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BOOKS: Freya North on new novel Little Wing and why writing sustains her

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Freya North’s head has been full of stories since she was a child. Now her 15th novel, Little Wing, takes her writing to the Outer Hebrides.

Freya recalls that she has always been a daydreamer; “something I was told off for at school which in essence I am now paid to do!” The author started out studying art history before deciding that writing was the career path for her.

“I was all set to do a PhD when I gave it up to write my first novel Sally instead,” she explains, “It took four years to finally land a publishing deal by which time I was half way through my second novel, Chloe. I made ends meet by doing a variety of temping jobs – I loved working on reception as I could write my book at the same time.”

Bulging bookshelves

Her childhood was filled with books and her mother passed on a passion for reading to Freya and her brother. “The walls of our home groaned with crowded bookshelves and we had weekly trips to the library and always book tokens amongst our birthday presents.”

“I was always happy playing on my own when I was a kid, making up worlds and characters – I was never lonely. I suppose my imagination is my greatest asset – but also a bit of a curse because I have a tendency to get lost in thought. For hours on end.”

The author admits that she is captivated by writing and can’t imagine life without putting pen to paper. ” I would be writing still – whether or not I was published,” she says. “Writing sustains me – my head is crowded with stories. I like to believe that I’m my characters’ secretary, taking dictation and putting their stories down on the page. I always feel bereft when I finish my books – I’ve spent such intimate and intense time with the characters and then they are gone.”

Little Wing by Freya North.

Little Wing is just one of many stories that Freya has set in Scotland and her passion for the country is clear. “I have always loved Scotland. My Great Uncle Ralph who was from Leeds jumped ship and ran away to Glasgow where he promptly changed his surname to Burns. When I lived in Manchester I’d often go to Skye and Mull for long weekends. My first novel was partly set in Mull, my second near Loch Lomond.”

In terms of her connection to the Outer Hebrides in particular, she says: “I first went to the Outer Hebrides in 2017 as I was researching a true story that I hope, one day, to turn into a TV drama series based on the District Nurses. 40 years before the creation of the NHS there was an amazing state funded programme of healthcare given to the Outer Hebrides in the form of the district nurse – robust, brave, enterprising resilient care-givers who often rowed boats to reach their patients. They were amongst the most respected members of the community.

Scottish connection

“Whilst I was in Harris I was just bowled over by the wild, brooding beauty and how the weather has formed the land and dictates the lives of those who live there. I had also recently had back surgery and it was on the beach at Luskentyre, eight weeks after my operation, that I went for my first run again. I just felt an overwhelming connection – and knew I had to set a book there and Little Wing, my 15th novel took flight. I chose a character – a pregnant teenager in the late 1960s – who is banished to distant relatives on the island and then I thought how over 30 years later someone would finally come looking for her.”

Inspired by the novels of Thomas Hardy, Freya agrees that she uses, “landscape as a character not a backdrop. My previous novel, The Turning Point was set in British Columbia and that too became something of a spiritual homeland for me.”

I’m determined to set another novel in Harris – either a prequel, a sequel or even both – so that I can return and reconnect with these characters who have meant so much to me. I don’t believe I made them up – they are so real to me.”

Escape from lockdown

Little Wing was written during lockdown and for Freya, it was a welcome escape from the anxiety the Covid pandemic brought to all our lives. “I am fortunate that I live on a lovely little farm in Hertfordshire with horses, dogs, sheep and teenagers – but even so I found lockdown very hard,” she recalls. “I had been struggling with Writers’ Block – but lockdown released it. Never have I experienced more strongly how important writing is to me – and how stories aren’t merely escapism but crucial nourishment for the mind and soul.

“So I sat at my laptop and in my mind’s eye I was back in Harris. Little Wing literally flew from my fingertips and was written in a matter of months. It was very emotional for me to return to Harris in September 2020 – this time to follow in my characters’ footsteps rather than carve the way for them.”

Little Wing by Freya North is out now (Welbeck, £12.99)