Decades of teaching English, studying literature and reading crime fiction was the perfect preparation for debut writer Alison Baillie whose first novel Sewing the Shadows Together – a gripping thriller set in Edinburgh – was published last month.
The book, which has received excellent reviews since its publication, had a long gestation, as Baillie, who was brought up in Yorkshire by Scottish parents, explains.
“I got the seeds of the idea when I was teaching in Edinburgh in the 1970s and 80s when several high profile murders took place there including the Robert Black murders,” she says. “I started to think about how the people closest to the victims could ever get over something like that. So I’d had this idea in my head for about thirty years.”
The plot focuses on the aftermath of the brutal murder of 13-year-old Shona McIver in Edinburgh, and the carefully constructed narrative unfolds from the perspective of her brother Tom and her best friend Sarah who, 37 years later, are still haunted by Shona’s untimely death.
Their lives are thrown into turmoil when modern DNA evidence reveals that the wrong man was convicted of the crime and the case is reopened. As the search for the real killer begins Tom uncovers dark secrets that throw suspicion on friends and family, while Sarah’s seemingly perfect home life begins to fall apart.
The book opens with a school reunion as Shona’s contemporaries – including those most deeply affected by her murder – are brought together after a gap of over thirty years. This key scene was inspired by Baillie’s own experience of attending a reunion in 2007 at Ilkley Grammar School where she had been a pupil between the ages of 11 and 18. “Ilkley Grammar was celebrating its 400th anniversary and while I was at the reunion I started thinking ‘this would be the ideal opportunity to get all the characters together’,” she says. “I had an inspirational English teacher at school and I remembered reading the D H Lawrence poem Bat in his class when we were about 13 and that is where the title of the book comes from.”
The poem is reproduced in full at the front of the book and she says that the English teacher in the novel is partly inspired by her own teacher – “only the nice bits”, she adds.
Once she had given up teaching full-time Baillie, who is now based in Switzerland, decided to develop her idea. “I went on two Arvon courses – the first was at Hebden Bridge on starting to write a novel and the other was up in Scotland on crime writing and they both really helped me.”
The choice of crime genre was easy, she says, as she has long been a fan. “I liked Agatha Christie when I was young and I absolutely love Ian Rankin. I especially like Scottish and Scandinavian crime writers – they tend to investigate the psyche of the people involved. There is a strong emphasis on character and motivation and the stories are an exploration of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. That’s what I like reading and I think probably you write what you like to read.”
It took Baillie 18 months to write the book. “The story was almost fully formed in my mind but it changed while I was writing it and I was constantly editing as I went along,” she says. “Of course I am lucky that I have the time and the opportunity to write all day – once I get started I can’t stop.” She has already started thinking about her next book – and has a publisher interested. “I have quite a strong idea and over the winter I’m going to see how I get on with it,” she says. “I don’t have an excuse not to write now.”
• Sewing the Shadows Together, Matador, £8.99. Alison Baillie (nee Maffie) will be talking about her book at The Flying Duck pub, Ilkley on October 1 at 8pm. www.alisonbaillie.com