Interview: Kirstin Innes – Scabby Queen

Among the most eagerly awaited novels of 2020 is Kirstin Innes’s Scabby Queen, the follow up to her 2015 Not The Booker winning novel Fishnet. Her latest seems a more substantial undertaking in every way, and SNACK caught up with Kirstin to talk to her about it.

Let’s start off with a decidedly straightforward question, what can you
tell us about Scabby Queen?


[laughs] It’s an absolute beast of a book! It’s twice the size of the one that I
wrote before. It’s structured like the card game ‘Scabby Queen’: the idea being that you can’t be left holding the queen. You have to try and hand her on to the other players. So, stretching that a wee bit, you have the story of one woman’s life told by lots of people who knew her along the way. I was interested in a person who had really short, intense, volatile relationships and friendships throughout her life, and how if you strung all those people’s accounts together, what sort of picture you would build up of that person.

There’s a terrible event at the beginning of the book. Was that always
going to be your opening?


This was one of the initial ideas. Somebody I knew did take their own life and left their body for their flatmate to find. And that stuck with me, so I decided to go completely fictional to try and work it all out in my head. It’s specifically the act of leaving your body knowing that there is only one other person who will find it. What would that say about the person who died, and what would that relationship have been like? That was the initial nugget, and from there everything else panned out.

I was thinking about it a lot in 2016, and there were an unprecedented amount of celebrity deaths that year, so it started to make sense that she would be well-known. I didn’t want her to be mega-famous – I don’t actually think that’s interesting. But Z-list famous I thought would be an interesting angle to take.

You use flashbacks to specific times, places, and events. In some ways
it’s a historical novel, just of very recent history. Is that a fair way of
looking at it?


Yeah, it’s the last 50 years or so. But the way the world is moving so quickly
now, with so much news all the time, I think things that happened a comparatively short time ago feel much more distant than they might have done. I suppose it’s technically a historical novel. I had to do some research – Clio, the lead character, is about 12 years older than me, so I was a child through a lot of the things she lives through.

I love a research project anyway, and I did a lot of reading around people’s accounts of those times and events. A major theme of the book centres around what growing up, and growing older, actually means. The expectations of adulthood, if you like.


Image credit: Becky Duncan

It made me reflect, reading it. Did you find the same thing when writing it?

Not really. To be honest, I wrote it around having a baby. The last bit was written in a desperate race to complete it before my second child was born, and I finished it with two weeks in hand. So themes like that are probably indicative of where my state of mind was while I was writing it initially. Since I wrote my last book my life has changed. I’m living in the country, working from home part-time, having kids, getting involved helping and organising community and grassroots projects – that sort of thing.

When I wrote Fishnet I was living in and going out in town, so I guess those sorts of themes were inevitable. But I’m interested in how you tell somebody’s story across the whole of their life, and the way that an individual is not the same at one point as they are at another. Our DNA renews itself every seven years. So what actually constitutes a person?

With Clio I could come down to the fact that she had a shock of red hair and her red lipstick. I could make her recognisable throughout the decades, as she’d got a thing that she clung to, but I think it’s inevitable such ideas arise when you are writing about someone’s life over five decades. There’s a lot written about people in their twenties, but these days I’m much more interested in the whole of a life.

Kirstin Innes’s Scabby Queen is out now, published by 4th Estate


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