Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Veil of Time includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claire R. McDougall. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Caught in a period of transition between her divorce and an operation that could put her epileptic seizures behind her, Maggie Livingstone decides it’s time to get away. She leaves Glasgow for a three-month stay at the foot of Dunadd Hill in the Scottish highlands, where she intends to finish her PhD thesis on witch burnings that for so long took a backseat to marriage and motherhood.
Dunadd is a quiet place. Maggie’s only company is a friendly widower named Jim and Winnie, the black cat who quickly finds a home with her. There’s plenty of time to think about the daughter she lost to a seizure, and the son for whom she needs to pull herself together. But when Maggie’s seizures start transporting her into vivid dreams of eighth-century Scotland, she becomes consumed with thoughts of Fergus, brother to the king, and his daughter, Illa, who reminds her of her own lost child. As the date of her operation approaches, Maggie must decide whether she can leave her newfound loves of that world for her son in this one.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Maggie goes to stay at Dunadd, she notes, “I have unearthed the old Maggie Livingstone of childhood and pasted it over the Margaret I had become.” Later in the story Fergus calls her Ma-khee. How do each of these variations of her name identify a different part of who she is? Discuss your own nicknames, if you have any, and how you relate to being called by different names.
2. The story intersperses Maggie’s point of view with Fergus’s. What does this bring to the story? How different do you think the book would be if we got only Maggie’s perspective?
3. What do you make of the almost instant attraction between Maggie and Fergus? What do you think draws them to each other? How might their past relationships have played a role in bringing them together at this point in their lives?
4. “‘But what if time isn’t what we think it is, one damn thing after another? What if what we know isn’t just a series of pictures, but more like a hologram? If the whole thing is contained within each piece, then traveling through time isn’t so much a question of traveling anywhere so much as looking deeper into the image.’” What do you think about this interpretation of time? Do you think Maggie’s dreams are more than dreams?
5. After Maggie asks Jim what period in time he would like to visit, she is struck by the emotion in his response, noting “Sometimes you just happen on the thing in a person that stirs the quick. It’s a nice thing to see, the quick. . . .” What do you make of the phrase stir the quick? What stirs the quick in you?
6. Maggie sometimes worries about altering history, and whether or not she should warn Fergus about the future. Do you agree with her decision?
7. Discuss Maggie’s role as a mother. How does her relationship with Illa compare to her relationship with Graeme?
8. How do Maggie’s relationships with Sula and Iona influence her thesis? Do you think Maggie herself could be considered a witch?
9. There are a lot of things Maggie fears about undergoing the lobectomy. She worries, “will normality just be deathly dull?” (page 000). Discuss the concept of being normal. What does it mean to you? Is it something you seek out, try to steer clear of, or something else in between?
10. Aside from losing Fergus and her dreams, there are a lot of risks involved with undergoing brain surgery. Would you have the surgery if you were Maggie?
11. Discuss the relationship between Maggie and Jim. Could there be more to it? Where do you imagine things going for each of them beyond the pages of the book?
12. In the final chapter of the book, the author switches narrative style to a more omniscient point of view. Why do you think she decided to use this perspective? What do you think it accomplishes?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Dunadd is a real place in Scotland—complete with the footprint in stone and the mark of the boar. Do some research online and check out some images of the sites and setting in Veil of Time.
2. Maggie goes to Dunadd for a few reasons—to get away and have a fresh start, to slow down and prepare for her operation, and to finish the thesis she started long ago. Where would you most want to escape to for three months? Are there any projects from your past that you’ve always wanted to finish?
3. When we in America think of witch hunts, we think of the Salem witch trials. What can you find out about witch hunts in Scotland, or Europe in general? Look online or check out Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s book Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts.
4. Discuss what period of time you would most want to travel to and why. Would you want to change history or just experience a different way of life?
A Conversation with Claire R. McDougall How did you first get the idea for Veil of Time? How long did it take you to write it?
I write quickly, so I probably had a first draft within six months, but it traveled a circuitous route before being picked up by a publisher. I already had another book placed with my agent, though he had had no luck in selling it. I kept Veil of Time in my drawer, because I didn’t want him to stop plugging the first novel. After a while, I heard that a film version of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander was in the offing (which turned out not to be true!), so I thought I had better get Veil of Time out. Time travel seems to be a topic of great popular interest, and my agent was able to sell it relatively quickly. Between the time I started the book until it sold was probably a couple of years.
My working title for Veil of Time was always Dunadd, because it is so central to the book and I hold the place very dear. I grew up only a few miles away, and later a childhood friend bought the farm at its base. Often when I go back, I stay in one of her holiday cottages on the property. When I’m there, I climb up the fort at least once a day, because it is so magical walking through those old ruins, and the view across the sea and islands gets under your skin and won’t ever leave you. For a long time I had been mulling over the idea of writing about it. I have written other novels set in the area, but all take place in the present. I couldn’t see writing about Dunadd in any time but its heyday, the eighth century, when it was one of the major ports of the Celtic world and a place of great importance for the kings of Scotland. I didn’t see myself as a writer of historical fiction, though, so I resisted going that route. I thought of myself, probably too rigidly, as a writer of literary fiction, and didn’t want to switch to the romance genre either. So for a while I was a bit stuck. And then Audrey Niffenegger’s widely acclaimed book The Time Traveler’s Wife came out and it was like light breaking on the problem: If time travel could be taken seriously in mainstream fiction, then that was how I was going to approach my book about Dunadd.
Did you do any research for the story? If so, how did you go about it, and where does the history end and imagination take over?
There isn’t any history anywhere in which imagination doesn’t take over. As Maggie says, “History is a selective bastard.” It’s no accident it is called his-story. (German is more honest: Geschichte simply means “story.”) I did try to hang my novel around an “historical” framework: there was a King Murdoch around this time period at Dunadd; Christianity was making inroads into the indigenous pagan religion; and there were a series of earthquakes. While these events probably took place over a longer period, I brought them together into one historical moment for the purposes of the novel. I did do research, but only as needed. I didn’t do years of research ahead of time like Dan Brown. There just isn’t that much known about the period in terms of daily life. There have been a few archaeological digs at Dunadd that have unearthed jewelry and evidence of a forge, some wineglasses (which for that time in Scotland is quite remarkable), a few other artifacts, all of which I used in the story.
One thing I did do was to look at other primitive cultures. I have a great picture from National Geographic of a quite extensive African village with thatched round huts and meandering lanes. The thatch there would have been made of straw instead of heather, but I think the village at the base of Dunadd must have looked quite like this. The circle is sacred in primitive cultures, so I made the houses round; and from what we know, that seems to be accurate. The crannogs certainly were. And then, too, before monotheism made inroads, primitive cultures were goddess oriented; the earth and women were venerated. Joseph Campbell says there is only one mythology, and so I had no qualms about lifting part of the ceremony at Loch Glashan from, say, Native American culture, with the seven directions being acknowledged. For other parts of goddess worship I turned to the modern-day practices of Wicca.
Some of it will no doubt get me into trouble with historians, for instance whether or not the Stone of Destiny was ever at Dunadd or whether the sea ever came up to its cliffs, but there is evidence both ways. Some historians even try to deny that the culture at Dunadd was ever matrilineal, but in these cases I chose to go with my hunches and tell her-story.
How familiar are you with Dunadd and its surroundings?
I grew up just a few miles from Dunadd, which sits in a glen full of ancient sites, some going back so far no one knows who put them there or what they mean. The cup-and-ring markings in the stone that Fergus takes Maggie to see on their first night ride fall into this category. But when you grow up in any setting, you stop seeing it. Dunadd for me was just a place where kids got on the school bus. I saw it every day and my family took visitors there, but I didn’t think about it too much. The religious folk thought all that ancient stuff had to do with the devil, but I had the sense that there was more to it, and I did appreciate the mystery of it all from a young age.
Loch Glashan was out of sight, and I only knew the name because there was a signpost on the main road. Near Dunadd there is a museum where I probably first saw artifacts from Loch Glashan. The water is peaty and acidic there, and the things they brought up from the silt at the bottom were relatively well preserved (like the leather in the jerkin I have Fergus buy from an artisan down the loch). A little research told me that people had lived out on crannogs at Loch Glashan for millennia, and so it came in useful when I needed a place for Maggie and Fergus to flee to. There is actually a reconstituted (for tourists) crannog on Loch Tay in Perthshire, and it is quite eerie to go in and sit under the thatched roof by the fire. But it wasn’t until after I had written Veil of Time that I finally drove up the bumpy road through overhanging trees to Loch Glashan to stand on its abandoned shores in the rain and imagine the people I had created moving about there. It’s always a surreal experience to see your art take shape and live in real places.
What other authors or books have influenced your writing? What are some of your favorites?
I suppose that way back C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had an effect and chimed with my own tendencies as a child to put stock in imaginative realities. As a teenager, Anthony Quinn’s autobiography, The Original Sin, showed me a world that didn’t sit well with my evangelical upbringing and yet I knew it couldn’t be dismissed. Another nonfiction book, which has never gone out of print and which I still recommend heartily, is Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost for a challenge to the way we normally think of human nature. Literaturewise, I spent my late teenage years and early twenties drooling over D. H. Lawrence and his oeuvre. I read all of Herman Hesse and loved Emily Brontë, both her novel and poems. I spent way too many years in academia, but at least I read all of Nietzsche, who was and remains an important voice. The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon presented me with a haunting yet beautiful reflection of Scottish life, and perhaps brought up for me the possibility that Scotland could be represented in literature. Iain Crichton Smith (who taught at my high school) put a devastating part of Scottish history, the Highland Clearances, into a novel.
Poets have been a great influence on me, too. Particularly Yeats and particularly Dylan Thomas. It’s an intoxication that is hard to pull yourself away from and a very good place to do any writing from.
These days I am a fervent fan of John Steinbeck, because of his lucid prose and his light touch even when tackling heavy subjects. Dialogue doesn’t get any better than Steinbeck’s. Once I read one of his books, I have to read the rest. I tend in any case to go back and reread books, because if it is good literature, you get more out of it each time. I do this with Frank McCourt, too. As for modern-day fiction writers, I like Paul Harding, James Galvin, and Joe Henry—they give me a vivid world of words and images to loll about in.
Do you have a specific writing process? At what point did you know how the story was going to end?
My process is that I write in the mornings for about two or three hours. I find it difficult to write anywhere else but at my desk in my office. I get up in the morning, write, then walk the dogs and afterwards take a nap. I don’t write at the weekends unless I am on a roll, and I don’t write on holidays.
I start a story by putting together a group of characters in a certain setting and then I go forward, listening to how they bounce off one another. It’s a bit like the setup for a reality TV show. Sometimes they surprise me with where they want to go, but as Pooh says about songs, you just have to let it come out the way it wants to. So, I never really know how a story is going to end until it gets there. Other writers, of course, have a different approach—James Joyce, for one, would painstakingly build his stories brick by small brick until they slowly took shape. I don’t have the patience for that. I would rather write the whole thing quickly, then write the whole thing over again quickly. So, my process is quite haphazard: I have no plan, no three by five cards, no napkins with scribbles on the backs, no map—just a flashlight and a dark wood in front of me. Somehow, I make it through the trees to the other side.
Did you have a favorite character in your own book? How did you relate to Maggie?
I am enough of a romantic that I would have to say Fergus. Writing a female protagonist stirs up my own murky feelings and is not always comfortable. But Fergus is just a good egg: He fights for the right things and has a good set of values. And he is cheeky and appealing.
When I started this book, I had the idea that I should try for once to write a protagonist who wasn’t the embodiment of my ideas and values. I thought that by creating someone out of dust, instead of spilling my guts onto the page, I would somehow be a better writer. So I gave her the name of a childhood friend, Margaret Livingstone, and really tried to distance myself. This lasted for about twenty pages, until I came to the realization that it is the job of the artist to pour herself into her art, and so I gave up and let the guts back on the page. Frankly, I wish I had done it sooner.
I had fun with the character of Jim Galvin, too, just because of his wry sense of humor and his fatherliness. I always have one of these characters in my books, a sort of touchstone that lets the reader into what is really going on. Jim Galvin is someone the reader can trust.
What are your thoughts on time travel? Has the subject always been of interest to you? If you could travel to another period of time, what would it be?
Let me answer the last part of this question first: I have always thought it would be fun to go around in those dresses and hats that women wore around the fin-de-siècle (but not to be sick around the same time). Honestly, I think we are living in exciting times these days. We are witnessing a slow dissolution of a kind of religious idealism that undergirded much of the worst evils mankind has come up with: domination, imperialism, missionary ventures, all the kinds of hierarchies that pit a few at the top against the multitude beneath. I think we are seeing a new emergence of women, not into the kind of male roles that the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies catapulted them but into a real feminine power that is nurturing and compassionate. If this really is the dawning of the age of Aquarius (after a very long age of Pisces, thank you very much), then I can’t think of any better period in history to be living. Maybe I would like to scoot forward and see how it all turns out.
The way physicists, theoretical and otherwise, have evolved in their thinking about time doesn’t seem to have trickled down to mainstream thinking much. We are still plodding around with this clunky notion of time as a road with mile markers that we pass and finally fall off. It’s a bit like believing the earth is flat. No one thinks it’s flat anymore, no more do the physicists see time in two dimensions. Time isn’t a thing at all, but a perspective. When H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, his protagonist had to actually get into his contraption and fly backwards along the clunky road, but that’s not how I see Maggie and her experience through the veil of time. To me, she isn’t going anywhere but simply making a shift. Some theoretical physicists think that at every moment every possible outcome is lived out somewhere in a parallel universe. So maybe all Maggie has to do is take a step to the right or left, just as you have to do to see different dimensions of a hologram.
Are you writing a sequel to Veil of Time? Can you see Maggie’s future?
I have almost finished the sequel to Veil of Time. It is called Druid Hill. So, yes, I see Maggie’s future quite clearly as far as that book goes. In the third book in what seems to be turning into a trilogy, things will turn quite strange for Maggie, more strange than I think I will know how to write about for quite some time.
What has been the most exciting part of the publishing process so far?
I came to the final act of getting published after many years of desert wandering. For the longest time I was just a vox clamantis in deserto, and no one was listening. It took so long to find an agent, and all the while I was writing novels, honing my craft, waiting in “silent desperation” (to steal a phrase from James Taylor). As I said, my agent couldn’t sell my first novel, and then when I got the offer from Simon & Schuster for Veil of Time, it was like stepping into one of those parallel universes—for a while I was going through the paces without really believing it was happening. I think it was when I got the cover art that it really slammed into me that my book was in fact going to come out and be read by more than just me and a few friends. That was pretty exciting. Receiving installments of my advance in the mail hasn’t been bad either.
What’s up next for you? Are you working on any new novels?
Apart from the sequel to Veil of Time, I am working on the screenplay, because I have faith in another parallel universe where authors are allowed to turn their own stories into movies. I also have a little story about a wild mustang that I would like to get out into the world before we kill them all off. I have several other novels about Scotland waiting in the wings, some of which I will have to rework, but it is a goal to see all of those in print. Another thing that looms large on my horizon at the moment is the Scottish vote for independence in 2014—if my stories can further that cause even slightly, then I am a happy woman.