Photo: John Carolan
Marsali Taylor was born in the 'honest toon' of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1958. Her childhood was made magical by summers spent in a remote cottage in the West Highlands – the loch where her family enjoyed boat excursions and picnics with ‘Aunt Ysabel’, the diarist of Forgotten Heroines. Marsali bought her first boat aged 17, a lightweight sailing dinghy which she still takes out on calm days. Other ‘gap’ year experiences included being an au-pair for a French Countess and working in an old-fashioned department store. She read English at Dundee University, continued her sailing, became involved in amateur dramatics and was confirmed in the Catholic church. She went on to teacher training college and as a probationer moved to Shetland, to teach English, French and Drama. There she aquired a house, garden, cats and ponies, joined a local drama group and became a member of the community. In 2007 she reduced her teaching time to two days, to be able to concentrate on writing. In 2008, she qualified as a tourist guide for Shetland, and now spends much of the summer waxing lyrical about ponies and puffins. Her husband Philip is a theatre musician and composer. She has one daughter, Marnie, who is an actor in London, and two grandchildren.
Marsali enjoys new experiences: she’s been ski-ing in the Italian Alps and paragliding in the French Pyrenees. She came up from Greenock to Lerwick on a full-rigged Norwegian ship, and returned from Norway in a force 10 in a 100-year old fishing boat. She continues to act – her favourite role was as the witch in Sleeping Beauty, where she cackled a lot, and was flown across the stage on a broomstick. When a film crew came to Shetland, she had fun being a two-line extra. She’s a keen member of the local writers’ group, using it as a chance to write compressed detective stories. Like her heroine Cass Lynch, she owns an 8m keelboat, and has passed her Yachtmaster exam; she knows the setting of her crime novels very well, as she teaches sailing at Brae, and considers the waters of Swarback’s Minn as an extended back garden. Her most recent sailing exploits include a trip to Norway on a 32ft Contessa (through another gale) and, in 2011, a circumnavigation of Shetland in her own Karima S, the original of Cass’s Khalida. This involved some cracking sails and several excellent parties.
The last three years have been exciting in the wrong way. In December 2011 Marsali was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Treatment involved five weeks of combined chemo and radiotherapy, followed by an operation. She then developed an infection, had another operation, an emergency flight to Aberdeen and a third operation. She managed to stay out of hospital for all of two weeks before returning with dehydration... After all that, early retirement was on the cards, and she taught her last class in June 2013. She misses her pupils and the life of the school, and hopes to return as a volunteer drama teacher as soon as she’s well enough.
Author questions and answers:
What started you off writing?
I can't remember a time when I didn't write! My mother still has a little notebook of 'stories' I wrote when I was six, mostly accounts of something that happened in our holidays, with a little picture beside each. In my teenage years, I wrote long stories - including detective and mystery stories - about the same set of characters. Then, at University, I moved on to historical romance, and I wrote two historical novels before returning to mystery fiction.
Did your family encourage you to write?
They did indeed - my mother typed out some of my stories, and made comments, and my father was always very supportive. My sister, who now weaves the most beautiful tapestries, was to be the artist of the family, and I was to be the writer.
How do you feel about people criticising your stories?
I try out all my stories on some really good friends before I send them off - sometimes you get too close to a story to see it properly, and often their comments pick up something I felt subconsciously not to be right, but couldn't quite put my finger on. I'm always glad of reader feedback - they're coming fresh to the story, and it's such a delight when they respond as you'd hoped to your characters.
Do you base your characters on real people?
Absolutely not! Here in Shetland particularly, I would feel it a betrayal of my friends or neighbours to use them in a book. I try not to use even little bits of real people, but to make up my characters from scratch. This can be really hard, so what I do sometimes allow myself to do is project a school pupil ten, twenty, thirty years forward, and imagine what he or she would be like as an adult. That gives me a character base to start from, but the final person is imagined.
How did you start sailing?
Our family had a boat at our holiday cottage on the west coast, so being on the water was always natural to me. I had my first sail aged 15, on a school trip to Loch Earn, and straight away I felt, 'I love this.' I got my first boat, a 12'6” Graduate dinghy called Lady Blue, when I was 17, and learned to sail on her. She accompanied me to University and on up to Shetland. In 2005 I bought my Offshore 8m keelboat, Karima S - she's like a little caravan with sails, and I've had such fun with her, including – in 2011 - my first circumnavigation of mainland Shetland.
Do you have any family?
My husband, Philip, who is a wonderful support for my writing. He's a composer, and helps me keep disciplined about writing. After breakfast, we disappear to opposite corners of the house, and he makes music while I type away. I have one daughter, Marnie Baxter, who's an actor. Her husband, Sam Emmery, is a director, and they have two children, Maxwell and Ava. They live in London, so I don't get to see them nearly as often as I would like - mainly because of the outrageous cost of fares to and from Shetland.
Do you have any pets?
We have two ponies and five cats. The ponies are both Shetlands, with lots of belly and hair, and short legs. They're called Fergus, an Irish name because his father was Ninian, and Foula Milladourie. Fergus is piebald, and Milla is skewbald, with a lot of blonde mane. The cats are Emma, the black boss of the household, who escorts me to my desk each morning, Magnus, who came to us as a starving stray, and is now a 6kg stripey softy, my very spoiled personal cat, Miss Matty, who's a beautiful tortoishell, and Major Petrov, who shows his Russian Blue grandmother in his beautifully soft grey coat. Miss Matty and Petrov are the parents of Genie (Miss Virginia) who is also tortoiseshell, and a lively young lady – at the moment, it’s wet, and she keeps bringing worms into the house, so she has been nicknamed Genie Wormslayer.
What gets you really annoyed?
Not much - I tend to take life as it comes. If I could change one thing about Shetland, though, it would be the streetlights in country areas. There are over 100 in one square km of Aith, and just as the evening sky colours are at their bonniest, there's a buzz noise, and on they go, neon orange. We used to be able to watch the Northern Lights from our doorstep, and now we can't see even the brightest stars without taking a walk out of the village. We keep talking about moving to the real country ...
Politically, there are lots of things that get me going. There are times I can hardly bear to listen to the news; here we are, rich and secure, just watching while others are forced out of their homes by war, by deforestation, by industrialisation. Worse still, we grudge asylum in our free country to victims of intimidation and torture, and gripe about Eastern European immigrants ... we weren’t so unwelcoming when they came here as pilots to protect us from the Luftwaffe in World War II. We eat three meals a day while so many are starving. I know the politicians pay no attention to the e-mails I send, or the petitions I sign, but I think it’s even more important not to give up, not to say, ‘Oh, well, there’s nothing I can do.’ We can all do something: keep signing, keep marching, give time to a charity shop, or a regular donation to organisations on the ground. Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.