Interview: Kirsty Wark unveils her literary legacy

Kirsty Wark.
Kirsty Wark.

By Graham Chalmers

Kirsty Wark sounds delighted to be talking about her debut as a novelist.

The long-time presenter of Newsnight, BBC TV’s flagship current affairs programme, appears genuinely excited to be to appearing in Harrogate for a literary lunch as part of Raworths Harrogate Literary Festival, even though the boot will be on the other foot for once.

“I’m looking forward to Harrogate. I like going to literary festivals in general. But I usually do the interviews rather than the other way around.”

Reviews for this highly-respected broadcaster’s first foray into fiction writing have been positive overall with a few major exceptions.

As well as descriptions like “enchanting”, “charming” and “great characterisation”, there’s been the odd reference to a “clunky plot” and “excruciating sex scenes.”

Perhaps I’m being a little foolish to mention this to the famously sharp Wark but this inspirational figure brushes it off.

“Most of the reviews have been terrific. I’ve spent my life dishing it out and I’m happy to take it back.”

Wark’s debut novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, is the intertwining story of three women whose lives are divided yet linked by love, time and war.

Starting near the outbreak of the First World War and ending in the present day, the book is a labour of love, its inspirations close to home.

“I wanted to explore different generations of women, how different they were as women and also how memory can differ from person to person. It’s really the story of my own great aunt.

“I started it 10 years ago then left it alone. My mum was unwell and my children were going through their teenage years.”

It can’t have helped matters that Wark’s busy career often necessitates a lengthy commute from her home in Glasgow.

“I decided not to put a chapter out to market in advance. I didn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on myself while was I writing.

“I wrote most of it in the past two years but I couldn’t have done it without the help of my brilliant editor Lisa Highton at Two Roads publishers.”

Despite her status in the journalistic world of London, her homeland seems to have remained of paramount importance in her life, hence the setting of her first book.

“It meant a lot to me to set the story on the Isle of Arran. I wanted the whole book to be anchored there.

“As a family, we’ve been going to the island for generations. It’s an enchanting place and close to Glasgow.”

The ever-productive Wark already has a second novel in mind, she tells me, set in both southwest Scotland and New York.

But a busy summer dipping in and out of literary festivals such as Harrogate’s hasn’t helped its writing, she admits.

With tomorrow’s literary lunch also featuring political commentator Nick Cohen, as well as comic writer David Nobbs, I feel safe in bringing up the referendum on Scottish independence.

I ask whether, as the ex-news editor of Reporting Scotland, she believes there’s a need for a much stronger Six O’Clock News north of the border in the event of a ‘yes’ vote?

Her reply is so firmly defensive, referring to the “constantly evolving state of news programmes” and the “excellence of Scottish journalists” I decide to park it.

What about Jeremy Paxman?

What did you make of his recent remarks about Newsnight being run by 13-year-olds?

Will you be taking over as ‘anchorman’ at Newsnight?

Her reply is succinct.

“I think it’s just Jeremy’s sense of humour. He’s great.

“It isn’t about taking over from him. I’ve been at Newsnight 20 years and my position isn’t changing.”

Recent years have seen Wark not only present Newsnight but the occasional well-received documentary.

I tell her how much I enjoyed her interview with the late playwright Harold Pinter a few years back and also Blurred Lines, a one-off special about sexism in modern culture shown in May.

And then there’s Late Review. I loved Late Review. Is there any chance it will come back, I ask her?

At this Wark’s tone lightens noticeably.

“It may not be over. I’m hoping to get it back in some form.”