Ely Percy’s first publication was a letter-come-poem in Big! magazine in 1994. Since then, they’ve released a memoir Cracked: Recovering After Traumatic Brain Injury (JKP, 2002), published their debut novel Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz (Knight Errant Press, 2019) and contributed over fifty short stories to literary journals. They’ve also been a writer-in-residence in a prison, a community librarian in an LGBT centre, and the facilitator of a pilot therapeutic writing class for adults with mental health difficulties.
Ely was selected for the Escalator Talent Development Programme in 2016, and has since progressed to achieve tremendous success.
The NCW team caught up with Ely Percy in March 2021 ahead of the launch of their second novel, Duck Feet, and again in November 2023, to find out how their experience of Escalator impacted their writing career.
Your latest novel Duck Feet is being published by Monstrous Regiment Publishing Ltd this month (March 2021). How did you find the process was affected by the global pandemic?
As someone who has experienced a variation of ‘lockdown’ on a daily basis for the past 28 years because of disability, I have found that – in some ways – the pandemic has actually been advantageous to me. My writing process didn’t change at all – I was at home editing solidly for a year the same as I would have been under normal circumstances – but suddenly I was being invited to take part in literary events via Zoom and other online platforms that previously hadn’t been offered as an option.
I was absolutely gutted of course when Paisley Book Festival made the decision to go digital. It would have been wonderful to have had a live in-person launch for Duck Feet especially since I’d been working towards it for more than a decade and a half, and because Paisley is my town of birth. But I know I am very very lucky to be having any kind of launch. And what I’ve noticed is that people have really gotten behind the book: every day I receive lovely messages from someone else telling me that they’ve got their ticket to the launch and / or they’ve pre-ordered their copy. And perhaps this wouldn’t have happened to the same extent if not for the pandemic. The launch is also going to be filmed and it’ll be available on YouTube for a month afterwards, so people who can’t make it on the night will also be able to tune in. Additionally, there’s no limit to how many people can attend on the night so … silver linings!
I think one of the most important things to have come out of all of this though is that events have been made more accessible for disabled people who would otherwise have struggled to take part, and I really hope this will continue to be the case in the future.
‘One of the most important things I learnt from being on on the scheme was that everyone’s writing journey is different.’
Duck Feet is your second novel to be published, just four years after participating in the Escalator Talent Development Programme at NCW. How do you feel Escalator helped shape your approach to writing?
Duck Feet began as a short story I wrote in 2004. I’d just spent the best part of two years working on my debut novel (Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz) as part of my Creative Writing degree at Glasgow Uni, and I wanted to write something different, something shorter! By 2005, it had mushroomed into a collection of 65 short stories, but although I had some success with publishing individual pieces in small press magazines, no-one wanted the entire manuscript. It wasn’t until 2020 that Monstrous Regiment approached me and said, ‘We love your Duck Feet stories… could you turn them into a novel?’
When I came to Escalator, I was a bit fed up. I’d had a memoir published at the age of 24 in 2002, and I’d been the first person to get onto Glasgow Uni’s prestigious MPhil course with port-folio merit and no undergraduate degree. But I was frustrated because I still wasn’t making any headway with my fiction (in my opinion), and I had been stuck in a rut trying to finish the same third novel (Kingstreet) since 2007.
I think one of the most important things I learnt from being on on the scheme was that everyone’s writing journey is different. Right at the start, my mentor Ben Johncock – who was wonderful – pointed out to me that the only person who was holding me back was me because I was fixated on all the small things I thought I ‘should’ be doing. In my head, a writer was someone who wrote every day and they had to write a specific amount of words or they weren’t doing it properly. I had so many rules and none of them were working for me. I also didn’t like my novel very much but I didn’t know how to fix it. I nearly had a heart attack when Ben suggested I scrap the novel and start again with just my narrator (because the narrator was the only thing I liked about it). Well, what he actually said was, ‘put it in an imaginary box’ but what I heard was, ‘put it in the bin’ (because it’s obviously rubbish). Anyway, it was the best advice he could have given me. I still haven’t finished that novel – but only because I got two other book deals in between – I think when I finally stopped giving myself a hard time, things started to fall into place for me. I am now 100,000 words into the fourth draft of Kingstreet and I fully intend on picking it up again in the near future!
‘As a working-class person who grew up in a housing scheme within a tiny burgh in the west coast of Scotland, I was actively discouraged from pursuing writing as a career.’
Escalator supports under-represented writers at the beginning of their careers in the East of England. Do you think that geography can limit access routes to publication? How do you think programmes like Escalator combat this?
I think that geography is one of several things that can limit access routes to publication. As a working-class person who grew up in a housing scheme within a tiny burgh in the west coast of Scotland, I was actively discouraged from pursuing writing as a career; I was also not aware of there being any local writing groups – there may have been, but they certainly weren’t well advertised. Similarly, when I accessed the Escalator scheme I was living in Sudbury in Suffolk and the only writing group in the town was for over 55s (they kindly let me join but I was a bit of an oddity being several decades younger than everyone else); there were evening events 20 miles away in Colchester but no buses after 5pm and I am not able to drive because of my disability so it was just impossible to attend.
One of the problems that I’ve experienced as a writer with a disability is that I often can’t access things because I can’t afford to get there. And it’s not just my own fare I have to think about; it’s paying for another person because I can’t travel on my own. And if a workshop, mentoring session or event goes on for a few hours I either have to rope in a friend who is off work or pay someone for their time.
Escalator was actually very very good in terms of accommodating the problems I had with travelling. In fact, it just wasn’t a problem at all.
What is your best advice to writers who are thinking about applying to programmes like Escalator?
I think you need to keep in perspective that schemes like Escalator are highly competitive and that even if you don’t make the cut the first or the fifth or even the tenth time you apply, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed or that your writing is rubbish. Sometimes, it’s the wrong project for you, or it’s the right one but it’s the wrong time, or the wrong mentors. There is an element of luck with these things, just like there is an element of luck in finding the right agent or publisher.
When we next spoke to Ely, in November 2023, Duck Feet had been published to critical acclaim, winning two Saltire Awards, including ‘Scottish Book of the Year’.
I was told by industry professionals the story was ‘too niche’ and that no one would want to read a book about a wee girl growing up in a Scottish housing scheme. The comments were obviously nonsense though because it went onto sell thousands of copies and be named Scotland’s Book of the Year at the Saltire Awards in 2021! The book is now on it’s fourth print run; If enough people pre-order then my publishers will be able to afford a bigger print run that won’t sell out within a couple of weeks!
What have you been writing/working on since 2021?
After I finished Duck Feet, I took a three-month break because I was really burnt out. I’d been writing and sending out my work continuously since 1993, and I’d always prided myself on being someone who could persevere no matter what – so admitting I needed to take time away was a huge personal challenge. I actually broke my ankle on the afternoon of my book launch (luckily, because it was digital, I still managed to do it) and being physically marooned on the couch for several weeks forced me to take stock of my life!
Gradually, I eased myself back in by getting a Master Class account, and listening to Neil Gaiman’s writing sessions and doing some of his exercises – I didn’t do any editing during that time though, because I needed the pressure to be off completely, and for it to be just for fun.
I recently redrafted one of the reimagined fairytales I’d written for Neil’s ‘class’ – it’s called ‘Midas MacGregor Makes A Wish’, and it’s about a young, neurodivergent person who does a stranger a good turn and ends up being gifted magical powers that they then struggle to control. The story is due for publication next month in Somewhere For Us (queer Scottish arts magazine) and I’m very excited about this.
Since then, I’ve returned to rewriting Kingstreet – that’s the novel I was working on when I was part of the Escalator Scheme. It’s a queer, coming-of-age crime novel about an ex Elvis impersonator whose journey as a performer and a transgender man intertwines with the solving of a murder.
I was also commissioned to write some Kingstreet spin-off stories for Gutter magazine, Somewhere For Us and an anthology called Twenty-Eight: Stories From The Section Twenty-Eight Generation.
I’ve had a few scifi stories published too – all with neurodivergent genderless / nonbinary narrators, which is really important to me representation-wise as an agender person with a cognitive impairment.
More recently, I’ve been creating a series of videos about my writing journey, and all the obstacles and the (perceived) successes and failures I’ve experienced along the way.
How have you found the reception to Duck Feet since it’s out in the world?
It’s been amazing! I’ve had so many lovely messages from readers: so many people from Renfrew (where the book is set) got in touch to say that it really resonated with them; people from other parts of Scotland as well told me that their high school – from when they were growing up – was exactly like my fictional ‘Renfrew Grammar’; and I got messages from readers in England, Wales, Ireland, and even America saying very similar things!
Duck Feet has also inspired both a short film and a song by a composer, which is absolutely wild! And I nearly fainted one day when I found out from a friend that it had its own table in Waterstones!
I’ve been asked to speak in schools and libraries, and at the Edinburgh Book Festival – there have been too many festivals and events really to mention! And I thought it was a joke at first when my wife and I got invited to a ‘Best Of Scotland’ event at 10 Downing Street!
Winning two Saltire awards and seeing Duck Feet being named Scotland’s ‘Book Of The Year’ was, and still is, the highlight of my career. But I was also delighted to have been shortlisted for the Scots Language award and the Barbellion (a prize annually awarded to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability). And it meant a lot that my sister, Nikki, really loved the book because it was dedicated to her.
How do you think that mentorship schemes like Escalator help emerging, underrepresented writers?
I think schemes like this are massively important because they provide in-depth advice and feedback that is specifically tailored for individuals – and you almost never get that when you go to an ordinary writing class. For me, personally, I thrived on the conversations that I had with my mentor (Ben Johncock), and even though I didn’t finish my novel, I felt like I came away from the experience feeling far more motivated and more confident in my own writing abilities.
One of the other things I loved about Escalator was taking part in the end of year showcase. I think for many writers who come from underrepresented backgrounds it feels like an impossible task to even get someone in the publishing world to look at your work, so to have that opportunity to read in front of an audience of publishers and agents who you then get to chat with afterwards – that’s everything!
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