Angus Dunn And Peter Urpeth
Inverness Book Festival, Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness, 5 October 2006
The 3rd annual Inverness Book Festival featured a range of writers from all across Scotland and beyond, but this session focused on two first-time novelists based in the Highlands and Islands. Angus Dunn is a man with a colourful career, a joiner to trade and a writer by inclination, while Peter Urpeth, the HI~Arts Writing Development Coordinator, has adopted Lewis as his home.
Both writers have had their first novels published this year, although Dunn’s will not be in the book shops until next week. Both spoke of their radically contrasting fortunes in getting their books published.
Dunn spent five years approaching agents and publishers in intermittent bursts of activity before an introduction brokered by fellow Black Isle writer Anne MacLeod finally opened the door, while Urpeth was accepted by the first agent he approached, the late Giles Gordon, something he put down to fortuitous timing and Gordon’s long-standing support for Scottish writing with a rural than fashionably urban focus.
Despite some common threads running through their books, including a fascination with other-worldly experiences (second sight in Urpeth’s book, portals to parallel universes in Dunn’s), their books are very different.
Urpeth’s “Far Inland” is a compact, highly refined affair set on a Hebridean island and in Glasgow, and reflects his fascination with shamanism and the shared myths and lore of the north Atlantic fringe, while Dunn’s “Writing in the Sand”, set on the Black Isle in the fictional village of Cromness, is a sprawling, episodic tome that began life as a weekly story on a local website, and took on a momentum of its own as he wrote.
If their books were different, the commitment which they brought to writing them was similar. Urpeth began writing his the day after he left his job on a local newspaper in Lewis, and spent the next two years working intensely on it, while Dunn spent five years painstakingly writing and re-writing his own book.
No surprise, then, that both felt that getting the book into print and into the hands of readers was a necessary pay-off for that commitment in time and creative energy.
Setting is important to both books. Urpeth agreed that it was important to engage with your own environment, while Dunn felt that the Black Isle was almost another character in the book, rather than simply a setting.
One lady praised the accuracy with which Urpeth had portrayed island life, while another asked Dunn if his book drew on a Highland oral tradition of ever-embellishing tall takes and fantastical doings. The writer agreed that was very much the case, and that he had been aware of that Celtic/Highland model as he wove the branching and converging strands of his own narrative.
Urpeth had also delved deeply into Highland lore, and also Inuit mythology, and had gone among the older crofters on Lewis seeking out old or very localised Gaelic expressions and beliefs (a glossary of Gaelic words is included in the book). His aim had been to refine and pare-down rather than to welcome proliferation.
Peter Urpeth’s ‘Far Inland’ is published by Birlinn, while Angus Dunn’s ‘Writing in the Sand’ is published by Luath on 19 October)
© Kenny Mathieson, 2006