Please tell us how you came to be a writer.
I am one of those people who can’t remember not ‘making things up’ to entertain myself. I do recall praise for a story written for an English class at school when I was about 13 set me thinking that I might actually be good at this. When it came to deciding on a career path, I chose journalism and I did some initial training and work placements, but I was far too dreamy to get anywhere. During my 20s and 30s I had paid work in adult education and went abroad with a voluntary organisation. I wrote every moment I had spare. I produced non-fiction articles (some of which got published) and novels (none of which got published). Things changed when I hit 40 and was felled by depression. Writing became part of what saved my life, along with therapy and good friendships. I discovered poetry and I was no longer so focused on publication. In 2013 I had a non-fiction book, Pathways Through Writing Blocks in the Academic Environment, taken up by Sense Publishers as well as some articles appearing in academic journals. This and finding a vibrant writing community on moving to Scarborough, helped me to build my confidence again. I inherited a bit of money in 2013 which allowed me to return to my novels.
Have you always felt driven to write?
I know I’ve always entertained myself with stories. I didn’t have the easiest of childhoods and story-telling was what pulled me through. I also know that writing got me through my depression. I write pretty much every day and, for most occasions or emotional states, writing is my first instinct. I wouldn’t say I feel driven to write because I love it so. Writing and my writing journal are like having a friend always near.
You run workshops exploring how creative writing can be healing, can you give some thoughts on that?
It is just that, an exploration, for each individual, so will be different for each one of us. There is a fair bit of evidence out there that nourishing our creativity is good for our mental and physical health. For some of us, creative writing will prove the most attractive and effective. References for further reading include: James Pennebaker; Gillie Bolton; Louise DeSalvo; John Fox; Kim Etherington.
What do we mean by ‘therapeutic’? It might be about pleasure, doing something we enjoy. It might be about being in a social group with like-minded people through joining a writing group or class. It might be about reflecting on ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. Creative writing allows us to do the latter, as it allows us to take different perspectives, look at things askance, ask questions, and all in a very private way. However, it will only do this, if we give ourselves permission to delve, to get messy, to not be bothered about outcome but be more interested about process. We have to maintain an attitude of kindness and compassion (especially to ourselves) and curiosity (rather than judgement). As with any exploration of what is going on for us at a deep level, I would always say we should only do this if we feel supported. We need friends or health professionals around us who can truly ‘hold’ and sustain us through the journey.
How does your training as a psychotherapeutic counsellor inform your writing?
My training plus my own experience of depression and of therapy, have, I believe, given me the opportunity to explore human behaviour and processes. I am fascinated by what goes on in each of us below our immediate consciousness and how past experiences can colour our feelings and behaviours in the present. I hope that I bring some of that understanding and curiosity to my characters. I use quite a bit of internal thought to show the dissonance there often is between how we present ourselves and what is really going on deep within us.
What does your creative process look like?
Generally, I like to use ‘free writing’ to get started. This is a way, I believe, of tapping into what I really want to write instead of what I think I ought to write. It’s just a question of letting words drop onto the page (I’m normally handwriting) perhaps with the stimulus of a bit of music, a picture, the landscape I am sitting in or a word/phrase. It’s very messy and does not always make a lot of sense. But out of this will come ideas and directions which I will become more focussed on and craft.
Walking is an important part of my creative life. I am lucky to live in such a beautiful place and to be able to walk to the sea. I find the motion of walking eases up the mind and lets ideas fall from the recesses. In 2015 I did a long-distance walk, St Cuthbert’s Way, with my sister, and wrote about it on the Mslexia blog & my own blog.
In a way, the Donna Morris crime series has taken almost thirty years to write, as I have been writing about the characters and themes since I wrote my first novel when I was 19. So when I made the decision to craft the series, giving myself the permission and space to be able to do it, I had lots of material to draw on.
Generally, I will just start writing without much of an idea of where I might end up, letting the characters dictate the story. Crime writer, Minette Walters, said she always started off writing a novel not knowing who had ‘dunnit’. However, as I have got more practised at novel writing, I do more planning and I have a better idea of structure held in my head. Even so, I like it when the characters surprise me, that way I know readers will be surprised and remain engaged.
Which other authors have most inspired you?
I’ve always enjoyed reading crime novels, for example Ruth Rendall, Sara Paretsky and Minette Walters. More recently, I have discovered Abir Mukherjee, Steph Cha, Ovidia Yu, Aravind Adiga and Jane Harper. I also like novels which are saying something about the society we are living in, for example, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guinn, novels by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Kamila Shamsie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Luan Goldie and Harriet Tyce. When I began my MA in creative writing ten years ago, I hadn’t studied poetry since school. I was excited to discover poets who I felt spoke to me, such as Anne Sexton, Jackie Kay and Kapka Kassabova. I think exploring poetry has nourished my prose writing and made it more lyrical, maybe more daring, which I like. I have joined the Poetry Book Society which has introduced me to younger, contemporary poets from diverse backgrounds. A writer must stay open. I love to ‘graze’ the shelves in my local library for books I would never think of reading. As a writer I think it important to read a lot and widely. Long live libraries, they are essential to my life!
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write because you want to write, because it brings you joy, because, in some way, it is healing for you. If you want to be a writer, write, write, read and write some more. If you want to share your writing, find ways of getting decent feedback on what you are writing and study the craft of other writers.