Victoria MacKenzie

My namesake Victoria MacKenzie lives in Scotland, but has held residencies at a variety of places around within Scotland and around the world. She has been a Hawthornden Fellow in Scotland, held several residencies at Cove Park Artist’s Centre in Helensburgh, and held a two-month residence at Saari Manor in Finland.

She gained a MLitt in Creative Writing, and a PhD in English Literature from the University of St Andrews, and went on to teach creative writing at the Creative Writing Summer School at the University of St Andrews for ten years, and for the Open College of the Arts for eight years. Now freelance, Victoria offers one-to-one mentoring services, and published her debut novel, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy On My Little Pain, in 2023.

Meet Victoria MacKenzie

Questions On Writing

What was the hardest part of the writing experience with this book?
Most of the experience has been lovely, to be honest. I wrote the book for myself with no expectations, and I really enjoyed it. The wait between signing the book deal and publication was a strange time – almost two years. It was distracting, imagining what it would be like when the book was out in the world, imaging the possible responses to it.

What did you learn about yourself as a person when writing the book?
I wrote it during lockdown and I now know that I have a very high tolerance for solitude.

Do you make yourself write everyday/regularly, or only when inspiration strikes?
I never make myself write, and I rarely write every day unless I’m really fired up and in the midst of something, but I do think about writing every day and usually jot things in my notebook most days.

What does literary success look like to you?
Taking the time to write books I’m proud of.

How much planning/world building do you do before writing, and how much comes along as you write?
Because my novel so far was historical and based on real people, I do quite a bit of research. Once I’ve settled on an idea, I like gathering material in my notebook. I don’t create plot arcs or work out a chapter-by-chapter plan – that side of the writing is fairly organic and I like to see where the book takes me. This can mean a few false starts as I find my way through the material, but I prefer to feel my way gradually and keep an open mind about where I might end up.

What was it about this particular story that you wanted to write about?
I’d been nurturing the seed of writing about Julian of Norwich for a year or so before I put pen to paper. I’ve always been interested in religious faith, and I’ve also long been interested in those who live their lives according to strongly held views – whether religious or otherwise. Julian’s experience of being an anchoress particularly intrigued me – I wanted to imagine how it would really feel to be in a single room for so many years. What was it like physically? The cold, the boredom, the inability to stretch your legs and get fresh air. And what was it like mentally? How would it change your ideas about the world, your sense of self?

When I was researching Julian’s life, I came across the figure of Margery Kempe. I started reading her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe, and oh wow, her voice! I was mesmerised. Who was this woman – self-justifying, boastful, brutally honest in some ways, but so self-aggrandising and deluded in other ways?

When I read that Margery had visited Julian, my novel took flight. THIS was what I wanted to focus on – these two women, who both claimed to have visions of Christ, and yet who couldn’t be more different from one another. I wondered what they said to each other – whether they talked about their lives and their visions of Christ, and what words of comfort they might have given one another? I couldn’t resist imagining this meeting and writing a scene in which these two tenacious women come together and exchange the stories of their lives.

What is your favourite part of the book?
I enjoyed the parts where I played around with the formatting of the text, which happens in some of Julian of Norwich’s sections, and I liked being bold with my repetitions, to suggest the feeling of daily life in her anchoress cell.

Questions on Books and about You

Firstly, the most important question, what books are currently ‘on your bedside table’?
T.J Clark, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present
John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing
Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved

What children’s book would you suggest every adult read?
For me, childhood reading was about pure pleasure and escapism, and I really loved the Jill books by Ruby Ferguson, a series about a girl who loves horses. Which is strange as I had no interest in riding! I don’t know that every adult should read them, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for cultivating your own taste and reading to please yourself.

What does your writing space look like?
A cluttered desk in front of a window looking over the garden. I can see a few small trees (rowan, hawthorn, sycamore) but also the bin shed!

How many books do you think you own?
About 3,000. I’m married to a writer and we’ve each been buying books for twenty or so years, so it mounts up. And I have no guilt about not having read them all! My books are a huge source of pleasure for me, and I love truffling about in them, deciding which ones to read next.

Who is your literary icon?
The Canadian poet Anne Carson. She does everything her own way; she’s a serious scholar but writes witty, experimental, moving and distinctive pieces which are often utterly uncategorisable. And she can rock a leather jacket.

If you could own one rare/1st edition copy of a book, which one would it be?
A first edition Middlemarch would be very nice.

Is there an author who you always read?
Marilynne Robinson.

And finally, are there any plans for any new books? If so, what tears can you give us?
My second book, Brantwood, is about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, and it will be published by Bloomsbury in 2025. It’s also my first book in a way, as it’s the novel I started writing first – in 2014!

It focusses on a few years in his life when he’s in his mid-fifties and at a low ebb. His greatest work is in the past and his personal life is in tatters. But he’s full of ideas for social reform and he’s also an early environmentalist. I want to bring some of his ideas about art, the environment and what makes for a good life to a new audience. It’s also a book about art and writing – the ways we try to make meaning and why it’s important to us.

Thank you Victoria for your honesty. And 3,000 books!! I thought my 1,000 was a lot. I clearly have some catching up to do.😊  

Victoria McKenzie Books

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