Isla Dewar obituary

When the Scottish author Isla Dewar, wat op ouderdom oorlede is 74 after a heart attack, completed her first novel, Keeping Up With Magda, she rather doubted that the stories she had started transferring from her head to paper would go much further. Nietemin, within a fortnight a publisher took up her tale of intrigue centred on a cafe in a Scottish fishing village, and after its publication in 1995 it was longlisted for the Orange prize.

Her next book, Women Talking Dirty (1996), caught the attention of Elton John and David Furnish, who bought the rights for Rocket Pictures. Two years after it was published Dewar was transported from enjoyable semi-isolation in her seaside home on the East Neuk of Fife to the couple’s mansion in Windsor to write the screenplay. Taking William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade as a guide, she launched into 16-hour days of writing and script meetings, and used the pool to unwind.

The resulting movie featured Helena Bonham-Carter and Gina McKee – kooky and sensible respectively, with inadequate male partners. For its launch in 2001, the company sent a car to take her to the premiere. When Dewar saw the crowds that had gathered outside the cinema, sy het gese: “Look at all those people, we’ll never get in!”

Making up stories came as naturally for Dewar as breathing: “I love telling stories. I love people who love stories. I live in my head. It’s cosy and friendly there.” Her writing was not polemical or particularly pacey. In plaas daarvan, she told stories about the beauty, and pain, of the everyday – of ordinary women, leading ordinary lives. Fans felt that she spoke directly to them, sharing their triumphs and failures humorously, through more than 20 books translated into 17 languages. When I interviewed her for the Sunday Post, I was struck by her readiness to laugh at her own mistakes, and was already familiar with her gift for conveying the challenges and dramas faced by her heroines.

For a period Dewar was producing a book a year with the publishers Headline Review, including Giving Up on Ordinary (1997), Two Kinds of Wonderful (2000) and Dancing in a Distant Place (2003). Ebury published Izzy’s War (2010) and A Winter Bride (2011). She also wrote Briggsy (2008), a novella for young adults and a children’s book, Rosie’s Wish, illustrated by her husband, Bob Dewar.

Buoyed by the encouragement of the agent Felicity Bryan, at her peak Dewar topped the UK’s bestseller lists, toured bookshops and spoke at literary events, lighting up when speaking about her characters. At book signings she would give readers time and space, listening to what her books meant to them, as they coped with the ups and downs of their own lives. If they wrote, she wrote back.

Born in Edinburgh, to Marjorie (nee Roberts) and Ian White, a tax inspector, Isla was educated at Leith academy, though maintained that she learned to write “at the school of suburban bedroom dreamers and deluded teens who longed to become poets”.

In 1965, bejaardes 19, she started working for teenage magazines such as Jackie and Romeo, producing columns as an agony aunt and quizzes along the lines of “how to find your hunky fella”. But she enjoyed working at the headquarters of DC Thomson in Dundee – also home to the Beano and the Dundee Courierlistening to the women she worked alongside, and taking her first steps towards becoming a novelist.

It was at DC Thomson that she met Bob, after he caught her impersonating Ken Dodd impersonating the Queen – it was immediately clear that the pair were kindred spirits. They married in 1966, and went on to have two sons, Nick, born in 1972, and Adam, six years later.

After Nick died at the age of 37, she said that it was only when she realised she would never get over his death that she began to heal. Her final two novels appeared in the Birlinn imprint Polygon: It Takes One to Know One (2018), about the Be Kindly Missing Persons Bureau in Edinburgh, and A Day Like Any Other (2020), on the lifelong friendship of two women from the city. In the case of the latter, she had doubts as to whether people would want to read such a story, but her fears proved unfounded.

In the last years of her life arthritis prevented Dewar from taking the countryside walks she had loved. Instead she watched the birds outside her kitchen windows, creating stories about the feminist robins and haughty pheasants. “I create a world and the people in it, and when they are gone from me I miss them," sy het gese. “The only thing to do is start another book.”

She is survived by Bob, Adam and two grandchildren, Sonny and Ida.





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