Cal Flyn has been shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award, with Islands of Abandonment. In this interview, we find out more about the writing process.
What does being shortlisted for the 2021 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award mean to you?
It has been extremely exciting. Honestly, it’s quite surreal – but I’m terribly grateful. I’m so please and so flattered to be included on this list with Megan Nolan, Caleb Azumah Nelson, Rachel Long and Anna Beecher.
What made you want to be a writer, and when did you first start writing?
I guess I always was a writer—I remember writing my first ‘novel’ with a felt tip pen and some stapled-together sheets aged around four or five. But I didn’t always expect to make a living at it. I wrote fiction and poetry all the way through my teenage years (without much attempt at publishing it anywhere, I wrote out of what felt like necessity), and later got into student journalism which was my first introduction to nonfiction writing.
After graduation I found an entry level job as a researcher at news digest magazine The Week, and later I was a junior reporter at The Sunday Times, where I worked long hours on fast-moving investigations. It was very exciting but extremely challenging—intellectually, emotionally, physically. I knew I wanted to write-write, as in: write with literary intention, and there wasn’t a huge amount of scope for longer form writing in news. Still, I think it was good for me to spend time in a busy newsroom, learning the basics of how to construct factual narratives. Being a reporter also taught me the importance of getting out and seeing things for my own eyes, for my editors were always at pains to underline the importance of getting out of the office and going to see things and meet people ‘in real life’. I think I’ve carried a lot of those lessons with me into my nonfiction work.
I’ve been freelance since 2012, which is a fancy way of saying I burnt out young and quit my job (by then I was at the Telegraph), and was then completely penniless for a few years while I took my first steps into writing longform journalism and literary nonfiction. But it was at that stage that I began to think more carefully about what I really wanted to be writing and working towards.
How did you come to write Islands of Abandonment?
I wrote an essay for a small magazine called Avaunt, about the perverse beauty of Scotland’s Slate Islands – former slate quarries, now flooded, off the coast of Argyll – which set me thinking about post-industrial aesthetics and the potential of sites like this to gain significant visual, conceptual and ecological interest. It took a while for these thoughts to coalesce into a book idea, but it definitely set something ticking.
Can you tell us a bit more about the writing process? How long did it take you, what did it involve?
The beginnings of any project, I find, are always somewhat obscure. But I wrote down a brief precis of the idea in May 2017, at which point the title arrived magically and fully formed. It all slowly gathered pace after that; that summer I spoke to my editor about it for the first time and she responded with lots of enthusiasm. That was a big relief, because in between my first and second books, I had a false start – a book proposal I sweated over in secret for over a year, which my publishing house was ultimately unconvinced by. I was heartbroken at the time, but I do think that Islands has ended up being the better book.
In the book I travel to 13 different locations, each one serving as an illustration of a different aspect of the ecology or psychology of abandonment: Chernobyl, Cyprus, Detroit, Montserrat, rural Estonia… I undertook those trips over a period of around a year, and finished the manuscript in early 2020. I’d just handed it in and brought a private period of isolation to a close when Covid-19 broke out in Europe, and we all had to hunker down. It was very strange seeing all these images of animals wandering down empty streets—I felt almost like I’d summoned it.
Which writers do you look up to, and why?
So many. In journalism, writers like Elizabeth Kolbert, Sam Knight, Patrick Radden Keefe, who synthesise enormous amounts of information in an engaging, readable and humane way.
I love the intelligence of Rebecca Solnit and Olivia Laing’s essays.
In nature writing, people like Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, Annie Dillard and Jessica J Lee – and so many more – who revel in rich description but also wrestle with big ideas and concepts.
I’m not a poet but I love the work of Seamus Heaney and May Swenson.
I’m not a novelist but I am set alight by the work of Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, Ursula K Le Guin and Cormac McCarthy.
Finally, what are you planning to do next?
I’ve been treading water on a new book idea for a few months – reading here and there, sketching out ideas, speeding off on tangents. I hate the early stages of books, when they feel formless and uncertain, and I can’t wait for it to all click into place. I don’t think I’m far off, but I’m feeling impatient!
Cal Flyn is an author and journalist from the Highlands of Scotland. She has reported for both the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph and writes regularly for publications including Granta, the Guardian and Prospect. Her first book, Thicker Than Water, was a Times book of the year and dealt with the colonisation of Australia and questions of inherited guilt. She was made a MacDowell fellow in 2019, and currently lives in the Orkney Islands.