Guest author: Helen MacKinven – The Naming Game

Delighted to have Helen Mackinven back on the blog today for the launch of her new novel, Buy Buy Baby. It’s a great read and raised many ethical questions in my mind. Thanks for coming, Helen, over to you…


My latest novel is called Buy Buy Baby, and the naming of my new ‘baby’ is something that took a long time to get right.

The title of a novel is important. Often I’ve heard of writers having very little control over the title of their novel although I’m lucky never to have experienced this scenario, not yet. When I wrote my debut novel, Talk of the Toun, the title remained the same from the submitted manuscript until the final publication. Except for one very important letter, which was ‘o’, as my original title was, Talk of the Toon. This caused a debate with my publisher and we even posed the question on social media, ‘Should it be ‘toon’ or ‘toun’? I was adamant that the spelling should be with an ‘o’ as that’s the right context for the urban Scots dialect of the book but my publisher felt ‘toon’ is associated with Newcastle football team. In the end, the publisher always has the final say and that’s that.

With Buy Buy Baby, the title is very different from my original choice which was The Angel’s Bench. The novel is a dual narrative and throughout the story both characters, Julia and Carol, use a specific bench in a woodland area to rest and reflect. It’s a key meeting point and some of the most significant scenes are played out the bench. The reference to ‘Angel’ in the title becomes clear when Carol uses her time at the bench to remember her dead son whom she believes is now an angel in heaven.

The original title made sense to me but when I secured a literary agent, she felt that it didn’t sell the book to readers and could lead them to think it had a spiritual theme. The key theme in the book is motherhood and how far two women will go achieve their goal of becoming pregnant. This results in a moral dilemma of whether or not the women are willing to pay the price on every level – financially, emotionally and psychologically. After many suggestions which bounced back and forth between my agent and me, we finally agreed on Buy Buy Baby as the right title. There’s also a reference to the Bay City Rollers song, Bye Bye Baby in the book so it worked on several levels. I’m also a sucker for alliteration.

Long story short, I no longer have a literary agent but I still have the title and it’s one that my publisher felt ticked all the right boxes without changing a single letter!


I have to say that I agree with the former agent that Buy Buy Baby is the better title!

You can get a copy of Buy Buy Baby here and keep up to date with Helen’s writing news on her website and by connecting with her on Twitter.

Year of Indie Debuts: Talk of the Toun

Thrilled to have Helen MacKinven here to kick off the series for 2016. Her debut novel, Talk of the Toun, was published by ThunderPoint Publishing last autumn and it is a funny, sad and insightful coming of age story set in the time I grew up so it really resonated with me. But even if you were not a teenager in the 1980s you’ll be able to relate to the timeless story of needing to find your way in a world where everyone tells you that there’s no chance of life being what you want so you just have to make the best of it.

Helen, you have created a fantastic character in Angela and really nailed the complexity of being a working class girl with aspirations to have a different life in 1980s Britain. How did this story start for you – did Angela appear as a character that wanted to tell this tale or did you want to explore these themes and found her through that process?

I come from a similar background as Angela and although I was always encouraged to “stick in” at school and I went on to be a trainee primary school teacher, I was very aware that this wasn’t the case for everyone I knew growing up. Out of a class of 18 pupils at primary school, I was the only one to go on to further education. I’m sure there were others in my peer group who had bigger ambitions but were held back by the small town mentality that suppressed their hopes and dreams.

While studying for an MLitt in Creative Writing one of the assignments was to write an A to Z on any subject. My classmates wrote about their interests such as music but I was initially stumped over what my ‘Mastermind’ specialist subject would be. Then I realised that I had no trouble writing about my childhood memories so I used this theme to complete the assignment. The piece received my highest grade and I felt it reflected my writing ‘voice’ so I decided to use it as a springboard into a fictional scenario of growing up in 1980s central Scotland in a working class environment. Angela was created to voice the frustrations of being a gifted artist with no scope to develop her talent.

The friendship between Angela and Lorraine is fraught and turning into something different as they mature, and Angela is very confused by this. Teenage girl friendships (and even adult women ones!) can be a minefield and you capture this really well. Why do you think Angela found it so hard to let go and recognise that her friendship with Lorraine probably wasn’t going to stand the test of time?

In creating Angela I wanted to shine a light on how complex emotions can be at that awkward stage of life when you’re moving from girlhood into womanhood. From an early age, Angela has always been the dominant partner in the friendship and uses this ‘power’ to manipulate Lorraine as a way of masking her own insecurities. As the years go by, Lorraine becomes less needy and Angela struggles to accept that her lifelong friend has outgrown their relationship and resorts to desperate measures to cling on to their bond. Like many teenagers, Angela has low self-esteem but her friendship with Lorraine boosts her confidence and means she’s unwilling to abandon it.

Angela says and does some very questionable things throughout the course of the novel and doesn’t ever seem to reflect on them, to question her motives, and realise that she shouldn’t be behaving like this. Is this a reflection of her age, her upbringing and environment, or is that just who she is?

I suppose that’s for the reader to decide but I feel it’s more a question of her immaturity and egocentric attitude. Angela is wrapped up in her own wee world and can’t see the big picture and how her actions could have horrendous consequences on others. She’s been described in some reviews as unlikeable but I didn’t set out to create an evil character. I don’t believe she’s inherently bad; she’s simply a mass of mixed up emotions which in turn lead her to make serious errors of judgement. Thankfully, her gran sees through her inappropriate behaviour and offers guidance and unconditional love.

You explore big themes of class, racism and attitudes to female sexuality and even though we have come a long way since the 1980s I felt that many of the issues surrounding this still had strong parallels with today. Was this something that you felt yourself when writing the story and if so, how did that inform your approach to writing about these themes?

Someone described the book as having every ‘ism’ in it! I wanted to dig down and unearth gritty themes that were topical at the time and reflected the norm within Angela’s world. In many ways things have improved dramatically, for example, I personally suffered sectarian abuse growing up but my sons have never experienced the same scenarios. That’s a positive development but I’m not convinced that the same could be said for the other ‘ism’s.

There’s still a huge amount of work to be done to encourage and support children from deprived backgrounds to go on to further education and I wanted to use a character like Angela to prompt questions over what, if anything, has changed. The book was set 30 years ago and yet the other issues such as racism are still prevalent today and have taken other forms such as Islamophobia.

As regards female sexuality, in one sense women may feel empowered by the choices available to them nowadays but you only have to examine statistics on the conviction rate for rape to realise so much more needs to be done to address the stigma attached to certain crimes. I’d like to hope that Talk of the Toun might stimulate discussion on these themes and whether or not society is a better place in 2015 than it was in 1985.


Thanks so much for coming along, Helen, and giving these insights into Angela’s character. I liked her despite her faults! Talk of the Toun is available from selected bookshops and you can also buy it online from Amazon.

You can also find Helen on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

To win a copy of Helen’s novel (for UK-based readers only), let us know in the comments what you think about whether society is a better place now than it was in 1985 and what memories you have of your teenage friendships. The random number generator will pick a winner on Friday 8th January 2016.