Winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series, Andrew Ladd’s debut novel explores the concept of time via the increasingly constricted life of an island-bound family.
Shelf Unbound: Your novel follows the life of the McCloud family over three decades as they endure family strife and the
drastically dwindling population of their home of Eilean Flor, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. How did the idea for this novel come about?
Andrew Ladd:The first glimmer of it was probably back when I was fourteen, on a school trip to the west coast of Scotland, where I first saw an abandoned island community and was really struck by how sad that was. But I didn’t actually make note of any concrete idea for a piece of fiction until I saw a news report about the dwindling population on the Isle of Muck a few years later, and I didn’t actually “do” anything with that idea for a few more years again. I was in an undergrad writing workshop and had to do some exercise where I wrote a scene between two characters, and that ended up being between the last two people left on a Scottish island—a reclusive mainland artist and a local man.
After that I transferred out of my writing program and didn’t really come back to the idea of writing a novel until I was 23 or 24 and starting my MFA. By then I’d actually forgotten all about that undergrad writing exercise, and when I started What Ends I was only going on a brief line in my notebook that said “ISLE OF MUCK” and not much else. So it’s interesting to me that the finished product nevertheless ended up including a reclusive mainland artist; I don’t know what deep-seated archetype I’m drawing from that the idea keeps coming back.
As for the family strife, well, that wasn’t really my initial intention. The first draft was more about another character, a businessman from London, moving to the island. But I quickly realized that the relationships in the McCloud family, which I only really created at first for this other man to interact with, were far more interesting than anything he did himself. So I reworked the whole thing to be about the McClouds, and now the businessman, Michael, doesn’t even have his own POV sections anymore.
Shelf Unbound: Which of the McClouds came to you first?
Ladd: As I say, the first character I wrote was Michael, though I think that was partly because writing an outsider arriving on the island for the first time was also an easy way for me to get into the setting. (I guess you could also make a case for the reclusive artist being the first character who came to me.)
But of the main characters in the finished book, Flora—the middle McCloud child—was definitely the one that I really fleshed out first, and still the one I can see most vividly. There’s a scene in chapter seven where she first meets Michael, which is one of the first scenes I wrote, and which is still largely unchanged from the very first draft. In some ways I feel like that first scene with her is really what drove the book to its current form—the section that continues that scene and chapter was among the most popular with my early readers, and for a while I toyed with making the novel entirely from her point of view.
Shelf Unbound: In writing the novel, which character interested you the most?
Ladd: It kind of ebbed and flowed, to be honest. The section where Barry (Flora’s brother) goes off to boarding school was very raw for me, and writing it I was the most engaged I’d felt with the book up to that point. But later I got equally wrapped up in his mother, Maureen, and at other times also in Flora, of course. Ironically, I was probably least interested in George, the family patriarch, who ultimately provides the book’s biggest emotional punch. Maybe it’s because I knew pretty much from page one what his fate was going to be.
Shelf Unbound: The physical isolation of Eilean Flor mirrors the emotional isolation the family members have from each other. What drew you to this theme of isolation?
Ladd: I don’t know that I was consciously thinking about isolation, actually—though I appreciate how unlikely that sounds given the subject matter!
It’s funny, though—the other idea I had for a first novel had a similar premise, in that it would have followed a small family in a very confined environment. I remember having a conversation with my writing group, back when we were all starting on our books, about how it seems like a lot of first novels actually have some kind of similar constraint on the world of the book, whether it’s setting or timeframe or number of characters or whatever.
I think with a lot of first-time novelists—the few that I know, anyway—there’s a feeling of, “oh jeez, what have I gotten myself into, and what can I do to keep it manageable?” That’s probably as responsible for the sense of isolation in the book as anything else.
That said, from the start I was obviously interested in what it would be like to be one of the last survivors of a small island community. So I think the recurring theme of isolation probably also grew quite naturally from that.
Shelf Unbound: Place is very much a character in this novel. Tell us about Eilean Flor and what inspired it?
Ladd: Well, there were my first experiences with the real Scottish Hebrides on that school trip, but as I say, what primarily drew me to the story was the human aspect—imagining what it would be like to see your community crumble around you. And at first the island itself wasn’t much more than a device to enable the telling of that human story.
But it was definitely one of those projects where the more research I did into the Scottish islands the more fascinated I became with them—and the more details I knew I had to include to really convey how marvelous they are.
I took pages and pages of notes from Tom Steel’s The Life and Death of St Kilda, and from Anna Blair’s Croft and Creel, both of which are about the history of other, real communities that have blinked out of existence. I worked so many of them into the first draft, too, that I had to do a lot of darling-killing as I revised.
Definitely the most inspirational part of my research, though, was when I visited Canna, the island that Fior is loosely based on. The place was so atmospheric in so many ways I hadn’t expected or imagined—noisy, and eerie, and even somewhat menacing. I knew then that doing the island justice meant making it more than a simple backdrop.
Shelf Unbound: This is your first novel. What did you learn from it about the art and process of novel writing?
Ladd: That it’s hard work! But also that there are some writerly habits that can make it unnecessarily harder. For a long time I had it in my head that I needed to be undisturbed for long periods of time to really get good writing done—I think a lot of writers feel this way—and that was pretty much how I proceeded for the first two drafts. But then grad school was over and I needed a day job and I knew that if I didn’t get the manuscript into publishable shape relatively quickly, it would probably languish forever. That really forced me to change my work habits, because if I didn’t try to get 500 words done while my wife watched TV in the background after dinner, then I just didn’t get any words done, period. And now, actually, I get all my best writing done on the subway, which is probably about as far from the ideal writer’s retreat as you can get.