LIKE everyone else, Sally Magnusson is made of stories. The stories her family told her about the hills in Iceland where the elves live. The stories she read to herself when she needed comfort and support. And the stories she tells others, about regret and hope, death and dementia, slavery and history, and about all the different kinds of love of which humans are capable.

Pretty much all these stories, and more, turn up in some form in Magnusson’s new novel, a historical epic inspired in part by her Icelandic heritage, passed down from her father, the broadcaster Magnus Magnusson. The novel is also inspired by the true story of 400 Icelanders who were abducted by Turkish pirates in the 17th century and taken to Africa to live as slaves - and by the idea of story itself and how fiction can make fact more bearable. It certainly has in Magnusson’s case.

I’m meeting the writer and Reporting Scotland presenter to talk about the novel and it turns out she’s a little nervous about how it’s going to be received. She’s written lots of books in the past – most famously Where Memories Go in which she told the story of the effects of dementia on her mother and everyone around her – but this is her first novel so she’s not as confident as she might be if it was non-fiction. “I was probably one of those reporters of whom they say ‘every reporter has got a novel in them and that’s where it should stay’,” she says. But here it is nonetheless: The Sealwoman’s Gift, a novel by Sally Magnusson.

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The good news is it’s a fine book, based on research into the Turkish raids, which is one of the most traumatic incidents in the Icelandic psyche. They happened in 1627 when pirates from Morocco raided the coast, killing dozens and then kidnapping hundreds more before taking them back to Africa where they were sold into slavery. Magnusson says that, by any standards, it was a huge national tragedy, particularly for what was at the time the poorest country in Europe.

Magnusson’s novel is a way of telling the story of the raids through one of the kidnapped Icelanders in particular: Olafur Egilsson, a pastor, who wrote a memoir of his experiences, including his time spent as a captive in Algiers. There was also a wife, Asta, who, in the original memoir, briefly floats into focus and then out again because that’s generally the fate of women in history.

“So little is known about women in the 17th century,” she says. “They are invisible; they don’t have a voice and even when I was researching the book, it was so difficult to find out what happened to the women because male hostages were writing letters home talking about how awful life was and I kept thinking ‘tell me what the women are up to’ and nobody talked about it.” And it’s still happening, says Magnusson: the invisibility of women in the story of the world; just look at Wikipedia, she says, where the number of entries about women is just a tiny percentage of the total.

Magnusson has tried to put a little bit of that right in telling the story of Asta, which follows the pastor’s wife from Iceland to a slave ship, where she gives birth to a child, then to Morocco, and then back to Iceland again. In many ways, it’s the passages of the book set in Iceland that are the most vivid, perhaps because they are directly inspired by Magnusson’s own experiences and impressions of the country. “It’s feels like another homeland,” she says.

In fact, the longest Magnusson has ever lived in Iceland is three months one summer when she was a girl, but she says the country has always been in her blood. She grew up in Glasgow, but had Icelandic grandparents in Edinburgh who spoke the language to her and it can also sometimes feel like she’s related to half the country. “When you meet anybody for the first time, the conversation is always ‘oh yes, you’re Magnus’s daughter, so you must be related to so and so, who is the wife of so and so and the aunt of somebody else – oh we’re cousins!’”

When he wasn’t presenting Mastermind, Magnusson’s father also taught his daughter the Icelandic legends, although he was never the type to do bedtime stories. Instead, the soundtrack to the Magnusson household was the clack of typewriters: Magnus Magnusson wrote books, his wife Mamie Baird was also a journalist, and in time so was Sally, first in newspapers and then in television – she currently does two days a week presenting Reporting Scotland.

On the whole, it has been a rewarding career - a bit of TV, a bit of writing, and now a novel - although Magnusson does have regrets, and one of them is not taking the offer to present Crimewatch after the murder of her friend Jill Dando in 1999.

“I suddenly got a call from the BBC saying we’re looking for a new presenter for Crimewatch and we’d like to offer it to you because we need somebody who can ask sharp questions but with humanity or something like that. And I don’t know if it was because it was so, so raw to me. I remember talking to my mother about it, who was probably already suffering from dementia at that time, and she said ‘you can’t do that, you’ll be murdered too’.

“It’s silly when you think back but nobody knew what had happened to Jill and why, and I kind of ummed and aahed and while I was umming and aahing they decided they wanted somebody else – I think that’s when Kirsty Young got it.” It is the big regret of her career, she says. “Regrets in life are almost always about what you didn’t do.”

By contrast, one of the great satisfactions for Magnusson of late has been her charity, Playlist for Life, set up in the aftermath of her book about her mother’s dementia. She says she still desperately misses her mother, who died in 2012, but that it has been helpful to focus on the charity, which promotes the beneficial effects of music for dementia sufferers. Magnusson also believes that, thanks in part to her book, dementia is much further up the agenda than it was. “My generation understands that we have to fight now for the way we want to be treated in 30 or 40 years’ time,” she says.

Magnusson says one of the ways she coped when she was a carer herself was fiction and stories – when her father was dying, she says, all she could read was Dick Francis: easy, undemanding and comforting. In fact, it’s one of the central themes of her novel, story as a way to escape and survive, the other being slavery and how we may need to look at the subject in a different way.

Magnusson’s approach to the subject of slavery in the novel certainly has some surprises - not just the fact that in the 17th century, almost every country was a perpetrator and victim, but also the relationship which Magnusson’s heroine Asta has with her slave master. At first, she is devastated to be so far from home, but her master is not a bad man and bit by bit she falls in love with him and eventually sleeps with him. The book also relates the stories of several slaves who married their slavemasters, converted to Islam and took to their new lives in Africa.

Magnusson acknowledges that taking this approach to slavery could be controversial, but says she was determined not to approach the subject in the traditional way. “What I don’t want to start suggesting is slavery is a good idea,” she says. “But it seemed to me too easy and almost sentimental to say slavery is terrible and I’ll now do a novel about rapes and getting beaten on the soles of the feet – all that went on, but the fact is that these Icelanders, there were some who chose to stay. Some owners were also better than others, some were relatively kind, some of the men were paid for the work they did. So it’s a complex picture and that’s what I wanted to suggest.”

Magnusson also has no patience with the idea of apologising for slavery. “You would literally be apologising all the time for almost everything,” she says. “And we bear the advantages of so much that was bad. Every time we travel on the railway system, that was built in Victorian times by these rich men who were treating their workers very badly. But what do we do when we travel on a train – find some way of apologising? It becomes ridiculous. All you can do is learn from the past, learn about the complexities, and the context, and then make sure that was is bad doesn’t happen again. Our responsibly is to the present and not trying, in a sense, to rewrite the past.”

Magnusson has certainly lived up to that idea in her novel - some prodigious research has gone into it - but she also rather beautifully blends truth and fiction, reality and myth, fact and faith. There is a passage at the end of the novel where Asta has a vision of what might or might not be heaven. “The grass is vivid green,” says Asta, “and it’s studded all over with tiny white flowers, and the clear, Icelandic light has washed everything clean and fresh.”

I ask Magnusson if she might ever believe in this idea of a heaven, and she says that, like slavery and love, it’s complicated. “I grew up with a pagan, Viking father and a mother who was an elder in the church of Scotland so I’ve often thought that these two things have battled together in my soul,” she says. “But even my Viking father had the vision of Valhalla. The human condition is to ache for something after.”

The Sealwoman’s Gift is published by Two Roads at £16.99. Sally Magnusson is at Aye Write! on March 18 at 4.45pm. See ayewrite.com