• Kaitlyn Chatwood

Interview with Ely Percy, author of Duck Feet

RedHanded was ecstatic to be given the chance to interview Ely Percy about their novel Duck Feet, which is currently taking Scotland by storm.

Written entirely in the Scots vernacular, Duck Feet is an intimate, nuanced and hilarious celebration of what it is like growing up in a working-class Scottish community and maturing through the difficult years of secondary school.

Duck Feet is published by Leith’s fiercely independent Monstrous Regiment. Founded in 2017 by Ellen Desmond and Lauren Nickodemus, Monstrous Regiment publishes outstanding working-class writers, as well as intersectional feminism and sexuality.

The novel follows 12-year-old Kirsty, growing up in Renfrew with her parents, sister and her best friend Charlene before she finishes school and leaves to face the world.

Ely Percy sat down with RedHanded to discuss the novel, the characters, and their upcoming event with Edinburgh International Book Festival.

*Please note the interview contains spoilers for Duck Feet.

Where did your very first idea of Kirsty come from? The very first initial conception of her?

I had written a few short stories, but I had never spent a lot of time on them, and I had done creative non-fiction before so I [thought] I am going to write some fiction stories and there was a call out in a magazine; it was the theme ‘shoes’. I was in my parents living room writing down brogues, high heels, trainers. And I realised, it has to be something different. If I want to get chosen, it isn't enough that the story has to be really good - it also has to stand out from the other stories. So, I am sitting writing this list down, I am thinking what other types of shoes can you get with feet? And my dad came in. Now my dad’s got bad feet, so I just wrote ‘my dad’s got bad feet’ and it was just her voice. It was like channelling a radio and it just came right through me and I wrote the whole thing.

That was the first story. A couple of days after that, I thought what am I going to write now? Write a story: she is sitting in a French class. Afterwards, I was literally handwriting them one day, typing them up the next. Then a year later, I had 65 stories. So, each new story that I went to write was influenced by whatever people had said to me. They were linked but they were standalone stories as well. Then Monsters Regiment came to me and said, ‘we would like to publish that, can you make it a novel?’ So I had to go back and there has been 16 years in between. I started it in 2004/2005. I think the first one was published in January 2005 because I just wrote it and sent it to that competition.

Charlene’s character was quite realistic, was her character an amalgamation of real people who you knew?

When I first started writing Duck Feet, it was just one short story and Charlene was mentioned as ‘the pal’. It was when I had written 10 short stories, I realised Charlene was getting bigger and bigger. By the time I got into the 10th story I thought, I know where people are going. I know what is going to happen to Charlene by the time she’s 15. But I thought I need to make sure that I am on the right track, so I started to ask people.

I would be in the pub or out with friends, and I would say who wants to be interviewed by me! What I noticed was everybody had a Charlene. So, it wisnae so much that it was an amalgamation of people I knew, it was people that I spoke to were telling me the same stories over and over again. Nobody in the book is anybody in real life. It was just listening to different people.

I used to read my work at an event called Reading Aloud and I would read a story and folk would always come past and go ‘so what’s going to happen with Charlene, what’s going to happen with Kirsty? This is what I think should happen.’ And nobody had any bad ideas. Sometimes somebody will say something [and you think] maybe she would do that? If three people are telling me that this might happen next then maybe that should happen. Or maybe the opposite should happen. Sometimes it is the things or the people that you meet that say ‘what could have happened that is actually worse than what happened?’ Or what could they have said next if that conversation had not stopped there?

I think most of the people got the ending they deserved. And it was really important to me that Charlene got the ending that I thought she deserved. I [went back] to the beginning of the story and I looked through all of the things that she had done, and Kirsty said at the beginning of the story that Charlene gets away scot-free with everything. Charlene never got away scot-free with anything; she always got caught, she always got punished even if it wasn’t in the way that Kirsty expected her to. I just thought that Charlene, for all the stupid mistakes that she made, there was something larger at play and she wasn’t being cared for. I really needed somebody to come in at the end and say ‘actually I will help you but how would you like me to help you?’ And to have her decide what was good for her. I just thought that was important.

I just really wanted Charlene to return to the swimming. I really felt that was important because that goes back to the beginning. I was running out of time; we kept moving the deadline for the book because I kept saying, ’it is not quite right’. And it was so difficult to try and figure out what it was, and I finally thought ‘it is the swimming’. She always wanted to be a lifeguard, she always wanted to swim. I was really pleased with that.

I am curious about Kirsty’s grief. You did ‘A Christmas Carol’ style chapter; where did that inspiration come from? Why did you choose to do something like that to help her through her grief?

Originally there were 65 short stories and my publisher had said to me that they would like me to novelise it: what they were asking me for was actually a complete structural rewrite. So I then had to knit these stories together so that there was a storyline going through the whole thing. One of the things that my publisher had said to me was, ‘we would really like to know more about Kirsty’s grief and this sort of process of what she went through afterwards’. Because sixth year’s a hard year. I thought okay, I can work on that. I would like to do another story about grief and bereavement. I want to do a Christmas story because I think that is when it hits you the hardest because Christmas time, people are expecting you to mingle, and to celebrate. I thought what I want to do is go back to the whole beginning of the story and show you what could have happened. And I thought, I am basically putting the whole book into one story. My editor said ‘that was absolutely the most perfect story to put in there’, but she didn’t want it at all. She thought it was like flinging in a parallel universe story into a book that is not fantasy. But it just needed another Christmas story. So, I felt that it was continuing that Christmas theme going through the book and putting that little bit of magic in.

I guess I gave you a little bit of background into some characters that you did not really know and that was what I wanted. What could have happened if Kirsty had not been there to stop Chris from hitting his head. What would have happened to him? What would have happened to different characters? I still needed that other romance story with Clicky and I had not managed to sort out Clicky’s love life, and I knew who I wanted him to be with, so it was this story that had to take in as many loose ends as possible, and that is what I used it to do.

Why did you decide to kill Wully?

I think right from the start I knew that he was the one boy who people said was a waste of space, who people said was no good for anything, but he has this massive, massive heart. He wholeheartedly feels that he wants to save people, he wants to help people. So for me, he was going to end up under a bus by pushing someone out of the way or he was going to be stabbed, or he was going to end up in prison because he had battered somebody else.

I just knew from really early on that with Kirsty going through the whole story, Kirsty had a fairly alright time in school. She does not get bullied; she sees other people getting bullied. For her to finally sort of break, for her to have something happen really traumatic, what would be the worst thing that could actually happen? Well, I thought if something happened to Charlene, that would be sad, but their friendship has been on the rocks as well so, I had to think about if she lost a parent, if she lost her gran, what would be the worst thing? And I think because it was a young person and somebody that she had really cared about and was really close to, this is absolutely devastating for her because you know she has never had any kind of trauma before. I think in 2007 when that part was set, maybe she had PTSD, I don’t know, I did not set out to do that; it was afterwards I [thought] ‘you know, she’s having flashbacks’. Her mum said ‘oh, how can we help?’ when nobody knew how to help.

I think I just wanted to explore how something so absolutely terrible happened to this wee girl who had never had any trauma. How would that affect her. Because in order for her to get to where she was at the end of the book, something had to happen that completely changed her. Because she is not the same person. When she goes in at 12, she is quite precautious, she is quite quiet. When she is 15, she is a bit more gutsy. By the time she gets to 17, she has not changed that much from 15, but those last few chapters is really what makes her decide to strike out on her own.

How much was autobiography in terms of growing up in Renfrew?

Well, I’m from Renfrew and I grew up in the same street that Kirsty did. I just picked where I knew and I thought I want to write about our town and where I come from and the people that I knew because I was not seeing them reflected in literature. My mum would say ‘that’s just like our life’ but then it wasn't like our life because none of that actually happened to us. So, lots of different people influencing it and informing the choices that I made.

You have been with Kirsty for 16 years now. Are you sad to see her go?

I don’t think I am sad. I mean, I think towards the end, there were a lot of stories that I could have written. I guess, I think I am done with Kirsty. People have said to me ‘are you going to write a sequel? What is she like as an adult?’ And I don’t think I have ever seen her beyond the age of 18. I think she is off doing her own thing. No, I do not think I am sad, I am pleased that she did what she wanted to do in the end. She got to do what she wanted, and she got to see bigger things.

I think there are other stories from other characters that could be said. I said I would do Odd Duck. I don’t know if it is a book or a pamphlet or a story. I know that Odd Duck is Chris Rice’s point of view, but I don’t know [if] I want to write a whole book about Chris? I think there is certainly a story from him. And there are advanced swimming lessons and a crush that he has on a swimming instructor and how he comes to terms with how he sees [himself]. He already has a disability. He doesn’t want to be different in any other way and this story will be about finding peace for him and accepting that. Another story is a kid who we don’t hear from, a kid called Nico who is a trans boy, that I could not write about in 2001 – 2007, nobody is going to be out in school. So I would like to do a story with him at college loving life. Going to LGBT youth, meeting other characters who are in Duck Feet.

I think there are about six stories. I think there are three voices and there are three, maybe two, stories each and I don’t know how long those will be and I don’t know how long those will take me. I don’t know how long it will take me to find those individual voices and sustain them. I can hear their voices in dialogue, but I have not been able to hear the narrative voice. I am all about the voice, so I do not want to do it if isnae strong enough.

Did you originally write it in Scots?

Yes, that is the only way it could be written I think. That was just the voice. I changed the spelling of things a couple of times and then changed them back. Then we were proofreading it and my eyes were going googly.

Why do you think it is important then to write in Scots?

For me that was the most natural way to write it, it just felt easier, it just felt like that is the way that people I grew up with. And then my sister said to me, ‘oh she doesn’t really sound like us’ but not everybody that we grew up with sounded exactly like me, and my accents changed since being in Edinburgh, since being in England. I think I sound completely different.

I guess I was thinking about how I sort of write from a place of lack. And I [thought] well, if I am not hearing the voices of people that I know then maybe I should step up and write it. It was all about the voice for me and it is like tuning a radio and just thinking, ‘you just have to listen.’ Just listen to what is going on round about you.

Tell me about the front cover design.

Well, the front the cover of the book was a picture that was taken in Renfrew, but the lassie who did the design went out to Renfrew, she took loads and loads of photographs of Renfrew and we all went through them. And the photograph that got picked that Ellen really liked, and really thought ‘this is going to sell the book’, I didn’t like it. I [thought] this is meant to be a book about hope and being really upbeat and you have a picture of a tenement that looks like it is damp. It did look miserable, and I was just like no. Kirsty lives in a really nice close and they make sure the stairs are always swept and her gardens always nice and I said, I don’t really want it to be a miserable housing scheme and everybody is poor and we are all miserable. This is meant to be the opposite of that. I said there is a lot of really good books that have been written in Scotland that are about poverty but that is not what this book is. [Ellen] did brighten it up and I went ‘I love that!’

Many, many years ago, a small 8-year-old was climbing up the drainpipe on that house and got their leg stuck. [It was the] front page of the Paisley Express. It was me! Later on, somebody had pointed out, and I am like hang on, mum, what house? And my mum says aye, that is the flat. And I was just like no it isnae. And my mum goes aye and I [thought] that is so weird. How strange that is the front cover. Out of all the pictures we could have picked, that is the picture that they picked.

What is it like being a neurodivergent author? What are the successes and the challenges that you personally face?

I have managed to get three book deals without an agent because when I have tried to query an agent, they always want a synopsis and I have what is called executive dysfunction. I wrote a blog on it, and I tried to explain to people what it is. It is when you cannot get to the point, when you struggle to tell somebody what the point is. So, although I have been writing for 27 years, I have never been able to write a synopsis. Any agent that I queried wants a synopsis, and they are not willing to budge on that. So that for me is a real barrier. There is an agency now that is doing a ‘break for writers’ thing, for writers with disabilities. They give you a mentor and they asked you to submit 3000 words of a novel or short story collection, and I thought that is brilliant because what I need is somebody that can maybe help me try to overcome this problem I have with synopsis. And you have to send a synopsis!

Another one would just be if somebody from a writing festival wanted me. It has gotten better because the pandemic has made it possible for people to do certain things over zoom. I was asked before to do stuff where I would query going to an event and it would be a case of some places didn’t have the money to pay you. But for me, I need to pay for my travel expenses plus another person to travel with me, because I have got a visual memory impairment so I am unable to get around very well so I would need somebody with me.

I would be sending stuff out and it would be like you either just got completely ignored or they might come back to you and [say] actually we cannot afford to have you because we are only paying people £50 and it is only a small event and it is costing you more to get here, so it doesn’t make any sense.

The Primadonna Festival were very good actually, they got me to find another performer who then got something out of it as well, so that was my friend Gray Crosbie. It was really good because Gray is a really good performer, one of my favourite spoken word artists, so that was a good solution. And we went away down to England; of course they paid for our travel, they paid for us to actually perform, they paid for a hotel.

The only way for me to take part in these things sometimes is if I do them digitally. So, the pandemic in that sense has really worked for me. I did a whole case study for the National Writing Centre and they asked; ‘so how has your writing been affected by the pandemic, that must have been really hard with a book coming out’ and I was like no. My book launch went digital but that was fine. Hundreds of people got to watch it instead of maybe a few that got to watch it if it had been socially distanced. Instead of 20 people, I then had 300 people. I didn’t have to leave the house. I didn’t have to get anybody to travel with me, I didn’t have to [bring] all the books.

Can you tell me about the Scots Language Publication grant which you won last year?

So, the Scots publisher grant. We applied to it and I think it was meant to be May, but it was a little delayed by the Pandemic, but it was basically what allowed us to go to print. It just allowed us to print 1000 copies of Duck Feet. Horrifying that it was two and half months later that the print ran out! For everybody who pre-ordered it with the first print run, they got these postcards made.

Tell me about your upcoming event with Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Well they have not given me any sort of questions or anything like that. It is with Harry Josephine Giles who has a novel coming out in Orcadian, so I think they are going to do a preview of their reading. It is going to be hosted by Heather Parry, so I guess we are just going to be talking about Scotland and Scottish working-class identity. I think it is down to whatever Heather wants to ask us, maybe just talking about Scottish culture and writing. Why we chose to write in Scots and I think Josie’s stuff is going be really, really exciting, the first Orcadian novel that has been written in a long time.

I remember saying to Monstrous Regiment, ‘do you think we could get into the Edinburgh Book Festival’ and they [said] ‘are you having a laugh?’ I have went twice in the past. I know there has been debut authors that have got in. I [asked] ‘can you not ask them?’ and they said no. Then the next thing was: ‘eh we’ve just had an email from the Edinburgh Book Festival, do you want to go and be in it?’ I [said] aye. And they were on Zoom and I said great. And then the next thing it was, ‘actually will you come in person?’ And then after that, ‘would you do a book signing?’ So I don’t really know what has changed because I tried really hard, asking to go to everything and asking to join in with different festivals that I have maybe watched in the past or book shops that I would like to visit and I just ask everybody. And I do expect that most of the time you are going to get a no. But it has really gone from me sending out hundreds of emails and getting no’s to me not doing anything and people inviting me! It’s just crazy.

It also went from me [asking] ‘oh can I come and perform at your festival?’ to the Edinburgh Festival asking me if I wanted to come!

Ely Percy will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 18th August. Check out their event and buy tickets here.


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