Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 14 February 2016



Kay Sexton writes with loving clarity about the natural world, and is astute about the complexity and cost of our negotiations with it.... …absorbing and highly readable....Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

In October 2013 an article appeared in The Guardian talking about a Scottish landowner’s plan to reintroduce wolves (and bears too) to the Scottish highlands but he faced opposition from farmers, walkers and legal experts. It might surprise some to learn that wolves no longer roam the British Isles—I was more stunned to discover that wolves had to be reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States in 1995—but it’s true. Roman and Saxon writings suggest that wolves once were commonplace in Britain. Wolf hunts took place regularly and, inevitably, over time they were hunted to extinction. King Edward I, who reigned from 1272 to 1307, ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom and by the reign of Henry VII (1485–1509) they’d just about managed it. Official records indicate that the last Scottish wolf was killed by Sir Ewen Cameron in 1680 in Killiecrankie although there have been sightings north of the border as late as 1888. You can read a nice wee article about the history of wolves in Scotland here.

Nature copes. It’s what it does. We’ve got used to it coping. We expect it to cope. And as long as you don’t throw too much at it at once and give it a little time it can absorb and assimilate most things. You wouldn’t think that the eradication of an entire species from a small island in the North Atlantic would change things very much. After all we still have foxes and they’re kind of wolflike. Why would we want to bring such a dangerous predator back? Because Nature didn’t cope as well as we expected:

A report published in 2007 in the Proceedings of The Royal Society, entitled ‘Wolf reintroduction to Scotland: public attitudes and consequences for red deer management’, concludes that reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish Highlands would have significant ecological benefit by limiting numbers of red deer, reducing the need for costly deer culls and allowing natural regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest. – Why reintroduce wolves?

It’s a contentious subject and the debate rages on. The most recent article I could find was this one, in the BBC News Magazine, in October 2015.

But that’s the real world with all its red tape and public opinion. The great thing about fiction is it can bypass all the debate and shilly-shallying and just get on with it which is what Kay Sexton does in her novel Gatekeeper. The blurb then:

It was not simply the job of her life; it was her life…

Claire Benson has been wrongfully expelled from an Animal Activist Group and she is furious, until she discovers she’s been singled out for more significant work. A task that demands all her skill, training and nerve.

The Project aims to re-introduce wolves to their natural environment. If all goes to plan, a pack will be secretly released in the Scottish Highlands and Claire will be their Gatekeeper—safeguarding their transition from exiles to natives. The task is covert and perilous, requiring her to understand the land, its people and—above all—the true nature of these extraordinary beasts.

When we meet Claire she’s breaking into an illegal puppy farm along with Liam, Mick, Vidya, Vince and Ansel. They know what they’re there for, the smaller puppies (they have to be practical), but her cohorts are not all on the same page and Liam heads off on his own; he’s sure there’re mink there. Mink farming is banned in Britain and Liam is naturally incensed:

‘This is wrong. They’ve got to be freed.’

‘Don’t be stupid! They aren’t native, they’ll…’ But he’d stopped listening: he was pulling the bolt cutters from his belt, setting them against the small padlock holding the nearest closed cage.

Claire froze, breathing deeply, trying to work out her options. If the mink were freed they would destroy the local habitat—it was impossible Liam didn’t know that. The predators would kill every rodent and small bird for miles around, as well fish; even poultry from farms.

In 1998 the Animal Liberation Front released 6000 mink into the Hampshire countryside:

The RSPCA condemned the release and animal welfare groups said the ALF operation was a damaging own goal because many of the mink, which were bred in captivity for export to the United States, Scandinavia and Russia, would die of starvation. – The Times reprinted in

What’s the difference between a terrorist and an activist? This question is raised twice in Kay’s book. Claire’s answer:

If you know when to stop … then you’re not a terrorist.

The difference between mink and wolves is a simple one: wolves are supposed to be here.

Because of the incident with the mink Claire ends up leaving the animal rights group and is at a bit of a loose end until Ansel approaches her with a once-in-a-lifetime offer involving wolves. It’s fair to say that The Project is a shady organisation. The more I read through the book the more I was reminded of Rosemary’s Baby. We learn that Ansel is a member and someone called Blaine although that’s not his real name. Ansel becomes Claire’s handler—all very cloak and dagger—but he’s the only one she’s to have regular contact with; it’s not like they all get together for motivational talks every Monday morning. No. If she wants to join—if they’re willing to let her join (it’s a buyer’s market)—she has to play by their rules:

‘Let me get this right,’ she said. ‘I’m to give up an unspecified amount of my life, to probably not work with wolves, with no guarantee that what I’m training for will ever transpire. I’m in competition with another woman, whom I won’t know, for one chance to act like a combination PR schmoozer and ordinary member of the public. I’m not allowed to tell anyone what I’m doing, and if it comes to the crunch I’m on my own.’

So maybe a bit Mission Impossible too. “Your mission, Claire, should you choose to accept it…” She gets sent to Morocco—ostensibly as a temporary tallier for an ongoing migration project—and then to Italy—mainly in Rome where she sticks out like a sore thumb but there’s also a field visit to Anatolia—and, finally to Scotland where it looks like things have not gone according to what she believed the plan to be. In each place she has to guess why she’s there really and who might be affiliated with The Project. Who would go for such a deal? Well, someone like Claire. And this is where this book is a little misleading because the book is less about wolves and more about Claire finding out who she is.

My wife read this book before me—I was tied up editing and it had to wait its turn—so I knew she’d given it five stars on Goodreads (as I write this it’s sitting on 4.67) although she’d not got round to writing an actual review. I mention this because all my regular readers will know that my wife is not known for her expansive praise. About 100 pages into the book—and struggling to get into it—I asked her, “Why did you give it five stars?” She knows Kay—Kay was a regular contributor to Carrie’s literary journals—but even so she’s like me: if you get a five-star review from me you deserve each and every one of those stars. I forget her exact reasons—we talked about it for a while—but I do remember clearly her summation: “I’d have given it six stars if I could.”

My wife likes stories. She’s been reading a lot of late and the books she finds herself drawn to are those with strong storylines. She wants a book she can’t put down. Me, I don’t much care about stories. I’m into imaginative use of language. If there’s a tale to be told too then great but I’m particularly drawn to books that can tick the “character is plot” box. And this is the problem with every book ever written: you can’t please all of the people all of the time. You can do nothing about reader expectation.

So you’re saying you hated it, Jim? No. No, I didn’t. There’s hardly a character in the book that you’d describe as flat. Certainly many have… what shall I go with?... gaps in their CVs but that’s only to be expected as pretty much everyone is holding back a part of themselves. Apart from Claire. We get unfettered access to her although it is via an omniscient narrator. My problem was relating to Claire and Carrie was quick to point this out: “She’s not you.” That’s true but Holden Caulfield and Ivan Denisovich weren’t me either. But I could imagine being them. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine being Claire or wanting to be. I have nothing against wolves but I’m also not passionate about wolves. Stick a charity collection bucket under my nose and I’ll dig my hand in my pocket but that’s me.

Who, then, is Claire? Well, there’s a lot of Kay in her but if you don’t know Kay that’s not much help. Think of a younger Sigourney Weaver—circa Aliens—and you’re getting there.

Like most writers Kay writes a blog although like most writers it gets less attention these days than it once did. In it, however, she does have a fair bit to say about writing and so I thought I’d ask her a few questions about Gatekeeper based on what she’s written in her blog:

1. In a blog back in 2006 you wrote: “I encourage my students to write a sentence that states the intention of a story, novel, poem or flash and to keep it at the top of their work as a reminder of their intentions.” What would that sentence be for Gatekeeper?

The sentence for Gatekeeper would be ‘You can’t change the world without changing yourself’

2. In another blog you wrote: “Fiction is about telling a good story—if that happens to illuminate truth along the way it's a bonus, but it's not the purpose of the art.” What’s the story here?

Fiction is an art, and like all arts it is, or should be, interpretive. I see an awful lot of the ‘write what you know’ and ‘do you have the right to tell this story’ kind of narrative being thrown at, and by, creative writing students, particularly around MFA modules. Some of the world’s finest novels are failures – Moby-Dick for example has an appalling structure, Infinite Jest is not so much a cliffhanger ending as fall off a cliff ending etc. Verisimilitude is as best a requirement of journalism, a consideration for creative non-fiction and (in my view) nothing at all to do with fiction. I don’t want to know if an emotion or experience is accurately depicted, I want to feel as if I’m having that emotion or experience via the writer’s skill. Which is not to decry privilege and ownership. I recently reviewed a novel by Joyce Carol Oates where I think the issue of ownership (right to tell this story) became a hurdle for me as a reader. Privilege often encourages white writers to step into ‘the other’ which is okay imaginatively but not if it blocks writers categorised as ‘other’ from achieving publication with their own lived experiences. The balance between respect for other cultures, lives, ideologies and an artist’s natural desire to experiment can be difficult. It is a balance we best master by attempting it, not by pretending it doesn’t exist, nor by ghettoising writers into what they can write about, nor, in fact by self-censoring. But we must be prepared to take criticism if we don’t pull off that balancing act with real skill.

3. In yet another blog you wrote: “Before I write about a person or place, I walk through their life; feeling, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching every aspect of their reality.” How did you do this with Claire?

I met several wolves, in zoos, in privately owned parks, in the care of people with dangerous animal licences and in the (dubious) care of people who had no licence and no interest in getting one.

4. “There are things I wouldn't do, but sometimes the only way to get inside an experience is to try what it feels like to be, not to observe.” Did you do anything “interesting” whilst researching Gatekeeper?

The answer for 4 is the same as 3. Some of the wolf handlers I met were putting their careers on the line to talk about what happened to cubs in a captive pack. At least one person I met was keeping a wolf illegally and his lifestyle was frightening. A couple of times I wondered what would happen if he decided he didn’t like me, but I was lucky enough to get on his right side and stay there!

5. One reviewer (the poet and novelist Bunny Goodjohn) had this to say about Claire: “Claire Benson is not a pack animal. A loner and active member of an animal rights group, she works undercover to liberate animals from South Coast laboratory facilities, but even in that close-knit group, she is the outsider. No one gets close. And she prefers it this way.” Wolves on the other hand are pack animals; in fact you talk about solitary wolves going insane. Why would a loner be a prime candidate to look after a pack?

It’s not so much that Claire is a good candidate but that the extreme edge of animal rights activism creates an environment in which isolation is the norm. I wanted to look at what makes a person head ‘out there’ – I’ve known a few, professionally and most people know of others, Timothy Treadwell, for example. Such behaviour is quite alien to most of us but inside those groups it is seen as admirable and to be supported. In exploring what sends people into that behaviour I also wanted to look at what might bring them back.

6. The book was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and yet you ended up self-publishing it. I’m puzzled especially since you’ve had other books traditionally published. Why did you choose this route?

I was invited to submit Gatekeeper to the Amazon White Glove programme via my agent. We gave it a lot of thought and decided to go ahead for two reasons:

  1. I had nothing to lose. Gatekeeper had done the rounds and not been picked up for publication. Many people liked it but they expressed similar concerns – Claire was too violent and not appealing enough to succeed as a female protagonist. As I’m much keener on interesting characters than appealing ones, I didn’t feel much compulsion to change the novel to satisfy that kind of concern but that left me with ‘self' publication or no publication.
  2. my husband was in the middle of cancer treatment and it gave me something to focus on other than his health or lack of it.

7. What are you working on right now?

I’m working on some short stories and revising a novel about the 1920s that features rivers and pornography as key themes.

Rivers and porn, eh? Well, sex always sells at least that used to be the case. But, as well know, the public are a funny lot.

Bottom line then. Is Gatekeeper a good book? Yes, it is. No doubt about it. Like all books it will appeal to a certain demographic but that’s not a criticism; that’s just the way it is. Don’t let the fact various publishers turned the book down put you off. It’s a matter of taste, yes, but these companies exist to make money and the less they have to risk the better. We all know the stories of now famous books that were turned down time and time again. Next month I’ll be posting a review of a detective novel that got accepted by a publisher—they’d a cover designed and an entry on their website and everything—who then at the last minute decided not to go ahead leaving the author to scramble around looking for a new publisher which, amazingly, he found.


Kay Sexton proves that there’s hope for all of us. She left school with no discernible qualifications and has had a plethora of jobs ranging from glamour model, mortician’s assistant, dental receptionist, chambermaid and nudist camp agony aunt (there has to be a book in there somewhere). Eventually she had to enter the real world and spent more than a decade as Chief Executive for charitable and environmental organisations worldwide. She has also been a house writer for several environmental/social responsibility non-profits.

Her publication credits range from H&E International to France Today to the World Water Forum Annual Report. Kay’s fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. In addition to the Dundee International Book Prize Kay was also shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story prize in 2010. You can follow her misadventures in literature on her blog which she does update from time to time.


Kass said...

I think I went where you went (slightly) as I was reading the review of Gatekeeper. I kept thinking, "this is getting kind of science-fictiony.

Moby Dick has appalling structure? I'd better take another look.

I like the clarity about what constitutes a terrorist.

I think I know when to stop. The end.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can see why you might’ve thought that, Kass, but I’d veer more towards the espionage end. She’s undercover and has a mission to fulfil. Okay, she doesn’t have a crack team to support her and a soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin but she copes. Moby-Dick I’ve not read so I can’t say. It’s one of those books I keep telling myself I ought to read but never quite get round to it. As for what constitutes a terrorist, like most words (even the simple ones), I doubt it cares to bend to a simple definition.

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