THEY say it’s best to write about what you know.
So when Catriona Child sat down to write her latest novel, it was only natural that what resulted was a story linking swimming – one of her passions in life – and the tales regaled to her by her grandmother when she was growing up.
Swim Until You Can’t See Land contrasts the struggles of injured swimmer Hannah Wright with the life of Marièle Downie, a wartime spy.
Hannah is forced to give up a promising career as a professional swimmer at the age of just 21, and is adjusting with difficulty to her narrowed horizons.
Meanwhile the wartime exploits of Marièle – who is now frail and old – unfold and she is revealed as a woman of extraordinary spirit, unbroken by capture and interrogation as an agent in occupied France.
Catriona used her own experiences in the world of competitive swimming to write about Hannah’s life.
The sister of Olympic athlete and Commonwealth Games silver medallist Eilidh Child, Catriona says the sporting gene runs in the family.
She was a passionate swimmer when she was younger, competing across the country and in Europe, representing her club and university.
“I was a competitive swimmer for many years and love the sport,” explains 34-year-old Catriona, who lives in Slateford. “I was never as good as Hannah, but was a decent club swimmer and still enjoy swimming to keep fit.
“I’ve always wanted to write a swimming story but found writing about a successful swimmer boring and full of clichés, so I turned it on its head and wrote an anti-swimming story.”
In the book, a despondent Hannah returns to her home town to recover from the disappointment of seeing her swimming career come to an end as a result of a shoulder injury.
She takes a job in a shop, where one day an elderly lady collapses in front of her – bringing Marièle into her life.
“Their lives become joined and it makes Hannah look at her own circumstances and put things into perspective – after all, all she has is a shoulder injury,” explains Catriona, who has recently become a first-time mum to her daughter Corrie, to whom she has dedicated the book.
“It was good fun doing the research into the Second World War. I got a lot of books out the library, and I listened to 40s music to immerse myself in that period.
“But a lot of it I used from stories my granny used to tell me. I used to listen for her voice when writing the book.
“She worked in a grocer’s shop in Dundee during the Second World War and she had lots of stories about the boys that she worked with who sadly never came back from the war.
“There was one of them who knew he wasn’t coming back so wrote a letter to his unborn child and it was taken to DC Thomson who went over it in newspaper ink so it would never fade and she would be able to read it.”
She adds: “My granny died a couple of years before I moved to Edinburgh. She always said she wanted to write a book about her experiences during the war, then she said I should write it instead.
“One day I did go down and ask her to tell me her stories into my dictaphone. But she started putting on her best phone voice when she was doing it and it didn’t work as well so I just got her to talk to me instead. I think there are bits of her in the phrases that Marièle uses.”
Catriona started writing when she was young – in fact her parents recently found a short story, called Dragon’s Egg, that she had written for her grandfather, which had been kept all these years.
“I’ve always loved books and it seems like the natural progression to go from reading them to writing your own,” says Catriona, who works as an admissions officer at Edinburgh University.
“I’ve been writing short stories since I was quite young. I did a creative writing course and when I moved to Edinburgh in 2001, I joined a writers’ group. If my writing career took off, that would be amazing, but I know it’s hard to make a living as a writer. At the moment I’m happy doing it for just me.”
She feels the same about swimming these days, despite the fact that she once swam competitively, as she says she never had the same enthusiasm for competing that her youngest sister Eilidh has.
“The thing about Eilidh is that she always had the mental strength to deal with competing. The rest of us never had that strength and always got really nervous about competing, but she thrives on that.
“She loves doing what she does. She trains down in Bath so we don’t see her as often as we’d like to see her but she doesn’t see it as a sacrifice. It’s a short-lived career so she is going to enjoy it while she can. My whole family went to watch Eilidh [in the Commonwealth Games], including my wee one.
“We had got “Team Eilidh” T-shirts made and it was amazing seeing everyone willing her on. People were coming up to us asking to get their photos taken with us just because we were her family.”
Swim Until You Can’t See Land – which is named after a Frightened Rabbit song – is Catriona’s follow-up to her first novel Trackman.
Set in Edinburgh, her first book is based loosely on her experiences working in Virgin Megastore on Princes Street, where she met her now husband, Allan. “It’s about when you hear a certain song and it takes you back to a certain moment in your life,” she explains. “The Trackman plays people a specific song from their lives to try to help them. He’s almost like a superhero.
“I started writing Trackman just for myself but in the middle of it I did a creative writing MA at Lancaster so I worked on the book as my project. I got it to a standard which I hoped would enable me to get it published.”
A spokeswoman for Luath Press says: “We are excited to be publishing Edinburgh author Catriona Child at the threshold of her career. Swim Until You Can’t See Land and Trackman show what a special writer she is.”