Every so often a book comes along with a premise so original that you have to take notice. Gillian Shirreffs’ debut novel, Brodie, is one such book, with the titular narrator being a well-travelled and much-loved copy of Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. SNACK spoke to Gillian Shirreffs to learn more about Brodie and the remarkable story behind it.
The premise of Brodie is ingenious. Can you give a brief explanation, and tell us how you came up with the idea?
I first thought of it 16 years ago, during a long period of bedrest. I’d lost the feeling from my toes to my chest over the course of a week, which resulted in a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. When friends, family members, colleagues came to visit, they wouldn’t know what to say; how to react to my sudden ill health.
They’d arrive in my bedroom with flowers, bunch upon bunch of flowers, wide smiles fixed in place. When the conversation turned from dry to desiccated, they would head for the kitchen, where my husband would make them tea, coffee, or something stronger. In those first few weeks, it was as though there was permanently a party going on in some other part of my house. I could sense something of the quality of a wake.
As people retreated downstairs, I’d hear the beginnings of conversations and would have to imagine the rest. Sometimes I would know they were headed to a room where someone they didn’t like was already installed. My imagination would take over, inventing what might be said, what might happen next. It was at that time I had the idea for my object narrator. A narrator without self-agency, but with every other sense and faculty, lacking merely the ability to move at will.
Over the years I played with this notion and eventually decided that a book, changing hands over the years, hidden in plain sight, would make the perfect ‘object narrator’.
The ‘unreliable narrator’ is often discussed, but in this case you almost build unreliability into the narration. Is that fair to say?
I always enjoy an unreliable narrator and in this case the narrator can’t possibly be wholly reliable, which, I hope, gives the reader the opportunity to wonder and imagine along with Brodie; to be caught up in the very act of storytelling.
It’s a book for book lovers (a celebration of the power of books) and your own love of reading, as well as writing, shines through. Was that intentional?
Again, yes. As a child, I was an avid reader − it opened up so many worlds to me − and throughout my life it has sustained me, so writing Brodie allowed me to pay tribute to the power of books. It was a way for me to share my love of reading.
Why did you pick The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as your central character?
Once I realised that my object narrator was going to be a book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was the obvious choice. I adore Muriel Spark. I’ve been reading and rereading her work throughout my life and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was my first love. I received it as a gift from my aunt when I was fifteen and was later taught it in school by my favourite teacher. It also seemed easy for me to imagine that a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie could actually be sentient (if that’s not too weird).
On your website you say you use fiction ‘to explore the world of illness and the essay form to examine hidden medical places and spaces.’ That’s such an interesting idea. Could you expand on that?
It’s a good idea to write what you know, and thanks to MS, and more recently breast cancer, I’m pretty familiar with medical places. Writing about these spaces seems to help me better understand what happens in them. For instance, I might choose to explore why a patient can, at times, feel more like a medical object than a medical subject.
In turn, I hope such writing might open up the world of illness to those less familiar with it. In terms of my short fiction, I often give a character a serious diagnosis and see what happens − to their life, to their relationships − throwing in some dark humour along the way. A character with an illness doesn’t need to be defined by it, and I don’t think they should be relegated to existing simply as a two-dimensional plot point.
You have a doctorate in creative writing from Glasgow University, and I often wonder what studying writing does for writers. What did it do for you?
It gave me time, focus, and a structure in which to write. Chronic illness derailed my working life and I missed deadlines, being part of a group, and the expectations of others. All of which studying for the MLitt and the doctorate supplied, and doing them meant I was no longer writing just for my own pleasure, with no thought for the reader. Also, the creative writing staff at Glasgow University are amazing and have given me no end of inspiration, challenge, and support.
All profits from Brodie are going to the Beatson Cancer Charity. Why is it important for you to do this?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2021 and over the next sixteen months had twenty-two infusions of chemotherapy, two surgeries, and fifteen sessions of radiotherapy. Throughout it all, I received incredible support from the Beatson Cancer Charity, and I wanted to say thank you. I won’t be running a marathon any time soon, or climbing a mountain, but this is something I can do to try to express my heartfelt gratitude.