Nicola Sturgeon and best-selling author Louise Welsh have taken a moment during the Edinburgh International Book Festival to send a message of solidarity to Sir Salman Rushdie after he was attacked in the US.
The pair appeared on the main stage at Central Hall on Monday to talk about Welsh’s latest crime novel, The Second Cut – the long-awaited sequel to her debut The Cutting Room.
Before their discussion, Ms Sturgeon said a few words about Sir Salman, 75, who suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye after being stabbed at an event in New York state last week.
“The thoughts of all of us right now are with a great writer of our times, Salman Rushdie, who, over the past three decades, has in many ways come to personify the ongoing fight for values that we hold dear of freedom of thought, freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” the First Minister said.
“I know all of us will want to send our very best wishes to him.”
Welsh, a professor of creative writing at Glasgow University, stood to read a short passage from Sir Salman’s novel Midnight’s Children, a gesture which guests at the festival this year have been invited to do.
Ms Sturgeon, who regularly talks about her love of reading, then began a discussion on the Glasgow-based author’s written works after praising her as one of Scotland’s best contemporary writers.
She asked Welsh, who has written nine novels, about her Plague Times trilogy, published between 2014 and 2017.
The dystopian series documents the collapse of Britain, along with the rest of the world, thanks to a flu-like pandemic dubbed “the Sweats”, which begins with a harsh, hacking cough.
The author told the audience her inspiration was her own childhood of the 1970s, with its fear of nuclear Armageddon, and a fascination with the Black Death, inspired by her studies in medieval history.
With coronavirus hitting just a few years after the books were published, Ms Sturgeon described the trilogy as “incredibly prescient”, before joking with Welsh and asking: “Did you just know something that the rest of us didn’t?”
The pair then discussed The Second Cut, which revolves around the life of Rilke, the gay auctioneer anti-hero who is the protagonist in The Cutting Room.
Written two decades after The Cutting Room, Ms Sturgeon and Welsh spoke about how much has changed since 2002 for the LGBTQ+ community.
The Cutting Room was written during the “Keep the Clause” campaign, a privately funded political drive organised in 2000 with the aim of resisting the repeal of legislation known as Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 in the UK, which forbade local authorities from “intentionally promoting homosexuality”.
Welsh said she regularly saw slurs against the LGBTQ+ community, but, recognising societal change, The Second Cut begins with a gay wedding, a beginning she said was hard to imagine 20 years ago.
“I wanted to start this new book with a moment of joy, that recognises this change, with an equal wedding, between two men, who have been together for 20 or 30 years and who have now decided to tie the knot,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon asked if she felt progress was moving forwards, or regressing, to which she replied: “I think we have to keep on going. We have to keep on fighting.
“For those of us who have the luxury to be open and out, that is something we should do.
“I think to be… visible is hugely important if you can… the world has changed enormously.
“People could not be out in the way we are, and that feels like an enormous privilege and right.
“I feel lucky to be living in these times, but I don’t feel completely relaxed.”
Ms Sturgeon asked if there would be a third Rilke book, to which Welsh replied “yes”, before adding: “And it will be in less than 20 years.”
To close the discussion, the First Minister prompted the author for some advice to up-and-coming writers.
Welsh replied: “Every single writer, whatever stage they’re at, has a little voice that says ‘you know this isn’t any good, you know this is rubbish’, and you have to learn how to turn to that voice and say ‘well, that might be the case, but I am just going to continue’.”
Ms Sturgeon is due to return to the stage to interview Brian Cox later this month.
The book festival runs until Monday August 29.