Sally Magnusson discusses her successful debut novel- The Sealwoman’s Gift

Life is made up of collective experiences that shapes who we are and, in fact, stories are what we have to comfort us when we are down, to inspire us when we are struggling, and to entertain us for enjoyment.

We are all made of stories and veteran broadcaster Sally Magnusson uses the concept of storytelling to create a captivating debut novel.

Now, the 62-year-old is swapping fact for fiction; this is not the first time the news anchor has tried her hand at writing. She has been writing for a long time since her first book was released in 1981 called, ‘The Flying Scotsman: The Eric Liddell Story’.

This, however, is the veteran broadcaster’s debut fiction novel.

‘The Sealwoman’s Gift’, a historical epic, is based on the true story of 1627 when Algerian Pirates abducted 400 Icelanders and took them to Africa to be sold off as slaves.

It follows the character of Àsta (Owsta), who loses her freedom and family but finds solace in stories.

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Sally Magnusson

The novel is well researched making it very difficult to discern fact from fiction.

This tale, set in Iceland, resonance to Magnusson – her father was the Icelandic- born Magnus, former presenter of Mastermind.

Many authors try to use literature to make a point in an entertaining way about modern preconceptions, such as satire, or they write a hard-hitting novel with lots of modern day allusions, as Magnusson does in this spell-bounding debut.

It is also the story of a woman challenging what is expected of her, an idea still as relevant today as it was 400 years ago.

She explains: “This is a novel to some degree which reflects the present as much as the past. I think it’s very hard not to bring in some modern preconceptions but I tried not to make her [Àsta] into some sort of proto-feminist.”

The most difficult part of the writing this book, she says, was writing the female characters because there was nothing written about them either “European women who were slave in Algiers or indigenous Muslim women who were hidden away.”

“Women were just completely invisible partly because the men were taken off mainly to do hard labour or various sorts and they wouldn’t have seen many of the women,” she says.

It’s a theme still relevant today, of women fighting for equality.

However, Àsta is rather unique character as she is nothing like the other women in the book, as she can’t cook too well or sew but would rather read books, think intellectual thoughts and dream.

Magnusson explains: “There must have been women like that as well who had no opportunity to express themselves but that’s what I imagined for Àsta, so I don’t think you could describe her as typical.

“The fact is we don’t know. We do not know what was typical for that time at all because nobody writes about them at all, full stop.”


Magnusson thinks and tells me her thoughts on equality towards women.

“I think, of course, “she smiles, “everybody should be treated the same, and have the same opportunities. And it’s necessary for us all to get rid of the unconscious biases that have come down to us in many ways from the 17th century.

“It has taken 400 years for women to get there, voice heard in the right way. Equal pay for equal work is the law and has been since the 1970s so we should all be doing that.”

The raid in which the story has been based on is one of the most traumatic incidents in Icelandic history, where dozens of people were murdered and Magnusson doesn’t shy away from making this distinction as she successfully re-creates the atmosphere and feeling of this barbaric raid.

“The only thing I really made up about that was the flies and I wanted it to be known that this was really really brutal stuff.  I wanted his [Jon Thorsteinsson- Island priest at kirkjubaer] wife Margrèt to be one of the main characters and I wanted to deal with themes of grief and loss,” she says.

“I thought about Margrèt and it was described in many eyewitness accounts how they were huddling in a cave, she and her family, and they heard the pirates getting nearer and nearer, in fact there was details there that I didn’t include.”

Magnusson deliberately chose not to include the description that would make your stomach churn, but did enough to get across the brutality of the raid in Iceland early on in her book.

“I needed that early on to be something quite traumatic and something quite, hmmph, goodness,” she says enthusiastically.

“That’s why I did that. It may be a bit strong meat for some.”

However, Magnusson, who can speak Icelandic, was stuck in a bit of a rut for a while as the source material for the story was in Icelandic until she read a translation of the memoirs of Ólafur Egilsson ‘the Pastor on the Westmain Islands.’

“When I read that I thought this is so powerful this is the human story, first person, describing these pirates, describing how his wife gave birth on the boat, describing what happened to him when he got to Algiers,” she reveals.


Elliðaey part of the Western Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)

Magnusson threw herself into writing her debut novel and admits it’s been a long-time aspiration of hers to pen a novel.

Despite her huge success and public recognition as a broadcaster, she’s being referred to as a novelist, which makes her swell with pride.

“I think it, actually, it is my identity but also my professional aspirations,” she admits.

“I always wanted to write well and write in different kinds of media and novel writing was one I haven’t turned my hand.  If people describe me as a novelist, now I take that as a huge compliment.”

The novelist was encouraged by her publisher to write the story as a piece of fiction and was told that she used many of the techniques in ‘Where memories go’, the memoir Magnusson wrote about her mother’s.

The writer has herself has been through her own share of personal battles – losing her father, to cancer in 2007 and watching her mother deteriorate with a brave battle with dementia.

But, these difficulties have inspired rather than deterred Magnusson – now a strong voice in the discussion on how dementia can be treated through song.

Speaking of her Scotswoman of The Year, she says: “I was very surprised and very privileged to have got it. It’s more of a tribute to all the people who have taken on ‘Playlist for Life’- used it and found it useful and who have begun and change the whole landscape of dementia care.”

However, as Magnusson is a trained journalist her job is to tell the true story without using her imagination.

“Before you quote somebody, you get exactly what they said and that is a mind-set, which is actually inimical to the imaginative effort that is involved in writing a novel,” she explains.

“I had to wean myself off all that. Not that fact isn’t important if you are writing a historical novel as I was. Clearly you were writing within an historical framework. You’ve got to do your research and you’ve got to get it right.

“What is known historically, I certainly think that can’t be flouted unless you are doing a particular kind of novel, which this one isn’t. But, if it is to be any more than just a kind of documentary with a few inventive characters, if it is actually going to be a fully immersive emotional and intellectual experience then you need to let go off it what I began to think of my crutch.

“It was a great moment of liberation. I don’t need to say one must assume. I’m just saying this is my universe and we are doing it.”

The difficulty of this story was her desire to keep to the facts after three decades of journalism, but after her first draft Magnusson realised she had to let go and “jump off the tree.” It certainly paid off.

She put her notes to the side and decided to look over them if she needed to check over any uncertainties.

“I think that I hoped the first draft would be sort of it with a few embellishments and I knew by the end of the first draft. Ninety thousand words that it wasn’t right and I had to do it again and then I had to do it again and it is a bit demoralising but it was important,” she sighs. “It was just completely the wrong way round I should be writing for the reader and to tell a story from the inside.

“I just have to think to myself inside these characters I have created they have got to live and breathe and I have to go where they take me.”

Magnusson decided to create a romance between Àsta the slave, and Cellibe, the owner, who is based on a real person to help create a “page-turner” with an “emotional heart.”

She says: “Some awful things happened to these captives and although I made a love story at the heart of this, a slightly ambiguous love story, that’s at the heart of it. I didn’t want to sentimentalise or romanticise any of the experiences around about that.”

Magnusson was also interested in exploring the idea of whether a loving marriage be resolved after being held captive and learning to live in an entirely new world after so many years.

“I was interested in what happens to a marriage when there are so many things go on that they are separated for and how you might pick that up afterwards,” she ponders.

“It seemed to me what I needed to explore was different kinds of loving, if you had a hard life and a loving marriage.”

Magnusson tells me “there is so much ambiguity in life. Everything in life is ambiguous and ambivalent and anti-romantic really. We try and make romance out of everything to I think make so much of what goes on in life palatable.”

There is another historical fiction novel in the works, she says, “I will probably find this one as difficult as the last one as well probably, so I mean don’t hold your breath, but I’d like to do some more”.

She is considering writing her next book in Scotland and tells us this rather ambiguous clue to what the next book could be: “It’s not exactly an event that is a clue, it’s not an event so much as a setting.”

About John Glover

John Glover is the features editor for Clyde Outside. He has written for numerous publications such as the Scottish Sun and Daily Record. Within the last two years he has interviewed some high profile talent such as Irvine Welsh and James Cosmo.

View all posts by John Glover →

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