Edinburgh-based writer, Olga Wojtas, is the recipient of one of the highly coveted Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awards (2015). Â I met her recently, in a cafÃ© in Bruntsfield, and suggested that weâ€™d just have a chat and Iâ€™d write a profile of her.
It wouldnâ€™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; Â Olga has a way with words and I certainly canâ€™t better it. So here she is, in those own words:
Whatâ€™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.Â 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 didnâ€™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-1-3788978Â Â – 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,Â â€˜Wojtek the Bear.â€™ It will be on throughout the Fringe at the Scottish Storytelling Centre -Â 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 â€˜gloomy-fog-over-the-castleâ€™Â or a â€˜summer-on-Princes Street-gardensâ€™ type?
My favourite place is Blackford Hill, despite the fact that I fell into the pondÂ when I was three, and had to be dried off by the park keeperâ€™s wife. I donâ€™t get inspired by my surroundings but I get inspired by walking, so I can beÂ 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, Iâ€™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 Gillespieâ€™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! Writingâ€™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 Trustâ€™s New Writers Award. What has that meant?
Winning the New Writers Award is the best thing thatâ€™s happened to me (apart from meeting my husband, of course). Iâ€™ll never be able to thank the Scottish Book Trust enough. Being a freelance journalist, the award has let me â€˜buy outâ€™ 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. Â I’mÂ night owl soÂ I worked through the nights and slept in in the mornings, and emerged with 22,000 wordsâ€¦
Ad when youâ€™re not writing?
I love meeting up with friends, and I donâ€™t do enough of it. Alexander McCall Smith says that to be a serious writer, you need to stop watching TV, but I couldnâ€™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 Festivalâ€¦ do you like or loathe it?
Itâ€™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 Fatherâ€™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 Â http://www.antoniareeve.co.uk/