Karen Campbell is one of the most versatile writers around. She started out writing crime fiction before surprising readers with 2013’s acclaimed This Is Where I Am, a novel which examined the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland. She has gone on to write a rural thriller set around the referendum (Rise) and wartime historical fiction (The Sound of the Hours). Her latest is Paper Cup, which focuses on the life of Kelly, a homeless woman who decides to make a pilgrimage home. SNACK spoke to Karen Campbell to find out more about it.
What inspired you to write Paper Cup?
I wanted to write about vulnerability and exposure and resilience, really. About someone living at the edges of their ability to cope – and at the edges of society too. And then, once I started circling that idea, I began to think of the voice I would tell it in, the eyes I would see the world through. Right away I thought, you can’t get more exposed, literally, than being out in the open, without a roof. So that made me start thinking about that, about what it might feel like, to wake up in the morning, disorientated, realising it’s cold and wet, and you’re inside a doorway, in an empty city street. How does that feel? I’m lucky, I’ve never been in that position, and I was very conscious that I didn’t want to make this a novel ‘about homelessness’ –I’m not qualified, personally or professionally, to do that. I’m a storyteller, someone who is interested in seeing the world from different perspectives.
So Paper Cup is just a story about one middle-aged woman, Kelly, who struggles with alcohol and, when the novel opens, is living on the streets in Glasgow. For various reasons, which you learn as the novel progresses, Kelly has slipped through the cracks. She tells herself that it’s better that way – to be in a place where no one can let her down and she can’t let anyone else down either. But Kelly was someone’s daughter – a girl with hopes and plans, same as everyone else. So I wanted to follow Kelly on her journey, and see if that girl was still inside.
It makes clear how easily people can find themselves homeless no matter their background. Why was that something that you wanted to examine?
I wanted to look at how easy it might be to fall through the cracks, and how, once you’ve fallen, how easy it might be to keep slipping and trying your best to scrabble back up, but slipping again, and losing energy and heart and confidence and hope. What if that safety net we imagine is always there to catch us when we need it doesn’t really exist? Or that the shadowy outline of it is there, but actually there are pretty big holes in it? Plus, I’m always interested in writing about facades – what we see on the surface and what is really going on inside – whether that’s a place, a person, or a situation.
When we walk past a person sitting on a step with a paper cup in front of them – what do we actually see? Do we rush past? Do we drop a coin in, but keep our eyes fixed a wee bit distant? Do we notice if it’s a man or a woman? Does the man or the woman want us to ‘see’ them? That one, tiny interaction has so many permutations and possibilities. And I wonder, is it easier not to think ‘why is that person there?’ because that then means we don’t have to think about the actual fact of who they are, and where they came from. Or what it might feel like to ask strangers for money.
Everyone has a story, and other lives, and times when they tried and failed, and tried again.
Years ago, I was a police officer in Glasgow. Walking the same beat, you’d see the same people, settling down for the night. Folk carrying their belongings about on their back, in the wind, the rain, the snow. I found it profoundly disturbing – how in the city that buzzed with life and people going about their business, or socialising, or taking tourist snaps, there was this other, unseen, netherworld of people with nothing, who had nowhere to go. So, while Kelly is entirely fictional, there are certainly elements of fact woven into her story.
I feel I was lucky with Kelly – she kind of roared onto the page! She began as a shapeless figure, asleep, but her voice was bright and funny in my head. She’s one of those characters you ‘meet’ as much as create – gallus and sharp and yes, her spirit does have echoes of people I’ve encountered through my work. But their stories are their own, not mine, to tell. So I wrote Kelly’s journey instead.
The structure of the novel, which is that of a pilgrimage, really works – that of someone trying to get back, in all sorts of ways. How important is the way a story is told in your novels? Is it something you have to have clear in your head before you start, or can it change as you go?
I think how you tell a story is as important as the plot itself.
In Paper Cup, an incident in Glasgow triggers Kelly’s desire to return home, back to the wee Galloway town she left many years before. But the impetus is both pulling her and pushing her away – part of her wants to go back, part of her can’t bear to return to face her past. So the pilgrimage route she takes – as well as allowing me to sing the hidden praises of Galloway – mirrors the slow, winding route that she’s mentally taking, to prepare herself for the journey’s end.
It also lets her encounter various other folk on the journey – I wanted to give that sense of how our lives can touch and ricochet off other people’s lives all the time – but we may never know the impact of that. Plus we rarely get to know how other people’s stories end.
Paper Cup is mainly set in Galloway, where you currently live. Was it important for you to write about and represent the area?
Definitely. There are several themes I tried to thread through – loneliness, forgiveness; but also it’s about the hidden beauty in people and places –not least Galloway. Having moved from Glasgow to south west Scotland a decade ago, I can see how little known an area it is, even within the rest of Scotland. Like Kelly, Galloway lives slightly in the margins it’s a forgotten corner in terms of investment, infrastructure, and opportunities. Yet there’s so much rich history and beautiful scenery here, not to mention innovation, resilience, folk really trying to change the dial and make a difference, so it was a real pleasure – and a bit of a journey of discovery for me – to write about that, as well as hidden gems like St Ninian’s Cave and Whithorn. So I’d definitely like to put this wee bit of Scotland on the map a bit too.
Paper Cup is published by Canongate Books, and Karen Campbell will be at Edinburgh International Book Festival on the 23rd of August, with Charlie Roy.