Saturday 5 August 2017

Close to Home ...Helen Steadman

As a book reviewer I have made contact with authors from all across the globe and feel immensely privileged to be able to share some amazing work. However, there is always something rather special when a book comes to my attention which has been written by an author in my part of the North of England. So with this in mind I have great pleasure in featuring some of those authors who are literally close to my home. Over the next few Saturdays, and hopefully beyond, I will be sharing the work of a very talented bunch of Northern authors and discovering just what being a Northerner means to them both in terms of inspiration and also in their writing.

Please welcome Northern Writer

Hi and welcome back to Jaffareadstoo, Helen. Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started as an author.

I always wanted to write from being little, and I was always making comics and writing stories, plays and poems, and so on. But when I read Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, I was so stunned by its brilliance that I found it impossible to write for many years after comparing my own efforts with this masterpiece. (What I didn’t know then was that between 1964 and 1969, Peter Carey wrote five novels, none of which were published. His novel, Bliss, was finally published in 1981. In a Guardian webchat, he said he’d have given up had he known how long it would take. Now, he has umpteen books under his belt, and of these, two won the Booker prize, two were shortlisted and two were longlisted.) 

Finally, I forced myself to start writing seriously in 2005 and committed to writing a thousand words per day, every day, whether I felt like it or not. In subsequent years came long rounds of rejections. Finally, I had a fairly savage (but well deserved) critique and as a result of that, signed up for some Open University courses: Creative Writing A215 and Advanced Creative Writing A363 (both highly recommended). These two courses improved my writing exponentially, and I kept writing and then took an MA in creative writing. Finally, years after starting to write seriously (and with five and a half unpublished novels stashed in ream boxes), I received The Email from Impress Books last October. Now, over a decade later, my first novel has been published. I once read a quote by Anne Enwright, (The Guardian 2010) and she said, ‘The first 12 years are the worst’. I remember my despair at reading this, but I just kept going because those 12 years were going to pass irrespective of whether I did any writing or not. And in the end, it has taken 12 years! So, my advice for writers is: be patient and persevere.

Your debut novel, Widdershins, is set in the North East of England. How did the people and its landscape shape your novel?

Most of this novel was written in my head while out walking the late, great Archie Scottie Dog. It was impossible to make notes while walking (due to fear of dog loss or tripping and falling down various gullies), so I developed a technique of ‘freethinking’ where I would wander about the woodland, bringing characters to life in my head and having them converse. Later that night, I would just write up whatever I could remember from my walks. So, if anyone ever sees me walking about with glazed eyes and talking to myself, there’s no need for concern as I’m just writing in my head.

I would say that the landscape shaped the book more than people. I spent so much time looking at the landscape and wandering about in it, that I feel I must have absorbed quite a lot of it by osmosis and channelled it into the book. I also took hundreds of photos on my travels. I’m not a skilled photographer by any means, so most of them are out of focus and badly taken, but they proved invaluable for going back and checking that such and such a plant was indeed in bloom or seed at certain times of the year.

Whilst writing Widdershins, you were inspired by the true events of the 1650 Newcastle Witch trials. How did your interest in this subject start?

My interest in this subject developed as part of a gradual process. At the back end of 2011, I decided to take an MA in Creative Writing, which gave me plenty of time to decide what to write about before the MA began in 2013. I knew I wanted to write a historical novel, but had no clue what it would be about. I was walking in the woods one day and Florence Welch’s song ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise it up)’ started going through my head. This made me think of sacrifice, ritual and magical goings on, which led me to witches. Although I knew in a flash that I wanted to write about witches, I didn’t have any firm ideas at that point. In truth, my initial thoughts veered towards something rather more magical and supernatural than what I eventually ended up with.

Widdershins - First Draft

As I began researching ahead of starting my MA, I read widely on the seventeenth century, local history, witches and witchcraft, and I joined paranormal groups and investigated all sorts of supernatural goings on. In the course of my research, I learned about the Newcastle witch trials, which I’d not known about until that point. I was quite shocked to learn that 16 people had been executed on one day in Newcastle for witchcraft. Of course, I knew about the Pendle witches in Lancashire and the Witchfinder General down south, but this was the first inkling of anything local to me. What shocked me most was that during the proceedings, the witchfinder was revealed as a fraud and one girl was set free, but the others were still executed. As my research continued, I could not get this unknown girl and the witchfinder out of my mind, and I realised that this was the story I had to write. In a sense, the fact that little was known about them gave me an enormous amount of writerly freedom.

Widdershins in the Woods
Impress Books

In your research for your novel, did you visit any of the places you write about and which have made a lasting impression?

Because I live in the North East, it was very easy to visit many of the places again and again, and most of my time was spent outside in nature in all seasons. I spent a lot of time walking along the River Derwent at various points, for instance, at the part near to where Jane and Annie Chandler lived. I also walked next to its confluence with the River Tyne pretty much daily for over a year.

I did expect that the hardest place to visit would be the Town Moor, where the so-called witches were executed, but that’s not the place that most affected me. The hardest place to visit was St Andrew’s church in Newcastle. The wrongfully executed people were buried in its graveyard, and it gave me quite a hollow feeling standing there.

If you were pitching the North as an ideal place to live, work and write – how would you sell it and what makes it so special?

The wide-open countryside, the huge blue skies and the fresh air are why I love it so much. I grew up in the North, but took it for granted. It was only after a decade in London that I really came to appreciate how beautiful it is and how lucky I am to live here.

North East England

From a historical writer’s perspective, it’s steeped in history, and there are thousands of untold tales tucked away just waiting to be written about. As well as stunning nature and historical gems, Northerners are among the friendliest people you could hope to meet anywhere in the world, which means you’ll never be short of a friendly face.

As a writer based in the North, does this present any problems in terms of marketing and promoting your books and if so, how have you overcome them?

I don’t think it’s presented any real problems for me. I know there are issues around British publishing being London-centric, but my publisher is based in the South West, and I’m in the North East. The fact that we’re based at diametrically opposed ends of England hasn’t stood in our way. The internet has helped, and the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogging means that so much promotion work is done online these days, so location seems not to matter. Of course, it helps that my publicist (Natalie Clark) is a bit of a genie! She is very creative and has a great eye for social media. I must admit that with Natalie’s encouragement, I’ve had to leave behind my Luddite ways and properly join the twenty-first century this year. (‘Insta-what?’ is a phrase that I have been guilty of using in the not-so distant past.)

Writing is a solitary business - how do you interact with other authors?

I’ve met quite a lot of writers through local groups and writing courses. I know a few writers from local chapter meetings of the Romantic Novelists Association (hello lovely ladies of the Border Reivers Chapter!), and they are very friendly and supportive. Taking courses in creative writing was also a good move because it helped me develop my writing and introduced me to some great writing friends. I am part of a group that met during our MA, and we stay in touch and criticise each other’s work (hello lovely ladies and gents of the DIY Group!). We’re spread over several countries, so we mainly meet online, but we do have the occasional get together. Getting used to giving and taking constructive criticism has improved my writing hugely, and the thick skin I’ve grown as a result has stood me in good stead for dealing with rejection!

How supportive are local communities to your writing, and are there ever any opportunities for book shops, local reading groups, or libraries to be involved in promoting your work?

People locally have been very supportive, both in terms of sharing information and being interested in my writing. North East people are very proud of their heritage and lots of locals have shown interest in this novel. For instance, two local projects, the Consett and District Heritage Project and the Land of Oak and Iron, do a lot of work to encourage people to take an interest in the area’s heritage, and I plan to do some work with both groups. Similarly, there is a strong network of libraries and bookshops, who are always supportive, and I plan to do some reading sessions over the summer and autumn.

You can discover more about Helen and her writing on her website by clicking here
Follow on Twitter @hsteadman1650
Visit on Facebook

Witches Kitchen

Warmest thanks to Helen for being our very welcome guest today and for talking about her writing and sharing her love of the North East with us.

I hope that you have enjoyed this week's Close to Home feature

Coming next week : Alyson Rhodes


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