We’re delighted to welcome to the blog Louise Gray, the award-winning author of The Ethical Carnivore – during the writing of which she ate only animals that she had killed herself as part of a study of the implications of meat-eating. Based between Edinburgh and Torridon, Louise has a background in journalism and previously was environmental correspondent for The Daily Telegraph.
Thanks for dropping in. What, in your opinion, makes a good bookshop?
The lovely, wonderful, hard-working staff. I don’t think I really understood what a good independent bookshop was until I did my first reading in one for my first book, The Ethical Carnivore. It was at Toppings & Co. in St Andrews, and though there was a tiny audience the managers on duty that evening had read my book and taken a real interest in it. I was really nervous and they put me at ease. They helped me pass out maggot flapjacks and asked good questions. There were other readings in much more established places that frankly had the budget to dedicate staff and hours to giving an author such a reception, but they didn’t.
The experience made me realise how important independent book shops are for connecting authors to staff and ultimately to readers. For me, discussing books is just as much fun as reading, so bookshops with bookclubs and talks are even better. Also I think a spirit animal is nice, usually this is a cat or a dog but I am open to suggestions.
Well, we like dogs! (We have a particular dog in mind…) Could you tell us about your latest book, and what you’re working on right now?
I only ate animals I killed myself for two years for my first book, The Ethical Carnivore. I thought it was the hardest thing I would ever do. I had to take on the responsibility for the death of an animal when I ate meat and it made me want to eat a lot less. The overall message was we should all be eating less meat for the sake of climate change. It did well as people are keen to know how food is impacting on the environment.
I am now working on a second book about where the rest of our food is from, particularly fruit and vegetables. My job is to tell a story so that people understand why a fair trade banana is worth a bit more or an avocado isn’t necessarily ‘clean’. There is no killing but it is incredibly tough to write as it is a very complex area and I really want to give people a clear message, not just frighten them.
Do you read one-book-at-a-time… or are you a promiscuous reader, leaping from text to text according to whim?
I used to be so proud of the fact that the only book that I had not finished was Sophie’s World. I even finished A Suitable Boy! But then I got a Kindle. Sorry. Perhaps it is the impact of social media, but my reading habits and perhaps my whole mind have become much more butterfly-like. I now stop and start books all the time and hate myself for it!
I think that forcing yourself to finish a book is worth it; it is almost like being polite enough to let a person finish their sentence. I always feel disappointed in myself for not finishing a book. I use my Kindle for reading for work and that is useful. But it has made me think that reading owes me something. It doesn’t. Finish the book, Louise.
Do you have strong preferences for fiction or non-fiction? Any particular genres that you favour above all else?
Fiction. Always. It is more true to life. That is the job of fiction, to make us see the truth where we cannot see if for ourselves in ‘real’ life. The ultimate expression of this is poetry. I don’t care what the genre of fiction is. I mean, I guess I like rom-coms and struggle with fantasy, but ultimately it is about the story and the writing. I find pigeon-holing such things pointless. I do read non-fiction but it doesn’t move me like fiction.
Any new books that you are particularly excited about?
Eating with My Mouth Open by Sam Van Zweden looks very interesting. Writing about food, I am aware of how mixed up our attitude to eating is. We can’t get enough of talking about, instagramming, video-ing food but actually emotionally we are terrified of it. I am interested to hear a new voice celebrating food but also revealing a troubled relationship with it. I find it a much more mouth-watering prospect than another recipe book.
Katherine Heiny has been described as a modern Jane Austen, so that has me sold and she has a new book out soon – Early Morning Riser. I have also had a sneak peak of Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn and I loved it. It is so refreshing to have some ‘nature writing’ that is about what is really happening to nature, which is that it is changing in response to us – rather than another sad book about how we have ruined it all.
Surely there is going to be some amazing fiction by writers stuck in lockdown/ writing about lockdown. Or perhaps we all were too busy surviving this strange time to actually write?
Are there authors you think deserve more attention and acclaim than they have received?
‘Popular’ female writers like Barbara Kingsolver. Okay, this is controversial, but I have just read The Overstory by Richard Powers, which was an extraordinary book but it was quite a slog in places. Barbara Kingsolver has been bringing up these environmental issues in her fiction for years in frankly a more enjoyable way, but perhaps because the story is female-led it is not taken so seriously.
What are your favourite books about Orkney?
I loved Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. For me it wasn’t a nature book, it was about a person – and I need that to make a book interesting to me. And I recently read The Island of the Women by George Mackay Brown and I loved it. It was not what I expected at all.
Do you keep your books pristine, or do you write on them, fold down pages and otherwise deface them?
Oh I smear them with chocolate and drop them in the bath! I fold down pages and leave them spine up under the bed. I leave them on trains and cafe tables. I have ones with coffee rings and grass stains and tear stains and torn pages. I love them and I simply don’t understand how you can love something and not involve it in life, which is messy.
I bought a beautiful copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek the other day: one of those vintage hardbacks with a tasteful pattern on the cover. I daren’t touch it. I don’t want to display it, because for me it doesn’t have any soul, because it hasn’t been loved. It made me just miss my old copy, which had a 1950s Mills and Boon-style cover, and is somewhere in a campsite in Cornwall.
What books are on your bedside table right now – and are you enjoying them?
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. My boyfriend is really into sci-fi, so I am trying to find some books I like. This is an old copy and the writing is really small. The world she has invented is intriguing but mostly I’m reading it because I want to find out about the weird sex stuff. I also enjoyed the first two books in her Earthsea sequence.
- How to Stop Time by Matt Haig. I use books to escape – I mean really switch off. It has been my life-saver since childhood. So usually I have something romantic or light that I can devour when life gets tough. I guess I have needed this more in lockdown. At first I thought this book was a bit silly, I mean it really is, but the insights into modern life can be quite brilliant and the story is carrying me along in an enjoyable way.
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stroud. I bought this book because I suspected Olive was my granny. She is, but she’s also me: a woman with huge empathy, who really wants to help, but actually doesn’t know what to say. The writing and the setting and the characters all seem quite dull when you are reading it, but then you finish each story and you think, my God, that’s life. Oh, it hurts! That’s the job of fiction: showing us the truth. And usually it hurts.
- Woolly the Sheep from Usborne’s Farmyard Tales. My wee girl is in bed with us every morning and I have this along with many other books off by heart so I can read it with my eyes closed. I would like to say she loves all the classics. She does, but she also, rather refreshingly, likes books that adults might think are boring at first. Children find magic in anything, even a sheep that occasionally escapes into other people’s gardens. Woolly was with us through lockdown and has a special place in my heart.
What book or books do you press into other people’s hands at any opportunity?
To young people: A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, because one should have at least one of his poems off by heart in your head for life.
To old people: I gave my Dad Being Mortal by Atul Gawande a few years ago and then regretted it because it seemed rather morbid. (It is about how to grow old and die.) He is now finally reading it and says everyone over 60 should, and I think he’s right.
The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher is loved by foodies but I wish more normal people would read it so they could see how abnormal food writing can be, a bit like nature writing. How interesting it can be when its not about the food!
Frenchman’s Creek – I don’t think life gets any better than running away with a pirate every night, do you?
The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray is out now.