Ely Percy – Renfrew-born author of award-winning Duck Feet
After releasing one of the most lauded books in recent memory with Duck Feet, Renfrew-born author Ely Percy takes us through their journey to bring the experiences of high school classmates to the page.
Although they may be fresh from a honeymoon to Paris that had been thwarted by an unanticipated bout of Covid, Ely Percy remains in high spirits and with good reason. Decades on from committing themselves to the craft of writing, Ely’s work is finally receiving the reverence it deserves. Most notably, their 2021 novel, Duck Feet, which tells the story of Kirsty Campbell from Renfrew as she navigates the trials and tribulations that only high school can provide.
Yet while it may be one of the biggest literary hits of last year, the critically acclaimed book is the byproduct of a very lengthy gestation process that saw Ely’s original concept grow arms and legs.
“It started with just one short story after a callout in a magazine for pieces about shoes,” Ely reveals. I was just about to graduate from uni and when I sat down to write, I really loved the voice of the wee girl and by the next day, I’d written another one.
“The first one was accepted and published right away, which is quite rare, so I just kept doing more. By the time I got to about ten, I realised that exploring these different situations from school was maybe something more and they all began to join together. Initially, people weren’t really taking it on as a full manuscript.
“It ended up being a 16-year period of sending them out individually,” they divulge, “with about 35 getting published. There was one story that I sent out which nobody liked at all and now it’s one of the most popular aspects of the book!
“I thought I had something there, but people were saying ‘nobody wants to publish a book of stories from the perspective of a wee lassie that lives in a housing scheme, it’s just too niche’. Folk were saying ‘can you turn it into English because we’d have a better chance’ but I was just like naw, you’re wrong, nobody in Renfrew talks like that.
“It didn’t matter if twenty, fifty, one hundred people read it, I just wanted to write this”
“I eventually realised that I had to publish another novel before this would ever get a shot, just because it’s short stories and it’s in Scots.
“Then, one day, after I was on a panel with Ellen Desmond from [Edinburgh-based publishing house] Monstrous Regiment, she turned to me out of the blue and said ‘why won’t you give Duck Feet to us?’ And I was like, you’ve never asked! (laughs)
“So, I sent them the whole manuscript and they were like ‘we love this, so can you novelise it?’ I didn’t really realise what they were asking at the time, but if I knew it would’ve been a whole structural rewrite, then I might’ve fainted (laughs).
“I always wanted it to be like snapshots of high school as when you look back, you remember it as highlights,” Ely says of the book’s particular brand of linear narrative. “Sometimes, you don’t necessarily get the story where she learns about something, but you realise that her outlook has changed. I wanted it to be like when you haven’t seen someone for a few years and then suddenly, they’re different. You don’t know what happened in that interim period, but you know they’ve changed.
“There’s a lot of Scottish books I love that are about poverty, but there were often bits that I couldn’t relate to,” they say of the impetus behind the book’s content. “I didn’t really see myself in any books or TV programmes, or anyone that I’d hung about with at school.
“So, I was like, why not? It was really important. Kirsty grew up in the same street that I grew up in, but she’s not a real person. But if you think you said something in the book, then you probably did (laughs). In every situation that arises, I just tried to think about how a 12-year-old girl would respond to it and what the people around them would be saying about it.”
Rather than being written in a vacuum, Ely is proud of the fact that Duck Feet was very much written in tandem with the town and people that it depicts.
“I remember years ago, when I first started writing it, I gave some of the stories to my sister and she then handed them out to all of her pals at the pub. It was really interesting to hear them saying ‘aw, mind that’ or ‘aye, we used to go there’ and they then started suggesting that I put certain things in and I took that on board. So, I knew then that I had something here. It didn’t matter if 20, 50, 100 people read it, I just wanted to write this. I felt like Renfrew should have a book.
“After it came out I was getting messages from people saying ‘I went to J High or the Grammar or Park Mains’ and the experience in the book was just like theirs,” Ely said of the universality of Duck Feet’s stories. “Eventually, I was getting them from folk in Wales and England saying it was the same. Now, people who went to school in Renfrew are now teachers and using it in class!
“I did an LGBT group in a school and I read the story ‘Pure Gay’ and it was amazing to see them being like ‘yass’ as I was nervous about it at first. They never had anything like that when I was in school, so that was really cool to see. It’s turned out to have quite a big LGBT following even though it’s not a particularly queer book.”
With more eyes on their work than ever before, Ely has plans for a sequel, Odd Duck, which will “have three voices” from the LGBTQIA+ community. Meanwhile, they are in the process of writing Kingstreet, a “queer tartan noir” which centres on Alan, a trans-masculine character who was born in Renfrew but resides in Glasgow.
Although they are eager to readdress what they see as a dearth of representation for trans and neurodivergent people which, while prominent in Young Adult fiction, isn’t necessarily spread out across all genres, Ely is still finding plenty of time to write Sci-fi stories featuring “aliens in Robbie Park.”
- Books: Braw Lads Are Marching Awa by Tracy Patrick
- Duck Feet by Ely Percy – book review
- Café Fairfull Paisley lunch review
When asked if they believed they’d joined the esteemed ranks of writers who use Scots dialect to portray diverse and authentic experiences, Ely humbly downplays it. Instead, suggesting that they’re simply writing in the way that best serves these stories that provide vital exploration into the everyday lives of those who inhabit our communities.
“I just wanted to write about what I knew,” they declare. “Having met Des Dillon [author of Singin I’m No A Billy He’s A Tim] years ago, he said ‘just write the way you talk’. It’s funny, I didn’t see myself joining the literary canon (laughs). I’ve been writing since I was 15 years old. It doesnae feel grand, but I feel very lucky that people are responding to it.
“I want to write stories about ordinary people. They deserve stories,” Ely proclaims, “and happy ones at that. Not everything I write is happy-clappy, but I hope that there’s always humour and fun.”
Ely Percy Quickfire Q&A
What’s your favourite book of 2022 thus far? I was incredibly lucky to receive an advance copy of Heather Parry’s absolutely genius debut novel Orpheus Builds A Girl which is coming out in October. The ending left me gobsmacked.
Favourite Renfrewshire based writer? Alan Bissett.
Favourite Renfrew pub? The Viscount (now The Flying Scotsman) or The Wallace Bar.
Favourite story from Duck Feet? This changes all the time, but my favourite Duck Feet story to perform is probably the first one (Duck Feet) or VL.
The book everyone should read? I think everyone has different tastes so I’m loath to make a blanket recommendation. That said, the funniest book I’ve read in years was Daisy On The Outer Line by Ross Sayers and I think this would resonate with a lot of folk who live in Renfrewshire.
Keep up with Ely and their work via the website.