Please welcome North West Writer
|Photo credit : Justine Stoddart|
Hi, Beth. Welcome to Jaffareadstoo and thank you for spending time with us today.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started as an author.
I was born in Rochdale and went to school in Oldham. My mum is from Rochdale, but my dad is from the south, and I remember growing up thinking that he was dead posh because he said ‘baarth’ instead of ‘bath’. None of my immediate family are very arty, but when I was little there were always a lot of books in the house. I was keen on writing at high school, and had one particular teacher who encouraged me a lot – she died while I was doing my A-levels, and The Witchfinder’s Sister is dedicated to her.
I didn’t write very much as an undergraduate – I was quite social, and writing is such a solitary thing to do – but after I graduated I moved to London and started working for a publishing house, Phaidon Press. While I was there I began to get up early in the morning to write for an hour or two in a café before work, and that was when I started to think that I wanted to dedicate a bit more time to my writing. This happened to coincide with getting fairly fed up with living in London. I decided to do a Creative Writing MA, and the only way I could even slightly afford to do it was to move back in with my mum and dad in Rochdale – I found this pretty challenging, and I’m sure they did, too!
So I started the Creative Writing MA at the University of Manchester, part time. I began The Witchfinder’s Sister in the last year of the course, and an extract from it was printed in the anthology which the MA students produce every year. Copies of that anthology are circulated to agents and so on, and my agent, Nelle Andrew, approached me having seen my piece. I signed with PFD and then worked on the novel for a number of years with feedback from Nelle – I was ill during this time, too, which did slow things down. But then in January last year I was signed by Penguin, and a few months later I got a job lecturing Creative Writing at the University of Manchester – so I now teach on the same course I did all those years ago.
Whilst your novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister is not set in the North West, I wonder if the North West landscape helped to shape your story in any way?
That’s an interesting question – I’m not sure. I think the West Pennine landscape is very present in my imagination – my mum and dad live near the bottom of Blackstone Edge, which can look peaceful or beautiful or downright sinister depending on the weather. From being a kid I was always taken hiking most weekends, and so as an adult I have a habit of noticing field patterns, old boundaries, things like that, which is really just another way of noticing history. So I think the landscape of the north west has had an important role in teaching me to look in the ways that were necessary to write the book I’ve written – if that makes sense.
In The Witch Finder’s Sister you were inspired to write about the man who was known as a notorious witch finder. How did your interest in Matthew Hopkins start?
What happened first is that I got interested in the seventeenth century and the English Civil War in general. I had a great uncle who was a history professor, and I read one of his books, which is set in the 1600s. It’s about the town of Dorchester, which burned to the ground in this period, and my great uncle used this event to write about the lives and beliefs of ordinary people at the time. I was really struck by it – I think I hadn’t read much history that told a good story before (or told a story about ordinary people). From there I started reading about the seventeenth century in general, including a book on seventeenth century midwifery, because I was thinking about becoming a midwife! (I was doing the Creative Writing MA at this point, but had never thought writing could be a job, so I was doing some midwifery work experience.) It was in this book about seventeenth century midwifery that I found a footnote about Hopkins and his witch hunts, and the whole thing grew from there. I read Malcolm Gaskill’s book about Hopkins, and thought, ‘this needs to be a novel’.
If you were pitching the North West as an ideal place to live, work and write – how would you sell it and what makes it so special?
I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I hope to be in this neck of the woods for the rest of my life – I’d like to do maybe a year in the US, a year in some other places, but I think I’d always come back. It has all the ingredients I need to be productive as a writer – green space, and good stuff going on culturally in Manchester, which for me is half an hour away. Most importantly, it’s still reasonably cheap to live. I’m not sure I’d get much done as a writer in London, or at least not full-time – I loved living there in some ways, but I found it exhausting.
As a writer based in the North West, does this present any problems in terms of marketing and promoting your books and if so, how have you overcome them?
Not really. Quite often London events will pop up on my Twitter feed, and I’ll be like, ‘oh, I wish I could go to that thing tonight’ – but I manage to get to a reasonable amount by arranging trips down in advance and staying with friends. And actually a lot of my work in terms of events with readers and engaging with bookshops has involved long road trips in Essex, Yorkshire, the West Country – all over the place. I don’t feel like the promotional activity has been particularly London-centric.
Writing is a solitary business - how do you interact with other authors?
I’m really lucky to work in a very supportive department at the University of Manchester, so I see a fair bit of the other authors there, certainly during term time. That’s been very important for me – some people there have been peers and others more like mentors, but all of them are great. We also have a lot of writers visiting the department to do events, so that’s not only interesting but also good for making links. I’ve met a few other authors through Twitter who have turned into real life friends, so that’s been lovely. And then, a friend from university has had her book taken on by Penguin for 2018, so we’re in very similar boats too.
How supportive are local communities to your writing and have there been any opportunities for book shops, local reading groups, or libraries to be involved in promoting your work?
There’s a writer’s group I set up in the town where I live in the Peak District, and they’ve been hugely supportive. It’s now run by one of the first people to attend one of my courses – from there she went on to do the Creative Writing MA at MMU, which she’s just about to complete. I still drop in there now and then, it’s a lovely community of people and that gives me a real boost. There are quite a few reading groups doing the book, lots of them in Essex and Suffolk. My local Waterstones, the Deansgate store in Manchester, gave me a fabulous launch, for which I’ll always be grateful!
You can find out more about Beth and her writing by going to her website
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Warmest thanks to Beth for spending time with us today and for sharing her love of the North West with us.
I hope that you have enjoyed this week's Close to Home feature.
Coming next week : Kirsty Ferry