Kari Gillespie

5 March 2020

Kari is an MFA student at the University of Surrey.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your debut novel. Can you give the Festival any sneak peaks?

A: It’s a coming of age story set in Dundee in the 1980s. The protagonist is a young woman called Ella who is struggling to fit in after experiencing a traumatic event which has made her angry and reluctant to trust. Ella engages in increasingly risky behaviours, including a particular incident with some magic mushrooms… Her father sends her to a remote boarding school where she meets a group of girls who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary. The novel revolves around the question “what is the truth?”

Q: As a teacher, you kept the phrase “language is power” above the smartboard in your classroom. What do you think is the hardest thing about writing? Is it finding the right language?

A: Finding the right words is a big one! I would also say that finding the most economical way to say what you need to say and being able to strip back the extraneous matter is difficult. I strive to avoid cliché because I believe that if something has been heard before it loses its power. However, some messages need to be repeated, as long as they are contextualised in a new way, relevant to contemporary society.

Q: What is the best part about writing a book like Pilgrim? How did it differ from writing your book of poems, Wonder Child?

A: Pilgrim was a really easy book to write because I journaled every day of my 40 day journey, so I had 40,000 words written at the end; all I had to do was expand what I already had. When I found my agent, they wanted much more ‘me’ in the writing and for Pilgrim to be a journey of self-discovery, which was emotional and, at times, difficult. Wonder Child, meanwhile, was utterly joyful! There were no dark bits! I wanted every child reading the poems to feel like they are the wonder child so it is written from a first-person and gender-ambiguous perspective.

Q: Are you excited to begin the Via Francigena in September, taking you from Canterbury to Rome? Are you planning on turning this voyage into a creative piece?

A: I’m not doing the journey in one go, I’m doing it in sections, so I’m starting the first section in September. I’m not planning to do any writing, however, walking a long distance often opens your mind and I don’t know what ideas may make their way into my mind! The Via Francigena is the longest pilgrimage route we could find – there are longer walks but this is the ultimate pilgrimage route so it’s a big challenge.

Q: You have had a long career as an English teacher. Do you also teach or mentor writers? If not would you like the opportunity to?

A: I have been involved in a few secondary school teaching sessions for my MFA, including a few creative writing workshops. I would love the opportunity to run writing retreats but I feel that it’s important to be published first. I have a lovely garden so I would ideally love to combine the two and run retreats in my garden!

Q: Have you ever had writer’s block and if so, how did you overcome it?

A: Not yet! Since I was a teacher for 25 years, I had so many stories that I just needed to get out! I don’t have a space of my own for writing so people getting in the way is much more of a frustration than writer’s block!

Interview conducted by Beth Roberts.