty’s event was completely different).

But then, why shouldn’t depression be discussed in an open, bright, well decorated public forum? Keeping it hidden away only serves to fuel the stigma and feed into the idea that depression is the unique affliction of those with so-called ‘troubled pasts’ and ‘hard lives’. The truth is depression can hit anyone, at any time, for no discernible reason. Of course, sometimes the reasons are painfully obvious, as they were with me, but like any illness depression doesn’t necessarily need a reason to strike – it can just appear one day and change your life without your permission.

While I was listening to Matt speak very honestly and bravely about his own experiences, I found myself analysing the way he was talking and the reactions of the other audience members. This, of course, being easier than analysing my own reactions and the subsequent avoidance easily justified by the fact that I knew I would be writing about the event for this blog.

I noticed two main things: Matt talks very fast when he’s discussing depression, and he skilfully uses humour to get his point across.

I certainly didn’t have trouble following what he was saying, and it didn’t look like anyone else was either, so it wasn’t a problem, just something I noticed. Matt talked about how his depression, coupled with anxiety, made his thoughts race and everything feel like it was moving very fast. In his own words:

‘It’s like a fast-forward depression — you’re having a lot of racing thoughts. It was never boring, it was horrendous but it wasn’t that slow, flat plane which you think of as the archetypal case of depression.’ (I couldn’t remember his exact words from the event, so I found this quote in an interview he did here).

I found myself wondering if he talked so fast in order to try and keep up with the pace of his thoughts. I often wonder that about myself, too, especially when I’m walking anywhere. I have no concept of a leisurely stroll and, as I have been told countless times by friends and family who try in vain to catch my attention when they pass me in the street (this even happened once today), I’m always ‘charging off’ somewhere like I’m on a mission and seem to be completely in my own head.

They’re absolutely right. I rarely ever notice what’s going on around me when I’m out running errands, heading to an appointment, etc. I notice enough not to bump into things or get run over by a car, but that’s about it. My thoughts never stop and the anxiety that I still struggle with on a daily basis is always lingering in the side lines even when I am not consciously aware of having anything to actually be anxious about. I think maybe my feet move so fast because I’m trying to keep up with my own thoughts. Sometimes I can’t stand to be still, and being on the move helps me feel better, like pacing when I’m feeling particularly anxious. Seriously, my footprints should be visible in my carpet by now.

I’m rambling now. Back to Matt.

The second thing I noticed was his use of humour, both in the talk and in the book itself. He got a lot of laughs from the audience and therefore made depression feel like a more approachable and less intimidating subject for people either not familiar with it or not sure how to engage with the topic. My favourite part was when he described himself as an ‘agoraphobic, neurotic weirdo’, which he said isn’t great for many professions but could sit right at the top of a CV (resumé) for a writer! Good thing he’s a fantastic writer then!

After the event I went to get my book signed. While I was walking towards the signing tent (okay, striding, my thoughts were hurrying my feet along pretty fast by this point), I was thinking that I would mention to Matt about my own depression and near suicide attempt, about how I wrote myself out of my depression and how inspirational I thought he was. But when I got to the signing tent all those thoughts coalesced into … not a lot. He asked for my name and I made some comment about how I don’t like my full name (I’m Jo, not Joanne, dammit!) and he mentioned that he’s not too fond of Matthew either. I thanked him for signing my book and wandered away, instantly feeling annoyed with myself for missing an opportunity.

Reasons to Stay Alive - signed

Had there not been other people in line behind me (or if I hadn’t been very aware of a former school classmate’s mother standing nearby), things might have been different. Or not. I don’t know, but maybe this explains why I’ve turned what was supposed to be a write up of the event into a post that probably would have been better off in my journal rather than here. Oh well.

Depression should be spoken about – it needs to be – and for that reason I’m going to ignore the part of my brain that’s telling me to delete this post and start over, and hit the publish button instead.

‘Be brave. Be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later.’ – Reasons to Stay Alive

Thank you to Matt for writing this book, and thank you to everyone who has read this post.

Borders Book Festival Part 1 – Kirsty Logan

Festival Sign 2

This is the first of a two-part post I’ll be writing about the Borders Book Festival currently going on in my hometown of Melrose, Scotland. I feel very lucky to have a book festival only 5 minutes from my parents’ house which attracts some brilliant authors and provides a great atmosphere for booklovers. It’s held in the Harmony Garden and the plants and flowers everywhere (which have also made their way onto the stages) help to give a relaxed and contemplative atmosphere (I’m sure the beer and wine tents help with that too!).

Last night I went to a talk by Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The book itself is wonderful and I would highly recommend it.

The talk began with Kirsty reading from chapter one of The Gracekeepers. She has a lovely speaking voice and I enjoyed listening to her. You can read the prologue and part of chapter one here. Things then moved on to a general discussion about the book. I have always been very interested to learn about where authors get their ideas from and how they develop them into a novel, so I was glad that Kirsty talked about that. The Gracekeepers Cover

Kirsty found herself struggling to process her grief when her father died suddenly when she was 27. She talked about how religions offer rituals and guidance for the grieving process, but not being religious herself meant that she didn’t have that kind of guidance to look to. While she was out on a boat she happened to see a buoy with a light in it, which to her resembled a bird cage. This spawned the idea for the graces which appear in the novel. In a world which is mostly covered by water, most people live on boats and cannot be buried on land, so their bodies are sunk in the sea by gracekeepers and attached to cages holding birds (graces) which float on the surface. The mourning periods for the deceased last only as long as the graces remain alive, which offers the mourners a prescribed period of time to grieve before they move on with their lives. To me this represents a beautiful example of how an author’s personal experience can influence their writing, and hearing Kirsty talk about this made me appreciate the novel even more.

The discussion moved on to fairy tales and how the more modern versions – especially those depicted in Disney films – are far less violent and bloody than the original versions (Cinderella is a classic example and you can read the very non-Disney version by the brothers Grimm here). There is definitely a fairy tale feel about the novel, and Kirsty mentioned that she had read a review of her book which said that she had clearly been influenced by certain fairy tales, which, as it turned out, Kirsty had never even heard of!

I’ve always found it fascinating how readers will often interpret an author’s work in ways they could not have expected. Once they release their stories and characters into the world they no longer have control over how they are perceived – they essentially take on a life of their own. Kirsty also spoke about the timeless nature of fairy tales and how they depict human emotions that we have always felt and always will feel, meaning that readers can identify with them no matter how long ago they were written.

At the end of the talk there was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. I asked one on behalf of my good friend Stefani (you can find her awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed). Stefani wanted to know if Kirsty had been influenced by any particular fairy tales, and I elaborated on that by mentioning the reference to the Selkies in the novel – creatures found in Scottish, Irish and Icelandic folklore depicted as seals who can shed their skins and take on human form. Kirsty said that she liked the legend of the Selkies because these creatures have a dual nature and can exist on both the land and the sea. This influence is apparent in one of her novel’s main characters, Callanish, who appears human but has webbed hands and feet. Kirsty also mentioned her fondness for the fairy tale of Kate Crackernuts, a version of which you can find here. I hadn’t heard of that particular tale before so I had fun looking it up and reading a few versions of it.

Someone else asked Kirsty to talk about the interesting names she chose to give her characters. She told us that some of them are actually named after places in the UK. For example, Callanish is a village on the Scottish Isle of Lewis and Veryan is a village in Cornwall, England. In the book characters are given these names by their parents as a way of remembering places which have long since been lost below the sea. I really liked Kirsty’s explanation of why she gave North, the other central character, her name. North is somewhere you can never actually reach, but rather a direction in which you travel in search of a destination. North lives her life on a boat which is constantly travelling, and she herself is in search of a place she can truly belong, so her name gives us a sense of movement and travel. Kirsty also mentioned the nods she gave to the legend of King Arthur when she named the circus boat Excalibur (which interestingly was also the name of the primary school she attended!) and the circus master’s wife Avalon (after the legendary island where the sword Excalibur was forged).

After the talk itself Kirsty kindly signed copies of her novel for Stefani and I and chatted with me for a few minutes. She is a lovely person and I hope that I get to meet her again in the future.

The Gracekeepers - signed

Isn’t the little boat drawing so cute?!

I haven’t had time to write a review of The Gracekeepers myself but you can find Stefani’s here. She loved it as much as I did!

On Sunday I’ll be heading back to the book festival for a talk by Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive. I’ll post a write-up of that afterwards.