WHEN she was 10, around the time of the poll tax riots, Kirstin Innes went on her first protest march. “I was brought up in a politically active household,” she tells me nearly 30 years later. “The poll tax was my first awareness of injustice. I have memories of being taken on marches saying, ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.’”
These days Innes is 39 years old, has two very young children of her own and a growing reputation as Scotland’s literary next big thing. But that 10-year-old marcher is still in there somewhere.
Maybe you can spot her waving from the margins of the pages of her new book Scabby Queen. It’s a big, bold, ambitious, and, best of all, impressively confident novel about class, gender, pop and, yes, political activism.
Innes’s first novel Fishnet won the Not the Booker Prize in 2015 and is currently being adapted for television. And now Scabby Queen has arrived garlanded with praise from the likes of Janice Galloway and AL Kennedy (both of whom Innes grew up reading, so quite an endorsement, one would imagine).
Taking us from Kilbarchan to a Brixton anarchist squat, and from the Top of the Pops studio to the violent G8 protests in Genoa and the night of the indyref vote, Scabby Queen is a novel about the world we’ve been living in for the past 30 years. The result is deeply humane and hugely engaging. Good as Fishnet was, Scabby Queen feels like a real step forward.
Innes thinks so too. “Yes,” she says, when I suggest as much. “To be honest, the way it was written around babies there was just no space and time for writer’s block. I couldn’t really second-guess myself.”
It probably helped that Innes has another decade of life experience under her belt. “I’m 10 years older on finishing this one than I was when I started the first one.”
She started writing Scabby Queen in 2015. Three years and two pregnancies later it was complete. “I finished it two weeks before my youngest child was born in 2018.”
That’s a proper deadline, I suggest. “I didn’t think I would have writing time for a good couple of years if I didn’t get it finished before that. And it turned out I was right.”
It is the beginning of July 2020 when we speak, and Innes is at home in Lochwinnoch where she has lived for the past five years with her partner and fellow author Alan Bissett. She’s fitting the interview in between childcare.
“The playparks have reopened and it’s not raining, so my children are not in the house and I’m not likely to be interrupted,” she tells me when I call. Apart from a dodgy phone signal, so it proves.
Read More: Tori Amos on grief, anger and resistance
Both having attended anti-poll tax marches aside, I think it’s fair to say that Innes is emphatically not Clio Campbell, the political activist and one-hit wonder who is at the heart of her new novel. Campbell is an impassioned, outspoken, and often (mostly?) difficult woman, someone who revels in chaos. Innes? Well, not so much. “I’m not a mass fan of drama,” she admits.
Clio – and this is not a spoiler – takes her own life at the beginning of the book. Her story is then told to us through the voices of the people who knew her, from family and friends to music managers and fellow activists. It’s a book that examines the idea that other people are essentially unknowable to us, while at the same time giving the readers a fully rounded fictional creation.
“I’d come up with the idea of a person who passes through life making lots of very intense short friendships, relationships, and then kind of blowing them up,” Innes explains. “And the idea was always to see that character from the different points of view of the people whom she met along the way.
“I had heard about someone who took their own life and left their body for their flatmate to find. I was very interested in that. There is a huge outpouring of grief for the person and all I could think about was the flatmate, the person left behind, and that act of selfishness at the end of your life. What sort of state of mind do you have to be in to get to that stage?
“These were the starting points. The politics and the celebrity all came about because I wasn’t doing too much writing in 2016 because my first child was born, but I was taking it all in.
“I was very distressed with what I was seeing with the Brexit referendum and just the heightening of tensions. It seemed like we were walking back – it still does – on a lot of the progress that had been made over the past few decades, in terms of equalities and human rights. I had a very small baby. It had been quite a traumatic birth. And I coped, it seemed, by shutting everything out. But, actually, I was absorbing it.”
Was there a specific model for Clio? Not really, she says. “Once I’d realised, she was going to be Scottish and a pop star there were other Scottish pop stars from the 1980s and 1990s in there, but none of them were models for her at all. I made a Pinterest board and I looked at how Lorraine McIntosh, Clare Grogan, Eddi Reader and Tori Amos dressed in that period. But she’s very much her own thing.”
If anything, the late Carrie Fisher has more claim on influencing Clio than most.
“A lot of celebrities died in 2016 and I was interested in the coverage. Carrie Fisher was getting horrendous abuse for being an older woman who had not stuck to her svelte younger form and had political opinions. And then she died, and it was like she was suddenly sainted.
“It got me thinking about how we generally prefer our celebrities to be either young and pretty or dead and voiceless.”
It’s an idea she returns to later in our conversation when we’re talking about the commodification of sexuality in the media. At one point in the novel Clio describes the world of pop as a ”sexist shark pool,” to a fellow singer.
“It’s difficult for any woman in the public eye to escape that sexualisation,” Innes suggests. “Somebody like Mary Beard, who is there because of her intellect, still gets this ridiculous abuse about her appearance.”
Awful as that is, there are worse crimes committed against women. The novel’s Brixton section riffs on the Spycops scandal which was made public in 2011, when it was revealed that members of the Metropolitan police, having infiltrated political groups, fathered children with activists whilst undercover.
“I was so appalled by the fact that there would be children in their late teens now created out of this situation, and I really wanted to take some time and imagine what it would have been like to be one of those people,” Innes says.
What Scabby Queen also recognises is that activism is itself liable to the same stresses and divides as the rest of society. Middle-class activism and working-class activism can be different things, after all.
“And then black working-class activism,” Innes adds. One of the challenges in the novel was to capture the voice of a young black woman from Brixton. “It was really important that I got Sammi’s voice right. I went through sensitivity reads. She’s my favourite character in the book, the one I feel personally closest to, and it was very important to me to get that right. I hope I’ve managed it.”
Clio, all red hair and lipstick, is a proud example of Scottish working-class glamour, you might say. Indeed, Clio does say. Is that something Innes is aware of in her own life?
“My partner’s family are massively glamorous. I get incredibly intimidated by them at weddings by just how amazingly glam they go. I was thinking about Clio and it was really important to me that she was working class, that she wasn’t a middle-class activist. And, yeah, the double standards about how lefty you can be if you’re still shaving your legs, for example.”
With kids who are just four and two, Innes’ own political commitment has, she admits, taken a step back of late. “Without wanting to reduce the whole thing down to parenthood, I’m immediately less willing to take risks and put my neck out. My first priority has to be getting two tiny children through another day. It is all-consuming.”
That said, she adds, “the current intensity is making it very, very difficult to be complacent about activism, or let yourself off the hook. I think that’s a good thing. I needed a kick up the bum like that.”
Her character Clio, it should be noted, never needs a kick up the bum when it comes to political commitment. She is constantly engaged, even when others are not.
“I was interested in the blandness of the1990s and the noughties comparatively,” Innes says, “and I was thinking how frustrating for Clio, someone forged in the Miners’ strike and the poll tax riots, would find the way that we protested. The massive anti-climax of the Iraq war protests, the blandness of Make Poverty History.’”
You couldn’t say that about the moment we are living through now, of course, with things like the Black Lives Matter campaign. “I’m interested in seeing where things are going,” Innes agrees.
But maybe at this point we should pull back and see where they started, for Innes at least.
Kirstin Innes grew up in Edinburgh, the daughter of a single mum. She spent much of her time at her grandma’s reading all the books she found there. “Most of them were old crumbling things. I get a wee flashback any time I’m in a charity shop, that particular old book smell.”
She was a pupil at James Gillespie’s High School, “following the footsteps of Muriel Spark,” Innes says. Actually, she’s currently working on a screenplay about Spark.
Paint me a picture of the teenage you, Kirstin. “At 17, 18 I was a former Goth. I was the editor of the high yearbook and I was dating a boy on the football team. It was a big scandal.
“I was reading a lot. I was really lucky that my teen years coincided with this magnificent boom in Scottish realist, beautifully written fiction. I was reading Janice Galloway and AL Kennedy and Irvine Welsh and Ali Smith as a late teenager. This was writing that focused on contemporary Scotland and that’s where I’ve always thought to write because of that apprenticeship. Alan Spence as well.
“That was my forging, I guess. I think by the time I was 17 the cannabis leaf nose stud had fallen out for sure.”
When did Kirstin the reader start thinking of becoming Kirstin the writer? “I can’t even put a date on it. When my grandma died my mum produced all these stories she had found that I had typed up on my grandma’s old typewriter and illustrated when I was eight or nine. According to my mum, I used to say that I was going to be a teacher in the daytime, a ballerina at the weekends, a nurse in the evenings and write books in my spare time. So, it’s always been there. Words are my comfort.”
And the words keep coming. When she’s not promoting the new novel or looking after her kids, she’s got that Muriel Spark screenplay to be going on with. And then there’s the second draft of a play about Scottish country dancing she’s been working on for the National Theatre of Scotland. “It’s such a pre-Covid play,” she laments. “Dancing with strangers. It feels like the least likely play that will happen in the next five years, all of a sudden.”
She still has to earn a living being a publicist for the arts from time to time, it should be noted. But does she call herself a writer in public now? “Sometimes, if I’m feeling brave, when a taxi driver asks me, I’ll say I’m a writer.”
Inevitably, we talk about the moment we are living through. I wonder if, given the state of the world, it would be a worthwhile experiment to turn governance over to women for a while.
“I’m watching what I say here, thinking about the fury this could spark in the Herald comments section,” she replies with understandable caution.
I was just thinking, I say, of the example of someone like New Zealand’s Prime Minister. “Jacinda Ardern is doing an absolutely amazing job. Her child is almost exactly the same age as my youngest.
“Oof, I’m wary of sweeping statements. I don’t want to say there’s something innate in women … However, what we are seeing is that women leaders are much less susceptible to macho bollocks and displays of virility through politics.
“You wouldn’t really catch Jacinda Arden and Nicola Sturgeon having a press-up competition, would you? They‘d be too busy getting the f*** on with it.
Is there reason to be an optimist then? “I am optimistic. The Scottish Book Trust asked me to write a personal essay for their website and I wrote that it would be impossible to get my kids up, get their teeth brushed and get them through the day without optimism. I’ve got to believe we’re going to make this better.
“I’m a very cautious optimist. I’m a pessimistic optimist. But as exhausting as activism can be, we’ve got to keep on trying to make a better world.”
There is hope. Today’s teenagers, after all, seem the very antithesis of the idea that young people are not interested in politics.
“ It was possibly the case for my generation,” she suggests. “We were distracted by Britpop and Cool Britannia. I have so much admiration for teenagers now. They’re amazing, they’re absolutely amazing. They’re not taking any shit. I am excited to see where that energy goes. I really am. I want to raise my kids in the spirit of that energy as well and make them aware of it.”
Early days yet. But at least the new generation are following in the family tradition, Innes says.
“I took them on the climate march last summer in Glasgow. They both fell asleep.”
Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes is published by Fourth Estate on Thursday, priced £12.99.