Today I’m delighted to introduce debut novelist Fiona Erskine. I had the pleasure of meeting Fiona when we were sitting next to each other in the audience at an author event at Harrogate. I think I have been forgiven for initially believing her husband was a well-known northern playwright (a quick Google of more recent pictures of said playwright made the comparison a particularly unflattering one!) Fiona’s novel The Chemical Detective was published in e-book format this month, and will be published in hardback on April 4.
Fiona Erskine is a professional engineer based in Teesside. She grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, before heading south for university. She is married to Jonathan, a university academic, they have two sons, a magic cat and a lot of fun.
Which 5 pieces of music/songs would you include in the soundtrack to your life and why?
I love music, and as I get older I love listening to music, especially live classical music. I used to have music playing in the background all the time, but now I find it distracting because I stop to listen.
JS Bach St Matthew’s Passion. My primary school sang a small part in St Matthew’s Passion at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. We were meant to go home after the first act, but I hid under the stage so I could listen to the rest. The aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy, my God) might be the pinnacle of all music for me, the alto voice and violin weaving melodies around one another with haunting, transcendent, pathos. Listening to it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Nina Simone – Sings the Blues. I love strong female vocalists, they defined my teenage years: Joni Mitchel, Joan Armatrading, Janis Ian, Helen Reddy, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald – But if I have to choose just one it would be singer, songwriter and amazing jazz pianist, Nina Simone.
Elbow – The Seldon Seen Kid. My two sons have introduced me to podcasts and lots of amazing music. I love Guy Garvey’s gruff voice, the inventive melodies and many-layered lyrics, especially the ultimate love song “An Audience with the Pope”. It makes me think heading off on family holidays in the car, with everyone singing along.
David Bowie Ziggy Stardust. I had regular dreams about this international superstar all through my working life. He was surprisingly interested in chemical engineering and always gave excellent career advice in our regular, if slightly peculiar, sleep encounters.
Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and String. When I listen to the recording by Peter Piers and Denis Brain in China, I come to terms with jet lag induced insomnia. Who needs to sleep when you can listen to something so pure, so sublime, so perfectly still.
Highlight 5 things (apart from family and friends) you’d find it hard to live without.
Spike the cat. He’s my feline muse. He sits on my lap when I’m writing in the early morning and purrs encouragement. He has a very loud purr.
My polar bear onesie. I get up very early to get 2 or 3 hours writing time before I cycle to the day job. My cream fleece onesie may not be flattering, but it means that Spike and I are deliciously cosy on dark winter mornings.
My bicycle. I love that I can cycle to work across a park. Even in the middle of Teesside, I see deer and herons.
Books. Although I have a kindle, and it is great for travelling (though not great when it falls in the bath), I love physical books. My recent favourite was Ironopolis by Glen James Brown, but I have a huge pile of books still to read.
Bath. Most of my reading happens in the bath. I can stay in for hours. I have some soggy books.
Can you offer 5 pieces of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Put in the hard work early on to play a musical instrument well. I was a fast learner, a great beginner, but I never stuck with any single instrument long enough to excel.
Knitting during university maths lectures is a very bad idea.
When you travel long distances in a foreign country, don’t leave your rucksack and tent at the back of the train and walk to the front, just in case the train splits in two and you arrive at your destination without shelter. If you arrive in a foreign place without shelter, don’t go to the police station. Always carry a padlock to lock others out.
Don’t take up ski-ing aged 50 if you are overweight and unfit.
Take risks. You don’t know what you are capable of until you try.
Tell us 5 things that most people don’t know about you.
I learned to sail racing yachts on the Firth of Forth, dodging oil tankers. The waters of Southern England required different skills. I became the worst sailor in the history of the Cambridge University sailing team when I capsized a dingy on a flat calm lake during a critical competition. They still gave me a half-blue.
My cousin, Cathy, is a belly dancer, and when I was a teenager she used to take me to her shows in London restaurants and I’d be given wonderful things to eat.
My friend Marjory and I lodged in a very friendly guest house for quite a while before figuring out that it was a working brothel.
I love motorbikes, but I stopped driving them after my children were born.
I am no good at skiing.
What are the first 5 things you’d have on your bucket list?
California – my eldest son moved to Los Angeles last year and is a fantastic guide and host. Last year we got talking to a male stripper beside a swimming pool, and he snuck into my latest story when I wasn’t paying attention.
A big swim. We love going on outdoor swimming holidays with Swim Trek. My husband is a brilliant swimmer, a former lifeguard who likes to race the others, whereas I like to swim to admire the scenery. We meet a great bunch of people and the hard work during the day makes the relaxing at night all the more rewarding.
Eurorail trip – a train journey through Europe, criss-crossing from Finland to Turkey, Portugal to Poland, visiting some good friends and finding new outdoor swimming spots.
A trip to the North West coast of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, with some of the most beautiful swimming places in the world.
There are lots of places I have visited for work, but never had time to explore: Brazil, Russia, India, China. Now that my children have left home, I plan to try to co-ordinate work trips with my husband so we can do a bit of travelling together. And find more places to swim.
Thanks so much for joining us today Fiona. Delighted to discover another Elbow fan and who knew David Bowie was so well versed in chemical engineering! I love the things people don’t know about you. We inadvertently stayed in a rather dubious B&B in Paris once, but realised quite quickly, you and Marjorie were obviously more innocent. Here’s hoping you get to tick off some items on your bucket list, travel and swimming are always a good combination. I’m looking forward to reading your latest story as I’m more than a bit curious to meet your male stripper!
The Chemical Detective by Fiona Erskine
(Click on image for non-affiliated buying link)
Dr Jaqueline Silver blows things up to keep people safe.
Working on avalanche control in Slovenia, she stumbles across a delivery problem with a consignment of explosives. After raising a complaint with the supplier, Zagrovyl, a multinational chemical company and her ex-employer, her evidence disappears. She is warned, threatened, accused of professional incompetence and suspended. Taking her complaint to Zagrovyl head office, she narrowly escapes death only to be framed for murder. Escaping from police custody, she sets out to find the key to the mystery.
From the snowy slopes of Slovenia, to the wreckage of Chernobyl, Jaq attempts to expose the trade in deadly chemical weapons, while fighting for her life.
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