Words With Olga

Edinburgh-based writer, Olga Wojtas, is the recipient of one of the highly coveted Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awards (2015).  I met her recently, in a café in Bruntsfield, and suggested that we’d just have a chat and I’d write a profile of her.

It wouldn’t be a question-and-answer interview, I told her, because they always struck me a lazy way out for the interviewer. Two hours later, I realised I was wrong;  Olga has a way with words and I certainly can’t better it. So here she is, in those own words:

What’s your connection to the Lothians?

I’ve lived and worked in Aberdeen, Newcastle, Grenoble and Washington DC, but Edinburgh will always be home. I was born and brought up here. My father was an architect in the Ministry of Works at Saughton, and my mother was an English teacher at Tynecastle High School.  My father was one of the Polish forces who came here during the war when the Polish Army was regrouping in Britain. He met my mother, then working at Galashiels Academy, when she was assigned to teach the Poles English. But my parents had no sooner fallen in love than he was sent to the Middle East and didn’t get back until 1947.

Have you a favourite childhood memory of Edinburgh?

I remember my father taking me to Edinburgh Zoo to visit Wojtek the Soldier Bear – there was a story in the Evening News about Wojtek recently: http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/statue-for-wojtek-to-be-unveiled-in-november-1-3788978  – Wojtek got terribly excited when my father and I spoke Polish to him, and bounced around his enclosure. My friend Raymond Raszkowski Ross, a well-known local playwright, has written a fantastic play, ‘Wojtek the Bear.’ It will be on throughout the Fringe at the Scottish Storytelling Centre - do whatever you have to do, to get a ticket! I’ve seen it three times and I’ve cried every time. You get to laugh as well.

Are you a ‘gloomy-fog-over-the-castle’ or a ‘summer-on-Princes Street-gardens’ type?

My favourite place is Blackford Hill, despite the fact that I fell into the pond when I was three, and had to be dried off by the park keeper’s wife. I don’t get inspired by my surroundings but I get inspired by walking, so I can be found pacing round the Southside muttering to myself as I try out bits of dialogue.

How would you introduce us to your writing career?

Currently, I’m a journalist to pay the bills, but I started writing stories as soon as I learned to write. My greatest influence has been my inspirational English teacher at James Gillespie’s High School, Iona Cameron. She gave me a real love of words and books. I still check my grammar and syntax with her – she knows everything! Writing’s a very solitary activity, and there are times when you really need encouragement or you’re just going to sit in a corner and cry. I’m lucky enough to have two brilliant writing tutors, Colin Mortimer, who runs a short story class at Edinburgh University, and Helen Boden, who runs a drop-in class at the Southside Community Centre. The other students are really talented and supportive. Up until now, I’ve only written short stories (with the occasional poem thrown in as ballast) but thanks to the Scottish Book Trust award, I’ve started on a novel. It’s about a time-travelling former pupil of an Edinburgh school.

Earlier in the year, you won one of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award. What has that meant?

Winning the New Writers Award is the best thing that’s happened to me (apart from meeting my husband, of course). I’ll never be able to thank the Scottish Book Trust enough. Being a freelance journalist, the award has let me ‘buy out’ working time so that I can concentrate on my own writing. The award included a week at a writing retreat, Cove Park in Argyllshire. I stayed in a recycled freight container, which was incredibly comfortable and had glorious views over Loch Long. There were also two pods that were built on Taransay for the BBC reality programme Castaway which made Ben Fogle’s name. It was amazing to be free of all responsibilities and just be able to write.  I’m night owl so I worked through the nights and slept in in the mornings, and emerged with 22,000 words…

Ad when you’re not writing?

I love meeting up with friends, and I don’t do enough of it. Alexander McCall Smith says that to be a serious writer, you need to stop watching TV, but I couldn’t give up The Big Bang Theory. My favourite pastime of all is eating chocolate.

At this time of year, the final question has to be about your stance on the Festival… do you like or loathe it?

It’s the greatest festival in the world. Just two wee suggestions to make it even better: halve the ticket prices, and ban the tourists.

Olga wrote about her father in our recent Father’s Day feature on Lothian Life, and she hopes to create a piece of short fiction especially for us later in the year.

More information on the Scottish Book Trust New Writer Awards is available on their website at www.scottishbooktrust.com

Photograph credit: Antonia Reeve at  http://www.antoniareeve.co.uk/

5 thoughts on “Words With Olga”

  1. For such a gifted writer, Olga is refreshingly reticent. Despite the ‘sit in a corner and cry’ comment, her approach to writing always seems to me to be joyful. I’m not suggesting she necessarily finds it easy but she’s so enthusiastic about generating ideas and finding the right words to do them justice that she makes writing sound like a great way to spend the time. I like to think I’ll be first in the queue for the new novel but I know there are many others with the same idea.

  2. I feel very privileged to have known Olga for the past ten years. Two years ago she took me to see the play of ‘Wojtek the Bear’, when I visited her for the Edinburgh Fringe. She told me the story of the special bond between the Polish soldiers and Wojtek but I hadn’t taken in the fact that she and her father had personally visited him at Edinburgh Zoo. It is a very moving little play and well worth seeing.
    Our little group of writing friends really values Olga’s special skills with syntax, spelling and grammar. Being a journalist, she is an excellent proof reader, always prepared to offer time and helpful constructive criticism to her special friends.

  3. I’m incredibly proud to say the Olga is one of my dearest friends and this interview has confirmed my opinion of her being the wittiest and most entertaining. Her enthusiasm for life, people and all their inherent quirks is inexhaustible. the way her stories twist reality for effect is a rare talent. But it’s definitely her obsession with the apostrophe that will carry her through to greatness.

  4. Olga is a very special person to her friends, and her endearing qualities reflect within her writing.

    If her novel is about ‘time-travel’ then you can bet it’ll be the most witty, entertaining and well written ‘time-travel’ novel you are ever likely to read.

    I just hope Olga gets all the time she needs to write what she wants to write as a professional, as her time is much in demand; she is not the type to put herself first… unless chocolate is involved.

    Looking forward to her novel, and what ever follows

  5. Editor’s Note:

    I’d like to make Olga’s feature the first of a series of interviews of ‘Words With…’ If you have a story to tell and a strong link to the Lothians, please get in touch: anne@lothianlife.co.uk

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