On Wednesday this week the top floor of Waterstones filled for the launch of Olga Wojtas’ debut novel Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar. The Jem Flockhart series author Elaine Thomson introduces her, having met her at a writing class several years ago, and while listing Olga’s various accomplishments she laughs that she can’t believe she actually knows this woman.
Olga has over 30 short stories published in a variety of literary journals and has been an Edinburgh City of Literature Story Shop writer at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2015 Olga was one of the winners of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. This led to her going on a writing retreat in a recycled freight container where she was keep working by an angry duck. He had decided the decking at the entrance was his territory and she was not allowed out the door. That territorial duck seems to have done her, and the rest of us, a favour however. She entered the container with one chapter that had been rewritten 16 times and left with over 22,000 words.
Fiction is not Olga’s first foray into writing. In fact for many years she was the Scottish editor to the Times Higher Education Supplement, an occupation that gets a resounding ‘ooooh’ from the assembled crowd. She then gets delighted laughter for revealing that she was the first person to get both ‘profiteroles’ and ‘severed penis’ into the Supplement, albeit in different articles.
After blushing through the glowing introduction Olga makes an announcement that she has been diagnosed with Prosopagnosia, or face blindness. She knows that there are many friends in the room but she struggles to recognise faces and apologises in advance for not knowing who anyone is. Her explanation of the problems it can cause involves a story about visiting the Christmas market with old school friends, only to find that the group had suddenly started speaking German. She had accidentally become detached from her friends and switched to a group of German tourists. She then had to stand still and wait for someone to find her because she had little chance of picking even the oldest of friends out of that crowd.
When she stands and begins to read everyone is enthralled. Most writers do speak in a way that rises and falls with the action. Few commit to doing all of the accents and, when a rousing school song occurs, singing. It’s clear that Olga is so involved with her characters and story that she can’t help herself and her enthusiasm carries everyone along with her. Elaine confesses afterwards that when having to read aloud she always asks herself how Olga would read it and works from there.
There are clear salutes to Muriel Spark in the novel, not least the Marcia Blaine School for Girls motto of ‘crème de la crème’. Olga, and her old school friends in the audience, were all at James Gillespie’s School when The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was released. The school may be proud of the association with Muriel Spark now but at the time they were less than pleased. Many of their teachers had taught alongside the woman who had been the inspiration for Miss Brodie. Far from celebrating the book, and the subsequent play and film, the school banned them. The lovers of the story had no such qualms about associating story and inspiration. When Olga was taken to see the play (by her mother, rather than the disapproving English department) a Gillespie’s scarf was draped across the stage.
The novel also references Tolstoy, another author she has read extensively. She began with little more than Shona, the main character, and a series of Tolstoy-esque scenes (a grand ball, a scene on a train) she was wanted to include. Tolstoy proved surprisingly helpful when attempting to describe fashions in 19th century Russia. His work is filled with highly detailed descriptions of women and their dress. Initially surprised and impressed Olga found the details made a lot more sense when she discovered that his wife had transcribed all of his novels into the final manuscript.
Morningside librarian Shona is a former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls; Olga’s version of Gillespie’s and answer to the all important Edinburgh question of ‘Where did you go to school?’. The real school’s original aversion to Miss Brodie is reflected in Shona’s commitment to ‘losing’ every copy of ‘That book!’ that enters her library. It’s this action that gains her the approval of the time travelling founder of the school who then sends her on a mission to 19th century Russia.
Aptly described as both ‘Anna Karenina written by P.G. Wodehouse’ and ‘The crème de la crème of crime fiction debuts’ the adventures of Shona are certainly entertaining. Olga didn’t initially realise she was writing crime fiction, until she realised how much death was in it. Perhaps that is because she was busy inventing her own sub-genre of ‘time travelling cosy crime’. Whatever her genre intentions the glimpse into the story has gone down well. Her signing queue, interspersed with moments of delight as she manages to recognise some friends without prompting, is very long and takes quite some time to dwindle down.