My love affair with ice hockey goes back a great many years: to the late 1970s in fact, when I spent a couple of years teaching English Conversation to adults in Tampere, Finland. My students mostly worked in the large paper mills of Tampere, which is a long, thin and rather beautiful town, sandwiched between two lakes. I taught engineers, management, secretarial staff. Sometimes I went out to the factories by bus and sometimes students travelled to the language school which was above a department store in the middle of town. There were a few other people - all ages and stages - doing evening classes for various reasons. When we weren't teaching, we clustered in the cafe downstairs, chatting, drinking coffee and eating rice porridge with milk, a fabulous creamy, sticky version of yoghurt called viili or piirakka munavoi, the cheap and cheerful Finnish equivalent to scrambled eggs on toast.
Finns are friendly but - on the whole - quite shy and private people. Teaching conversation to people who are naturally quiet was challenging. Eventually, I realised that the most effective technique was to dramatise things a bit and risk making a complete fool of myself in the process. Then they would relax and speak out. The majority of my students were young men. And the only thing they really wanted to talk about, even in English, wasn't business but ice hockey. I learned a lot about hockey over those two years from Lasse and Jorma and Matti and Heikki with their blue eyes and old gold hair. (Especially Jorma!) I was young, footloose and fancy free as were many of my students, and I and my fellow teachers were often invited out to hockey games. Tappara and Ilves were the town's two teams and there was a good deal of rivalry between them. My landlady's cute ten year old son, Esa, played hockey too, and I got used to seeing him clumping about in hockey kit. I loved it all. I was smitten by the magic of this fast, enchanting and oh so physical game.
Cue forward. I'm married with a young son myself - and we're living in Ayrshire. For a few blissful years, we get to watch superleague ice hockey - The Ayr Scottish Eagles - in a brand new arena with one of the biggest and best ice pads in the UK: the Centrum. Ice hockey appeals to young and old, male and female. Spectators include grannies and babies and all kinds of people in between.Visiting supporters sit among the home spectators and cheer their team, unmolested. Any violence tends to happen on the ice rather than off it.
The charismatic captain of the Eagles offers hockey classes to the kids. Our son learns to skate and then learns to play hockey. For a few short years, I'm a hockey mom, helping him to haul kit about - hockey involves a vast quantity of unbelievably heavy, smelly and expensive kit although fortunately much of it can be bought second hand - tugging on long laces, ferrying him to and from hockey summer schools, learning about cross checking and high sticking and why a wrist shot is more accurate than a slapshot.
Time passes. Our son hits sixteen, major exams loom and he's forced to make some tough choices. Hockey has become just too time consuming and he's been practising karate for years as well. Besides, he's already well over six feet tall and destined to be an 'enforcer' and enforcers tend to lose their teeth. He decides that karate fits in better with his academic work, so he stops playing.
All of which goes some way towards explaining the unusual background to my new novel, Ice Dancing. Of everything I've written, I think this probably comes closest to being a straightforward romance. But then, I'm never that straightforward, and just as there's a darker side to the good old hockey game, there's a darker side to this novel as well. If this is a romance, it's one with a wry and painful twist because visiting Canadian hockey player Joe, who skates like an angel, has his own demons to cope with and Helen, a farmer's wife, living discontentedly in a rural Scottish backwater, finds her life disrupted in unexpected ways by this young incomer. And so, with their two quite different worlds in unlikely collision, Joe and Helen find themselves balancing precariously on ice, dancing between past disappointments and future possibilities, between hope and despair, together and apart.
My agent, on first reading Ice Dancing, thought it had echoes of The Bridges of Madison County and I can see what she meant. There were times, though, when I thought I might be channelling Barbara Pym. Because this is also a novel about the quiet joys and equally quiet frustrations of village life.
I'm aware that the whole thing is a bit odd and off the wall (or off the boards, if we're talking about ice hockey!) But maybe that's what ebooks are also for: for when you want to balance precariously between genres while you launch yourself and your novel on an exciting but undoubtedly slippery new medium.