An English translation of an ancient Icelandic memoir provides the inspiration for the debut novel from writer and broadcaster, Sally Magnusson. Loraine Patrick discovers how the popular news presenter unleashed her imagination to tell this remarkable tale of pirate raids, tragedy, and survival.
It was a real effort to leap off the tree and stop hanging onto the branches of truth or fact,’ says Sally Magnusson, colourfully describing the challenges she faced in writing her first novel in snatched bursts away from her very busy and very public life.
Facts are Sally’s currency as an already successful non-fiction writer, and as a broadcaster and journalist – regularly bringing us the news on Reporting Scotland. ‘It was intensity in bursts,’ she laughs, ‘rather than a thousand words a day in a steady and stately fashion! The idea of shutting yourself away for six weeks to write is an absolute dream because that liberation of the imagination was definitely not something that happened overnight for me,’ she says frankly.
But lets rewind a bit here. I am meeting Sally to discuss her newly published book The Sealwoman’s Gift which has been described as a remarkable feat of the imagination. Sally has taken an incident in Icelandic history, little known outside that culture, and created an incredibly moving story of love, loss, resilience and redemption.
In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland abducting some 400 of its people, including 250 from a tiny island off the mainland called the Westman Islands. They sailed to North Africa and were sold into slavery in Algiers. Although the raid itself is historically documented and looms large in the collective memory, little is historically known about what actually happened to the women and children.
‘Growing up I was aware in a vague sort of way about the raids, in the same way that here in Scotland we are historically aware of Culloden and Bannockburn. I didn’t really have a true understanding of the period until I read an English translation of memoirs from a clergyman called Reverend Ólafur Egilsson. I was staggered by the story he told – his whole family were abducted and sold into slavery.’
It was the fleeting mentions of Ásta, the Reverend’s wife that really got to Sally. ‘I was so interested in everything that she went through yet there were only brief glimpses in the memoir of her. It was a period of time when women everywhere were largely silent. Not much was said about the fact she gave birth on a slave ship, she lost her 11-year-old son in the slave market (he was the first one to be picked by the local governor) and she was left with two little children. We don’t know historically what happened to her but that’s where I tried to imagine what it was like as a woman and a mother in these circumstances.’
Mother of five grown up children, Sally’s family and Icelandic heritage are well known. Her late father Magnus was the long time presenter of Mastermind. He was also a successful translator of Icelandic sagas. ‘I grew up being immersed in this amazing storytelling tradition. It was only as I got older I understood my father had been working on the greatest medieval literature in the world.’ Sally’s late mother Mamie – subject of her best selling book Where Memories Go which chronicled her battle with dementia, was also a journalist. Storytelling was part and parcel of the Magnusson household.
A lot to live up to then when it came to putting pen to paper. ‘I had very high standards of what I wanted to achieve with this book,’ Sally reflects. ‘My degree was in English literature so not only did I have a very good idea of what was required of a novel I had huge expectations of what a novel had to be. I found it difficult to make it as good as I wanted and I went through umpteen drafts trying to wean myself away from checking the accuracy all the time.’
But Sally has certainly pulled it off with fellow authors and critics alike singing its praises. She is looking forward to promoting it at this years Aye Write Festival, a gathering she holds dear. ‘I think per head of population we have more book festivals in Scotland than anywhere else,’ she says ‘there is something very special about being in an auditorium with other people who share a love of books. It’s a wonderful feeling being in an environment where you can enthuse about words with other people who enjoy writing. I am less comfortable about saying “look at me! Come and buy my book!” But that is now part of the business and I take it on the chin.’
She hopes readers get a flavour of two very different worlds, 17th century Iceland and the intensely contrasting experience of 17th century Algiers. ‘It must have been extraordinary for captive Icelanders to step off that slave ship and find themselves in a place so different to their homeland. The contrast in culture, climate, religion and social mores couldn’t be greater.’
Ultimately it is the human story that really sets this book apart. Ásta, the heroine is strong and feisty and Sally hopes readers like her. ‘It’s really a story about marriage,’ she concludes. ‘How do you tackle a relationship you have lost for many years? How do you deal with going back to a situation that made you happy once but now no longer does? How do you find yourself within that? These aren’t just questions for 17th century Iceland or Algiers but questions for all time.’
Aye Write Festival is on 15-25 March
Sally Magnusson is appearing at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 18 March.