Positive Profile: author David, writing in the footsteps of RL Stevenson

Scottish author J David Simons travelled all over the world, exploring a variety of career paths including working as a lawyer, cotton farmer, journalist and university lecturer, before returning home in 2006 to pursue his love of writing and becoming a Scottish Book Trust mentor. He has just released his fifth book, A Woman of Integrity.

Are you a naturally cheerful person?

I wouldn’t say I was naturally cheerful but I am innately optimistic.  I don’t know where it comes from, but I always seem to be able to bounce back from adversity. It’s a good quality to have as rejection is a constant factor hovering around the career of a writer.

How do you rate positivity in your life and how do you practise it? 

That’s a difficult question to answer. I feel that I am very fortunate to be a positive person. I don’t know where this comes from in the same way that a depressed person often does not know where their depression comes from, even if their lives appear to be very comfortable on a superficial level. Is it to do with upbringing, experiences, a chemical balance or imbalance?  I don’t know. All I can say is that I am very grateful for having a positive attitude, especially being a writer, as rejection and failure can be so very much part of the game.

You’ve done many jobs, all over the world. What made you decide to come home and become a writer?

I always knew that I would write some day. I was just waiting for the time when I felt I had something to say and the confidence to say it. When that time came, I was living in Australia with the completed manuscript for a Scotland-based novel. My Australian partner at that time was keen to come and live in Europe and, for my part, I felt that it would make more sense to try and get said novel published in Scotland, so home I came.  And as it happens, I found a Scottish publisher within a few months of my return.

Are you happy to be back home?

To be honest, it was very hard for me at first.  It felt like I had taken a step backwards in my life. However, as time has progressed, it has felt more like the completion of a circle.  It is the Highlands though, that have saved me. I have become something of a Munro bagger, which has taken me to some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland – some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

What do you find most enjoyable about the process of writing a book? Do you have any rituals? 

The most enjoyable part of writing for me comes after I have written the first draft. As Dorothy Parker used to say: “I don’t like to write but I love having written.” Getting the full outline of a novel down on paper for the first time is a real painful process for me. However, once that first draft is done, that is when I can begin to enjoy myself with the writing. I can start to be playful with the material, withholding information, foreshadowing events to come, working with words and the rhythm of the language, polishing and refining. That’s the fun part for me.

As for rituals, when I first started out as a writer, I was told I should treat it as a full-time job so I would try to write from 9am to 5pm, which was hopeless as I would spend most of the morning simply wasting time. I now write from about 2pm to 6pm, which is when I seem to be at my most productive.

Are there any stressful parts of being an author and how do you overcome those stresses?

I suppose the most stressful part of being an author is wondering whether after finishing one novel if I have another one left in me. It can take a while until another idea for a new book comes upon me and that period of hiatus can be quite stressful. It’s just about trusting in oneself that another idea will eventually come along.

Your stories have taken inspiration from your Jewish roots… where else do you find inspiration for your plots and characters?

I lived in Japan for seven years and I really wanted to write a novel that expressed some of my love for that place with all its complexities. I managed to do that in my novel An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, which I hope opens up to the reader aspects of Japan they may not know much about.

If you had known how well your books were going to be received, would you have started a writing career earlier? 

That’s nice of you to say that my books have been well received. But no, I don’t think it would have made much of a difference to me personally. I didn’t feel I could write a novel until I had acquired some kind of life experience, some kind of wisdom, that would give me the confidence to put my stories down on paper. I do envy young writers though that have the courage, perhaps I might even say the recklessness, to be able to write almost as soon as they emerge from the womb!

What has been the highlight of your writing career so far?

Most definitely when I was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship which allowed me to go to France to write, staying for a month in the inn (now converted into apartments for artists) where RLS spent some of his summers and where he met his wife, Fanny. I found that whole experience to be quite inspirational. It also felt wonderful to be supported  financially by Creative Scotland who made the awards back then (it is now given out by the Scottish Book Trust). It gave me the sense that finally my writing endeavours were being legitimised and recognised.

Have you been happy with the way your fifth novel, A Woman of Integrity, has been received? Do you get nervous releasing a new body of work? 

The initial reviews and reader feedback have been very positive but it’s probably too early to say. Because I have always been with small independent publishers who don’t have the marketing budgets to make a huge initial impact, my books tend to take a while to percolate before they can inspire any kind of success.  It might surprise people but I don’t get nervous releasing a new body of work. I might have felt like that with my first novel but this is my fifth now so I’m getting a bit blasé about it all.  It’s a bit like seeing your children off to school for the very first time. With the first child, it’s all very exciting and fearful; by the fifth child, it’s like “off you go now into the playground and let me get on with my life already”.

Did you enjoy writing this book and how was it inspired? 

What I did enjoy about writing this book is that at least half of it is set in the present day. Most of my work up until now has been historical fiction, so it was quite liberating to be writing something contemporary and not having to research lots of stuff.  The inspiration for A Woman of Integrity came from an actress friend of mine who is quite well-known for her recurring role in a famous TV soap. She was asked to play the part of a famous woman in a one-woman play. My friend was absolutely delighted as she had always admired this woman for her integrity. However, when she and her producer approached the trustee of this famous woman’s literary estate for access to original documents and photographs, she was faced with a very unusual condition for access that really challenged her own integrity. So it was that irony of having your integrity challenged in order to play the role of a person of integrity that intrigued me and became the basis of the novel.  I can’t reveal the names of any of these well-known people in case I get sued for borrowing their story…

What book would you recommend for someone who hasn’t read any of your works to start with?

It depends. If they just want a good story then I would recommend The Credit Draper or A Woman of Integrity. If they were looking for something with a bit more depth I would go with An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful, which is the novel I am most proud of.

Do you have anything in the pipeline for the rest of 2017? 

I’m a bit distracted at the moment by the recent launch of A Woman of Integrity so my mind is very much focused on that book.  However, I am hoping to start up again with my next novel. I am about a third of the way through it – it’s called Sticking it to the Man – and that’s all I’m prepared to say about it at the moment.

Do you have a favourite Scottish writer? 

As far as the classical authors are concerned, there is Robert Louis Stevenson, of course, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon.  As for contemporary writers, I really like William Boyd, although I don’t know if he would consider himself to be Scottish. Both his parents were Scottish and he was partly educated in Scotland (he was actually at Glasgow University the same time as me, although I never knew him) but he was born in Africa. I would especially recommend his novel Any Human Heart.

If you had to choose one book to take to a desert island, what would it be?

I think I probably would have to go with Joyce’s Ulysses.  I tried reading it in my 20s and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts I managed to finish it in my 40s. It would be my choice because it is the gift that keeps on giving. There are so many layers to it, that it would at least take up a good deal of my time on this desert island.

What are your top three joys in life that make your day? 

If I can get out hillwalking on any particular day that is definitely a joy.  Some kind of unsolicited comment from a reader telling me that one of my novels has touched them in some way is also a great source of encouragement. And waking up knowing that I still have the health to enjoy life is also a wonderful thing.

Do you have a favourite, most peaceful spot in Scotland? 

On top of any number of the highest mountains. And a bench in one of the walled gardens in Pollok Estate in the south side of Glasgow.

For more information on David, go here

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