Edinburgh author reimagines the gunpowder plot in debut novel Remember, Remember

Debut historical fiction novelist Elle Machray talks to Scottish Field about their new book and Edinburgh as a writer’s muse.

‘Someone can be both a hero and a villain; a revolutionary and a tyrant,’ Elle Machray said from the hard backed wooden chair at Thomas J Walls Coffee, one of their favourite Edinburgh cafes and writing spots.

Their debut novel, Remember, Remember, undoubtedly delves deeply into this dichotomy of good and evil as it reimagines the gunpowder plot from the perspective of a Black woman in 1770 London who will do anything to free her brother from enslavement. 

As she and the people she cares about face often violent, systemic injustice after injustice, she is radicalised and weaponised into fighting a revolution. And to be a revolutionary, you must be both hero and villain – it just depends on perspective. 

‘When we lack that ability to hold two truths in our head at the same time, we run the risk of being polarised,’ Machray said.

‘What Remember, Remember tries to explore is this idea of paradox. Making sense of the multiple realities we live in and finding something that we value – something we want to hold on to.’

The idea for the novel sparked from Machray’s idea about someone re-attempting the gunpowder plot and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent events of 2020. 

Initially the story began as a historical spy thriller, but as the theme and plot grew, it began to transform into something more politically charged.

‘The novel ended up being much deeper than I initially intended,’ Machray said.

‘When I was processing all the emotions with everything that happened in 2020, it was very much about injustice and anger.

‘But that is not enough to sustain someone to do something so extreme and so terrible. It must be deeper than that.’

Machray drew from their University of Leeds politics degree, looking at the UN Just War Theory and other political theories to investigate what makes revolution, and what would it take to make someone strive for liberty. 

Initially set during the 1605 rebellion itself, the story quickly outgrew the constraints of the time and setting, so Machray delved deep into the tomes of history to find a time in Britain ripe for revolution – 1770.

Writing historical fiction is by no means an easy feat. It involves countless hours of research to ensure that the time written is portrayed as accurately as possible. 

But Machray is not one to shirk the task and instead finds joy in the often-laborious job. They said much of the research behind the novel felt ‘serendipitous’ as they often uncovered events during that year that worked perfectly with the plot. 

‘A lot of the story is about uncovering political corruption…and people acting outside of their station and doing things that wouldn’t be the norm at the time,’ they said.

‘Even though we don’t hear those stories all the time, the further you research and the deeper you research, the more of these stories you tend to uncover.

‘The big thing about writing this book was wanting to give a voice to the people who haven’t been accurately, fairly—or haven’t even been portrayed at all throughout history. 

‘Finding those stories has been one of the most amazing experiences.’

Machray quotes British historian and writer David Olusoga who has said, ‘Black history is a series of missing chapters from British history,’ and he aims to put those chapters back. 

Machray too wants to highlight these often missing or misinterpreted stories, adding that though their novel is a work of fiction, it often draws on and from reality, real stories and real events.

‘I would encourage readers to keep a packet of tissues nearby,’ they add with a sad yet knowing smirk.

‘The idea of little rebellions and big emotions are the vibe of the book.’

‘These little rebellions, that my mother used to call them, choices so small, so subversive that others barely notice then until it’s too late, are everything to Delphine. The threat of the noose has always shadowed her, but she has learned to find light between its threads. These little rebellions are just enough to remind her she is more than her fear.’ 

– Excerpt from Remember, Remember.

Machray’s journey to becoming a published author has not been linear, but it has been quick. Their debut novel Remember, Remember is only their second attempt at a novel and it was sold to HarperNorth as a partial. 

‘After George Floyd was murdered, I started writing poetry again for the first time in about ten years, but that didn’t feel like it was enough, so I ended up going into long form prose,’ Machray said.

The first draft of Remember, Remember was written in three months before Machray entered a Twitter pitch competition with XpoNorth and landed a two-book deal with HarperNorth.

‘Because this is only the second novel I’ve ever attempted, every draft that I’ve done has been the first time that I am doing that draft,’ they said.

‘So every developmental change, every structural change, every change of character is the first time I’m experiencing doing this.

‘Having A, B and C is great, but it’s not A to C, it’s A to Z and there are 23 other letters to figure out.

‘I have learned to ensure that each scene has a purpose, and each scene has a reason for being there.

‘If there is not an emotional gut punch, or it’s not going to make you turn the page, then maybe it doesn’t need to be there.’

Born and raised in Birmingham to Welsh-Caribbean and Scottish parents, Machray now lives in Edinburgh.

Most of the novel was written at the Edinburgh Central Library. 

‘In Edinburgh, every street has a story,’ they said.

‘There is not a single road you can walk down where you can’t see something that isn’t at least a couple hundred years old. 

‘You feel like you’re walking through a story.

‘There is that mix of being a very beautiful walkable city but also there is nature all around. 

‘The peatlands are so close and an hour away from Loch Lomond. That proximity to nature, history, stories and beauty – how can you not be inspired?’

Remember, Remember will be published on February 1, 2024 by HarperNorth and available in bookshops across Britain.