All students have a horror story from Freshers’ Week. The Stirling grad and Sonny and Me author shares his experience of initial awkwardness, mistakenly trying out for the football team, and how his time at uni shaped his passion to write.
Do you have any fond memories of your first week at uni?
I had my driving test the first day of classes and I was terrified that I was going to miss them, which obviously matters for nothing in first year.
I’m from Stirling and I stayed at home throughout uni, so I never did Freshers ever until maybe my Masters. I did one day and happened to be in Dusk on a Monday with my work crew and it was so busy I couldn’t even breathe.
I remember in the first week just being really awkward and not knowing where to go. I tried to hang about with the couple of guys I knew from high school who were branching out and meeting new people and I was just trying to cling onto them, like: “No no no remember high school? Let’s stay together and show me where to go.”
You channelled your high school experience into Sonny and Me but what would form a book about your uni days?
Just being awkward and weird all the time and not wanting to talk. There would definitely have to be a bit about no one ever doing the reading in the first couple of years of English. The teacher would get visibly annoyed at seminars because no one could answer and if you did you were teacher’s pet. It would be ten people sat in a room in dead silence with the teacher lowering the questions down and down until it was just: “Did anyone like the book?” or “did anyone read any of the book?”
How involved did you get in uni life?
Since I stayed at home, I would usually walk into town, get the UL in, come back and go home. I was in Brig for a semester at the very start but I was just too socially awkward, shy and nervous. I tried to put myself out there more when I did my Masters. I joined the drama society and tried out for the football team and I don’t know what I was thinking. I did not belong at all with all these people who were super fit and took it super seriously. I feel like everyone found their cliques and I never quite found it.
Where were you most likely to be found on campus?
Bus stop going back home! I liked to grab those seats in the middle of the library that look down through the window because it helps to skive. I felt like the really serious people claimed a table on the outside and were there all day with twelve coffee cups.
How did your time at uni inspire you to become an author?
I wouldn’t be a writer without Stirling. I think I got the last place on a creative writing module in third year and saw that I could go on to do that as my final project, which saved me doing a proper dissertation. I did alright with that used the two grand scholarship for getting a first to do the Creative Writing Masters, which I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. That’s when I wrote my first book. It’s quite a boring story. A lot of writers have backgrounds like “I used to be a policeman or a firefighter.” I have “I used to be a student who studied creative writing.”
Where’s the best place in Stirling?
When I was in first year, me and my pals went most days to a place called Whistle Binkies, which isn’t even open anymore. It was always dead apart from us. For current places I’d go Kilted, which was Outback in my day. You’ve got the quiz on Wednesday, musical bingo on Monday. Classic.
What response did Stirling natives have to their depiction in Sonny and Me?
I think they liked it. There was a lot of my family in it so they gave me a lot of feedback. I tried to depict Stirling as I saw it.
As you write in Scot’s dialect, what nuances does the Stirling accent have that other parts of Scotland don’t?
Because I’m from Stirling I see it as I speak normal and everyone else speaks a bit daft. There’s probably bits in it that I wouldn’t even recognise as being local to Stirling. I’m sure that people from Glasgow would probably read it and think there’s tons of teuchter stuff. I try to be realistic without being too twee, like gift shop Scottish and having people say “haud yer wheesht.” Very rare you’re going to hear someone saying haud yer wheesht, maybe once a year and not ironically.
What is something that people wouldn’t expect about being an author?
I’ve got a full time day job so it can be tricky to fit in. It’s essentially like having homework all the time but it’s great. It takes a lot of making yourself seem like you’re always doing something through maintaining an online presence. The way it has been romanticised in the past as the recluse writer, that doesn’t really exist anymore. You’ve got to be out there all the time or people will forget about you.
If you could pull a JK Rowling and make a retroactive change to one of your novels what would it be?
I don’t want to get cancelled, they’re perfect.
A crime usually underlines your books and your characters seem to be ageing up from primary (first book Mary’s the Name) to high school age. Could you envision a uni based YA crime novel?
I’ve toyed about with the possibility of a Sonny and Me sequel, either about them or different characters at the high school. But it would be like the bit in 21 Jump Street, Sonny and Daughter go back to school but it turns out they need to go to university because there has been a crime in a ‘we’re going to college’ moment. Stirling is such a good campus that it would make for a really good setting for a crime, like someone turns up in the loch on a spooky winter’s night. I’ll add that to the list.
Cranachan Publishing, who you work with, focuses on YA fiction, which exploded with dystopian novels like The Hunger Games. What event could Scottish teens save the world from?
They took away our original recipe Irn Bru and nobody did anything to stop that! I don’t know if the teens are really up to it.
If I wrote something like that it would need to be low key. I think there are too many film and book series where the world is ending and the stakes are way too high. It would be like there was a ban on young teams, and the young teams have to rise up and show that being in one shapes you.
What advice would you give to your first year self?
Just get out there a bit more and stop being so feart. Dinny be so scared because probably everyone else is just as scared as you are. Everyone puts on a brave face whereas I just got the 54 hame back to Stirling and escaped.
Sonny and Me is available online and in all good bookshops. You can follow Ross on Twitter @Sayers33