Kirsti Wishart is a critically-acclaimed writer whose work has been widely published in a variety of literary journals and anthologies. The Knitting Station is her first novel, and she spoke with SNACK to tell us all about it.
What can you tell us about The Knitting Station?
The novel’s set in the early 1960s and features Hannah Richards as its heroine, gay at a time before liberation. Hannah’s a former Bletchley Park code-breaker who’s suffered a breakdown and along with a group of other patients she’s taken to Tharn, an island famed for its fantastic knitwear, for a bout of knitting therapy. Supervised by experimental psychologist Doctor Frederickson, she’ll be staying at the Knitting Factory, a Studio 54 for the Highlands, run by the mysterious Madame Jeanne.
The Madame’s innovative concepts in knitwear have brought her into conflict with the native knitters, most notably the formidable Mrs Montgomery. Whilst negotiating the tensions of the island, Hannah becomes convinced it’s about to be invaded by Russian agents, but can’t be sure if it’s a symptom of her madness or not. In her various escapades to find out she’s assisted by a Glaswegian teenager called Senga, East End starlet Elsie Brixton, and Bette, a sinister sheep.
It’s been described variously as ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Nancy Drew’ and ‘John Buchan on mushrooms’, which pretty much sums it up.
What were the influences you drew on?
The initial inspiration was a collection of knitting patterns from the sixties a friend at work brought in. They depicted a fascinating subculture, with each cover seeming like a screenshot, showing such scenes as an older gent giving a younger lad a lesson in archery or one young woman showing quite an intense interest in her friend’s cardigan. Stars like Roger Moore and Twiggy appeared in them, and while they maybe weren’t quite the TikTok of their day, I could imagine people obsessing over the glamorous, wool-centred world that was depicted.
There’s a film I almost hesitate to mention, as on watching it readers will realise just how much I ripped it off. It’s called Went The Day Well? and it features the likes of Thora Hird and the Home Guard having to defend an English village from an invasion of Nazis. It’s also a tribute to a certain type of middle-aged woman you don’t tend to find too often these days, working as a sturdy, slightly fierce receptionist/school teacher/nurse called Margaret, Hilda or Muriel.
In Primary Three one afternoon our class joined a Primary Six one. Mrs Bremner, a tiny, wren-like, white-haired teacher chose to read to a bunch of impressionable seven-year-olds the opening chapter of The Thirty-Nine Steps, ending with a character ‘skewered’ to the floor.
We were led away mildly traumatised and had to wait until we were old enough to read the rest to find out what happened. That combination of the genteel old wifie and sudden violence obviously stayed with me for the later chapters. It could result in an Ofsted inspection these days, but who knew it would lead to a lesbian-led cosy thriller caper years later?
Although this is your debut novel, you have been widely published in literary journals and collections. Did you differ in your approach to writing it? If so, what difficulties did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?
Whilst this is my first published novel, it’s my third written, so I felt fairly comfortable with the novel form by then. I’m also fortunate enough to belong to an excellent writers’ group who provided a huge amount of help and guidance along the way.
The novel started out being a tricky mix of a sensitive, Sarah Waters-like portrayal of a damaged heroine offered recovery by an island community and a straightforward romp. It took a while to realise where my true strengths lay, and so out came the literary stuff and it was full pelt with psychedelic Highlanders, drug-fuelled stovies and knitters toting machine guns.
The shadow of Scottish writer John Buchan is cast over The Knitting Station, someone who divides opinion among readers. Why are you drawn to his work (assuming you are), and can you understand other people’s reservations?
I can completely understand why people might object to Buchan’s work and they’d be right to do so! He worked for the Ministry of Information and his novels are imbued with an imperial, hierarchical view of the world we’re still in the slow process of dismantling.
My PhD was about Scotland’s place within the British Empire and it was inevitable a chapter would be devoted to Buchan, his novels seeping into my subconscious. A few years ago, though, I tried to re-read The Thirty-Nine Steps and couldn’t get beyond the views expressed, albeit through the mouthpiece of that character who ends up pinned to the floor.
While I might object to his political views, he is a hugely influential figure, grandfather to the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne.
The narrative momentum pulls you along, not unlike the set of handcuffs Hitchcock introduced to the film version of The 39 Steps, locking Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll together.
Books like Huntingtower or The Island of Sheep are perfect holiday reading if you’re staying in a cottage with a roaring fire and the rain lashing against the window. Hopefully The Knitting Station interrogates that appeal, playing with certain tropes whilst attempting to undermine some of the social attitudes.
Are there other Scottish writers who also inform the novel?
Robert Louis Stevenson is an obvious influence, with Hannah more a Stevensonian heroine than a Buchanite one. Although Stevenson’s regarded as one of the godfathers of the modern adventure story, his heroes, like David Balfour in Kidnapped, offer a complex, sensitive exploration of masculinity very different to the confident Hannay.
Davey is surprisingly useless as an action hero: he’s nearly tricked to his death by his Uncle Ebenezeer, gets stuck on an island for so long that he starts trying to eat limpets, until the passing locals point out he could have walked off it. He bursts into tears at the end of the novel because he suspects he’s never going to see his best friend again, ending a fine bromance between him and Alan Breck. The ground, both physically and emotionally, is always unsteady under Davey’s feet, which creates an appealing vulnerability I hope Hannah emulates.
It almost feels sacrilegious to say this, but Muriel Spark was an influence and there’s deliberately more than a touch of the Miss Jean Brodies about Madame Jeanne. Spark’s novel The Abbess of Crewe is an odd, mystifying and very funny book about a nunnery under the watchful gaze of the Abbess.
It riffs on the Watergate scandal and I wanted to emulate that yoking together of the seemingly antithetical; in Spark’s case surveillance and nuns, in my case knitters and guns. Another excellent Edinburgh-born writer, Shena Mackay, whose prose has a vivid lushness, provides the inspiration for the novel’s colour palette.
Scottish visual artists such as Phoebe Anna Traquair were a strong influence, along with Steven Campbell’s paintings of tweed-clad, ginger-haired heroes trapped by unbiddable landscapes.
The Knitting Station is published by a fairly new publisher, Rymour Books. Was there something about working with them which appealed, and did the reality live up to your expectations?
Working with Rymour was a happy accident and goes to show how random getting published can be. I’d sent a proposal to 404 Ink’s excellent Inklings series on psychogeography and been rejected, saw a tweet welcoming Rymour to the Scottish publishing fold and followed them. They followed me back and I cheekily DMd them asking if they’d be interested in a book on psychogeography.
To my delighted dismay, they got back within the hour to say they’d be very interested. After years of waiting nine months for a publisher to say, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ this came as a shock and I had to confess the book was yet to be written. Would they be interested in a novel instead…?
Thankfully Ian Spring, the eccentric (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying) genius behind Rymour said yes. Publication has been a steep learning curve; there’s a vulnerability to having your book out there, but it’s fantastic finally having the opportunity to experience it.
What’s next for you in terms of your writing?
The Projectionist should be published by Rymour later in the year. It’s about a world famous film critic, Cameron Fletcher, turning up at the Film Festival held at Seacrest, a town obsessed with cinema in the same way Tharn is obsessed with knitting. As Fletcher was presumed to be either dead or an entirely imaginary character dreamt up by a ‘Luther Blissett’-like group of critics and directors, this causes shock waves throughout the Seacrest inhabitants.
Then it’s hopefully a book about some very Scottish superheroes and then…oh yes, that psychogeography one. So I’d best get out walking.