It hardly seems any time since the three shortlisted finalists for the Kelpies Award were invited to a reception during the Book Festival where they nibbled their nails until the winner was announced. The Kelpies award, sponsored by Floris Books, is for previously unpublished fiction for children aged 9-12. This year’s award went to Janis MacKay, whose novel Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest has just appeared on the bookshelves.
Janis has been writing for several years but this is her first published novel. She knew from the age of 7 that she wanted to be a writer but, despite coming from an artistic family, she was warned by her grandmother that writing wasn’t a proper job, just a hobby. It must have sunk in because Janis began scheming her roundabout way into writing â€“ through journalism.
Having left Edinburgh and headed to the London College of Fashion and Beauty, she was on Fleet Street by the age of 20. “I learnt a lot,” she says, “but I wasn’t following my dream.” A restlessness took over and she spent a couple of years travelling and working in various places around the world â€“ a yacht on the Med, a kibbutz in Israel to mention a couple. “I had a vague idea that to be a writer, you had to have had a life.”
When the time came to settle down, she returned to England and studied at the London School of Speech Formation. Becoming a voice coach she worked with people with learning disabilities and business professionals developing their creativity and communications skills. “It was always something to do with words, storytelling, poetry, drama, that sort of thing, and although I was working full time I kept on writing in the background, mostly poetry and short stories. Then I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing and Personal Development from the University of Sussex while teaching at the Artemis school of speech and drama. You could say it has taken 20 years for me to become a writer but it’s been a fantastic apprenticeship.”
A few years ago, after reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which is all about following your dream, Janis decided the time had come for her to return to Scotland and to pursue her own writing career. After a spell in Edinburgh she moved to Caithness where she was appointed Writer in Residence for Caithness, and then for Sutherland, where she has worked mainly in primary schools.
Most of the storytelling Janis has been involved with has been about the myths and legends of Scotland but “because I live by the sea, I am often asked to tell stories about the sea. I linked up with Nina Naeshim, a Norwegian writer, for a storytelling tour in Norway and Scotland entitled Tales Across the Water. I’ve also got a lovely job as a tutor with North Highland College so it has all come together.”
Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest tells the story of a little boy who has always felt different from the other children at his school, partly because of his odd eyes and more recently because his parents are aging dramatically and look more like great grandparents. Magnus Fin, it transpires, is a Selkie, part seal and part human and as he reaches the age between the worlds, 11, he finds out the true nature of his heritage and the quest he must now undertake to save his selkie family beneath the sea.
As well as hoping to write a follow up, Janis is writing two adult novels, one called Cry Wolf, which is finished but not yet published, and another which is based on the life of her grandmother and set in the Edinburgh of 100 years ago.
Clearly Janis doesn’t want her writing ever to be pigeonholed and enjoys her work teaching and storytelling. She is also likely to be much in demand on the school visit circuit thanks to the Live Literature Scotland project. Her background means that she is unlikely just to sit and read extracts from her books. The visit is going to be much more interactive and fun!