Family holidays on Lewis helped craft his style

Dundee-based writer Donald Nicolson has just published his debut novel, For a Chance to Forget. Donald is the son of Peter, originally from Lemreway, Lochs, and Catherine born in Applecross.

By John A. Macinnes
Saturday, 14th November 2020, 7:48 pm
Author Donald Nicolson has just released his first novel.
Author Donald Nicolson has just released his first novel.

As a child he credits his holiday every year to the Isle of Lewis as being instrumental in moulding him, so we’re claiming him as one of our own.

For a Chance to Forget is as he says, the story of how two people and a nation changed over three years. At the heart lies the tense relationship between Sannie van Dijk, a woman with a passion for writing who is stuck in a dead-end café in the Netherlands, and John Mackenzie, an enthusiastic and principled journalist from Glasgow.

As she glances over at John lying asleep in her bed, she writes in her diary on the morning of 12 September 2001 of wanting a chance to forget the tragedy that she watched the day before.

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As the world around them quickly recalibrates, struggles in their professional lives challenge their relationship.

Donald has worked in Academia and Health Services since 2001; having received the Holy Trinity of PhD (2009), MSc (2001) and BA Hons (1996), which is not bad considering he was in coma as a teenager from a brain haemorrhage.

He has already published a book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), far too many academic articles for him to care to remember, and travel articles (including one on Utrecht), which was published in our sister paper The Scotsman.

While he long ago learned the craft of writing, albeit a formal and technical style suited to academia, this novel sees him finally breaking out into a more creative form of writing.

His love of storytelling was born from those holidays to the Highlands and Islands. He fondly remembers sitting at the feet of his grandfather (John Macrae), listening to him hold an audience with his stories. On the Isle of Lewis, he learned from Bronco giving a masterclass in how to work a room.

The Highlands connection is something he considers in his novel, indicating how memories of the landscape had a lasting impact. In it he reflects on how the bleak mountainsides of the Highlands would have been a trial for anyone living there, shaping a resilience in its people. He contrasts this with the flatlands of Barvas and the culture of tolerance.

Every writer has a story to tell about the path to their book being published. He clearly pinpoints a balmy summers evening in 2004, caught in a moment where he realised he had something other than academic writing to offer. People took notice of his unusual style of writing.

He is unclear if it was during a poolside holiday in Sicilia, or a year later in Vienna, that he was definite on the idea of writing a novel. But what he is clear on is that he went from 15k of basic notes to 45k of more focused writing in two weeks back in the autumn of 2018, when he enjoyed one of those ‘in-between’ times that are so common among academics.

Since 2019 he refined the novel, making use of three-hour round-trip train journeys to Glasgow to work, and submitting to countless agents, as have many before him. He has sat on the final draft of the novel since late 2019, punting it to agents. After his umpteenth rejection, he decided that unlike the 25th Bond movie, he would be happy to make his work available to as many people as possible at a moment when we are in the grips of a global pandemic. Thus, he self-published. He is under no illusion that his book will reach a mass audience, but he hopes that it will chime with some.

His book evades simple labelling, cutting across a range of themes and styles. This reflects the author’s dislike for constraining writing with simplistic pigeon holing. For some it will be a contemporary romance, a book based on cultural commentary, a social tale, or even a travel writing companion. There is a particular angle on social issues in the Netherlands that drives the story to its very end. And it is no accident that it also refers to Donald Trump.

This is one of several possible launch pads for a follow-up novel.

Reading it, one sees his distinct voice shine through. Written in an epistolary style, it’s a well-written novel that lends to colourful character development and enables different points of view to rise. Reading it, we feel like we are reading actual emails and articles, giving it an authenticity and real-world feel.

His justification for this way of story-telling is made explicit near the outset of the book, and we do indeed feel as if we are privy to the communications of John and Sannie, showing how their relationship has been formed and maintained through the written word.

Donald Nicolson’s book, For a Chance to Forget, was released on October 31 and is now available to buy online via Amazon at: