James Dixon is a London-born, Glasgow-based novelist, poet, and playwright. His debut novel, The Unrivalled Transcendence of Willem J. Gyle (Thistle, 2017) was shortlisted for the 2018 Somerset Maugham Award by the Society of Authors. His debut children’s novel, The Billow Maiden, is published by Guppy Publishing.
Nikki Gamble caught up with James to talk about The Billow Maiden and writing for children.
In the reading corner today, I’m talking to James Dixon, who is the author of the Billow Maiden. James is a debut children’s writer, and the book was picked up in an open submission competition. It’s a wonderful story set on a Scottish island in which Norse mythology and the real world collide.
First of all, a big welcome to you, James.
Thank you very much for having me.
To begin can you tell our listeners something about the story?
So it’s about a young girl called Ailsa, whose mum is sick. It’s not the first time she’s been sick. Ailsa’s uncle comes to pick her up where she lives in the city with her mama, a city loosely based on Glasgow, where I live, and takes her back to where they live on an island, a pseudo-Hebridean island, where she spends her days in the summer, holidays out exploring.
One day she comes across a cave where she finds the billow maiden. A strange woman who seems broken and desperate. It’s up to Ailsa to save her and bring her back to full health.
We’ll talk a little bit in a moment about what a billow maiden is, but I think I’d like to start right at the beginning of the book and get a flavour of what Elsa’s life is like and why she’s on the island. So, I wonder if you’d read from the very beginning of the story for us.
I’d love to.
Things began to get bad over the last few weeks before the summer holidays. It was Ailsa’s first year in secondary school. Her mom got ill. She began to spend every day in bed. The place became untidy, then outright dirty, and finally, there was no food left in the fridge or freezer.
In the end, Ailsa had to phone Uncle Nod. ‘It’s happening again,’ she told him.
‘You hold tight, love.’ he said. ‘Pack your bags. I’ll be there soon.’ He was there. A few hours later, his truck chugged to a stop outside their flat. Ailsa ran outside to meet him. Relieved, they carried Ailsa’s mom out to the truck, lay her across the rear seats and packed their bags into the back.
Uncle Nod looked over at Ailsa as they left the city. They took the motorway up to the harbour. ‘Your aunt’s getting your room ready for you,’ he said. And Moxie knows something’s up.; he’ll be dead excited to see you.’
‘How long will we stay with you?’ she asked.
‘As long as you want to, love, ‘he said.
He grinned over at her, though she could see how worried he was. She was worried too, but she felt safer now she was with him. Uncle Nod drove him onto the ferry. He sat in the truck with her mum swaddled in a blanket across the back seats. Ailsa spent the whole time at the front of the boat, enjoying the sea spray and the wind. It was a favourite part of the journey. The choppy sea and savage wind, the bump and rock of the boat and the salty briny smell of the sea always made her smile. It always made her feel alive.
The island on which her aunt and uncle lived emerged on the horizon as she stood watching. It gleamed in the summer sunshine, and she relaxed a bit. Uncle Nod and aunt May would take care of things.
They always did.
I want to pick up on some of the things from that reading.
Ailsa’s uncle and aunt are going to take care of the mother. And Ailsa is left to roam the island alone. She’s got a considerable amount of freedom in this environment.
I always think if you’re going to tell her a story about children, you need to. bring some bad parenting into it. You need some laissez-faire. Otherwise, you’ve got a story about kids following adults around all day and being shepherded. Whereas if they’re allowed to go out and fall out of trees and bark their shins, then you’ve got a good story. You’ve got the freedom that kids reading it will want to have. And you will have a character open to the plot moving along.
It’s not simply a plot device. It’s integral to the story. The mother’s mental health is connected to the natural world and the ailing of the planet. These two things are centrally important to the story.
Absolutely. I wanted to write a novel about how our own health and well-being is dependent on the natural world, the world around us, and our circumstances. And I wanted a natural avatar, to show that I thought that would be quite an enjoyable plot device. I thought that would be quite enjoyable for kids to read.
It was very enjoyable for me to write. This is where the woman she finds in the cave, the billow maiden comes into it. She is ailing in a parallel way to Ailsa’s mother.
It does work really well. There is a point fairly early in the story where you describe the mother: her pale skin; the way that she swaddled is very similar to the way that you described the found woman in the rock pool. So I instantly made that connection between these two characters.
Good. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say there’s a relatively happy ending. And when that happens when these two women complete their arc facilitated by Ailsa, it’s, it is quite natural that their arcs should remain in tandem.
you talked about the trope of the child free of adult supervision, but Ailsa has a surrogate parent in Moxie, her uncle’s dog. And because Moxie, is not threatened by this strange woman in the cave, this gives a sense of security, and it’s almost like the dog is watching over the child.
Exactly. That’s how I wanted to signpost to the reader early on that this is not a threatening person. It’s a friend in the making. There’s a bond to be had here. And also, I’d go a step further and say that Moxie makes it happen. It’s a hidden cave that no one can get to. Moxie shows her the way. She doesn’t want to go into the cave, but Moxie ducks in, and she has to chase him to get him out. And that’s how it happens.
It’s very much playing into the idea of this atavistic side of this dog recognising something that’s going on that Elsa isn’t able to see. At first,
I think we probably can’t hold off any longer from telling listeners a little bit about billow maidens. So, there are lots of different traditional stories and legends about folk that live in the sea. Selkies and mermaids, for instance. The billow maiden is from the Norse tradition. How did this billow maiden come to be part of the story?
It’s interesting you pick up the idea that merfolk crop up in different traditions because originally, I wanted to write about a selkie., It was very explicitly a selkie, a woman who looked like a seal when in the sea, who sheds her skin and becomes a beautiful young maiden on the shores. And if someone steals that skin, she’s beholden to them and entrapped by them. And that forms part of the backstory here.
And at the same time, much like yourself, I have a very keen interest in different mythologies, Nordic folklore being one of them. And so, I looked up what different traditions made of selkies. There are a few references in the book to the Billow Maiden; s ability as a siren in the Greek tradition.
When I found these billow maidens. I thought, oh, what are these? And the name of one of them that really stood out to me was Hefring which we’d learn in the book means the rising tide. And that to me spoke volumes of about the ecological message that’s wrapped up in the book. The idea is that, not literally the tides are rising, though we know that is the case, but rather a rebellion. Nature is rebelling, and I wanted an avatar for that rebellion. So when I found this creature called the rising tide, and she was a selkie mermaid type being, it was too good to pass up.
I didn’t know that there were nine sisters, all named after different qualities of the waves, and I loved that idea.
So you’ve got one sister who’s the bloody froth after a battle at sea. They’re all a different aspect of the sea. It’s lovely.
And I also like the idea from reading about them that billow maidens were quite fickle. They would trap ships. And some ships they would steer to safety and others, they’d pull apart and sink and steal what was on board. For me, these nine sisters encompass everything it is to be human.
Nikki Gamble: t
Can you tell us a little bit about when Ailsa first sees Hefring in the pool?
When I was writing it, the figure herself was less important than the surroundings, and so I worked from that way inward.
So I grew up, exploring rock pools in Cornwall. Me and my brother would just disappear into the caves all afternoon. And so I had the experiences of smugglers, coves, these proper Poldark-style caves in mind. And that’s what Ailsa walks into. There’s a shallow pool in there and a woman who is half submerged, and she’s basically rotting.
In my mind I had David Almond’s Skellig, when Davy goes into the garage and finds Skellig. It’s a wonderful descriptive passage of finding this odd man and something isn’t quite right. Whereas Skellig had been festering in a dusty atmosphere, Hefring has been rotting away.
At one point, I described the smell around her as a Dockyard stencht. She really is just almost a rotten cadaver at this point, but bloated by the sea.
Ailsa finds it very difficult to tell anybody. She wants to talk about it, but she can’t. which leads me on to a technical aspect of the writing that I really enjoyed, which is the dialogue. Or maybe more to the point, the lack of dialogue. How many things can you express through just using the word ‘aye ‘.
I’ve been living in Scotland for the last nine years and you can express a lot with those ‘ayes’.
There is a lot of dialogue, but it’s quite ‘samey’. It’s just those ‘ayes’ are very context-dependent.
Both Elsa and Camilla, her friend are living in incredibly tumultuous situations. They are just making it through day by day. Because Ailsa is going through the kind of thing that a child can’t look at straight. So she’s having to just take it piecemeal and digest it almost without realising it. And in a way, she gets lost in this adventure. To almost get away from it.
So when she doesn’t speak about what’s going on, there’s a very good reason for it. There are a couple of times she does speak about what’s going on, and then, it really pours out. But for the most part, no, I wanted to keep it quiet.
I said to you before we started recording, it reminded me of Pinter’s dialogue, where the meaning is much richer than the words being spoken. Of course, he’s writing for the stage and this is a novel, so you have got an opportunity through the narrative to give us access to Elsa’s interior life.
I don’t think I do too much of that. I do more than I did in the first draft. A lot of this book is down to Bella Pearson at Guppy Books, my editor, who read the first draft. She said, okay, that’s good, but not much happens.
And I said, oh, yeah, I don’t want much to happen. She said, no, build this scene flesh this out, have them express themselves, focus it on Ailsa. And I said, oh, it’s too much. And she said, the way you write is never going to be too much. It’s too little at the moment. So what you get paired back and Spartan as it is, is actually me almost over-egging it.
In the beginning, there was so much going on with other characters. Ailsa was nearly lost and I didn’t want that to happen. So I ensured that everything I showed every scene she was in it. So although she doesn’t particularly say much, she doesn’t really express herself, she’s the eyes and ears on the ground. She knows everything we know. The story sort of tells itself in that way, or at least I hope it does. I don’t like clutter in any walk of life. And it’s very much the same with my writing.
You write what you read, don’t you? I’m a big Salman Rushdie fan, and so when I first started writing it was very exuberant. It really didn’t work. What someone from Mumbai can write, isn’t what I can write. And then I read his autobiography. He mentioned that when he first started writing, he read Ian Forster, and he said that he had this idea that he’d be able to write cool Forsterian prose. But it didn’t work in his voice.
And I thought, hang on a minute, maybe it’ll work in my voice. So, I read some Ian Forster. I read more pared-back writing by various novelists and thought, okay, that’s the way I can go.
This is my first children’s book. It’s my second novel. My first one was very much inspired by J. M. Coetzee who, in exactly the same way, doesn’t say much. A lot happens around what he’s saying, but you don’t ever get a clear shot at it. And so that was a really big shift in my own personal writing journey.
Tell me a little bit more about Camilla and her family.
So they’re gangsters. And again, in the original manuscript, I alluded to that they were a pater familias. Camilla’s father was a businessman, and I’d hinted that he was corrupt. Obviously, we don’t see any gangsterism, but they’re the rich people in the village and their mansion overlooks Ailsa’s aunt and uncle’s small little fishing, boatyard. But in spite of the material wealth Camilla finds Ailsa’s place almost luxurious because it’s so warm and inviting and loving.
They have a couple of evenings there where she looks wistfully around because her family is so cold but also aggressive and unapproachable. And she is also quite aware of the kind of family they are.
So it might make it quite hard for her to make friends on the island,
James Dixon: That’s it.
They’re both outsiders. Camilla lives away. She goes to boarding school. She spends her summers at summer school. Summer school is cancelled this year, so she’s just loafing about at home for the first time ever. She doesn’t really know anyone. And then there’s this other outsider living next door. They make friends and have their adventures and become incredibly close, incredibly quickly.
She’s a reader, and there was a little thing that she said when they were talking about schoolwork. She says, I never really finish the work they give me. I spend all my time reading. I prefer it that way. Then I get to learn what I want to learn. I just wondered how much of you was in that statement.
My mum enjoyed that passage quite a bit when she read it. That was me. I never did my work at school, but I never had my nose out of a book.
Tell us why writing about mental health is so important to you.
So a lot of it’s based on my experience. I know a couple of people who’ve read it and thought I’d almost overdone it with Ailsa’s mom. She’s not just depressed; she’s basically in a coma. Later, that’s almost a medically induced coma, but at She’s in a coma. She’s an inanimate object to all intents and purposes, until the very, very end. That’s based on my own experience. I’m bipolar, so I have periods like that.
My granddad, my maternal grandfather was bipolar, and he was very much like that. And a lot of the descriptions of the mum were basically lifted from my mum’s description of how my granddad could be. She said you could sit him in a chair, and he’d just have this thousand-yard stare. You could lift his hand up, and it would flop back down to the arm of his chair because he was absent for weeks. He died when I was very young. I only have a couple of memories of him, but I’ve grown up with those stories.
It’s difficult for children, but important for them to understand and, perhaps we’ve hidden children from these things, and they become more scary because we don’t really talk about them.
Absolutely. Ailsa is not particularly bright. She’s not particularly imaginative. She’s not very expressive at all, but she’s very straightforward. She’s very pragmatic. And so she doesn’t view her mum’s illness with any kind of terror. She doesn’t dress it up in any way. There’s no diminishing yet she doesn’t catastrophise. S
When she’s explaining it to Camilla, she says, sometimes I understand it, sometimes I don’t. But an almost fatalistic attitude. And I wanted to get that across to children that sometimes this happens, some people go through this, lots of people go through it once, some people go through it a lot and I didn’t want to water it down.
Can we talk a little bit about the experience of winning this wonderful open manuscript competition?
I wrote this during lockdown, but hand wrote it actually. because I do a lot of freelance work, so I wasn’t at my computer too much. Then I typed it up. And as I finished typing it up, Guppy Books opened their 2021 open submissions. And I remember seeing that the shortlisted entrants would get an hour’s consultation with Bella Pearson.
Anyone who knows anything about children’s publishing knows how phenomenal she is. So I thought if I could just get to the shortlist and have an hour’s video conversation with Bella, I’d be a hundred times better off than I am now.
I got through the long list and couldn’t quite believe it got through to the shortlist. And then she emailed me and said, I want to talk about something. And I froze, and I don’t think I said much to her, I just nodded at the phone, dumbly. But then we had a proper chat the following week, and she signed it, and then she really got her teeth into it.
When you got to work on it together, you’ve already said that one of the things that she wanted to do was pull more out of it. What do you think are the other important things that Bella did to help you shape the story?
There are some specific scenes that she helped me with overall. It was a case of tuning it up. The idea was there, Ailsa wasn’t half the character before Bella helped me. The parallel that Hefring and Elsa’s mum have was very much implied and Bella was of the opinion that they should be more explicitly tied.
She helped to bring out a lot more of the characters. Even though the mum is in a semi-coma for most of it, she takes on a character. And then Ailsa shares a few stories with Camilla, which furthered that.
One of the things that a lot of people are feeding back to me is about the ending. And I’m not going to give it away, but it’s a very satisfying ending. It’s got a proper resolution and a very neatly wrapped ending. And that was Bella
Endings are so important. I think you’ve got to end on the right note. I don’t think it’s giving too much away, and I do want to mention it. I think that there is a point in the story where Ailsa says to her mother, ‘Mummy, my mummy,’ The Railway Children, surely,?
Only a couple of people have picked up on that.
I think you and my mum, and I don’t think anyone else has picked up on that. But it’s very deliberate. My Mum had the book. I think she rereads it annually. It’s almost a pilgrimage for her to reread it. We, an old VHS cassette with the Jenny Agutter Railway Children that we used to watch all the time. And the image of the dad getting off the train at the end, being semi-hidden behind the mist and walking through it, coming back to the family, coming back to Jenny Agutter, And then she shouts out, ‘Oh, daddy, my daddy’. Yeah, it’s 100% lifted from that partly as a homage and to make my Mum cry. And she did.
I’m not surprised.
James, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you. I found this a really refreshing read, and I loved it. Thank you.
Thank you so much.
About The Billow Maden
Ailsa’s mum is ill, not the first time, so they spend the summer with her aunt and uncle. Aunt Bertha, Uncle Nod, and their dog Moxie live on an island off the coast, by a beautiful fishing village surrounded by beaches and clifftops. Ailsa and Moxie spend their whole time there exploring these beaches and cliffs, until one day, they find a hidden cave.
Inside the cave, they find Hefring, a strange woman not keen on strangers. Ailsa slowly gets to know who Hefring is. She is a selkie, a mermaid, a billow maiden from ancient myth.
However, she is stuck on land and slowly dying. It is up to Ailsa and her new friend Camilla to save her, but there are plenty of obstacles in the way – not least Ailsa’s own fears and her mum’s illness. The Billow Maiden is a beautifully told tale of friendship, family, healing, and transformation from a stunning new writer for children.