I'm thrilled to share this special interview with James Dixon to celebrate the publication of his debut children's novel, The Billow Maiden (Guppy Books, July 2022). We chat Norse mythology, mental health, writing advice and more!
Congratulations on the publication of your debut children’s book James! For readers yet to discover The Billow Maiden (Guppy Books, July 2022), can you give us a little taste of what’s in store?
Thank you very much! It all revolves around an ailing selkie and two young girls struggling with very different issues in their home lives. Ailsa, my protagonist, is staying with her aunt and uncle on a remote Scottish island. Her mum is sick and they are looking after her. There, she discovers a billow maiden - a mermaid or selkie-like creature, dying on land without her sea skin - and befriends Camilla, the daughter of a local gangster type. Together, Ailsa and Camilla have to save the billow maiden, digging into their own families’ pasts in the process.
What was the original inspiration behind your story, and how did you go about bringing this to life?
I’ve always loved Celtic, British, and Norse folklore, and always wanted to write about it. They are so wrapped up with the natural world, inseparable from it, that I think they are worth revisiting time and time again - now more than ever. I wanted to find a way to link the world’s health with some form of mythical, folkloric creature, which brought me to selkies. In fact, one of my original working titles for the novel was THE RISING TIDE. In looking into selkies and similar creatures, I rediscovered the billow maidens, sort of Nordic myth’s answer to mermaids. One of them is named Hefring, which means the rising tide! It was complete coincidence, but it put me on the right path. From then on, it was simply a case of developing the characters and finding the journey they would all go on together.
Can you tell us a bit more about your setting in The Billow Maiden and your research process behind this?
It’s a gestalt setting rather than a real island. Of course, though I make no mention of it, anybody reading The Billow Maiden who is familiar with the Scottish islands will recognise them within it. It is very much a Hebride - or a not-quite-Hebride. I’ve spent time on Skye, which really played into it. On a smaller scale, the island of Newport is just an hour or so’s journey from my home in Glasgow. Its rolling hills and lovely town are very much present in the setting, as is Ullapool far to the north, with its beautiful, old fashioned harbour.
My wife and I stayed at a hotel in Stranraer as I was about to begin writing The Billow Maiden. It was a working lighthouse, stuck out on a craggy promontory, whose living quarters and outhouses had been converted into the hotel space. This went straight it - Camilla’s dad has just bought a lighthouse to convert into a hotel and she and Ailsa hole Hefring up in there whilst they work out how to save her.
Going south, there is a lot of Cornwall in the book, too. I spent every summer as a child exploring the caves along the Cornish coast - it’s proper smugglers territory, very Poldark. I lifted them, plonked them in the Hebrides, and had Ailsa discover Hefring in one of them.
What are your top three favourite book settings that you’ve read?
For sense of place, I would go with Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom, David Almond’s The Colour of the Sun, and perhaps anything set in the Hundred Acre Wood, or maybe Farthing Wood. These aren’t backdrops to their stories. They are living, breathing characters, without whom something vital and irreplaceable would be lost.
Were there any particular authors or books that were valuable to you when writing The Billow Maiden?
I’ve mentioned David Almond once already. I’ll have to do so again. I had all the pieces there for The Billow Maiden - the characters, where I wanted them to go, what I wanted to happen, what I wanted to explore and bring out of them. I just didn’t quite know how to make it flow. Then I remembered two books - Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness. I had read them myself as a child - in fact, I was quite obsessed with them. I downloaded them onto my Kindle, reread them both, and thought ‘right, so that’s how you do it, OK.’ Everything sort of came together after that. Not to put myself on par with them, it’s just that I would encourage anybody looking to write a novel (any kind of novel, for any audience) to read them. They are each perfectly told, perfectly paced, beautiful, soulful books.
The Billow Maiden is rooted in ancient Norse mythology. Can you tell us a bit more about Hefring’s backstory and why you decided to draw on her story in particular?
I touched on this above, but really it sprang from my research into Selkies. Most mythological traditions have their own form of them - mermaids, sirens, billow maidens, and so on. The billow maidens are nine sisters of the sea, daughters of Ægir, a giant, and Rán, a goddess. They are atavistic, capricious, and thoroughly elemental. Each one is named after an aspect of the sea - as above, Hefring is named for the rising tide. The name was so perfect - it was my original working title, quite by happenstance - that I had to go with it. I’m not superstitious, and I don’t believe in fate or anything like that, but this was a good one… very much serendipity.
I really admired your exploration of the natural world and the healing, transformative powers it harbours, both for Hefring’s and Alisa’s mum’s physical and mental recovery. Why was this important for you?
Thank you very much. This was the motive for the entire story. I started from this theme, this seed, and built everything up from there.
Firstly, I wanted to marry the idea of our own health and wellbeing to that of our natural environments’ - for obvious, very pressing reasons. Without the natural world thriving around us, there is no chance at health and happiness. Hefring was very much the avatar of this line of thought.
Secondly, it’s a very personal story. I am bipolar, though I prefer the old-fashioned term manic depressive. Hence Ailsa’s mother and her journey - I make it very clear that her unnamed health condition is in large part mental, with depression crippling her periodically. I personally take great comfort from nature. I wrote this novel during covid lockdown, when my whole life seemed to be walking my dog in the woods. Ironically, given what the world was going through, I had never felt better. It was liberating, and I wanted to capture it in my story.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
Honestly, I hope they enjoy it and find it beautiful. Anything on top of that is a plus. It’s about environmental awareness, mental health and wellbeing, and plenty more besides. But, after all, it’s just a story - if they enjoy it, if it lightens their life a little, then I’ll be very happy.
The Billow Maiden is your debut children’s book and the winner of the Guppy Books 2021 Open Submission, what brought you into writing for children, and do you have any tips or advice for aspiring children’s writers?
It’s my debut children’s book, but my second published novel. My first novel, The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle was shortlisted for the 2018 Somerset Maugham Award by the Society of Authors. I went to the awards ceremony, of course, and got chatting to the compere for the evening - Philip Pullman. I came away from a good conversation with him full of enthusiasm to write for younger audiences!
I would tell any children’s writer to not write for children. There should be limited differences to a story for children and one aimed at adults. Of course, there will be some no-go areas, and certain types of language you have to avoid (thanks to Bella at Guppy Books for helping me toe this line!) But it’s the same. Children demand a good story, emotional connection, and something with a bit of depth. They will know when they are being patronised, so don’t talk down to them. They can handle and understand far more than you might think. Write a novel, a good story, and the rest will follow.
How did your story change and develop from your first draft to your finished draft, and what’s the greatest lesson you learnt from this?
I had an unconventional route to publishing. I was unagented and Guppy only generally accept solicited manuscripts. However, they hold an Open Submissions competition each year. I entered The Billow Maiden in 2021 and was lucky enough to win. Because of this, I didn’t approach anyone with an idea, a plan, a first draft. It was 90% there when I sent it in. However, the final 10% was a very vital 10%. The ending was rubbish, the pacing was a little off, and some of my language use was age-inappropriate.
Funnily enough, the ending is now one of the main bits of the book that I get praised on. This is entirely down to Bella at Guppy Books. She helped me to sort out the pacing. She told me what language I could and couldn’t get away with in a middle-grade book. And she and I played tennis with the ending for several months, changing, rewriting, fine-tuning, until it came out as it is now. I couldn’t have got it finished without Bella’s input.
What's next for your writing journey?
I’m currently in the final stages of my next middle-grade book. I can’t say much more, but me and my agent, Jenny Savil, are currently bouncing it back and forth, getting it ready for a final write up, and then for editors to look at. I’m also just beginning another novel aimed at adults - a literary gothic horror that shares a lot in common with The Billow Maiden’s setting.
Let’s talk books! What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you’re loving reading now, and a book you can’t wait to read?
I’ve mentioned a few - Kensuke’s Kingdom, Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness for middle-grade. I was also first generation Potter - I was seven when The Philosopher’s Stone came out. The nineties were a fantastic time for children’s books, with Philip Pullman and Malorie Blackman putting out some sublime work. I remember reading and rereading Pig Heart Boy with great enthusiasm. I also remember The Edge Chronicles very fondly - the illustration and imagination involved blew me away as a kid.
I’ve recently had the pleasure of being introduced to Louisa Reid’s work, also published through Guppy. Reading Gloves Off, a story in verse, is one of the most enthralling, emotionally invigorating literary experiences I’ve had in a long time.
I’m just writing my dissertation for a Masters in philosophy, as well as working on a couple of books myself, so don’t have too much time to read. There is an ever-growing stack next to my bed, and I can’t wait to submit my dissertation so I can jump into it. I’m particularly looking forward to getting into Beverley Birch’s Song Beneath the Tides, which looks like it will be an utterly beautiful read.
If you could invite any five people - past and present, real and fictional - for a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
I’d start with my wife. I’m not just sucking up - she’s a genuine laugh, gives me a massive confidence boost, and I always have a better time when she’s around! I’d probably invite a couple of my favourite writers, too - perhaps David Almond, perhaps Salmon Rushdie, perhaps Angela Carter. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut. There is also a ridiculously long roster of musicians I’d like to invite - too many to go through here, but I think it would be easy to fill those five seats. Maybe Lou Reed on one of his more sober evenings?
James Dixon is a London-born, Glasgow-based novelist, poet, and playwright. His debut novel, The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle (Thistle, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Somerset Maugham Award by the Society of Authors. His debut play, It's My Turn, was performed as part of the 2019 Edinburgh Science Festival, aimed at younger audiences. The Billow Maiden is his first novel aimed at younger readers.
Catch James on Twitter @James_D_Dixon
The Billow Maiden, published by Guppy Books, is out now and available from Bookshop UK here.