Sky Dance by John D. Burns – why this book was my top project for 2019
This is an expanded version of the short talk I gave at the book launch. It was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Lord Purdey – who has been ‘conserving and shooting wildlife for twenty years’ – so if you attended the launch you won’t have heard the end of my talk. Here it is in full, with a few additions.
I first met John Burns in May 2015, by which point we’d already been working together on his first book, The Last Hillwalker, for the best part of a year. I was hiking the Cape Wrath Trail in a wet and windy month, and John suggested it would be the perfect opportunity to meet up in a bothy somewhere. We chose Maol-bhuidhe, a day’s hike north from Shiel Bridge. John promised to bring along some food to help keep me going. I caught him up on the approach and we walked the last few miles to the bothy together. He’d meant what he said about the food: he’d crammed limitless quantities of home-made bolognese into his rucksack, and even a box of wine. There was a firelog too. I told him I’d mainly been eating cous cous, and his response was a baffled look and ‘What the hell is cous cous, and why would you want to eat it?’
It was a classic bothy evening. A couple of other guys were staying overnight after ticking off some of the surrounding Munros, and we lit a fire, swapping stories of the hills and putting the world to rights over food and booze. I think John found my lightweight gear pretty amusing, especially my flimsy trail shoes. I appreciated carrying a light pack on such a long trail, but was envious of John’s luxuries such as a comfy sleeping mat, spare clothes and fuel for the bothy fire. We had a conversation about the future of hillwalking and how demographics were shifting. A modified version of this scene ended up in the conclusion of The Last Hillwalker, and even came to define the ending, changing its tone completely – for the better, in my opinion.
If you’ve read either of John’s first two books you’ll know that he really lives his subject matter, and I think that’s one reason why the books are so popular, consistently dominating the genre’s bestseller lists (often closely competing with two of my other clients, Mark Horrell and Keith Foskett). He has told me more than once that this popularity has taken him by surprise, but to me it’s simple: there’s a lot of truth in the books as well as plenty of laughs. It’s real.
When I came on the scene, The Last Hillwalker was in a rough state. My first job was to help John rewrite the chapters he’d already done, then help him plan the rest of the book. This intense process of developmental editing took time but resulted in a dramatically better and more focused story – and that’s before we even moved on to line editing. John is a fast learner, though, and the latent quality of the raw material was obvious.
In the five years since I started working on those earliest drafts, I’ve seen John’s writing flourish. But his development as a writer hasn’t been limited to improved plotting, dialogue, or character creation, much as those skills have come on by leaps and bounds. I’ve seen his core themes evolve from a focus on mountaineering and hillwalking to tougher and more important environmental subjects. I think this reflects a shift in awareness amongst British hillwalkers, maybe even a shift in priorities. Ten years ago few walkers cared about hen harriers going missing over grouse moors in suspicious circumstances. Now wildlife crime is a huge topic of online debate in the hillwalking community.
In The Last Hillwalker John Burns showed us the changing face of mountaineering over the last 40 years, in Bothy Tales he brought Scotland’s bothy culture to life, and in his latest book, Sky Dance, he champions wildlife and rewilding, and asks when unscrupulous landowners will be called to account for the damage they’ve done to Scotland’s landscapes. To address these serious matters in a novel is bloody hard – especially a novel that makes you laugh as often as it makes you think or ask questions. John set out to write a cracking story with believable characters, and that’s what he’s done. But it’s a novel that will upset some people as much as it will be loved by others. Lord Purdey is a clever caricature of the landed gentry who have done such damage to Scotland’s landscapes, and although his character is more subtle than you might at first think, some will take offence. The fact is that important messages are rarely uncontroversial, especially ones that threaten vested interests.
Vertebrate Publishing have worked hard to help make this book a success. The backing of a major publisher opened doors that were previously closed to John, from a series of book signings to the gorgeous hardback special edition – a format that would have been prohibitively expensive for John to produce alone. However, Vertebrate realised that John’s partership with me is integral to his creative process, so they haven’t upset that arrangement. I’m very glad to be able to work with both John and Vertebrate Publishing on these books. It’s the best of both worlds.
Although I’ve assisted this author and provided guidance for five years now, good writing comes from within, and Sky Dance is a tale with a powerful message, well written. The amazing characters that John has created really bring this story of rewilding and hope to life. I can’t wait to start work on his next book.
Sky Dance: Fighting for the Wild in the Scottish Highlands by John D. Burns is published by Vertebrate Publishing and edited by Alex Roddie (£24.99, signed hardback)
If you are writing your own book and could do with some editorial guidance, or even just an informal chat, please feel free to drop me a line.