Ruaridh Nicoll

book by this author

Ruaridh on writing White Male Heart:
White Male Heart was written in one of the most isolated spots in Europe. Each morning, for 13 months, I would walk down to the shore of Loch'a'chroisg in Scotland's Wester Ross and gaze over the slate-grey waters to the great mountains of Torridon. I would take a photograph, charting the slow passage of the seasons.

Although born in Arbroath, a town on the coast of Angus famous for its smoked mackerel, I was raised in the Highland county of Sutherland. My first memory of life is of a snowstorm, of standing on the top of a mountain, my father shouting from within the blizzard for me to "get on." Yet my childhood seemed populated compared my solitary stint at the edge of Loch'a'chroisg.

Still, it's very easy to see the roots of the novel. I always had a vivid imagination, getting into trouble by looking up at passing jets and telling teachers: "I was on that plane, I just got back from Australia." There were so few children in Sutherland that my best friend was a stick. Until I was old enough to exchange it for a gun, I'd roam the wide-open landscape and hit things, usually anthills.

I liked words. At a sheepdog trial, I was approached by a group of children, who accused me of not knowing any dirty words. I asked them it they knew what "hermaphrodite" meant. They didn't and I quietly thanked the UK Subs Fan Club (a punk band) who had just sent me a picture with "I crave to be a hermaphrodite" inscribed below it. It would be years before I found out that it wasn't pronounced "hermarodick."

I was given my first gun at the age of seven, and disciplined shortly afterwards for shooting birds off the bird-table.

It was an idyllic, privileged, childhood, spoilt only by regular periods away at school. I've tried to wipe my memory of life in the middle of that Perthshire bog, but the cruel tenor of the place remains. I left while still young, following the theft of two cases of Newcastle Brown Ale from the school kitchens.

There was no television at home, the signal could not penetrate the glen's high walls and so I spent the hours of darkness reading. If I devour fancy literature now, it's only because it sits contentedly on the plump belly of all the Desmond Bagley, Wilbur Smith, Sven Hassel, George Macdonald Fraser, Dick Francis and Gerald Seymour novels I consumed as a boy. While hunting deer, foxes and woodcock in the birchwoods, and salmon, trout and eels in the river my thoughts were away with Guy Sajer, Herman Wouk and Nicholas Monsarrat.

I arrived in London at the age of 17, navigating Marble Arch in a car my father had bought cheap because its previous owner had used it to gas himself. It was 1986 and within two weeks I had a job in the City, so utterly soulless that I quickly drank myself down to seven stone (about 98 pounds).

The 80s passed and with them my mother, my father fast following from grief. Before he died, he asked me to give up my job, accept a one-way ticket around the world, and disappear so as not to see him go. We said goodbye on the platform of Inverness train station knowing we would never see each other again. As we shook hands, he told me not to come back. He meant for the funeral.

He died while I was prospecting for copper, lead, zinc and gold in the deserts of North West Queensland. I had fallen for a geologist who was, at the time, weighing up the pros and cons of marrying her Sydney-based boyfriend. We explored the wilderness together in a specially equipped landcruiser and I only moved on when the company found out about the affair and reassigned me to the uranium prospects in the swamps around Darwin.

I arrived in Honolulu on my 21st birthday, and instantly adored America. On that trip I would drive from Los Angeles to New York. In 1993 I would spend six months driving the long way round from Seattle to New York, and end up signing a lease on a brownstone in Brooklyn. In 1995 I would be given the job of US Correspondent by The Observer.

It was while living in Brooklyn that I first thought of White Male Heart. I was walking down a side-street with a friend, a native of the borough, when a gunfight broke out just in front of us. "What the hell was that?" I shouted. "A .38," my friend said. After laughing, I wondered how different places affected people as they grew up. The title of the novel I found scrawled on the wall of a bar.

I existed on the little cash I could make writing Americana for Scotland on Sunday during the week and running a hole-in-the-wall bar (the Italian owners had forgotten to name it) on a Saturday night. My journalistic career accelerated when, in 1994, a smashed-up leg forced me home and into the job of environment and science correspondent for Scotland on Sunday. I hobbled over the landscape, fascinated by the different systems of land-ownership that existed in the Highlands. I picked up several awards which led to my appointment to Washington for The Observer.

The idea for White Male Heart had matured during my time in Scotland but with the new job I had to put off writing the book and concentrate on my opportunity to view human nature from such a rare perspective. I covered everything from the O.J. Simpson trial to the fallout from the Oklahoma bombing, from the freemen in Montana to the return of the martini in New York. The Guardian then sent me to Johannesburg as Southern Africa Correspondent and I saw Zaire at war, Princess Diana pursuing peace, and some of the most beautiful corners of the world in between.

I left The Guardian on Independence Day 1998, travelling north to Edinburgh and then on to the village of Achnasheen in Wester Ross, the name meaning "plain of the rains." I had signed, site-unseen, a yearlong lease for a house on the shores of Loch'a'chroisg. There was no shop and I arrived to find the local pub had burnt down. Outside my house stood an eagle's cage, thirty foot across and almost as high. The bars threw sinister shadows on moonlit nights and the cage, like many other discoveries, would become a leitmotiv in my novel.

I spent my weeks alone, writing. I talked only to the travelling butcher and the postmistress. On the weekends, I would invite friends to visit and then make them pose for photographs in the cage. The only major disruption (and it was spectacularly intrusive) was a five week court case in London in which The Guardian successfully defended itself against Keith Schellenberg, a Scottish landowner, who had sued over an article I had written in July 1996.

White Male Heart was completed by early 2000, by which time I had returned to Edinburgh, watching as my agent, Antony Harwood, sold the manuscript to Simon Taylor at Transworld and then, later, to Stephen Hull at Justin, Charles & Co. in Boston. Yet the benefits of writing in the place where a novel is set, of immersing myself within the landscape, of seeing where my characters walk, seemed so great that I decided to do it all again. I moved to a place called Bogrie in the hills north of Dunfries, an isolated house with six white doves, a hive of bees, two fine cats and a very spooky glen, to write a Borders novel. That second novel is approaching completion, has been accepted by Transworld, and I am back in Edinburgh.


© 2002 Justin, Charles & Co. All rights reserved.