Article published on April 14, 2016.
Reviewer Judith Griffith loved The Letters of Ivor Punch and was so impressed with the writing she found it hard to believe it was a first novel – in fact, it went on to win the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival’s First Book Award.
Judith jumped at the chance to ask Colin a few questions about the book and he very kindly replied:
Firstly, congratulations on winning the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s 2015 First Book Award! They obviously know a good book when they read one (as do I, I might modestly add!) You’re known primarily as a musician but you grew up in a family of wordsmiths in one form or another, didn’t you? Was writing a novel something you’d always planned to do?
Thank you. I did grow up around writers and I have always wanted to write. Even as my music career has developed I have always been more interested in listening and studying writers and how they work and craft. My grandfather, Angus Macintyre, was the bank manager on the isle of Mull, but throughout his life he was a published poet and is still in print. He was known as the ‘Bard of Mull’ and was an amazing character. He lived above the bank so ‘the bank flat’ was a focal point for the community and many drams were poured late into the night with friends during poetry recitals, including some of the most ludicrous but entertaining stories you could wish to hear. My uncle, Lorn Macintyre, is a novelist, poet and short story writer too, so it has been inspiring to see others in my family forge a writing career. Our family also have lineage back to the 18th century Gaelic warrior-poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre, so I should really own a shield.
They (whoever ‘they’ are!) say that it’s easier to write about what you know and obviously as a musician you’ve travelled to a lot of different places. Was there any particular reason you decided to base the novel on Mull and write about people like Isabella and Henrietta Bird for example, as opposed to your musical experience and life away from the island?
I have found on my travels and tours that being away from the island makes home, and the smells, sounds, characters, the salt of the Atlantic, seem even stronger and more present. I was never really interested in documenting life from the tour bus. With my songwriting I have learned to just get out of the way and let the emotion, the rush, or whatever the song needs to say, come through – it feels like jumping off a creative cliff, in a good way. And so with writing I’ve gradually found that I can do the same there too – if it’s not authentic, or comes from the real place, then it doesn’t mean anything. Weirdly, when I decided to embrace home and call myself Mull Historical Society my music career took off, and similarly, with my writing, when I decided to write about the landscape, people, that I knew, a fictional island emerged that felt real. I also wrote a lot of the novel on the other side of the Atlantic in the U.S., and so the Atlantic became as big a character in the novel, and I realised the ocean has something universal about it. An island community is not so different from a global one. In fact, a global community can possibly learn some things from an island community. The Bird sisters opened up the doors to the Victorian era for me. I loved writing those sections.
There are some famous people who make an appearance (or are name-checked) in the novel. Did you know from the beginning who you were going to include and was there anyone who you originally planned to include but who didn’t make the final cut?
I can’t remember when I decided Charles Darwin would arrive on the island, but the chance to have this man of science, with the ink on ‘On The Origin of Species’ barely dry, become spooked by the spirit of the Bible-worshiping Duncan Punch (Ivor’s forebear on the island) was too good to refuse. I now have people asking me if Darwin did in fact alight on Mull; I’ve created a myth in a sense. I myself also appear in the novel, and I wondered about keeping that in, but it started to write itself. I felt it was justified especially as I’m held in very low esteem by those mentioning me in the novel. There’s a shorter way of saying that.
The novel has some sad and poignant moments but also many, many episodes of sheer delight, like the developing courtship between Henrietta and Punch (which I loved!) and Ivor and the Punch sense of humour that provides the reader with some proper laugh-out-loud moments. There are a number of characters in the novel who could vie to be the readers’ favourite – do you have a favourite character (or is that like asking a parent which is their favourite child?!)
I’m glad you liked the Victorian-era courtship of Henrietta Bird and Duncan Punch. I like both those characters as well. I am very interested in these men, which the Hebrides seems to breed, who say very little but somehow say so much. They can deliver character assessments with just one-word (usually it involves a swear, or just simply, ‘Well…’), and they have terrific descriptive phrases. Henrietta, or my incarnation of her, was fun to write because in real life she was the sister who stayed at home (on Mull for a period), while Isabella travelled and documented the world to notoriety in her letters. But I was more interested in what Henrietta’s life would have been like, imagining what could happen if the man delivering her sister’s famed letters became more significant to Henrietta than the content of the letters. Alexander is another character I feel close to. There is an implication that he might have written the novel.
Ivor has made his way into your music now with ‘The Ballad of Ivor Punch’ on your latest album. Was that always planned or was it just a natural progression to link your literary writing and your music?
W&N asked me if I might write a song linked to the book. Again, I thought if it feels real then I’ll see what comes out. I had a melody that I liked and often would use it to sing to my little girls about dogs and cats on our road, and one day I found myself singing it about peat-stained clothes, and a plane that sunk its nose, and well, it morphed into ‘The Ballad of Ivor Punch’. Now it is the lead single from my new MHS album, ‘Dear Satellite’. In some ways it is an accident, but I’m delighted with the track, and the album/single are released a week before the paperback of my novel, so it’s nice to tie my two creations aligning in a sense. Of course, now I’m getting asked at home to go pretty smartish and record the real cats and dogs version…
I also loved the book’s Island Historical and Archaeological Society and their beef with a certain Mr. MacIntyre! Obviously the opportunity for a small cameo in your own book was too good to miss (and who can blame you?!) but I’m assuming that there are parallels with your own band name and Mull’s actual Historical Society?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier, I just went with it (me appearing in the novel) and it stuck. I did originally adopt the name of the real Mull Historical Society after writing a song of that name. I was at university in Glasgow and when I hit upon that song it was that authentic moment for me when I stopped sounding like somebody else and started to find my own sound. Basically I was home on a visit and I saw their AGM poster in the window of the Tobermory town hall, and so I imagined this fictitious group running the island in some sort of Hebridean version of ‘1984’ (‘we’re walking your dogs so you cannot let us down…’). And so after my career had taken off as MHS the real MHS changed their name to the ‘Mull Historical & Archaeological Society’ (MHAS) to maintain their distinction. Relations between both bodies have been good historically. But then in ‘The Letters of Ivor Punch’ I created two characters, Pluto, and the island’s undertaker, Dave the Grave, to run the MHAS. Then I wondered what would happen in the novel if I too decided to change my artist name to Mull Historical & Archaeological Society…
Do you have any favourite authors? What are you reading at the moment?
I love Per Petterson. I have been really inspired by Marilynne Robinson, possibly my favourite writer. Right now I’m reading more non-fiction, art books and the like. Philip Roth has also inspired me, so much so that I might have fictionalised him in my novel. I also like anything produced by an organisation called the Mull Historical & Archaeological Society, particularly their coastal walks pamphlets. But don’t jump…
What three books would you take back to Mull with you?
Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (I’ve also written a song of that name). Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, because it has been sitting like a brick in front of me for six months saying ‘read me’.
I’ve read that you’re now writing your second novel. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It is set in London, but also features a particular treeless island in the Hebrides. It is about the search for truth, and how two people can have a different interpretation of the same events that can shape their entire life. During WWII, some unidentified dead naval bodies occasionally washed up on Hebridean shores, and one had been buried by the local community in the graveyard beside my childhood home in Tobermory. All it reads on the gravestone is ‘KNOWN UNTO GOD, 1945’. So I’ve decided I need to try and fill in the gaps…
Finally, is it true that there is no Gaelic translation for genital warts?!
This type of important debate was the soundtrack to my youth in said bank flat. I am still consulting with several Gaelic experts in the field; all I know is a lot of people are itching to know the answer.
Thanks to both Colin and Judith for a revealing interview.
You can read Judith’s review in full here.
All islands have their secrets. This one has more than most.
When Fingal McMillan rows out into the Atlantic never to return, his grandson Alexander is left with questions. What really happened to Alexander’s mother? Was his grandfather trying to reach The Looming, a rock of local myth? And why have mysterious words appeared on the cliff by the bay?
Alexander is not the only local boy whose origins are clouded by mystery – a mystery which stretches back to Victorian times, when a pioneering travel writer alighted on Scottish shores. But will the island give up its secrets? Or will Ivor Punch – the man who links the past to the present – take them to the grave?
A gloriously heartfelt, funny novel set on a Scottish island from musician Colin MacIntyre aka Mull Historical Society.
The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre is published by W&N on 14 April, 2016, in paperback at £8.99
About the author
Colin MacIntyre is an award-winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who has released seven albums to date, most notably under the name Mull Historical Society, so far achieving two Top 20 albums and four Top 40 singles. He has been voted Scotland’s Top Creative Talent and has toured worldwide, including with The Strokes, Elbow and REM, and has played all the major festivals. He has performed live on BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, 6 Music, Later with Jools Holland and The Jonathan Ross Show, among many others. He is the co-author of a Radio 4 Afternoon Play, and has collaborated with Tony Benn and Irvine Welsh. His other musical project is Field Stars, an electro art-pop collaboration. Born into a family of writers and storytellers, Colin grew up on the isle of Mull in the Hebrides but now lives in London. His debut novel, The Letters of Ivor Punch, won the Edinburgh International Festival’s 2015 First Book Award.
Find out more about Mull Historical Society at www.mullhistoricalsociety.com
Find out more about Colin MacIntyre at www.colinmacintyre.com