Elsewhere in this month’s SNACK you’ll find the Ten Best Scottish Books of 2022. Among them is Sarah Smith’s debut novel, Hear No Evil, which is not just a good book, but an important one. SNACK caught up with Sarah to learn more.
For those who haven’t read Hear No Evil yet, can you set out what it’s about?
It’s a historical crime novel set in Scotland in 1817, inspired by the true story of the first Deaf person tried in a Scottish court, Jean Campbell, who was witnessed throwing a child from the Old Bridge in Glasgow. After her arrest, she was taken to the Old Tolbooth in Edinburgh. The authorities call in Robert Kinniburgh, a teacher from the Deaf and Dumb Institution, and ask him to interpret for them and determine if Jean is fit for trial. As she confides in him, Robert becomes an investigator and begins to uncover the truth.
Why did you want to tell this story?
The story was borne out of frustration, really. I began looking at the court records and there was very little about Jean herself. She was an important figure in Deaf history because she was tried on the same basis as a hearing person. In the absence of facts, I decided to fictionalise the reasons for Jean’s crime; what had led her and her child to be on that bridge in the first place? I hoped my fictional Jean could give the real Jean a voice that was denied her at the time.
Where did the inspiration come from?
I’ve spent most of my working life on projects that try to improve access to education, employment, and services for disabled people. I got to know a lot of Deaf people and ended up working for an organisation called Deaf Connections in Glasgow. There, I met Robert Smith, a retired history teacher who had written a history called The City Silent: A History of Deaf Connections, and it was Robert who first told me about the case and piqued
It has been rightly lauded and critically acclaimed. Has the reaction been unexpected? Did you have any expectations of how it would be received?
I honestly had no expectations at all. I was just happy that the story might reach a wider audience. The bottom line for me was that readers would feel I’d shown the Deaf community truthfully and authentically, and would be entertained along
How has your year been since publication?
As restrictions eased when the book came out in February this year, I was able to have a launch in Waterstones, as well as taking part in a lot of other events. Amazing, unexpected opportunities have come my way. Having extracts from Hear No Evil adapted into performance for the Edinburgh Book Festival; being shortlisted for Bloody Scotland’s Debut Prize, and for the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown. Things have happened that are dreams come true.
What advice would you give those who are interested in becoming a writer?
Seek out a small group of other writers who’ll challenge and support you. If the first group isn’t for you, try another.
I took a few rejections to heart when I was younger and ended up with very little confidence to ask for help or submit my writing anywhere. When I hit 50, I applied for an MLitt at the University of Glasgow. It changed my life because I found like-minded people. Writing is supposed to be solitary, but even one good writing friend can make a huge difference to you.
Do you have any books from 2022 you would recommend to SNACK readers?
I loved Case Study from Graeme Macrae Burnet, who’s probably sick of me fangirling him but he’s stuck with it. Rachelle Atalla’s The Pharmacist is such a well-written, empathetic book it makes me forget what a dystopian/sci-fi refuser I can be. The Second Cut by the legendary Louise Welsh is an incredible, long-awaited, follow-up to her debut crime novel – with the added attraction of Alan Cumming on Audible, who made me laugh out loud with a joke about a cardigan.
What’s next for you? And is there added pressure to write a follow-up?
I’m writing ‘Book Two’. It’s another historical novel with a bit of crime sprinkled in. Set in a back-court cinema in Glasgow, 1920, it follows Agnes Ritchie, a war widow with a young son, as she navigates a world utterly changed by WWI. It’s got silent movies, spiritualism, and a lecherous projectionist.
As for Hear No Evil, I didn’t originally envisage it as a series, but it’s very tempting to return to those characters and explore other aspects of Deaf history. There are a lot of Deaf stories out there and, since I’ve given Robert Kinniburgh the role of detective, maybe he’s the right man to
Sarah Smith’s Hear No Evil is published by Two Roads