Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Guest Interview with Judith Barrow
Today, I’m delighted to welcome back saga author, Judith Barrow. Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I’m a big fan of Judith’s Patterns trilogy. Patterns of Shadows and Changing Patterns are set during and just after WW2, with Living in the Shadows set in 1969. Her latest book, A Hundred Tiny Threads was published by Honno in August.

Judith, welcome back. Please tell us a little about A Hundred Tiny Threads.
A Hundred Tiny Threads is the prequel to the Haworth trilogy. It’s the story of the parents of Mary Haworth, who is the protagonist in the trilogy. Her mother, Winifred, is a young woman eager to find a life beyond her parent’s grocery shop. She battles against her domineering mother. When her new friend, Honora, an independent Irish girl, persuades her to join the Suffragettes, Winifred defies her mother and seeks a life away from home. But her head is turned by her friend’s brother – and she finds herself in more trouble than she can handle.
Unbeknown to Winifred, she has another admirer, Bill Howarth, a troubled man who bears the scars of a difficult upbringing. Despite his determination to make Winifred his wife his experiences in WW1 and his time in the Black and Tans in Ireland make him bitter and his ability to find trouble wherever he goes affects his life, his work, his relationships and his health.

After completing your highly acclaimed trilogy about the Howarth family, why did you feel the need to write the prequel that tells us about the early lives of the parents, Bill and Winifred ?
Well, with the two characters screaming out at me to tell their stories, I felt I needed to write more about the Howarth family. I knew I wanted to explain why Bill and Winifred are as they are in the first of the trilogy, Pattern of Shadows. I think that, when we reach a certain, say, mature age, we are what we have lived through as much as what we are through our genes definition. Does that make sense? Bill is mostly not a nice father; he certainly is a hard man. I wanted to show what he has endured in his early life; what has caused him to be so hard. As for Winifred – I think she has used up all her spirit, all her determination to change her life by the time we meet her in Howarth trilogy. She just accepts her lot and any defiance she has is turned inwardly, against herself.

What challenges did that pose for you?
The only real challenge was the time line; everything needed to fit into the timings within the trilogy; the ages of Bill and Winifred, the births of Tom (Winifred’s illegitimate son) and Mary (the first born of Bill and Winifred). But, as a writer this was an exceptionally exciting challenge to be able to research and write about the world events that is the background of A Hundred Tiny Threads.

When I was reading your novel, that's what struck me - how well you've researched those events. And that brings me on to my next question. Because the book is set in Lancashire in the 1900s and Ireland at the time of the Black and Tans, how much research did you have to do for the novel?

As with all my novels I have huge files of each era I write about on the shelves in my study. It’s important to me to immerse myself in the world my characters move around in, so I have folders on the politics of that time, the world situation, what was in the news. The research for the setting of A Hundred Tiny Threads was both fascinating and time consuming; so much was happening at that time. And quite a lot of it was so distressing I sometimes found myself crying; for the dreadful situations those young men endured during the First World War; for the awful injustices and cruelty that the people in Southern Ireland had inflicted on them. And, as a woman, and knowing these were the years when women were fighting for the vote, I felt it important I show their struggles as truthfully as possible.
On a more prosaic level, it’s the kinds of houses, furniture, fashions, hairstyles, children’s’ toys and games played, music and films, radio or television programmes depending on the times, even the weather if I have a scene where I’ve also put the dates in a certain chapter. The list is endless but necessary, I think.

Well, it certainly paid off. Your novel has been described as ‘gritty’, 'laid bare in a language which is forthright and at times, brutal'. Even though you've said how you were often distressed as you were writing some scenes, how important was it for you not to shy away from those horrors of WWI, the atrocities of the Black and Tans or the violent punishment of the Suffragettes?
My genre is family sagas and what I try to show is that in fiction, as in real life, none of us live in a vacuum. What is happening in the world around us, affects us in one way or another. The beginning of the twentieth century was a brutal and horrific time in so many ways. I have to be true to myself with my novels; to put down what I feel, to portray the truth of the world backdrop of my characters. If I don’t do that, how can I show their feeling, their reactions as people dealing with real life? It’s the only way I can write.

Your characters are very real and come alive on the page. How do you feel their experiences of life at the time and the awfulness of what they saw influenced the kind of parents they were to become?
I think Bill is a father of his time; the parenting of the children is the mother’s responsibility. But his upbringing, his time in the army, his involvement in the Black and Tans, has instilled in him a sense of angry inferiority; of questioning the unfairness of life. Although he knows that it is his duty to obey, ultimately he can’t help rebelling – often without thinking of the consequences. And this is what he struggles with as a father; he demands absolute obedience and when it is not forthcoming he acts on his frustrated reactions. He uses his fists. It isn’t that he doesn’t love his children in varying degrees (depending on which one it is) but they have to fit into his life the way he wants them to – and when he wants them to. Basically his innate sense of inferiority makes him defensive, even in his relationship with them and he is forever striving to be seen as the head of the family, whatever the circumstances.

And, as Bill is a father of his time, so is Winifred the mother of her time. She has borne the children, looks after them to the best of her ability, given her limited influence on them and the financial situation. She especially strives to be the opposite of her own mother, a bullying, self-centred woman, trying instead to emulate her loving grandmother. But, at was often the case in that era, she knows it is in her (and even her children’s) interest to put the well-being of her husband first before anything else. If he is satisfied his needs are being met then there is relative peace in the house. It’s a fine line that Winifred treads. And not one her children always appreciate.

I have to ask. Is this the last of the Howarth family?
Hmm, I’m not sure; there is one of the younger generation who keeps mithering me to tell her tale. And I have written eight short stories of the minor characters in the trilogy whose lives seem to be taking up a lot of my thoughts. So the Haworths could pop up as supporting characters there, I suppose.

What are you currently working on? Another family saga?
For a long time I’ve been working on a book that is slightly different. It’s a story of a mother and daughter – so is a family saga in a slightly different way - and more contemporary rather than historical. It keeps drawing me back. But at the moment I’m actually writing the life story of one of the minor characters in the trilogy. Where it will lead I’m not sure (which is rather unusual for me) but I’m going with it for now.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat to me, Judith. I wish you good luck and lots of sales with your wonderful book.

A Hundred Tiny Threads is published by Honno Press  http://www.honno.co.uk/

Links to all books on Amazon: http://amzn.to/2klIJzN
Blog and website: https://judithbarrowblog.com/
Twitter: @barrow_judith

My thoughts on A Hundred Tiny Threads: 5*
As a lover of family sagas, I eagerly awaited the arrival of A Hundred Tiny Threads. I had thoroughly enjoyed all three of Judith's books in the Patterns trilogy and I was not to be disappointed! The story gripped me from the first page and I couldn't put it down. For me, the strength of the writing is the creation of memorable characters who come alive on the page. These are real working class people. I can hear the authentic dialogue in my head; I can imagine meeting them and having conversations with them. I particularly warmed to Winifred who wanted so much more than her sheltered life in her father's grocers's shop with a mother who clearly didn't love her. Although hard to read at times, I admire the way that the harsh reality of the violence and brutality Bill experienced wasn't glossed over. Getting both viewpoints throughout the novel allowed us to enter the psyches of both Winifred and Bill. This was a time of social and political unrest and, through what I know is very thorough research, Judith takes us right into the midst of it. I have no hesitation in recommending this novel that's raw, gritty and makes an excellent read. A superb 'must' for lovers of family sagas and historical fiction!

Thank you for reading. Do enjoy reading or writing family sagas and historical fiction? What is it about the genre that appeals to you?

You may also follow me on @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page. Thanks.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Carol Lovekin talks about 'Snow Sisters'
© Janey Stevens
This week, I am delighted to welcome Honno author, Carol Lovekin, back to the blog. She first appeared when she gave an interview here about her debut novel, Ghostbird, in March 2016. For me, Ghostbird was one of the best books I read last year - I loved it! - and I'm a huge fan of Carol's writing. Imagine how thrilled I was when she asked if I'd like to be part of her blog tour for her second novel, Snow Sisters. The tour has been running since publication day on September 21st and the book has been receiving amazing reviews. Rather than another interview similar to the one we had last year, I asked Carol if she'd like to write a guest post instead and here it is: 

Second Book Syndrome & Ghost Writing
Received wisdom insists the second novel is the tricky one. Since Snow Sisters is the easiest book I’ve ever written I could be forgiven for arguing the point.

With the small success of my first novel Ghostbird, there was an expectation that a second book would at the very least be as good as its predecessor. Telling myself being published at all was sufficient unto itself, I imagined I was resisting the pressure. Right? Wrong! I’m a writer and one of the things being traditionally published did for me was confer a level of validation. It gave me permission to write; I was good enough and there was no reason not to write another book. Nevertheless, it was scary – I scared myself thinking about it – the difficult second novel.

After Ghostbird was released my publisher asked me what else I was working on. I told her, held my breath, concerned she might consider the subject matter too much like Ghostbird. Having been reassured that ‘in a similar vein’ was the way to go, I breathed out and scurried off to carrying on writing the story that was to become Snow Sisters.

But here’s the thing: technically, it wasn’t my second novel. Languishing in limbo was a story I affectionately referred to as ‘River’ book. I’d completed several messy drafts long before Ghostbird was accepted and before Snow Sisters was even a glimmer. The problem with it was, however much I liked the story – and I did – I’d never been convinced of its credibility. Writing it had been challenging and laborious. Text book second book syndrome, right? Right.

With Ghostbird accepted, I’d set River aside, assuming I would pick it up and continue wrestling with it once my writing life returned to normal. Meanwhile, the idea for Snow Sisters came unexpectedly and out of left field. Even before my publisher confirmed it, I sensed it could be the perfect follow-up to Ghostbird. River wasn’t a ghost story and Snow Sisters most definitely was. Janey, my friend and writing co-conspirator, read the outline and insisted it had muscle. To my surprise, I wrote it in record time.

And a small ghost-voice whispered, ‘Why are you so surprised? It’s your third…’
When people ask me if I believe in ghosts I tell them I believe in the possibility of them. The same way I believe in the possibility of magic – the kind found in the everyday, requiring little more than a suspension of disbelief to render my reader temporarily enchanted.
The truth is, I never set out to write ghost stories. When I began conjuring Ghostbird, my ghost was a vague shadow. She was little more than a device; a tenuous link between her twelfth century mythical origin and my contemporary setting. It was only when my mentor, Janet Thomas, insisted the ghost needed to be heard that I began to understand I might be writing an authentic ghost story. And so it proved – as I fleshed out the ghost’s voice I realised how much I was enjoying myself.

How I envisage Angharad
Looking out through a Victorian
window at the snow
When it came to writing Snow Sisters, it was the ghost who came first – insistent and vocal. Angrier than little Dora in Ghostbird, and with an agenda, there was nothing tentative about Angharad’s voice. Woken by an act of kindness, her ghost dominated the narrative from the beginning and her story pretty much wrote itself.
As for River – what can I say? Already another ghost is nudging me – leaving her irresistible, half-voiced agenda in the outer reaches of my consciousness. She ‘keeps up her hauntings by day and night’* and I know who she is; I know what she wants. I know where she lives and who she’s going to haunt. And it’s nowhere near a river.

* Virginia Woolf

Carol reading from Snow Sisters
at the book launch in Lampeter
Two sisters, their grandmother’s old house and Angharad, the girl who cannot leave…
Verity and Meredith Pryce live with their fragile mother, Allegra in an old house overlooking the west Wales coast. Gull House is their haven. It also groans with the weight of its dark past. When Meredith discovers an old sewing box in a disused attic and a collection of handstitched red flannel hearts, she unwittingly wakes up the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman harbouring a horrific secret. As Angharad gradually reveals her story to Meredith, her more pragmatic sister remains sceptical until Verity sees the ghost for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm. Forced by Allegra to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles. Still haunted by Angharad and her unfinished story, hurt by what she sees as Verity’s acquiescence to their mother’s selfishness, Meredith drifts into a world of her own. And Verity isn’t sure she will be able to save her…

Thank you, Carol. I love the fact that, in Snow Sisters, it was the ghost of Angharad who  came first and that there's now another one already waiting in the wings for you in your 'River' book.

My Thoughts on Snow Sisters: 5 *****
Snow Sisters is a superbly crafted novel, written in figurative language that often borders on poetry.  I was captivated with the story from beginning to end. Throughout the book, stunning descriptive settings transport the reader straight into the world of sisters, Verity and Meredith. I loved the sound of Mared's blue garden, with its back story of the blue poppy; the snow-angel scene that takes place there is magical. Carol has created memorable, well-rounded female characters, exploring the relationship between sisters as well as between mothers and daughters. Allegra often exasperated me in her ineptitude as a mother and the effect her selfish decision to move to London had on Meredith, especially. The parallel stories of the present day and that of Angharad, the ghost of a previous inhabitant of Gull House who has a tragic secret, are woven together seamlessly, enabling the novel to flow. Written in the first person, Angharad's story reflects her class and the time in which she lived. This is storytelling at its best, delivered in beautiful prose, by a very talented writer. I highly recommend Snow Sisters and look forward to reading more of Carol's work. 

Honno: www.honno.co.uk/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Snow-Sisters-Carol-Lovekin/dp/1909983705/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Website: Making It Up As I Go Along

Twitter: @carollovekin 

Thank you for reading Carol's post. Do you believe in ghosts or, as Carol says, maybe in the possibility of them? Are you a writer, writing your second novel? I'd love it if you left a comment.

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Narberth Book Fair 2017

Tenby Book Fair had already become a permanent date in my diary and each year it grew in size and success. Because of that, its organisers, authors, Judith Barrow and Thorne Moore, moved the venue this year to bigger premises. It was held at the Queen's Hall in Narberth, a market town in Pembrokeshire, eleven and a half miles north of Tenby. Appropriately for writers and readers, perhaps, the town plays a high-profile role in Welsh mythology, where it is the chief palace of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and a key setting in both the first and third branches of the Mabinogi.

Judith, Thorne and Honno crime writer, Jan Newton
The day was jam packed with events from the time the fair opened at 10 a.m. until it closed at 4 p.m. These included talks, readings, workshops, a raffle, competitions and a children's corner. Forty authors attended, a number of those offering recently published novels, and each stall had an array of attractively displayed books.

Wendy with her children's books
 alongside 'Not Thomas'
Checking my prompt cards before we begin!
I was very pleased to lead one of the events to interview Wendy White about her fantasic debut adult novel, 'Not Thomas', written under her pseudonym, Sara Gethin. You may read her guest interview on my blog back in July HERE. Since then, 'Not Thomas' has been nominated and shortlisted with the largest number of public votes for the Guardian's 'Not the Booker' prize. I was very nervous but once we started, it seemed to be like an informal chat about the book. After the initial questions about the inspiration for 'Not Thomas' and its road to publication, the conversation turned to being part of the 'Not the Booker' experience.

Sally Spedding
In the afternoon, my writing friend, Helen, and I attended two excellent workshops. The first was a crime writing one, entitled 'Fear is the Key - Creating the darkest places for the darkest hearts' with Sally Spedding. The second was 'Building a Short Story' with Judith Barrow. Both sessions inspired us to come back and get writing. 

It was so good to chat to authors throughout the day and talk about their books. The whole event ran like clockwork and was a testament to the amount of hard work and preparation put in beforehand by Judith and Thorne. Congratulations to both of them!

Roll on 2018!
Thank you for reading. Have you been inspired by a book event lately? Do you have a literary festival you'd recommend? I'd love it if you'd leave a comment. Thank you. 
You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer facebook page.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

A Novel Setting
Apologies to everyone for the gap in blog posts but I've just come back from two weeks in beautiful Crete. Before that, I was desperately trying to get as much of novel two written to send off to the New Writers' Scheme for a critique. In the end, I managed just under forty-seven thousand words and added a detailed outline of the second half of the book

The basic idea for Whispering Olive Trees started as a short story. It was shorted listed for a competition and then published as Whispers in the Olive Trees on Alfie Dog Fiction. Like my first novel, A Mother's Secret, it's a dual narrative - one story set in 1977 in the Peloponnese, Southern Greece, and the other in 1999 in both rural mid-Wales and Greece. The fictional island of Péfka is very loosely based on the island of Spetses where my aunt and Greek uncle had a home and where we visited them a number of times.

Although we didn't return to Spetses itself, spending a holiday in Greece again this year proved to be a wonderful way of immersing myself in the country where my novel is set. We managed to get away from the tourist crowds of Rethymnon and get out into some Cretan villages. Elin, one of the novel's main characters, lodges at a taverna for the whole of her stay in Greece. By visiting a typical Greek taverna, and sampling rustic Greek dishes, I hope this will add authenticity to my writing. 
I took lots of photographs again this year. An ancient olive tree with its gnarled trunk plays an important part in the story and I was able to photograph one that fits the bill perfectly. Walking through the narrow streets of one little village, I imagined Elin and her daughter, Lexi, twenty years later, walking up from the harbour in the heat of the summer sun and finding shade from the narrow cottages.

On her first walk up through the village, Elin passes the 'Villa Anastasia' where a red setter comes bounding up to wrought iron gates just like these.

Bouganvillea blooms everywhere in vibrant pinks, along with oleanders and scarlet hibiscus and these are all mentioned in the novel.

This is how I imagine the view from Péfka over to the mainland and the fictional town of Porto Nikos. No cars are allowed on the island and it is across this strait of water that my characters travel by water taxi to the port where they arrived by hydrofoil, The Flying Dolphin.

Having visual images of the places in my novel and experiencing real Greece will, I hope, help me when it comes to the editing stage. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes I have encountered on holiday will make the setting all the more real - well, that's what I hope anyway. 

Thank you for reading. How do you make your settings authentic? Does it help you if you have a collection of photographs and images? 

You may also follow me on @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Blog Tour for Snow Sisters
I'm very pleased to be part of the blog tour for Snow Sisters, Carol Lovekin's second novel. It's to be published this coming Thursday, 21st September, by Honno. Look out for Carol's blog post here on Sunday 8th October. I can't wait!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

A Chat With Susanna Bavin
Today, I’m delighted to be chatting with saga author, Susanna Bavin. Her debut novel, The Deserter’s Daughter was published by Allison and Busby on June 22nd. Sue was an early follower of mine on Twitter. She’s always very supportive, re-tweeting and liking my tweets about writing and she never fails to leave a comment on my blog. Thank you, Sue! 
I was thrilled to eventually meet her in person at last year’s RNA Conference at Lancaster. We met up again this year at Telford in July where I was pleased to meet some of her other writing friends, too. In the year between those two meetings, a lot has happened in Susanna’s writing life but I’ll let her share those exciting events with you in the interview.

Sue, welcome. It's lovely to have you back on the blog and congratulations on the publication of your wonderful book.
Have you always considered yourself a saga writer and what attracts to the genre?
I was a saga writer before I knew what sagas were. As a teenager, I lapped up Victoria Holt's novels and started writing gothic stories, but these naturally grew and became what I later found out were sagas. For me, this was just the natural development of my writing style. I was delighted when, as a reader, I found out that other people wrote this kind of story too!

What do I like about sagas? The historical setting, for starters. I love to see the characters having to tackle their problems within the social and legal context of the time. I also enjoy the glimpse of social history, which is a great interest of mine. Clothes, meals, furniture - I love all those domestic details.

I believe you attracted a literary agent before The Deserter’s Daughter was published. Can you tell us about that and perhaps about the relationship you’ve established with her?
I submitted the third draft of The Deserter’s Daughter to several literary agents and although I was rejected by them all, I received positive and encouraging comments. After a few months, I wrote a fourth draft and could see right away that this was better than anything I had written previously. It gave me a real "now or never" feeling.

I made a list of agents to submit to, putting them in order of preference, and Laura Longrigg of MBA was at the top. I submitted to her and two others on a Friday afternoon, intending to do more submissions on the Saturday, but that never happened. Laura read my submission on her way home and emailed me at once to ask to see the full MS.

I'm glad you have asked about our relationship. We get along well on a purely personal level, which I think is enormously important. I trust her implicitly and if ever I had a problem with a book, she is the person I would turn to for suggestions and guidance.

How did you feel when you heard your story was going to be published by Allison and Busby?
I had an email from Laura, headed "some nice news" - nice?! I was thrilled. Actually, the best bit was my husband's reaction. His favourite author, Edward Marston, writes for Allison & Busby, so he thought it was marvellous.

Having both an agent and an editor with your publisher, would you tell us about both sets of editing you had to do before the novel was published?
When I met Laura for the first time, one of her questions was, "Why is The Deserter's Daughter so short?" Well, I had always been advised that you have to keep your book under 100,000 words. "It's a saga," she said. "It's at least 120,000 words."

That was a terrific moment - being given permission to expand the book and dig deeper into the characters. Laura was keen for me to explore the relationships further. And before you ask, the final word count was a little under 127,000.

The only edits that Lesley Crooks, my editor at Allison & Busby, asked for were two small surface-edits. One was to explain the difference between a pound and a guinea (which I worked into the narrative by way of Evadne's snobbery) and the other was to make it clear what date the baby was born.

A lovely position to be in, then - expanding your word count and only two small edits. 
The Deserter’s Daughter deals with a number of social issues pertinent to the time in which the novel is set; your characters are very authentic and come alive on the page. Can you say which came first the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
The chicken and egg question! My initial unformed idea was to do with auctions and something being sold that shouldn't be sold. From that came the antiques shop and after that the characters and the plot arrived in my head pretty much all together. Although the plot and characters developed in the writing, the essentials of both were there from the beginning.

There is a very strong sense of place in the novel and I suspect it is an area you know very well. To get the atmosphere just right for the 1920s, how much research and delving into archives did you have to do?
The Deserter's Daughter is set in Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester, where I, and several generations of my family, grew up. Many of the landmarks from 100 years ago are still there, so I constantly referred to old photos to ensure my descriptions were appropriate to the time.

I also used snippets of information gleaned from talking to elderly people. When Mrs English skins the rabbit and then takes the skin back to get her deposit off the butcher, that is something I was told about by a lovely lady called Dot. It's just a tiny detail, but it's the kind of thing that adds authentic colour.

Are you a planner or a pantser?
I started out as a pantser (don't we all?), but I always knew how the story was going to end, so it was just a matter of getting there. Later, I started doing mini-plans of the section of the book I was currently working on; and this technique has worked well for me, though I don't do it religiously.

When A&B wanted The Deserter's Daughter, they also asked to see a synopsis of another book, so for the first time ever I had to produce a full and detailed synopsis before writing a word. That was a challenge, but there's nothing quite like the prospect of a book deal to concentrate the mind! And yes, they did sign up book 2 on the strength of the synopsis.

On a more general note, do you have a particular routine when writing and where do you write?
Having spent the past six months writing the second novel for A&B to a deadline, I can honestly say my routine has been: get on with it! I also have a part-time day job, so I spent from January to the end of June working seven days a week. The writing was mostly done at home, though I did discover I adore writing on the train.

I have a lovely image of you sitting here writing! 
In easier circumstances, I like to take my writing out and about. The original version of the chase-through-the-fog scene in The Deserter's Daughter was written at seven o'clock one May morning, sitting on the rocks by the sea near the pier in Llandudno.

I believe you have completed the second novel for your publisher. Is it another saga set in the same era in Manchester?
Yes and yes. A lot of people have already asked if it is a sequel to The Deserter's Daughter and no, it isn't. It is called A Respectable Woman and it is the story of a young woman in Lancashire who learns her husband has been leading a double life, so she leaves him and carves out a new life for herself and her small children in Manchester. The plot is full of twists and turns and there is a court case that I hope readers will find gripping. I have also done something I have never done before - I have used a child as a viewpoint character. Posy is a sparky little thing and I hope readers will love her as much as I do.

I’m sure they will, Sue. It sounds intriguing.
Thank you so much for taking time to chat to me. I hope that The Deserter’s Daughter will be a huge success and I wish you good luck with A Respectable Woman when it’s published in June next year, too.  

It's been a pleasure chatting with you, Jan. Thank you for inviting me.

The Deserter’s Daughter is published by Allison and Busby www.allisonandbusby.com/

My thoughts on The Deserter’s Daughter:  
5 stars *****
I love reading family sagas and eagerly awaited the arrival of The Deserter’s Daughter. I was not to be disappointed! Susanna’s story has all the ingredients to keep the reader gripped from beginning to end. It has everything to keep you turning the page – intrigue, characters to love and those that make you angry, crime, heartache and also love. It’s beautifully crafted, at times written with language using vivid imagery and always giving insight to the background and context of the characters. Living in 1920s Manchester in the shadow of the Great War, those characters are particularly well drawn and relationships between them are explored. I was especially fond of Carrie and full of admiration about how she dealt with whatever life threw at her. I have no hesitation in recommending this excellent debut novel and look forward to many more by this author. 

Thank you for reading our chat. I hope you enjoyed finding out more about Sue's newly published novel. Are you a lover of sagas? If so, perhaps you'd like to share with us what it is about the genre that appeals to you? Thank you.
You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Guest Interview with Sara Gethin
You may remember my blog post back in June when I attended the launch of Not Thomas, an exciting debut adult novel by Wendy White, writing as Sara Gethin. At the time, I promised you an interview with Wendy. It's been a very busy few weeks as readers have taken her book and little Tomos to their hearts so I am especially delighted to be chatting to her today.

Wendy, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing.
Thank you for inviting me to chat about my writing, Jan – it’s a real pleasure to be here.

I live in Kidwelly, in West Wales, and moved there 23 years ago with my husband, Simon, and my two children, Rebecca and Jonathan. I grew up in nearby Llanelli and studied Theology & Philosophy at Lampeter University – a strange choice of course for someone so interested in English!

Since college, all my jobs have been child related – I worked in Mothercare, I’ve been a childminder and also an assistant in Llanelli’s children’s library. I loved that place when I was growing up, and working there was a dream-come-true. I left the library to train as a primary school teacher and I absolutely adored teaching. Sadly, I had to give it up ten years ago due to a heart problem and now I write full time. I’ve written three children’s books and a novel for adults.
Your children’s books are very well received in schools and with your child readers. In fact, I understand your first book Welsh Cakes and Custard won the Tir-nan-Og Award in 2014. What made you begin writing for adults?

I suppose it’s fair to say that writing for children was my first love. I studied creative writing with DACE (the Department of Continuing Education) at Swansea University back in 2001. It was a ‘Writing for Children’ course, and while I was studying there I wrote what would become the basis of some of my children’s books.

But I was also writing other stories, too, about a little boy called Tomos who was being badly neglected by his mum. I’d first started writing them in response to a ‘homework’ request from our tutor and they were meant to be for children, but these stories didn’t fit the brief, they were too dark. I’d had a particular story about a neglected child at the back of my mind for years, and the ‘Writing for Children’ course helped me to unlock it.

I'm fascinated to know how you manage to write for children and for adults? Do you write separately or do you have WiPs for both genres? 
I compartmentalise! I was writing my novel for adults, Not Thomas, in dribs and drabs for years while I was writing my children’s books. I would set aside a few days from writing for children to allow myself to read through parts of my adult novel and get back into the mind-set of little Tomos.

When I decided to start working seriously on Not Thomas, I set aside time purely for that. I did find myself editing St David’s Day is Cancelled, my latest children’s book, one day and editing Not Thomas the next, but editing is a different process to being creative. I couldn’t have switched between them so easily if I’d been using my imagination.

Why did you use a pseudonym for your adult book?
My children’s books are light-hearted and fun and suit the alliterative qualities of the name Wendy White, but my novel for adults is quite dark, so I decided to use a pen name I’d had in mind for years. In that way, I keep my two styles of writing very separate – and I always wanted an excuse to adopt a nom de plume!

Can you tell us what was the inspiration for Not Thomas?
I began with an image. It had been in my mind since my very first teaching post back in the late 80s. A fellow teacher told me about a little boy who always got himself ready for school while his mum stayed in bed. He was five and couldn’t tell the time, so he’d stand in the window for hours waiting for older children to pass on their way to school, and then he knew it was his time to leave too.

That image of the child in the window became my starting point for Not Thomas and the character of Tomos just grew from there.   

I know you’ve worked as a primary school teacher, Wendy, and you've just said about the image of the little boy in the window. But is the character of Tomos and the detail of his desperate situation based on a real pupil?

He’s not based on any one child in particular – not even that child who waited in the window. He’s a mixture of children I taught and heard about when I was a teacher. My first teaching post was in a very deprived area and sadly there were many families living in poverty, and there were cases of child neglect too. I’ve pooled the problems of children I knew and heard about and I’ve created a character that embodies them all. Poor Tomos!
In spite of what Tomos sees and experiences, the stability of school and the care and kindness of his teacher shine through. How important was it for you to balance the harrowing story-line with the compassion and hope illustrated in the relationship between Tomos and Lowri?
I’m so glad you found compassion and hope in Tomos and Lowri’s relationship, Jan. With hindsight, it seems extremely important to balance out all the despair of what was happening at home with what happened to Tomos in school, but I’m not sure I set out to do that. I did want to portray how important school is, and also to flag the other teacher who wasn’t so sympathetic to Tomos, but it somehow happened naturally in the story.

I know school is often the only place of solace for neglected children, and school holidays can be a living nightmare for them. My own teaching experiences taught me that we sometimes expect the impossible of children like Tomos. We expect them to sit quietly in class, to behave like every other well-cared-for child and to be able to learn. What real chance do they have of achieving any of that? 

That's such a good point, Wendy. 
Can you say which came first the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
It was totally character driven. I started with the child and then the story fell into place.
How do you view the character of Tomos’s mother, Rhiannon, and the possibilities of the reader’s conflicting reactions to her?
Oh, how I’ve struggled with Rhiannon! At the start I didn’t want to think about her at all. I wrote Tomos’s story first and foremost. Of course, Ree was always there in the background, but she was simply someone who made Tomos’s life so much worse. I knew she had a story too, and I had it all ready in my head, but I didn’t thread it into the novel until the very end.
I knew if I gave her too much lee-way, the novel could shift towards being about Ree and I wanted it to be about Tomos. Ree has had a terrible childhood and she’s damaged. A child who has a child. Tomos still loves her despite everything. I hope my readers don’t blame her too much.

I certainly felt conflicting emotions towards her because of her damaged past. 
Perhaps, you’d like to tell us how you got the book published.
I so enjoy telling this part of my story. A friend from my wonderful writers’ group in Llanelli suggested I approach Caroline Oakley of Honno PressNot Thomas had been turned down by one publisher at this point, and I know one rejection shouldn’t have been too off-putting, but since the novel is written in such an unusual style and I already believed it was unpublishable, I was despondent.

The day after our circle’s meeting, I received the Honno Press newsletter email which said there were places left on their ‘Meet the Editor’ scheme with Caroline Oakley. It seemed like a fortunate coincidence, so I rang immediately, before I could chicken out, and booked a place.

I met with Caroline in Aberystwyth. She’d read the first 30 pages of my manuscript and when she asked to see the whole of it, I was pretty shocked as I was certain she wasn’t going to be interested. From there the process was very quick, and Not Thomas was published more or less one year after that meeting. So I would always say: if you’re a woman, are Welsh or live in Wales, do try Honno with your manuscript – you may be very pleasantly surprised too.

I'm so glad Caroline did publish Tomos's story, Wendy. Telling the story through the eyes of a five-year-old little boy is quite different, or as you say'unusual', for an adult novel. How important was it for you that the publishers kept that feature?
It was very important to me that the story was told in the voice of Tomos. It would be a totally different novel if it was told from another character’s point of view. I had written the very first story about Tomos, back in 2001, in the third person, but I instantly realised that it didn’t have the effect I was looking for. Making it a first person viewpoint turned it into a more powerful story. 

Anyone who has had dealings with young children would relate to the authentic language and the intonation in the dialogue used by Tomos. Were you able to do this by direct observation in the form of research or by remembering your time with young children as a classroom teacher ?
I didn’t research the language I used, but Tomos’s voice was always very clear in my head.
How much planning did you do for the novel?
I planned the whole book before I started writing it – that’s to say, I had it all in my head as a complete story before I began. I wrote it in a random order, as the mood took me, and the very last line was one of the first I wrote.
On a more general note, do you have a particular routine when writing and where do you write?
I write at the kitchen table, unless I have a pressing deadline and then I have a little upstairs office I use with no windows or other distractions. I don’t have a particular writing routine, although I often wish I did. I’m not creative in the mornings and find afternoons and evenings best for writing something brand new, but I can edit at any time.

Do you have plans for more adult novels as Sara Gethin?
I have another adult novel complete in my head at the moment. I just need the opportunity to begin writing it down.

I'm sure there'll be many other readers like me hoping that opportunity comes very soon!  
You must be very excited about the response to Not Thomas.
I am – thank you, Jan. It’s so odd to send a book out into the world without knowing what reaction it will have, especially when it’s in the voice of a child. I had many sleepless nights over it. But I’ve been delighted with the reviews Not Thomas has had so far, and people seem to have taken little Tomos to their hearts, which is particularly rewarding.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat to me, Wendy. I wish you good luck with your debut adult book.
Thank you, Jan – it’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you.
Not Thomas is published by Honno Press 
Links as Wendy White
Twitter: @Wendy_J_White
Links as Sara Gethin
Twitter: @SGethinWriter

My thoughts on Not Thomas: 5 stars *****
Wow! This book is one that pulls on your heart strings. Told in the voice of five-year-old Tomos, the story takes the reader on a roller-coaster emotional journey ranging from absolute despair, anger at the shocking human depravity to delight in the naïve innocence of a five-year-old and hope in the form of his teacher’s love and compassion. We are taken right into the world of Tomos where he is neglected by his young mother. He observes things no child should ever have to witness and has to fend for himself. Sara Gethin has created very believable characters and I was particularly impressed by the multi-layered character of his teacher, Lowri. My attitude to Ree, his mother, Rhiannon, ranged from intense outrage at her actions to sympathy for her background and plight at various stages in the book. I kept asking myself, ‘how can Tomos’s situation be allowed to happen?’ but sadly, we know that it does happen all too often. Beautifully crafted, this book is a must read and should be dedicated to all children like Tomos. I was pleased that there was a satisfying conclusion to the story in the form of hope for him. That little boy stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the book. I can’t wait to read more by this author and cannot recommend Not Thomas highly enough.

I do hope you've enjoyed hearing about Sara (Wendy)'s unique book. Has the plight of a book's main character ever affected you so much that you can't stop thinking about him or her after you've finished reading?

Thank you for reading. You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.