Monday, 20 April 2015

Stuart Interviews Book of the Month Award winner author Alison J. Butler

Interview: Stuart Laing and Alison J. Butler
The Hanging of Margaret Dickson
April 2015 Book of the Month Award

It is my very great pleasure to welcome Alison J. Butler to The Review. First of all, allow me to congratulate you on The Hanging of Margaret Dickson; it is a great book and fully deserving of being selected as The Review's Book of the Month for April. For those who don't know, you have had an interesting journey to become an author--tell me a little bit more about yourself...

Alison in her modelling days
Hi, Stuart, thanks for the congrats, I really appreciate your kind words. My journey becoming an author? It certainly didn't happen overnight, that's for sure. From a small child I read voraciously. My mum introduced me to Daphne DuMaurier at a very young age, so in short, I've always loved literature. Reading is just as important to me as writing. 

But back to becoming an author...writing did not occur to me for many years; I was born into a musical family, and for many years I worked as a professional singer. This career choice did not bring me any sense of pride or self worth, however, so while working as a singer (and rearing my four children) I returned to college. First I took A levels, then I studied for a degree in social sciences, and then while researching the history of crime and punishment, I stumbled across a small excerpt about a woman who survived a hanging. This true tale inspired me to write my first novel...but first I had to learn the craft of writing, which I'm still learning today! 
And of course, Margaret Dickson herself is an equally interesting woman. How would you describe her? 
Maggie was a true survivor - literally (she survived a hanging). She had grit and true spirit. Her job as a fishwife afforded her much freedom as her husband was constantly at sea...basically, Maggie could do as she pleased. During the 18th century in Scotland there was strict Kirk control, but fishwives and street hawkers such as Maggie tended to get away with such scandalous behaviour, as their job required them to be loud, bawdy, anything to sell their wares! 

However, there are some things even the fishwives and street hawkers could not get away with, and so when Maggie's promiscuous behaviour led her to the path of ruin, her fate was sealed. Maggie was human, flawed, a woman who loved and embraced her wild and reckless impulses, and could not be reformed - even after she was hanged.  I admire her for that. It's also worth mentioning that if Maggie had not been a peasant and a lady of quality, she would never have been hanged. Her true tale is a prime example of the 18th century's practice of 'punishing the poor.' 
Of course Maggie is just one great character in the book; did you have any other favourites from the rich and varied cast you presented to the reader? And was there any one thing about Maggie's story that grabbed you and made you want to tell her tale? 

The fishwives of Musselburgh
Most of the characters in my novel are indeed real people relevant to Maggie's story. Patrick Spence, Maggie's husband...the surgeon Munro, Bonaloy - the assistant minister, are all well documented in 18th century records. Also, in the course of my research, I discovered that William Bell, Maggie's lover, was in fact much younger than Maggie - and her 'toy boy'.  One of my favourite characters in the novel is in fact one of my only fictional characters, Widow Arrock - the reason I like her is because she's grumpy and a bit of a battle axe.

In terms of what grabbed me regarding Maggie's tale, and compelled to write her story was the sheer incredulity of it. Not only did Maggie survive her hanging; her husband, despite her many infidelities, forgave her. I thought that was amazing.

Also, in the course of my research, I discovered that Maggie gave birth to a son - James Spence, 10 months after her hanging

The Hanging of Margaret Dickson is a book rich in detail of Scotland in the early 18th century; how much time did you spend researching the history and the people? I know you were permitted to hold the final verdict of the jury during her trial which was still sealed. How tempted were you to open it and take a look?
In short, I spent many many years researching Scottish history before putting pen to paper. I also studied 18th century social history, crime and punishment and maritime history. I have a keen interest in the lives of peasant folk and don't care much for the aristocracy and ruling classes of bygone times. In truth, I would never invest so many years to researching a novel again, but it hasn't been time wasted. The judicial court records at the National Archives of Scotland? I was NOT tempted to open the sealed verdict envelope with wax seal intact; I was astonished that the staff asked me if I wanted to. It had remained like that for 300 years. How could I? We all know she was hanged anyway! 

Getting back to the writing itself if I may, tell me a little about how you write. Is there a particular time of the day that you prefer, or is it simply a case of just writing whenever the mood takes you? I know several authors who can just sit down and rattle off several thousand words at the drop of a hat but personally I need to give myself a long run-up to a writing session. How hard, or easy, do you find the writing process?

Writing in general...I wish I had some sort of structure, but I don't. I write in fits and bursts, anything from 500 to 10,000 words. I edit previous chapters constantly, probably too much...but luckily I never suffer from writer's block. With lots of kids in a house, I recently bought sound cancelling headphones, as I prefer to write in silence - they were a good investment!

One unusual result of your book is that you have been immortalised on a huge mural depicting the execution of Maggie Dickson. I saw the mural while it was still a work in progress last August on the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. Do you know if it will be back on public display in the future? Was posing for the painting like travelling back in time to your modelling days again?

The mural on display in the Grassmarket: Alison can be on the left as Maggie by the gallows. 

Posing for the Grassmarket mural was a huge honour and not at all reminiscent of my modelling days. (Hair modelling was very boring.) Meeting the artist, Chris Rutterford, who is a lovely man, was so exciting, as was chatting with passersby who wanted to know more about Maggie's incredible tale. The 32-foot mural was split up after completion, and sections of it are in shops on the Westbow and CandleMaker Row to be viewed by anyone. I suppose the real buzz for me is that Maggie 
Work in progress taken by myself last August
(Photo courtesy Stuart Laing)

Dickson was once again resurrected in the Grassmarket, and I had become a part of that...Maggie is very dear to me. And for obvious reasons, so is the Grassmarket and Musselburgh.

What would you say is the best thing about being an author? And of course, the flip side of that particular coin...the worst thing about it! Is there any advice you wish you had been given before you started writing? And is there anything you would advise to a new writer yourself after your own experiences?

The best thing about being an author, for me, is the ability to create something from nothing...plots, characters, twists, conversations, fantasies ...the list is endless. Also, it's such a wonderful thing to know that my novel or stories give readers (hopefully) pleasure. My novels , if I'm fortunate, will live on after I have passed; this gives me such a sense of pride, something I never had while singing - even when being praised. In truth, I still don't think myself worthy of the label 'author' - it's almost as though I haven't earned that honour yet.

Downsides to writing ... of course writing is solitary, and can take you away from family. I do find myself withdrawing from people, and wishing that I could become a hermit (mainly so I'd get more done.) Also, jealous reviewers, Internet trolls, they can be a real pain. My view on reviews is if you want to leave a review and be critical, don't be nasty; constructive criticism is fine, as are negative reviews - of course we cannot be expected to be liked by everyone. I've learned to ignore nasty reviews that only serve to hurt and humiliate. One more downside is in my case, having too many story ideas buzzing in my head, I would do well to concentrate on one project at a time.

Finally, and this is what I personally really want to know: what is next from Alison Butler? Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

What's next? I'm aiming to release books two and three this year, and my debut novel has been optioned for a TV series or film. So hopefully The Hanging of Margaret Dickson will be on the big screen soon, fingers crossed.

Advice to new writers... write about what you are passionate about, because it will show in your writing. Also, never give up  no matter what folk say - if you truly want to become a writer, nothing will prevent you ...develop a thick skin and learn to take criticism. Be meticulous with research and READ, READ, READ, aspire to be as good as your literary influences. I wish you the best of luck. Alison Butler XXX 

Many thanks to you for taking the time to chat with us today. I am sure that more people will be keen to learn all about Maggie's amazing story. And I look forward to reading more from you in the future.


Be sure to see Stuart's review of The Hanging of Margaret Dickson located here, and comment there for your chance to win a free copy!


  1. Reading about this topic from various angles just lures me in more and more...what a fascinating set of events!

  2. Thank you to Stuart and Alison for this fabulous interview. Alison it's great to have got to know you better

  3. What a hard life Maggie had sounds like a fascinating read and look forward to seeing it on the big screen in the future hope we can get it here in England (we can get BBC Scotland) I must try and look for the murals the next time I am back home :)