My greatest support has come from the group of authors published by Honno. We have a Facebook group where we can chat and ask for help, information and generally boost moral when it’s needed. And we’ve met up in real life on many occasions. About three years ago I shared interviews with some of them. Since then there have been other women writers who have become Honno authors. So this is the first of a new set of interviews and today I am with the lovely Wendy White, author of both adult and children’s’ book
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Llanelli on the south west coast of Wales and still live in Carmarthenshire now. My favourite bands at ten years old were The Osmonds and Bay City Rollers, so from that you might be able to deduce my age (I like to think my musical taste has improved a lot since then). Sara Gethin is the name I chose for myself when my first novel, ‘Not Thomas’, was published, and I’m often asked why I opted for a pen name. It was for a very practical reason ‒ alongside writing for adults, I write children’s books using my everyday name of Wendy White. While my writing for children is light and humorous, ‘Not Thomas’ is a dark story of child neglect, and so having separate names helps to differentiate between the two types of book. Plus, having a nom de plume finally satisfies my childhood ambition!
When did you start writing?
I started writing late. I was ambling along, being a teacher, mother and child-minder, until some major events shocked me into taking the path I’d longed for since I was a child. In 2001, after 9/11, I decided to sign up for a ‘writing for children’ course, figuring the one thing I’d die wishing I had done would be to have written a book. I sent out a story to a publisher a couple of years later. The editor said they liked my style and if I made some changes they’d consider publishing it. Instead of being encouraged by that reply, I put the story aside and forgot about it. Then, a few years later, my lovely sister passed away very suddenly, and through the fog of grief I could very clearly hear her urging me to push for my dreams as life is short. The following year I reworked the story and sent it again to the publisher who, thankfully, this time accepted it. That became ‘Welsh Cakes and Custard’, the first of my children’s books, and was published in 2013.
What genre do you write in and why?
Ah, genre is such a difficult thing, especially when books don’t fit neatly into one category. What I can say is that I tend to write for or about children, so ‘Not Thomas’, is about a neglected five-year-old called Tomos who narrates his own story. I guess if someone enjoys reading Cathy Glass books, which are about real-life children in difficult situations, then they might find ‘Not Thomas’ interesting too. But my novel is fiction and not autobiographical. It sometimes gets compared to ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, as it has a very young narrator. I suppose I write about children because I enjoy seeing the world from their point of view, and I strongly suspect I’ve never properly grown up.
How important is location in your novels?
‘Not Thomas’ was set in my home area of Carmarthenshire ‒ using places where I grew up or worked ‒ and I could visualise the streets and parks I was writing about. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set in Connemara, Ireland, somewhere I’ve holidayed many times. Having personal experience of the locations my novels are set in has been extremely important to me. I’m not the most descriptive writer, yet being able to imagine Tomos turning a certain corner as he runs away from bullies, or imagining Claire and Emmet charging over a particular hill in their escape from school has certainly helped to get those scenes onto paper. My novel set in Ireland features industrial schools, and my chosen setting reflects the fact that one of the most notorious of these institutions was in Connemara, so setting is very important for me in that way too.
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?
I have a real love of Irish writers, probably because Ireland has been my favourite place to visit for the last twenty or so years. My son went to university in Dublin, stayed after he graduated and has lived there for almost ten years now, so my visits have become even more frequent. Among my best-loved Irish writers are Emma Donoghue, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Barry, John Boyne and newcomer, Sally Rooney. As for non-Irish writers, I’m a huge fan of Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, of Alice Munro’s short stories and Donna Tartt’s (very long) novels.
Where do you write?
In winter, at the kitchen table, near the radiator, kettle and biscuit tin. Once the weather improves, I move my laptop out to the little shed I have in the garden. Its window once had a distant view of Carmarthen Bay, but now it mostly looks out onto some new houses. (I do appreciate that the town was short of housing, but if only they could have built them slightly to the right!)
Who is your favourite character in your books?
That would have to be five-year-old Tomos from ‘Not Thomas’. I always joke he’s the third child in our family, along with my daughter and son. It took me over 13 years to write that novel, so my own children were growing up and all the while Tomos stayed five. He’s an amalgamation of the neglected children I knew when I worked as a primary school teacher in a very deprived area. I hope, through him, I’ve given those children a voice and portrayed what it’s like to be so young and not properly cared for. It’s a terrifying situation for a child to be in.
What was your favourite bit of research?
I’ve spent years researching the latest novel I’m working on about children brought up in an industrial school in 1960s Ireland. Reading first-hand accounts really brings home the cruelty of life in those places. The book I return to again and again is an account by Peter Tyrrell of his time as a boy in Letterfrack Industrial School. ‘Founded on Fear’ was created after his death from letters he wrote and the details are harrowing, so it’s hard to say that it’s my ‘favourite’ bit of research, but the book is certainly compelling. Peter campaigned as an adult to put a stop to the abuse that went on in these institutions but sadly, at that time, his accounts weren’t believed by the people who could make a difference. In despair, he ended his life by setting fire to himself on Hampstead Heath in 1967. His body would never have been identified had a corner of a postcard with a Dublin address on it not been salvaged from his jacket. The postcard was to a TD (the Irish equivalent of an MP) who was supporting him with his campaign. Peter Tyrrell’s whole story is very sad, and he’s never far from my thoughts as I write about Claire and Emmet, the children in my work in progress.
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press
When I was writing ‘Not Thomas’ I knew exactly where I wanted to send it when I’d finished, and that was to Honno. I’d long admired their work and I loved the fact that they’re a female-only press and have a committee of women who decide what to publish. Added to that was my huge respect for Caroline Oakley, a Honno editor who had worked closely in a previous role for a number of years with (the aforementioned) Ian Rankin. I was absolutely delighted when I heard from Caroline that Honno were going to publish ‘Not Thomas’ and my whole experience of being part of the Honno family has been fantastic. All the staff and other authors are extremely supportive and go out of their way to make everyone welcome. I’m constantly recommending Honno to my female friends who are writers. It may be a small indie press but it commands huge respect and publishes wonderful books.
Thanks for being with us today, Wendy..
Thank you so much for your questions, Judith ‒ happy writing!
Links to Wendy’s page on Honno:
Sara Gethin Social Media Links: