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From The Sea To The Mountains

How a move to Scotland inspired creative change

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I write this in the old tenement building I now call home, surrounded by the pages of the novel I have been struggling with for over a year. Outside snow is falling and ice is creeping up the traditional sash windows I fell in love with, but have proven to let the cold constantly seep in. As does much of the flat. The temperature in Glasgow is due to drop well below freezing this week, with weather alerts predicting blizzards and gale force winds. Back home, in Portsmouth, my brother tells me, it’s a balmy twenty degrees and so clear you can almost see France from Portsdown Hill. From my flat, I watch the blackbirds outside squeeze their way through the crumbling gaps in the brickwork, as the upstairs neighbour climbs the stairs to our apartment building, his new-born bundled up and pressed against his chest. All of us together, awaiting the storm.

I only spent two nights in Glasgow before I decided to move here. But in the years before that I had found myself in Scotland again and again; putting on plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, rewriting my second novel as a writer in residence at Hawthornden castle and reading at festivals. It has always been the place I found myself at the big moments of my life. A place that felt instinctively like it was somewhere I should be. I want to say then that the first and only time I stayed in Glasgow was one of those moments. That I wandered around the city looking up at its imposing Victorian architecture and had an epiphany, or a feeling in my bones, that this was my home. But the truth was at that time I was suffering through a period of such severe anxiety and insomnia that I was two months late on a book deadline. So instead of wandering into museums, or strolling around the necropolis, I spent most of my time in Wetherspoons, desperately trying to connect to the WIFI so I could finish my copyedits. By the time I got back on a plane home, I was more exhausted than when I’d arrived. All my trip to Glasgow had made me realise was that I needed a change.

It wasn’t until that book came out, on the very week the UK plunged into our first pandemic lockdown, that I decided to go in search of that change. After talking to my agent, I decided it was time to start writing a different kind of book to the children’s novels I’d published so far. The kind I’d wanted to write at the beginning of my career, the kind I was terrified to write. An adult novel about families and secrets and scientific mysteries. One that was set in Scotland. But over the coming weeks, try as I might, I couldn’t find the voice of this new book. So, I went back to the things I did whenever I’d been stuck before. I walked Farlington Marshes, following the trails in the mud left by the ebbing tide. Or up Portsdown Hill, so I could look down over the city and see the edges of England meet the Atlantic Ocean. I went jogging around the neighbourhood at night, crossing paths with stray cats and furtive foxes. I rode my motorbike down to Hilsea Lines, walked to the creek through the graffitied underpass. But all these places were too familiar, too set in the routine of working on other kinds of books. I felt like I was going back to what I knew. Worse, I felt like I was stuck. I thought of the book I was writing, the one set in Scotland, and of all the times I’d find myself thinking about moving there. How over the years I’d made half-hearted plans, before finding a reason not to follow through. They always seemed like good reasons too; I didn’t know anyone in Scotland, it was too far from my family, it was too big a move to make alone. But in all honesty, it had always come down to fear. To me being too scared to make the change, to take the risk. It’s ironic I suppose, then, that it was during a pandemic that I finally found my courage.

In September 2021, I moved into a second-floor tenement flat in Glasgow and started trying to embrace all the things sudden change throws at you. To use it as an excuse to shake up my routine, even take a few risks. As often as the weather and work allows, I have jumped on a train to go and get lost somewhere. One day whilst hiking through a wood, I made friends with a toothless backpacker who said he was on the run from the police. Another day I waded fully clothed into a loch to feel the silt between my toes, the water on my skin. But I didn’t have to go far for new experiences. Since I have been here, I have got wet in ways I didn’t know you could get wet, soaked through to the skin in under five minutes. Jackets, jumpers, shoes, and socks taking days to dry in front of the heater. I have found myself noticing how the sunlight’s different too, how it falls low and warm against the red sandstone tenements of my neighbourhood. How my body doesn’t yet know how to stay awake in the short dark winter days. I’ve even found myself falling in and out of love, in the way you only can when jumping headfirst without any judgment, good or bad. And I find myself surprised at how I never get bored of seeing a snow-capped mountain from a train window. Or how I ache with how much I miss the sea.

It’s December and I have only just been able to pick up the novel again. I realise to my horror most of the tens of thousands of words I have written have to go. That they were written by someone else. Someone whose internal clock had come to know when the tides went in and out, and what time the last train would rattle past my window. Someone who had memorised every bus or train route home, navigated every road and back alley. Someone who hadn’t been lost in years. Who hadn’t felt the joy of discovering a secret park, or a laundrette with its own resident cat. Or felt the kind of hollow, aching loneliness you can only feel alone, in the middle of an unfamiliar city.

So, as I begin to write again, it is as someone whose internal clock doesn’t yet know the rhythm of these shortening days. Or knows who I can call if I get lost. Or what I’m meant to do if we get snowed in. And because of that, I can look at these pages now and know that this book will be different. No longer will I be writing about what it is to find a home, a theme that appeared through all my children’s novels. I’ll be writing about what it takes to leave one. And already I have the stirring of a new plan, one that will change the scope of this novel. One that will push me and test me and make me write about darker themes than I have before. And it scares me. I don’t yet know if these new ideas are the right way forward. I wake up in the middle of the night occasionally, my heart thumping in the dark, wondering if I am the writer who can tell this story. Wondering too, if moving here was a mistake. But I know that I’m all in, heart and soul, ready to take another risk. And that is what life and writing is, after all, a risk of the heart.

Amber Lee Dodd is an award-winning children’s author and short-story writer. Her novels have been translated into several languages and her short fiction has been published internationally. She is currently working on her first novel for adults.

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