Tracy Fenton’s reputation precedes her. At the London book launch of The Mountain in my Shoe, even my husband knew who she was when I pointed her out, and he’s not an avid reader. There are probably small undiscovered tribes in remote jungles who have heard of her and TBC, Facebook’s THE Book Club. She’s also just started her own website (link at the end) devoted to all things books, authors and words.
In short, she’s one of the most passionate readers I know. She supports books and authors with a fiery dedication. She devotes a lot of her life to running TBC, a club with over 6000 members now. But what secrets lurk behind the public façade? She has agreed to let me probe her intimately. I give you, Tracy Fenton….
For readers, tell me exactly what TBC is?
TBC is THE Book Club on Facebook. It’s a group I set up initially for passionate readers who just want to talk about books, recommend their favourite reads and be in a safe environment without fear of trolls, online bullies and ridiculous Viagra and Rayban adverts.
(What’s Viagra?) Tell us, how exactly did TBC start? What led to it, when did it happen, all the juicy gossip?
I was a very active member of another book club which in my opinion became too large and didn’t have enough admin to moderate it, so it fell victim to nastiness, self-promotions and had a really negative feel. On a whim, I decided to set up a secret group on Facebook, invite my 20 closest bookworm friends and people I knew were as passionate and serious about reading as I was and overnight the word spread – and 20 became 450. Two years on we have 6600 international members and have just over 850 authors as members too.
Who else helps make sure TBC runs smoothly? What do they contribute, and who’s slept with who?
Helen Boyce – she is my 2nd in command and my voice of reason. In reality she does everything and really should get much more credit for her role in TBC. Without her, I wouldn’t be able to run the group.
Sumaira Wilson – she is the original admin and to be honest apart from supplying and drinking too much alcohol she does absolutely f*ck all.
Sharon Bairden – She is known as #SAS – she is our Scottish Author Stalker and I can’t understand a word she says and I am too frightened to say anything in case she gives me the Glasgow Kiss.
Carol Ellis – She’s our posh bird – she’s also part vampire as she doesn’t sleep and is often found roaming the corridors of TBC between midnight and 3am.
Helen Claire – She does anything (anyone) we tell her to.
Teresa Nikolic – She’s the real author stalker, constantly fangirling and gushes everywhere.
Charlie Fenton – He looks after all the admin girls. Obviously during the initial interview process he slept with them all just to ensure their flexibility and how far they were prepared to go for TBC. We call it the “book bed” rather than the Casting Couch.
You have a great team – and you know Charlie Fenton and I indulge in many escapades together, beyond the ‘book bed’. You’re very much a ‘take me as I am gal.’ Speak as you find. Don’t hold back. But I sense a more sensitive creature beneath, one you don’t always show. Is there more to you than meets the eye?
Of course. In real life, I am shy, quiet and keep myself to myself. I hate being the centre of attention and would much rather be in my pyjamas on the couch with a snuggly blanket watching TV and eating Galaxy Chocolate.
So, you’re all about books. Were you an avid reader as a child? When did the love start? Why? Did something lead to it?
I’ve always read books and have been a fast reader – I don’t remember where or why the love of books came from, I remember reading Lace by Shirley Conran and crying for days, and the Flowers in the Attic trilogy and being spooked out. I even read ten books on my honeymoon which was touring in Egypt.
That’s one SEXY honeymoon! Tell us about something you love aside from books. Something that might surprise us.
Being with my family (two sons and husband) and listening to my boys laugh, or actually talk to each other instead of arguing makes me go all fuzzy.
I also have absolute NO sense of direction and get lost coming out a carpark. I can’t tell my left from my right without looking at one knee, which caused many problems in my driving test and doing a Step class at the gym.
That’s so weird – I have to hold up my right (writing) hand to know my left from right! Do you like being in charge?
Yes, who wouldn’t?
Seriously nobody listens to me at home and my family all ignore me most of the time, so it’s nice to be able to say something on TBC and people agree or disagree but at least they listen!
Would you do a Real Housewives of TBC type show, or are you too private?
Well, if you want to bring a camera round to watch me in my pyjamas with no makeup reading a book all day long – bring it on!
Is there a book that no one has yet written that you’d LOVE to read?
I’m not sure. There are lots of books that I know I would buy immediately if they contained certain storylines, characters or plots. There are so many incredible books that I have read and would put in my All Time Favourite list – but none of them are similar in genre or story line and it always surprises me when I read a book I don’t expect to enjoy and it blows me away.
Make sure you visit Tracy’s Website here – she’s interviewed all kinds of writers, from Rowan Coleman to John Marrs. And she asks the questions no one dares….
Follow her on Twitter – @Tr4cyF3nt0n
And of course, if you’re really lucky, you can join TBC on Facebook….
This was a book I could not read in public. By the end I was a teary wreck. It’s brutally beautiful. Written without restraint, showing us how incredibly hard life can be with an autistic child, the gorgeous Jonah. With utterly real characters, who are flawed and yet courageous, the book is like nothing I’ve read before. An absolute must-read.
The Secret Wife – Gill Paul
For two weeks Gill Paul had my heart. After falling in love with the characters and beautiful writing in Women and Children First, I was beyond excited when I got my advance copy of The Secret Wife. This huge story spans generations, joining present day Lake Akanabee, New York State with 1914 Russia, both world wars, and much more. At its heart is the pulsating love story between Cavalry Officer Dimiti and Duchess Tatiana, who are torn apart on an infamous evening in Russian history. We learn their tale along with modern-day Kitty, who has escaped from London to a haunted, mystery-filled cabin in the US after a betrayal. To cope, she rebuilds the cabin, discovers its secrets and those of a long-gone ancestor. Gorgeously told in lyrical language, with warm, real and absorbing characters, this book is one I will read again, and therefore likely not lend to a soul. They will have buy their own. It was simply magical. At the last line, tears rolled down my cheeks.
Stasi Child – David Young
This was such a classy read. It pulsed with atmosphere and the characters bristled with presence, especially the very real and flawed Karin Muller. I loved the two stories. I love it when you get both sides, two perspectives. Highly recommend, and I look forward to more from David, which won’t be too long I hear.
600 Hours of Edward – Craig Lancaster
This was recommended to me by so many people, and I had it on my Kindle for months. How I wish I’d started sooner. As soon as I finished I sat and wrote a review while I was uplifted, tearful, inspired and blown away. I’ll never forget Edward. I just… got him. As a serious OCD sufferer, I fell in love with his quirky, obsessive compulsions, of his attempts to live life his own way, and to find meaning and truth in everything. Beautifully written. Just extraordinary
Exclusion Zone – JM Hewitt
A lot of my favourite books have utterly memorable settings, where the place becomes one of the characters, and Exclusion Zone is no exception. I’ve always been a little intrigued by what happened at Chernobyl and it was pure genius to have such a dark story set here, where the trees grow wild and the animals are terrifying. Detective Alex Harvey and Elian Gould are realistic and fascinating people who I rooted for and couldn’t get enough of. The past – 1986 and the explosion – blended perfectly with the present, coming together in a brilliant climax. I literally devoured the second half of this book in hours.
Summertime – Vanessa Lafaye
What a beautiful book. It was thought-provoking, moving, gorgeously written, and utterly addictive. I escaped into its pages for a few memorable weeks. The sense of place (both physically and time-wise) was so vivid, the issues still relevant, the characters positively beating through the pages, and the main love story just wonderful. I couldn’t recommend it more.
In Her Wake – Amanda Jennings
I was haunted by this book. Haunted. I closed the last page and quite literally sat for a while, in quiet, gathering my thoughts. It was so exquisitely and patiently written, so gentle yet somehow brutal, and all the reveals (hate the word twist as it belittles this book) were shocking/surprising and yet somewhere in my heart I know I knew what they would be. This was a book about love, forgiveness, and identity. I’ll never forget it. Ms Jennings outdid herself.
The Dark Inside – Rod Reynolds
This was so beautifully written, so patiently told that each reveal is natural and yet still shocking. Reynolds vividly evoked the claustrophobic/enclosed feel of a 1940s Southern town in America, where secrets naturally festered. Charlie is a flawed, likeable reporter, damaged by divorce and a recent accident, who I grew immensely fond of and was with every step of his journey in uncovering the murderer. The cleverly woven strands all pulled together in an amazing climax.
Flowers for the Dead – Barbara Copperthwaite
This was just an amazing, un-put-down-able read! Aside from the exquisite writing, what I loved was the characters. These were real people – people you were rooting for, and that includes Adam. In fact, particularly Adam, which is an amazing feat to pull off. Don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like it. Wonderful. Will think about it for a long time.
Lily’s House – Cassandra Parkin
Lily’s House is a beautiful, rich, haunting and addictive read. I have loved everything Parkin has written, but perhaps this is a new favourite. She effortlessly weaves magic in this story of long-gone secrets, self-discovery, empowerment, and love. The book is assured, mature… a masterpiece. I’ll never forget it, and nor will you
A Suitable Lie – Michael J Malone
I devoured this in about thirty-six hours. Could not stay away from it. Thought about it when I wasn’t reading it. A Suitable Lie explores a topic not easily discussed, and not often talked about, but one that really needs such attention – and Michael J Malone writes so beautifully and honestly about it. It will linger long in my mind. Cannot recommend enough.
Melissa Bailey – Beyond the Sea
This was a stunning book. Left me breathless. The prose was so rich and poetic. The themes so cleverly entwined, a mixture of letters, diaries and fairytales (all my favourite forms!) merged with a modern-day story of grief and loss. I was at that lighthouse, by the sea. I could smell, see and feel every moment. Just wonderful. I didn’t want it to end.
The Dead Can’t Talk – Nick Quantrill
This was the best yet by Nick Quantrill. I felt he really and truly hit his stride, somehow. The book was pacy, gritty, addictive and dark – totally Hull therefore. The characters were real – flawed, human – and their journeys satisfying. I really hope to have more from Anna Stone. Thoroughly recommend this.
Honourable Mentions (because 13 just isn’t enough)
I must also mention that I discovered some great writers for the first time this year, including Isabelle Broom, Jane Isaac, Louisa Tregar, Yusuf Toropov,Amanda Prowse, Katie Marsh, Alison Taylor-Baillie, Nicky Black, Mari Hannah, Katy Hogan, Claire Fuller, and Tracey Scott Townsend.
ADVANCE READS coming in 2017 that are GLORIOUS include Craig Lancaster’s Julep Street and Su Bristow’s Sealskin. I’m also dying for Steph Broadribb’s London launch of Deep Down Dead – I hear great things.
Today – on her birthday! – I’m welcoming Jane Isaac to the website since she’s also celebrating the release of latest novel, Beneath the Ashes, which is so high on my TBR list it’s just about touching the ceiling. With a glass of champers in one hand, and a high five woohoo from the other, let’s see what one of the loveliest women writers I know thinks about things…
Was there a defining moment when you realised you wanted write?
Hi Louise! Thanks for inviting me to your lovely blog.
Strangely, yes, there was a defining moment. Well, more a year actually. Before my daughter was born, my husband and I took a year out to travel the world and we were given a diary to keep. I didn’t think we’d manage to keep it going, I tried as a teenager and never got past a couple of weeks, but since we were seeing and experiencing so many interesting things, we both made an entry every day and eventually came back with a collection of diaries.
I really enjoyed recording our experiences, and reading them back years later brought back some wonderful memories that I could never have kept in photos. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to write at that time, I just felt the urge to continue and explore the opportunities. Eventually I took a creative writing course which introduced me to writing fiction. The rest, as they say, is history.
Head or heart when it comes to writing?
The ideas come from the head, but the writing definitely comes from the heart. I’m such a drama queen though, my first drafts are packed with ‘gasps’ and people overreacting to certain situations. The finished product has to be well honed before it’s published:-)
What draws you to the darkness of crime writing, apart from being a Scorpio? (We’re renowned for wanting to explore the depravities of life!)
Haha, I didn’t know that about Scorpios!
I just like the idea of putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and watching how they react. Apart from the odd parking ticket or speeding fine, I suspect most of us have never had a brush with law enforcement. It interests me to watch how people react when you take them out of the realms of reality. That’s why I like to weave a victim, or somebody else involved with the case, in with the detective’s point of view, so that I can explore both angles.
Which crime writers do you admire, and why?
I grew up with Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, so they hold a very special place in my heart. More recently, I think Peter James pretty much cracks it for police procedurals. My favourite crime thriller is The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.
Is it just as exciting each time a new novel of yours is released, as happened for you last week?
Absolutely! It’s a whirlwind of emotions each time.
Is there a genre you’d love to try?
Hmm. I’ve been asked this several times and always struggle to find an answer. I think it’s because I do love working in the twists and turns of a good mystery. Perhaps historical fiction? Something written in the Victorian era, although I can’t guarantee there won’t be a dead body or two in there!
Happy endings or sad endings – and why?
I like a mixture of both in my reading. Fiction should emulate life, which is never one way or the other.
Thank you so much Jane! Hope you have a wonderful birthday (you don’t look a day over 23 and 3 quarters). You can order Beneath the AshesHERE
One of the things I’ve had learn to do on this being-published journey is something much more challenging than writing. Writing is a joy – my safe place, somewhere I’m comfortable, something I feel confident about, love. But when your work goes out into the world, you have to go there as well. And that means public speaking. This has terrified me all my life. It’s something I’ve avoided wherever possible. Something that makes me sweat and stutter and blush and feel nauseous.
When I was doing my A levels I chose English Language, English Literature and Theatre Studies. I picked the latter to learn stage writing, but of course it involved studying all aspects of the stage; writing, acting, costume, directing. On our first day we had to break the ice by going around the circle and speaking about who we were, and who we thought the two people next to us were, and do each in a different accent. Seems such a simple, almost silly, task now. But I froze. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. I couldn’t do it, and the teacher moved on with ill-disguised judgement in his eyes for this pathetic creature who couldn’t even open her usually chatty mouth. I gave that A level up the next day and stuck with English. Written words were wonderful in that I could hide behind them.
People have often assumed because I’m quite the chatterbox that I’d find public speaking a natural thing to do. A thing I might enjoy. No. It wasn’t. But I’m getting there. Slowly. I kind of knew I’d one day have to face it if I was to fulfil my dream of being published. So I started small.
I volunteered at a local community radio station with a couple of friends and took part in a weekly show. This meant I was speaking publicly but without having anyone actually watch. When you’re in a studio, hidden, it’s easy to pretend it’s just you and your gang, having a gossip. But I learned to speak more slowly, to think about what I said (only one complaint when I used the word bush inappropriately) and to share the air space. This naturally led to the Mums’ Army slot at BBC Radio Humberside, where I grew more confident alongside my wonderful pals, Claire, Fiona and Lesley, and with the guidance of presenters, Lizzie and Carl.
Still I had to learn to face a physical audience though. I first did this at an event for International Women’s Day in 2014 when I read an extract of my then work in progress, How to be Brave, at the library. I won’t lie – I drank at least three large swigs of whisky in the toilet beforehand. As I sat and waited for my turn I kept thinking, pretend to faint, say you’re ill, leave, anything to avoid it. But I did it. I did it and lived. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d anticipated.
Once How to be Brave and then The Mountain in my Shoe came out I had to do all manner of readings and launches and interviews. But the radio work had prepared me a little. And I suddenly realised, quite profoundly, that when you talk about something you love, it’s that much easier to do it. Part of my fear of speaking in public was the fear we all have; of making a mistake, of sounding foolish, of looking like an idiot, of being boring, of appearing stupid, of looking out into disinterested eyes, of being criticised. As a child I was criticised a lot. It was a familiar thing to me so you might imagine I would therefore be used to it, not fear it. But negative experiences don’t make us any better at dealing with them.
Husband Joe recorded my chat with Michael J Malone at my London book launch. I didn’t want to watch it. Thought if I did it would only add to my fear. Make me see that it was true, I looked a fool. But I decided I could maybe learn something about my mistakes. It was a strange experience. I wasn’t sure who this person was who didn’t look all that nervous, who seemed to know what she talking about, who did quite okay really. Again, it must have been because I was talking about something I felt passionate about, and so I forgot about my nerves.
When recently my editor and publisher said they were proposing me for a big TED-style Talk as part of Harrogate International Festivals my first instinct was to say no. I almost typed no straight away. Not just no, but no way. Absolutely never. Who’d want to watch me for thirty minutes, rambling on. All my insecurities came back. My daughter was home so I said to her, ‘If I ask you something, will you answer me honestly? Not kindly or telling me what you think I want to hear, but honestly?’ She said she would. I knew she would. She’s sixteen. She generally likes being brutally honest with me. I asked if she thought an audience would find me remotely interesting if I were to talk for thirty minutes on creativity and inspiration. Without pausing, looking me directly in the eye, she said yes.
So I said yes to the talk. I may not get chosen. And if I do I won’t sleep until it comes around. But I said yes.
*In honour of the physical spoken word I’m doing a giveaway of my second novel, The Mountain in my Shoe, as an audiobook. The winner will receive a code to use at Audible to download the book. I just want you to share this post with the hashtag #SpokenWord and tell me what you think we should be talking about. Anything you think matters and helps to be spoken about.*
600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster is a difficult book to categorise, and to describe. Novels like this are always my favourite kind. Just as the best magic tricks are the hardest to explain, the best books are too. I’d heard of it long before I got around to reading, and the only reason I took so long was because of all my writerly commitments like editing, reading for reviews, and other things that involve my poor tired eyes. There’s a fantastic team of Edward fans at TBC (The Book Club on Facebook) who rave about him at any possible opportunity, hashtagging every comment and review with #TeamEdward, and awarding a badge to those who’ve read all the books.
This beautiful, haunting and intelligent novel involves thirty-nine-year old Edward who has Asperger’s Syndrome and OCD. His life is about routine and order; watching his favourite show, Dragnet, every night at exactly 10pm, monitoring his exact waking time each day, and filing articulate daily letters of complaint that he never sends. But change is coming. Will Edward learn to adapt to life and all its suddenness, or remain alone?
I want to welcome author Craig Lancaster – so excited! – and ask him a few questions.
The first one is one that everyone I speak to about the book wants to know (and definitely the fans at TBC) – where did Edward come from? He’s like no one I’ve read before. Was he based on anyone? Inspired by someone you know?
Edward has no real-life counterpart. For better or worse, he gestated in and was born from my imagination. He was a little bit of a back-construction, in the sense that he was conceived as someone so bound by his routines that simple, everyday challenges and changes would force him to react sharply, with poignant and humorous results. So it was the broad idea first, then figuring out what his underlying condition might be. The really validating thing about that is how many people have sought me out and said “I saw my son” or “I saw this child I taught in the third grade,” or whatever. I write character-driven fiction, and the aim, I suppose, is that old line about making art a lie that reveals the truth. I’m appreciative—and deeply, deeply humbled—any time someone tells me Edward hit that mark.
Now, there are certain surface things about Edward that have a lot in common with me. R.E.M. is (or was) my favorite band. When I still followed American football, I was a Dallas Cowboys fan. That sort of thing. But those were expedient choices, for the most part. As I’m fundamentally lazy, those things didn’t require any particular research on my part.
Was it a challenge to write such a diverse and unique character? Did you have to do much research?
This is the question that requires me to just be honest: I did almost nothing in the way of research, outside of acquainting myself with behaviors and traits and a little deeper digging for the pharmaceutical likelihood for someone like Edward. I knew my tendencies, and if I’d read a textbook about the autism spectrum, I probably would have written a deeply clinical book. I’ve written Edward three times now, and my only aim each time is to make him consistent unto himself. A friend of mine who’s on the spectrum told me once that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. That was freeing, because it meant that Edward could be whoever I imagined him to be. I think I’d have locked up had I felt forced to categorize him in any way.
What was the best part about writing the book? And the worst?
The best part is easy: finishing. That first book was the first novel I ever wrote to completion, and that I did so in 24 days seems almost inconceivable to me now, especially so because I’ve seen the other side of it. Six published novels into my career, I’ve had the range of writing experiences: the first novel that comes fast and nearly complete, the second novel that takes almost a year and three major rewrites, etc. I’ve learned to appreciate each journey for what it is.
The worst part occurred to me only in retrospect. It almost didn’t happen. The first Edward book started as a lark, when my friend Jim Thomsen asked me to do National Novel Writing Month with him as a way of keeping each other honest. I said no at first. I’d had a horrible motorcycle crash a few months earlier, and I didn’t feel as though I had the energy for a project like that. Literally the next day I started thinking about Edward. I called Jim back and said, “Yeah, OK, let’s do this.”
Did you know what was going to happen to Edward when you ‘set off’?
I had a bare-bones outline when I started the project, because I didn’t trust myself to work without a net, so to speak. But I abandoned that outline fairly early in the writing as I found my groove and discovered that when I sat at the keyboard, I had this ability to sort of step into Edward’s head and let his thoughts guide my fingers. I haven’t outlined a novel since. I just don’t want that much control. I find that if I’ve given enough thought to a character and/or a premise, I’m sufficiently compelled to sit down and start the work. So I give it a little shove, and then I just follow the action.
Here’s something funny, though: The last line of the first Edward book, I knew that before I ever started writing. I could see the scene in my head, clear as a spring day. That was interesting. And it’s happened a couple of times since, this clear idea of where it’s going to finish but no idea at all how it’s going to get there.
What did you hope to achieve with the book? Did you anticipate the amazing response and reviews? What has that been like?
I just wanted to finish a novel. Thoughts of publication, acclaim, more novels, all of that—I had none of that. So the journey of this book, in particular, has been a bit like living a dream. It started out being self-published, ended up with a small Montana publisher who didn’t sell many copies but helped it find some awards and recognition, got shuttled off to a much bigger publisher who’s been able to make it a hit. Month after month, year after year, it’s my biggest seller. So Edward’s constantly finding new friends, and I’m constantly meeting and hearing from these wonderful readers, and on it goes. It has changed my life.
And those changes have mostly been wonderful. There have been a few hard lessons. I’ve afflicted myself and others, at times. I had to get used to some people conflating me and the work. But that doesn’t happen often, and I’m better equipped to deal with it now than I was some years ago. Mostly, people have been wonderful to me and wonderful ambassadors for the book.
Tell us a bit about your writing routine?
This might seem a strange declaration from someone who’s published seven books in seven years, but I take a lot of time off between projects. Months, sometimes. But let’s assume here that I’m actively working on something. Here’s a typical day in the life:
I wake up and take a walk with my fiancee (Elisa Lorello, also a novelist—and a damn good one). I drive over to my ex-wife’s house and pick up the two dachshunds we co-parent and bring them back to the house. Everybody eats breakfast. Elisa and I go to work, she in her office and I in mine.
I work till lunchtime. I start by editing what I’ve written the previous day, both to make it better and to get my head back in the story, and then I write fresh stuff. I’m not big on daily word counts; I just write until I feel like I’m losing some of the elasticity in my thoughts and my words, and then I look for a place to step off until the next day.
We have a family lunch. Then I drive across town to see my father and, if it’s a good day, I kick his ass a couple of times at backgammon.
Back to the house, do non-writing chores (answer correspondence, update the website, whatever). Take the dogs back to my ex-wife’s house. Come home, have dinner, relax with Elisa.
It’s a beautiful life.
Who are your influences, you favourite writers?
Oh, I have a bunch.
Hemingway was the first writer who made me think I might want to do this. He had a journalism background, and that’s the career I was aiming at when I was in high school. He wrote in this lovely spare way that I was learning at the time, although I must say I’ve gotten a bit more expansive in my own style in the years since.
I learned so much about place and heart and the simple power of a well-chosen word from reading Steinbeck.
I really love the work of Alyson Hagy, a novelist from Wyoming whom I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a bit.
Gwen Florio, another friend, blends artistry and action like nobody’s business.
Jonathan Evison writes with more heart than anybody I know. He’s also the kindest author I’ve ever met. Not a bad combination.
And there’s Elisa, who writes love stories that have a deep, psychological component and the best dialogue I’ve read anywhere.
There are two further Edward books – I just bought the next one! – but will that be it? Can we expect more from him?
Several years back, after 600 HOURS came out and started to find an audience, I said flatly that there’d never be another book about him. I felt confident in saying that; I felt as though I’d told the story that was there and was ready to move on to other things.
Here’s the problem: A few years later, Edward started to tug at me again. So I wrote another book about him and made my apologies for being so strident earlier.
So I can’t say yes or no to another Edward. If he’s ready to come out again, I suspect he’ll let me know. I certainly finished the third book in a way that leaves room for his story to go on. That’s not unusual, for any of my stories. To one degree or another, they all finish in an open-ended way, because I like this idea that a book is just a snapshot in time of certain characters and situations—that they have a history that pre-dates the book and a future that will go on after the final page.
What I will say is it’s important to me, if no one else, to write other stories and other characters. I saw an Amazon review the other day for THE FALLOW SEASON OF HUGO HUNTER that said, in essence, “nothing here for Edward fans.” People like what they like, and I wouldn’t presume to tell them otherwise, but I had to wonder why that was a terribly important thing to point out. Whether it’s a band I dig or a writer I enjoy reading, I like following artists where they want to go. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I get that. I’m an R.E.M. fan. I loved “Lifes Rich Pageant” and hated “Around the Sun.” But if the latter was the record they wanted to make at the time they made it, I have to honor that. Otherwise, I’m just wishing they were my personal jukebox. Which is unfair.
Finally, what else do you have plans to write?
Oh, lots and lots of stories. No specifics, though. It ruins the magic. 😉
Craig Lancaster is the author of six novels: 600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son, Edward Adrift, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, This Is What I Want, and Edward Unspooled. He’s also the author of a short-story collection, The Art of Departure. His work has been honored by the Montana Book Awards, the High Plains Book Awards, the Utah Book Awards and the Independent Publisher Book Awards gold medal. Lancaster lives in Billings, Montana, with his fiancée, Elisa Lorello, who’s also a bestselling author.
The Roaring Girls are a Hull-based theatre company, comprising the best northern lasses you could hope to meet, actresses Jess Morley and Rachael Abbey, and also Lizi Perry, and for recent show – Broken Little Robots – composer and musical director James Frewer.
Working as an usher at Hull Truck theatre means I get to see a mind-boggling array of shows, but some of my favourites have been performed – often as one-offs – in the intimate studio space. On Friday I saw in there a small show with a huge heart; Broken Little Robots.
The Roaring Girls debuted the show at Assemblefest in 2015, where my husband and I caught it. I knew it was something special then; goosebumps never lie. Nor does the heart. Developed for Hull Truck from the 20 minute ‘skit’ into an hour-long show, Broken Little Robots deals with depression. Living with it. Laughing at it. Challenging it. Most of all, talking about it.
Through song, honest and blunt monologue, and little scenes, the girls bravely lay bare their own experiences, and the result is emotional, powerful, and ultimately uplifting. My own mother attempted suicide when I was nine, so serious it resulted in a year-long hospital stay where my siblings and I went into care/to live with our grandmother. My mum – and other members of my family – have struggled on and off with mental health issues. So it needs to be talked about. Shared. Cried over. Laughed at. And the Roaring Girls are shining a hearty light on the darkness of such issues.
I hope the show gets another run. If it does, go and see it. You owe it to yourselves, to those you love, to the world.
According to the government, my daughter scores a big fat zero when it comes to Type 1 Diabetes, meaning she needs no more care or help than the average 16-year-old. She is a zero. Nought. Nothing. What she needs to score in order to qualify for Personal Independence Living Allowance (PiP) is outlined below, in the letter telling us Katy isn’t entitled.
The government – and those who read the PiP application forms – obviously know what kind of care the average 16-year-old needs. They know that Type 1 Diabetes – an incurable autoimmune condition that occurs randomly through no fault of the sufferer – is not remotely life-changing, life-disrupting, or life-threatening. 16-year-old Katy can simply get on with it all by herself.
Let’s look more closely at this.
Katy scores 0. Because of course ALL 16-year-olds collapse at the top of the stairs, calling out to their mum because a hypo has rendered their body completely incapable of movement, causing their eyes to roll into their head, and their words to be so slurred that only a carer with acute knowledge of what’s going on can help. Because ALL 16-year-olds then cannot hold the can of Coke necessary to bring sugars up to safe level, and need a mother to put it to their lips until it’s been consumed. Because ALL 16-year-olds wander into their parents’ room at night, barely knowing who they are, needing hours of insistence that they drink the Coke, eat the biscuit, do their blood sugars again. Because ALL 16-year-olds suffer such extreme hypos that they change personality, fight you, swear, cry, and then remember none of it afterwards. Because ALL 16-year-olds do multiple finger prick tests each day and then work out from the result whether they need to eat or not eat, move or not move, inject or not inject insulin, followed by how much and what ratio the dose at that particular time of day is. Because ALL 16-year-olds have to inject insulin with every single meal or snack, working the measurement out to an accurate amount relevant to the time of day/amount of food/blood sugar reading, knowing that to get it wrong could be fatal.
Katy scores 0. Because ALL 16-year-olds must be forced – by whatever means – during a hypo to consume sugar until levels balance again, something requiring hours of monitoring and insistence. Because ALL 16-year-olds splash Coke up the walls and over the sofa when they’re shaking so much they can’t even hold a child’s cup. Because ALL 16-year-olds in the throes of hypo take two hours to eat a much-needed meal because they can hardly see their food, and you have to lift the fork like they’re a baby.
Katy scores 0. Because ALL 16-year-olds (when suffering low blood sugars and most particularly needing to eat but most vulnerable and unable to do so) should handle knives, gas hobs, naked flames and sharp tin openers. Because ALL 16-year-olds have to carefully weigh their food and read complicated details on packets to work out the carbs so that they can then (using the ratio relevant to that time of day) work out the exact amount of insulin required for that meal, a technique that most mathematicians would find tough.
Katy scores 0. Because ALL 16-year-olds, when their blood sugars drop (or are very high), babble incoherently so that only a parent (or educated individual) knows what must be done or what they need. Because ALL 16-year-olds stare blankly at your words when you tell them clearly and absolutely that they MUST drink this Coke, they must sit still, please don’t fight us, please don’t fight us. Because ALL 16-year-olds go into such a trance-like state during a hypo that they don’t even know their own name.
Katy scores 0. Because ALL 16-year-olds do not lock the bathroom door when they bathe, and have their mum hovering close by, asking every ten minutes if they’re okay, lest they hypo and drown in the bath, something that has almost occurred numerous times.
And of course ALL 16-year-olds have annual eye tests, annual foot tests, and three-monthly weight/blood tests and consultations. They ALL have a care plan in place at school or college, where staff must be thoroughly educated on how to respond to hypos. They ALL carry glucose, lancets, insulin, snacks, Glucagon, blood meter and strips with them absolutely everywhere they go. They ALL wear a medical emergency bracelet. They ALL have to plan everything they do so very carefully in advance, think of every eventuality.
While the government cannot recognise and support the extra care and needs that Katy has, we do, and we will make sure it occurs. We are not looking for handouts or attention, just the award that is supposed to support and help those with extra difficulties or disabilities.
Katy is not zero to us. She IS a normal 16-year-old in many ways – difficult, challenging, wonderful. Not nothing – everything.
Travelling with my mother is unlike any other expedition. She is a whole destination without any sort of journey needed. So when she texted me the night before one of my most looked-forward-to and nerve-wracking trips of the year and said she’d made a ‘bag of light sandwiches’ for the train, I felt both comforted and terrified. What on earth did she have in mind if we needed ‘light’ sandwiches?
Having posted the sandwich ‘situation’ on Facebook, a frenzy of questions ensued – what on earth was IN the ‘light’ sandwiches? It turns out, as we set off from Hull Paragon Station, they involved ‘best ham and Moroccan tomatoes, with a lick of butter.’
And so the train headed for London, bound for two of the biggest book events I’d taken part in thus far – a talk about How to be Brave with the Royal Chelsea Pensioners, and the Orenda Roadshow in Waterstones Piccadilly with a host of esteemed and bestselling writers.
At Selby a lovely couple got on and sat opposite us. We got chatting (my mother will talk to a wall) and they asked about our trip. As I told her about my book events the lady – Jean – began to cry. Full on tears.
“I know this story,” she said. I was speechless. How? It turned out Jean had known the other survivor from the lifeboat, Ken Cooke, and lived in the same village as his grandchildren. It felt like a reunion with an old friend. She bought a copy of my book – much to the curiosity of other passengers, who I told, “It’s on Amazon! Click now!”- and I happily signed it for her. When we went separate ways at King’s Cross, having exchanged numbers, there were more tears; it was like saying goodbye to dear friends. I’ve always felt there’s no such thing as coincidence. That fate has a firm hand in such things. And I knew we’d all been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
It was on then to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and the wonderful veterans who reside in the Grade I and II listed site. They have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Island and World War II, so it was an absolute honour to share with them the bravery of Grandad Colin, and read extracts from the book. Emotional anyway from the surprise train ‘reunion’, I could barely keep it together as I shared the tragic death of Officer Scown, Colin’s guilt at losing it with another crew member, and the moment of rescue.
“I’ll never be able to show my face in Yorkshire again,” I joked between chokes. But these men and women have witnessed such pain, and they were wonderful. They shared tales of their life moments, of journeys across sea, of lost friends. I’ll never forget it. Grandad Colin’s brother’s great granddaughter Lauren joined us and we met for the first time. “Can’t beat that Yorkshire grit,” she said, and it was as though we’d known each other for years.
Finally, after a quick bite, my mother and I set sail for Piccadilly Waterstones, the last leg of our trip. Here, the hard-working and passionate Karen of Orenda Books had rounded up thirteen of her writers to share readings and chat with a rapt audience. I met again the delightful Amanda Jennings, whose book launch (and book) I’d loved, the doesn’t-look-a-day-over-forty-five David Ross whose Head in a Book I enjoyed last year, and Paul Hardisty who’d come all the way from Australia. (Not just for me, you understand, for the event.)
Then there were new friends to meet: lovely Yusuf Toropov who has championed How to be Brave endlessly and written one of the greatest literary works I’ve ever read; Steph Broadribb whose bounty hunter tales have me hungry for her debut; Michael Grothaus, whose font is quite different to mine; Matt Johnson who did the most moving read; gorgeous Kati Hiekkapelto who my mum said she ‘couldn’t take her eyes off’; Michael Stanley (at least the two lovely misters who are this one writer!); Su Bristow whose Sealskin sounds magical; and Michael J Malone who my mother asked, “What kind of writer are you?” and when he said, “A Scottish Writer,” she said, “A Sausage Writer? Oh. So what does that involve?”
Yoko Ono turned up for the event. Okay, she wandered into the store. Same difference. But that wasn’t as exciting as my meeting writers Jeanette Hewitt and Melissa Bailey. Exclusion Zone and Beyond the Sea are two of my favourite reads this year, so to see them there was beyond incredible. We hugged and I signed my book in a way Jeanette’s mum will truly love. Also it was great to talk to Susi Holliday about the excitement of seeing bookshelves in stores and ‘knowing’ the writers.
And it’s always great to see those gems from the book blogging community. “What’s a blogger?” my mum had asked on the train. A lifesaver, I wanted to say. I was touched to get a Pretty Woman-esque whoop whoop from Anne Cater and Nina Pottell during my introduction. And to see Vicki Goldman (a writer also) and Liz Barnsley and Anne Williams (from Harroga- Wakefie- um, Wetherby!) and Steve Wright and Karen Cocking there too. Always a joy. Favourite writer Gill Paul sat on the front row with my mother and thankfully kept her in check.
Thank you to Karen Sullivan for steering her publishing ship so well, and letting me be part of its incredible crew. I’ll never forget London last week.
My Aunt Jane (Grandad Colin’s only daughter) said quite profoundly, “It’s as though you’re steering your own lifeboat, collecting friends and memories along the way instead of provisions.” She couldn’t be more right. I’m just lucky enough to have a bag of ‘light’ sandwiches on my journey…
Tomorrow, 7th May, will be seventy-three years to the day since the incredible rescue of my Grandad Colin took place on the South Atlantic Sea, a rescue all the more profound because many years later it saved my small daughter’s life too. These events inspired my debut novel How to be Brave, a book I wanted to write for a long time and only found the courage to in 2013.
So today I’ve been thinking about how Grandad Colin must have felt when he saw that ship. I’ve been thinking rescue. Being saved. It happens in many forms, not just on the sea. Our ship might be a friend calling at the right time, a song that cheers us up, a sudden chance opportunity to do something we never thought possible. With these themes in mind, I decided to share a short essay I wrote a few years ago.
An Escape Route
If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.
I’ve known since I first clicked our house’s image on a website ten years ago. About to pick up the phone and put an offer on a place we liked enough to buy but weren’t in love with, a voice (the one that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should) suggested I check if anything new had come on the market. It had – a three-bed semi-detached house with overgrown bushes and sad windows. Number thirteen; my favourite.
You should love a house, I told my husband Joe on the way to view it. The balding man in that TV show goes on about location, location, location, and his sidekick Kirstie reckons size matters, but if you don’t walk in and love a place then chrome fittings and real wood kitchen worktops won’t cut it.
Our first house had just sold (harvesting a tidy profit in two years) and we needed to buy somewhere fast or risk sleeping with our two children and three cheap wardrobes in the local park. I’d rung Joe at work, insisted we view this house during his lunch hour, promising if it wasn’t right we’d buy the other. Approaching the street, before even seeing the place, I said to him, I know the house. I’ve been to it already, a long time ago.
I had. My mum’s closest friend – a woman she met while in a mental hospital after attempting (and almost succeeding at) suicide – had owned it in the mid-seventies and I’d played in its triangular garden, and carefully navigated the step that led from the kitchen to the lounge and caught you out because the floor was the same avocado green colour throughout.
You’ll trip up on the kitchen step, I warned Joe as we parked outside. I bet you a fiver you do and then we’re definitely buying it.
He did. The people who now owned the house said they’d been very happy there. It was the only question I asked. While Joe queried ominous stains and wonky walls, it only mattered to me if they’d loved it. My mum’s friend hadn’t; she insisted it was haunted. A man had hung himself decades before in the front bedroom and he wandered the landing at night. My children saw him, she insisted, and my marriage ended and depression visited number thirteen.
But I loved it and put her dislike down to incompatibility. Like when you have a crush on someone odd and no one gets it. I loved the uneven stairs and the original windows and the devious kitchen step that has never yet caught me out. If there were ghosts, they must be friendly or long gone. Joe said it had great potential and we bought it half an hour later.
If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.
The man who fitted our new windows five years later looked like a much younger – and non sight-impaired – Columbo from the American detective TV series. He had skin as brown as seventies decor. But that isn’t why we employed him to replace windows that were not only ugly but also a serious fire hazard with their inability to open more than a crack. He’d done our neighbour’s and they looked smart and had large panels that opened like doors.
Windows matter. They are both a means to escape and a vent to dispel smoke if you live too high up to jump. Only if you’re on a ground or first floor should you attempt to flee this way, and even in this instance you should cushion your fall with any available bedding or cushions, and lower yourself rather than leaping. I’ve tested our new windows – how wide they open – many times, and just to make sure (because things can get stuck, said the voice that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should) I have an old radio under the bed whose weight and angular edges will likely break glass if I need to.
The house I lived in between the ages of nine and nineteen – with a couple of breaks to live at my grandmother’s and in an orphanage briefly and before permanently leaving home – had beautiful sash windows that lifted effortlessly. I always had my bed right up against the glass, both to be away from unwelcome visitors through the door and to be seconds from escape. Marilyn Monroe looked down on me from a black and white poster, her eyes like sad half-closed windows and her lips black as burnt wood.
I’ll tell you one day, my mum said during my fourteenth year.
One escape route isn’t enough; you should have a back up, like when you’re waiting to find a house or person you can love completely and you know if they don’t materialise you’ll consider one you ‘like enough to buy.’ If the main route is blocked you must call 999 and find the safest room to wait in until fire fighters arrive. A safe room is one with the door closed, and damp towels stuffed beneath so unwelcome fires can’t invade, and its occupants lying close to the ground where the smoke is less dense.
I was in the bath when I realised, said my husband three weeks after we met, standing with wet hair on my doorstep, surrounded by snow, having ridden the five miles to my house to speak to me before turning and going right back. I was just lying there and thinking about stuff and I thought, I love her. And I thought I have to tell her, but properly, not like a phone call. Like, right now. So I got out and, well, here I am. And I do. I love you.
If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.
My mum told me she’d attempted suicide six years after the fact, because at the time I’d been only nine. Fifteen was old enough. An all-night binge (hers not mine, I was quite the sensible teen then, busy planning schedules and writing stories and listening to voices) opened her up, a window letting smoky confession drift through in broken puffs of grey. She’d planned her death quite meticulously, and I was kind of proud. Planned that we four children would be safely in school and nursery, and counted all the necessary pills, and decided on a desolate location some miles away. But a tramp blocked her escape route. He found her in a disused building semi-conscious and called 999. She survived; he disappeared.
I think we should move her bed, I said to my husband yesterday, referring to our daughter. I don’t like that it’s so high, and the ladder would be a bloody hindrance. I want it nearer the door, so I can get straight up there. I can’t sleep you know. That bloody ladder.
If your clothes catch fire you should stop, drop and roll. The instinct of course is to jump and scream and run, but this only fans the flames. If a loved one is engulfed, wrap them in bedding or a coat and smother the heat. When our son fries eggs or boils noodles I hover in the kitchen archway, on the devious step, reminding him to roll his super-flammable dressing gown sleeves up, lest the blue flames reach them and he flares up like a sparkler.
Stop nagging, Mum, he says. I’m fine.
When water filled this house in 2007 the voice that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should was silent. I closed all the windows. It made no difference. The rain that had steadily fallen for forty-eight hours, and risen above the gate and plant pots, spilled in over the doorstep, gushed up through the floor and trickled through the air bricks. It hid the devious kitchen step, but I still never fell.
In our temporary accommodation – the Flood House as I venomously called it – the windows were painted shut and I warned the landlord (an obese, sweaty wastrel who wanted to charge a thousand pounds a month in rent because he knew the insurance company would have no choice but to pay it) that I’d smash every one of them if there was a fire.
At a family barbeque, when I was perhaps eleven, my aunt burnt the sausages. We ate them anyway, coated in ketchup to disguise the taste. My sister knocked the grill over, scorching the grass and inciting my mother’s wrath. You’re a demon, she told my beloved but mouthy and wayward sister. Later, with wine in her belly, my mum took me into her confidentiality, a warm place I craved. She tests me the most that one, she said of my sister. But if there was ever a fire in the house, and I could only save one of you, she is the one. She is. I’d save her.
If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.