It's been a novel life as a teacher

10th October 2008, 1:00am
Jean McLeish


It's been a novel life as a teacher

Scottish novelist Eileen Ramsay has achieved the writing success others only dream about - after working to establish her reputation as a writer during a 30-year teaching career.

Pupils at Glebelands Primary in Dundee would have had no idea that Mrs Ramsay had already put in several hours' work by the time they were arriving bleary-eyed at their desks to start lessons each morning.

"I found that if you devote yourself to young children and you do it with all you've got - and I had my own children to feed and look after - you're brain dead at night if you are doing your job properly. I couldn't write at night," says the award-winning author, sitting in the drawing room of her country home near Arbroath. "So I started taking a thermos upstairs and I would get up at four o'clock, have some oatcakes and tea, and write until about half past six. Then I would take the deerhounds for a walk."

The early morning routine suited her and she was a productive and gifted storyteller, who relished research and quickly wrote the first of her historical sagas - The Broken Gate, set in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up. Occasionally on early winter mornings, Eileen would catch sight of another woman on a mission - athlete Liz McColgan, who lived nearby and would be out in the snow running along the Angus country lanes.

For both women, commitment paid off, and for Eileen, success and early retirement from teaching have brought the luxury of a few hours longer in bed and the chance to dedicate herself to writing full-time.

She has published around 20 titles, including children's books, historical sagas and more recently romantic fiction inspired by her love of opera, music and the arts. Her books sell all over the world and she travels internationally to carry out her research - only recently returning from Tuscany.

Her novel Someday, Somewhere went to auction and after it was published in 2002 was nominated for the ParkerRomantic Novelists' Association Novel of the Year. It was on the bestseller list for six weeks in Germany, where she has a large following.

Her own story is not short on glamour and romance. She met her husband Ian when she was a teacher in Washington DC in the early 1960s, having travelled there on a $99 ticket her brother gave her when she finished training at Craiglockhart College in Edinburgh.

"Craiglockhart was a Sacred Heart College and there was a Sacred Heart College or school in almost every city in the world. So I wrote to the school in Washington DC and they offered me a job. I was going to stay for a year, but I ended up marrying Ian and we were there nearly 18 years," says Eileen, a youthful 68-year-old. "He turned up in Washington doing a postdoctoral fellowship and I was teaching Scottish Country Dancing at night for the local St Andrew's Society's dancers."

Eileen spent several years teaching the children of high-powered Americans - first at the Sacred Heart School and then at a White House nursery run in a private house in Washington. During her early married life she was teaching and writing - children's stories at first, which were published in church magazines.

The couple moved when Ian got a job in California, where their sons were born. Eileen studied for an Arts degree, a Masters in Education and worked in migrant education, teaching children from some of the country's poorest families. "I decided to try to write `a regency' because I adored Georgette Heyer - I decided to be the Scottish Georgette Heyer."

The result was her first novel, The Mysterious Marquis. "We were home by the time it was published in the States in 1982," says Eileen.

Back in Scotland and working as a supply teacher in Fife, Eileen was encouraged by her agent to write historical sagas, which were enjoying great popularity. Among a string of successful titles, The Broken Gate was set in Dumfriesshire in the early 1900s, when 13-year-old Kate Kennedy struggles to bring up younger brothers and sisters and give them the best life she can.

The Dominie's Lassie was a First World War story about a young teacher, and Butterflies in December was inspired by Dundee's first woman doctor, Emily Thomson, after Eileen discovered she had lived in the Ramsay family home.

One of her children's titles, Danger By Gaslight, set in Victorian Aberdeen, also sold very well and is still used in Scottish schools.

A shift away from sagas to romantic novels set in the world of the arts brought further success, which proved much more lucrative than teaching. But writing alone is not enough for the publishing market today. "You've got to perform. It's not good enough just to write the book - you've got to be ready to appear and to do things. And they want each book to be better than the one before and that's very hard," says Eileen, who retired from teaching in 1995.

So how does the former schoolteacher handle the love scenes? "I don't close the bedroom door. I never have sex between people who don't love each other. I'm not graphic. I try to get it so that it is in a way a spiritual thing as well," Eileen explains.

Then a smiling afterthought: "I never let my mother-in-law read them - no."

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