Write about what you know, they tell you. So, with my first book, that’s exactly what I did. Having been a police officer in the city centre of Glasgow, I wrote about what it felt like to walk down a street in uniform, full of this strange mix of power and vulnerability – your uniform is like your suit of armour, it suggests you’re a font of all knowledge, a bulwark, a person to run to (or from…) in times of crisis. Folk see it, not you, and decide they know you. They’ll know what ‘kind’ of a person you are, what your politics are even. Your uniform is a badge of so many things (many of them untrue). But it’s also a beacon. Put simply, when you’re decked out as a polis, there’s absolutely nowhere to hide. Which makes you scared, and cocky all at once . The buck (for everything it seems, most days on the beat) very definitely stops with you.
And, once I started writing about the police, I found it was a rich seam. More ideas poured out, about power and hierarchies, about women in positions of authority being terrified of seeming weak, about what kind of society we want, about how cops are not ‘other’ – when they hang up their uniforms and go home, they are the public too, they, their kids, their parents live in the same society we all do. About how uniformed officers, who have the hardest job in policing, always seem to get subsumed in fiction and TV by CID, those gallus, sharp-suiters who slope in to say ‘There’s been a murrderrrr’, then pout into the middle distance.
So, I had a lot of fun writing my four police-based books, with a cast of characters, appearing over a ten-year story arc. Through the people, the politics and the time periods I was portraying, I tried to give a glimpse of the range of folk that make up the police - and also look at how policing itself is changing. With each book, I was pushing myself further and further away from what I knew. For example, in After the Fire, I write about what happens when a police firearms incident goes wrong. I’ve never been a firearms cop, never held a gun. So all of that required a huge amount of research. And it felt natural then, having continued to distance myself and my experiences from the stories I was creating, to move on to writing about a different subject entirely. Which led me to my new book ‘This Is Where I Am’ (Bloomsbury Circus).
This book tells the story of Abdi, a Somali refugee living in Glasgow, and Deborah, the local woman who becomes his volunteer mentor. To me, there’s very little difference with this new book and my others. They’re all about social issues, all set in Glasgow. With my first four books, I was writing about people who happened to be cops, but the thrust was always about lives behind closed doors, behind facades, behind the uniform – and my new book is a variation on that. Those faces you pass in the street everyday – who are they? What are they thinking about? Where do they wish they were – here, or somewhere else? Who, and what , do they go home to at night? I think all writers find that fascinating.
One of the joys of inhabiting the skin of a character so different from me was viewing Glasgow as an outsider. Again, I think this is something all writers should embrace. As Emily Dickinson said ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.’ Looking at the familiar, the stuff you take for granted, from another point of view really makes you see facets and perspectives you might otherwise have never considered. For example, in This Is Where I Am, the two main characters meet in a different part of Glasgow each month, as a way of helping to integrate Abdi into the city. Wondering about where they might go, all the usual places you’d take visitors made me think: somewhere like Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum, which is an amazing, Baroque building full of treasures and art; yes, it’s imposing, stunning. But if you didn't know it was free and you didn't know you were ‘allowed’ inside ; would you even go up the steps?
I spent time speaking to refugees and people that work with asylum seekers and refugees, to try to build up a picture that went beyond what I might imagine it must feel like to be a refugee. Everything you ever write will be filtered through your perception – what you understand by ‘love’ or ‘beauty’ or ‘fear’. But that doesn’t mean you have to have experienced the lives of the characters you’re creating, far from it. Think of how many wonderful books would never have been written if that were the case. What you can – and should – do, I believe, is to root your characters’ lives in whatever truth you can find. Ask yourself: what’s my ‘way in’ to this story? And usually, that’s to then go on and ask: what if it was me?
That was the key for writing ‘This Is Where I Am’. Yes, I spoke to refugees and asylum seekers, to try to get the facts right, about refugee camps, about the asylum process. I did online research, watching documentaries about Dadaab Camp, reading UN reports. But when it came to writing the characters, as much as I could, I wanted to boil facts down to feelings. I tried to imagine what it must be like to lose your home, your job, your family and wind up in a place you never even knew existed. To become a piece of driftwood. The starting point for me was thinking about what it’s like when you go abroad, and you think you can speak a little of the language. You’re in France say, you ask for ‘une billet’ on the Metro. Then they answer back and it’s all in French (quelle surprise!) and it’s too fast, and they’re doing numbers and there’s a queue behind you, so you panic. Forget the few words you know. You can’t articulate what it is you feel. You feel stupid, vulnerable. Scared. Angry? Or you make a joke, whatever – there’s many ways you might react, but what’s important for the writer, I think, is that moment when you go ‘ah, yes. Right. I remember that sensation.’ And, for me, that’s what you pick up and run with, to find your way in to another person’s skin.
Karen Campbell graduated with distinction from Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Masters in 2003, and, since then, has published five novels. Before turning to writing, she was a police officer with Strathclyde Police, and her first four novels focus on the people behind the uniform: The Twilight Time, After the Fire, Shadowplay, and Proof of Life. (all Hodder)
In 2009, Karen won the Best New Scottish Writer Award, and Shadowplay was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger in 2010. Her fifth novel ‘This is Where I Am’, a story about a Somali refugee living in Glasgow, (Bloomsbury Circus) is out now in paperback, and was a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime. The Scottish Refuge Council were hugely helpful in the writing of this book - please find their website here. Originally from Glasgow, Karen now lives in Galloway, where she’s just finishing off her 6th novel, which will be published by Bloomsbury in the UK & US next spring. Find out more on her website.