The Acrobats of Agra – Robin Scott-Elliot

Stars: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book is a glorious historical fiction which will have you hooked with its adventure. Set in the heart of India and featuring a circus it has e v e r y t h i n g you want from a perfect read: friendship, breath-taking settings and action-packed chapters which will keep you turning the pages.

Today, I am lucky to have a guest post from Robin, telling us a little bit more about how this brilliant book came to be.

From press box, papers and Pravda to writing for children

There’s a scene in the Outlaw Josey Wales – Clint Eastwood’s best western, no argument – when Lone Watie, an elderly Native American, tells a rambling tale about how he was once advised to “endeavour to persevere.” Throughout the movie Watie, pitch perfectly underplayed by Chief Dan George, delivers a succession of memorable one-liners but “endeavour to persevere” stuck with me. It means nothing and everything, and I reckon it pretty much sums up the long, winding path to becoming a writer. 

You get used to knock backs – used to them but it doesn’t stop them hurting. I claim my first at the age of 11, an essay-writing competition at school. Mine was good, about a rugby player kicking the winning points in a key game. The teacher accused me of plagiarism.

Sport was an interest alongside writing and books – you must be a reader to write – so when I stumbled out of university, naïve and clueless, the only thing I could think of doing was combining them. I became a sports journalist.  

It means I’ve worked in words all my adult life, used words, played with words, experimented with them, hammered them into spaces they don’t fit and cringed when I read them in the next-day’s newspaper. But the more you write, whether journalism or books, the better you get. It’s the road to Carnegie Hall isn’t it.

I loved being a journalist, or most of being a journalist. There were ups; watching the dress rehearsal for the London Olympics opening ceremony, sworn to secrecy, and gasping at its inspirational brilliance – once upon a time Britain felt a good place to live when scores of Mary Poppins floated from the skies. Sitting in the old Maracana, hallowed turf for any football fan, and feeling the upper tier of the stadium shake when the home team scored. Watching Usain Bolt run. Watching Michael Phelps swim. Talking to Martine Wright, who lost her legs in the 7/7 terror attacks, as she prepared to compete at the London Paralympics. The entire 2012 Paralympics, the most inspirational, life-affirming event I’ve been to.

There were downs; turning up at the wrong stadium to cover my first-ever Scotland game (how to cock-up a childhood dream!), being named in Pravda as a western journalist making up stories about the Sochi Winter Olympics. “Be careful,” said my boss down the phone from London as I watched the Russian army choir belt out the national anthem at the opening ceremony. For a child of the Cold War that anthem makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand-up, especially when you’re wondering if you’ve put your neck on the block.

But all along the writing was the best bit. This word or that word. Sentence structure, staccato or chock full of sub-clauses. Drop intros – the roundabout route into a story (see above) – or who-what-why-where-when? And all the time in the back of my mind the nagging desire to write something else, something lasting.

I tried for the first time, leaping from staff job to freelance to write adult fiction. I failed, left a heap of rejection letters and a self-published novel on the kitchen table and returned to the coalface – “800 words please, on the full-time whistle.”

Deadline pressures – in the press box, crowds roaring, stomach churning, staring at a flashing cursor on the top of a blank page, watching the clock tick over and hearing the clatter of keyboards on either side of you – hold you in good stead if you do cross the divide from journalism to novel writing. And there is a divide.

As a journalist you press send and it’s gone. Now for tomorrow. In novel writing it seems like it’s never gone. Holding a printed copy of my book remains the biggest thrill I’ve had in any form of writing. To feel it, touch it… but reading it… I can’t bring myself to do that… don’t like the way I’ve structured that, described that, set-up that character…

I still wanted to write books, wanted another go. So Karen, my partner, and I swapped roles. I stayed home, looked after our two girls, cooked, cleaned, stood out at the school gates and wrote. She worked full-time, worked so hard to allow me to chase my dream. I’m forever in her debt.

And still I failed. My writing was better, but… there was always a ‘but’ to the rejection emails. The girls were growing and they liked stories – I remembered stories my mum and granny told me about the Highlands, myths and legends, half history, half a damn good tale. The girls would listen and listen and ask for more. ‘Write us a story,’ they ordered. So I did, and something clicked.

I switched to writing middle-grade, combining story-telling and history – what I’d loved as a child. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Eagle of the Ninth, DK Broster’s rose-tinted Jacobite trilogy, John Buchan’s tall adventure tales, even Tintin and Asterix. There was still a way to go. I wrote and wrote and wrote, endeavoured to persevere, more rejection, but more encouragement too, shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, getting closer but it still felt like one of those crazy mountain stages in the Tour de France where the road zig-zags ever upwards into the clouds. The end wasn’t in sight. How many rejections does it take before you decide enough.

And then the clouds cleared. I was at the opticians when my phone pinged, an email from the wonderful Mikka of Everything with Words. I couldn’t really read it (that’s why I was in the opticians!) so thrust my phone at my daughter. She read it out. It’s hard to have an eye test when you’re welling up.

THE ACROBATS OF AGRA by Robin Scott-Elliot out now in paperback
(£8.99, Everything with Words)

Like the sound of this book? Buy it here: https://amzn.to/2HLsKwr

Emily x

📚 Book gifted by publisher

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