There are places that remain in our memories, the details may become slightly blurred, nostalgia may colour our thoughts, but they don’t fade. And how those places made us feel at the time is the one thing that remains.
Today I’m really pleased pleased to welcomeCarol Lovekin.
Since Judith invited me to contribute to this strand, I’ve spent weeks mulling over too many memories of a myriad places. A moment here, a memory there, this place briefly visited and only half remembered; this one part of the fabric of my life. And it occurred to me, perhaps I could take the premise literally and highlight ‘places’ plural.
Many of these places and moments featured my mother. She was and remains a huge influence in my life. She was Irish, she played the piano and had a way with words. My mother held space, she had an authentic sense of the importance of place and my memories are littered with moments and memories of her.
The word ‘moment’ reminds me of the Kate Bush song, Jig of Life* and the line, ‘I put this moment, here…’ In the song she asks, ‘Can’t you see where memories are kept bright?’ I can and still do: places with moments stitched to their seams. And at the centre, my mother invariably making more sense than, at the time, I gave her credit for. These memories are in no particular order.
I’m nine and can barely swim; riding on my father’s shoulders in a chilly stretch of the river Avon, roped off to resemble a lido. There are rocks underfoot and he slips. I’m falling, it’s cold and deep and I’m swallowing water . . . drowning. . . drowning. . .
I didn’t of course. Dad hauled me out and ‘kissed me better’ while my mother announced her disapproval. (‘I told you not to do that, Ken! What’s the point of the rubber ring if she doesn’t use it?’) And that was indubitably that. Instead of throwing me back in, they fussed, although, to my horror, my mother did suggest a swimming pool and proper lessons. Really? No way; it has a Deep End!
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself and the children were learning to swim that I made myself venture back into the water. It didn’t last. The children were soon fearless and there were too many rivers near where we lived, too much deep water. Years later – decades in truth – I started going to the local pool and discovered a real love for swimming. I’m not very good and I still don’t entirely trust deep water, but I’ve come a long way from that day when I was a little girl, tumbling from my daddy’s shoulder.
With my green-fingered mother in the garden of the house I grew up in. It’s full to overgrown perfection with flowers. A drooping rose and Mum’s pulling a stick from the undergrowth. ‘That’ll do it.’ The rose firmly staked. Weeks later, noticing the straggler has expired, but the steadying stick is beginning to throw off green shoots. ‘That’s magic,’ says my mother. ‘Gardening is magic. If you have a garden, you’ll always have a place to be peaceful.’
The rose eventually grew into a rambling, delicate pink wonder with a glorious scent. We never did identify it. Mum just called it her magic rose.
Over the years I’ve made several gardens. All of them magical, all of them with a pink rose of some sort or another. Now I am ‘reduced’ to a balcony, I’m looking for one that will work in a small space. A pink one, of course. In memory of that perfect place. And my mother.
My mother, quietly and with no drama, delivering my first, born-too-quickly-for-the-midwife, daughter.
‘She’s got her eyes open already,’ says Mum. ‘That’s girls for you.’ She hands me the baby and yes, her eyes are wide open and I know she can see me. Mum, smiling, nodding her head. ‘We’re a proper matriarchy now.’ And that’s when I became a ‘proper’ feminist.
I’m in my bedroom. Mine, at last, because Dad has given up his darkroom and decamped to the shed, so my sister and I can have our own rooms. I’m scribbling a story for ‘English Composition’ homework. ‘It’s rubbish,’ I say to my dusting, tidying mother. She straightens the bookshelves. (She’s bought me most of the books.) ‘Read all the books,’ she says, ‘and you’ll write better stories.’
She wasn’t wrong. Now, decades later, I find myself realising, although my mother didn’t live long enough to see me published, she is everywhere in my books. Not always obviously, but nonetheless there. I write about mothers and daughters a lot and it took me a while to understand how my own mother influenced some of the mothers I imagine. I like to think she would have approved.
So long as the stories come, I shall continue to write them, and both consciously and unconsciously place my mother at the centre of them.
* Hello, old lady I know your face well…
I’ll be sitting in your mirror… Will you look into the future…?
One with the ocean and the woman unfurled Holding all the love that waits for you here…
Hello, dear reader, and welcome. Like you, I am a guest; invited by Judith to appear on her blog and answer some questions. This is an event, frankly. Since lockdown has put paid to physical book launches and fairs, sitting down to write about my author self and my books is a treat. So thank you, Judith! Judith and I are both published by Honno, the Welsh women’s Press. It’s the longest standing women-only press in the UK and I think I can safely speak for both of us when I say it is an honour and a privilege to be a Honno Girl. That said, we’re not girls anymore! We are both women of a certain age who, although we were already writers, came to publishing later than some. Judith was first published by Honno in 2010; my debut came out in 2016. Although we write in very different genres, our stories share some similarities. We both write strong women characters and explore family dynamics, not least, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and sisters. I recall first meeting Judith at a Honno gathering before I was published. Ghostbird, my debut, had been accepted but I was very much the new girl. Judith immediately struck me as down-to-earth, friendly and very funny. I was soon to learn her dry wit and no-nonsense Northern persona sat comfortably alongside her kindness and supportive nature. Over the years we have become good friends. (I’m still a bit star-struck to be honest. Judith really is a wonderful novelist and her published output is prolific.) It’s an extra special pleasure then to chat with her on her blog.
Now let’s learn a little about Carol and her books
Judith: What do you love most about the writing process?
Carol: The opportunity to create story, Judith. Showing up and losing myself in the process. The lightbulb moments which illuminate a previously dim corner, or the ones that change the narrative’s trajectory. Being led by my characters because I threw away my breadcrumbs and allowed them to show me the way. Days when I punch the air because an unexpected tangent is about to make the story so much better.
Judith: Are your characters based on real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
Carol: I’ve never knowingly based a character on a real person. I do confess to having ‘borrowed’ certain character traits. For instance, the narcissism of Allegra in Snow Sisters definitely has echoes of someone I used to know. The wonderful thing about it is of course, you don’t have to worry about being accused of writing negatively about a narcissist. They would never believe they could be that flawed therefore the character couldn’t possibly be based on them!
Judith: If you could write about anyone fictional/nonfictional who would you write about?
Carol: No one comes to mind. My writing feet are firmly set in the land of make-believe. I would be scared of mucking up a story about someone I admired!
Judith: What do you think makes a good story?
Carol: The perfect hook. An opening sentence that causes me to stop, go back and read it again. A sense of place and a central character who immediately piques my interest. To use a cliché: somebody who makes me care about them. They can be unreliable so long as they are largely sympathetic. And language – I am quickly put off by lazy language, which isn’t the same thing as bad editing. A good storyteller with a grasp of her craft will still shine through a tardy edit.
Judith: How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
Carol: The only ones I’m prepared to own are the three I’ve seen published plus the one in transit. There are the cobwebbed stories of course, in the back of metaphorical drawers. And the one I seem to have been writing forever, whose destiny is to be discarded each time a new, more exciting idea crops up. (My mentor calls it ‘the one my other books bounce off’ and a writer friend described it as being like ‘an old lover you parted with on good terms – between great passions, this lover is comfortable. . ’ (Like old lovers, some stories are best left to fade?) Not sure I have a favourite but okay – for the sake of a good yarn, I’ll have a go. Ghostbird because it was my first published book and Cadi, the central character, retains a special place in my heart. She presented herself, fully formed from a dream and I knew everything about her. She made writing what was a vague outline a possibility. Snow Sisters because it validated me as more than a one-trick pony and I love the relationship between the sisters, Verity and Meredith. My heart still aches for Allegra – a narcissist yes, but made that way by circumstances and upbringing. Wild Spinning Girls, my most recent book is my favourite because I can see my process as a writer; the improvements that come with practice I guess. And it has the best ghost! If I ever come back, as a ghost, I want to be Olwen!
Judith: Have you considered writing in another genre?
Carol: Good question, Judith. When I began writing Ghostbird, I thought, naïvely and a little smugly, that I was writing literary fiction. I had nothing else to call it to be honest. I knew nothing about how genre works in publishing – in book shops – and in any case, I disliked the idea of being pigeonholed. Time has taught me that the Lit Fic label is as meaningless as the Women’s Fiction one. (My favourite quote about genre comes from Matt Haig who said: “There is only one genre in fiction. The genre is called book.”)
Once I realised Ghostbird was a ghost story my first thought was, ‘Who knew?’ My second was that it suited me. There was a palpable shift in my thinking and my next two books were specifically planned as ghost stories – with hints of Welsh Gothic – and with an emphasis on family dynamics. Having found my “niche” so to speak, I see no reason to deviate.
Judith: Could you tell us a bit about your most recent book? And why it’s a must read?
Carol: Wild Spinning Girls came out just before the first lockdown and unlike so many of my writer friends I was able to have a physical launch. I remain hugely appreciative of this. The book is, like my previous ones, a ghost story. It concerns Ida Llewellyn, a young woman who loses her job and her beloved parents in the space of a few weeks. Her life thrown off course she sets out for Wales and the remote house her father has left her. When Heather, the daughter of the last tenant turns up, Ida is confronted by a series of terrifying events, not least the ghost Heather claims is her dead mother. The two young women embark on a battle of wills and in the process uncover a dark secret that has lain hidden in the house for twenty years. Anyone who likes a ghost story rather than a horror one; family intrigue and mother daughter relationships will, I think, like Wild Spinning Girls. There is a ballet theme too and allusions to the fairy tale, The Red Shoes. It has been described as ‘stunning and utterly unforgettable’ and ‘a timeless tale alive with a wild, old magic.’
Judith: Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reins of the story?
Carol: Reins!? I was about to say, ‘I wish’ but as I mentioned previously, what I particularly love about the writing process are the tangents. Yes, I am a serious plotter – other than scribbled outline notes I’m reluctant to type Chapter One until I have a pretty good idea what the story is about, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Equally, I’m open to suggestions! Like real people, fictional characters evolve. And often indulge in spontaneous hijacking. It can be startling, but it really is part of the process. When characters behave in ways that differ from my original concept, it makes them more real to me. I can only hope it does the same for my reader.
Judith: If you could spend a day with a character from your book who would it be? And what would you do during that time?
Carol: What a brilliant question! It would have to be Olwen. I adore her as a ghost and love her as a living woman. Her story is a thread though, with only hints about her life before she died. I’d like to go for a long walk with her, take a picnic and sit “out on the wild moor near the stone where the black birds watch” where she grew up; ask her to tell me about her life, the one I have half imagined for her and only vaguely outlined.
Judith:When did you write your first book and how old were you?
Carol: I wrote my first story when I was about ten or eleven. It was called The Veiled Lady and although I hadn’t written the end, I read it to my younger sister. I told her she would have to wait until the next day for the dénouement. The next day came but because she did something to annoy me, I refused to finish the story. We are both in our 70s now and she still hasn’t forgiven me.
Judith: Do you have any hidden or uncommon talents?
Carol: I used to be a ballet dancer and drew on that dormant past when I wrote Wild Spinning Girls.
Judith: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? Carol: I have a pair of writing earrings. They’re odd – their partners lost. Because they were so pretty, I paired them up and wear them when I’m working.
Judith:What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Carol: In the middle of what Marion Keyes calls, The Pandemonium? Think about not being in it? *Wry grin* Covid restrictions on meeting family and friends and attending book events apart, my life is pretty much as it was. I walk (I’ve always walked alone), read a good deal the way most writers do. In the morning I practice Qigong and have recently taken up yoga. I like to knit, watch long series on telly and tend to my house plants. Currently, I’m obsessed with growing avocado trees from the stones. It’s fascinating, watching the tap root emerge in water, the stone splitting and a tiny green shoot pushing its way up. Potted on these shoots soon begin turning into tiny trees and over weeks and months they can become really tall.
Judith: What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you? Not particularly to do with your writing?
Carol:Does tripping over outside the chip shop and landing on my face count? Or on my knee, running (why would I even do that) to open the door to answer the postman? Or breaking my leg tripping over an inch of iffy pavement in the dark? Three times in two years and I’m not even kidding. I’m an accident waiting to happen, Judith, but you have to see the funny side. And small things amuse me every day. I am drawn to the absurd and see it everywhere. It’s what keeps me cheerful I think.
Judith:Give us a random fact about yourself.
Carol: I’m continually and endlessly home-schooled. Seriously – I left school with two O-levels and once I caught up with myself and refused my father’s “education is wasted on girls” doctrine, I began educating myself. I’ve been doing it ever since.
There are forty authors, so, obviously, there are many genres for both adults and children. There will be talks an writing and books, creative writing workshops for adults workshops & talks and fun workshops for children, activities for the children Children’s Page and a fun book trail through Narberth, the gorgeous little market town in Pembrokeshire. Location.
And, of course, there will be the chance to chat with all the authors and to pick their brains on all aspects of writing. Even to buy their books and have them personally signed.
And, as usual, there will also be the writing competition: this year is a poetry competition: competition . Submit a poem, in any form, of 20 lines or less, on the subject of : –
BOOKS AND READING.
Having outgrown our previous venue we have been lucky to hire the Queens Hall: https://www.thequeenshall.org.uk/ who have been very generous in their support of the event.
Although, five years ago, I started organising the book fairs on my own I was soon joined by Alex Martin: http://amzn.to/2hZCgt2 and Thorne Moore: http://bit.ly/2rc5qyA. Unfortunately Alex has moved on to pastures new (although is still a great supporter), so Thorne and I have been joined by Elizabeth Sleight. Elizabeth is involved in the charity we are supporting through our raffle; The Harriet Davis Seaside Holiday Trust For Disabled Children: http://bit.ly/2sNyeKQ .
Our author today is the ever ebullient and friendly fellow Honno author, Carol Lovekin.
Let’s start by you telling us why you write, please, Carol.
Because I can’t play the piano is the glib answer. The truth is simpler: I love it. I’m me when I write. The person it took me years to become. And reading books made me want to write them. I can’t say I have huge ambitions (other than winning the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, obvs.) I write because it makes me happy.
What do you love most about the writing process? The unfolding of the story. How it emerges as a spark, a ‘What if?’ moment and unfolds into an outline and a plot. I love the way characters make themselves known to me. It’s like meeting new friends, people I had no idea existed. And I’m addicted to editing.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? I’m a lark and awake with the birds. I often handwrite in bed over a cup of tea. Random ideas, scenes and vignettes for my current story, for the next one and quite often the one I’m planning down the line. Each story has its own notebook. My aim is to be at my desk, working on my current story no later than ten o’clock. If I’m feeling particularly creative – down and deep with my story – it’s often a lot earlier. Word count is of no concern to me – showing up is what matters.
What do you think makes a good story? Characters who endear themselves to me on the first page; perhaps shock me. So long as they make me want to find out more. A quality writing style that draws me in. I don’t mind simple stories – a sense of place is as important to me as a convoluted plot. That said, I’m a sucker for a twist that takes my breath away.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite? Two. (The ones in the metaphorical dusty drawer don’t count.) Asking me to pick a favourite is a borderline Sophie’s Choice scenario, Judith! Ghostbird because it was the book that validated me as a writer. Snow Sisters because it proves I’m not a one-trick pony!
I love this cover
What genre do you consider your books? Have you considered writing in another genre? I call them ghost stories laced with magic; contemporary fiction with a trace of mystery. My mentor, the lovely Janet Thomas, says they are family stories (with magic.) Which I guess is as good a description as any since, magical edges notwithstanding, they are firmly rooted in family relationships. I feel as if I’ve found my niche as a writer and have no plans to write in any other genre.
Could you tell us a bit about your most recent book and why it is a must-read? Snow Sisters explores what can happen when an act of kindness, enacted by a child, offers the hope of redemption to a tragic ghost with a horrific secret. It’s also a story of love, exploring the ties that bind sisters. And the tragic ones that can destroy mothers and daughters.
In three words, can you describe your latest book? Ghostly. Quirky. Welsh.
Does your book have a lesson? Moral? I don’t trust morality! Perhaps: Listen to your grandmother for she is wiser than Yoda?
Do your characters seem to hijack the story or do you feel like you have the reins of the story? Regularly. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s some kind of Literary Law. At some point characters are required to run off into the wild wordy wood and we have no choice but to follow, more often than not without our breadcrumbs.
Do you have any hidden or uncommon talents? I’m a trained ballet dancer.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? Although I begin at the beginning, within less time than it takes for me to say, ‘Oh look, shiny!’ I’m off to the middle (anywhere, frankly) and I can be gone some time. I write entire scenes in isolation slotting them into the narrative as I go.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing? I read, swim and walk. After writing and reading, swimming is the best thing ever. Each week I discuss writing with my talented friend and co-conspirator, Janey. We are the sole members of the smallest writing group in Wales.
What is the most amusing thing that has ever happened to you? Not particularly to do with your writing. Meeting Margaret Atwood in the eighties made me smile for a week.
Give us a random fact about yourself. I don’t like even numbers.
Today I’m really pleased to be chatting with Honno’s latest find, Carol Lovekin
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re currently working on or promoting. Hello, I’m Carol. I’ve lived in mid-Wales since 1979. My novel, Ghostbird will be published by Honno in March 2016. It’s a very exciting time for me. I always hoped that if the book was ever deemed good enough to warrant publication it would be with Honno. I’ve been a fan and a supporter of this unique press for years. I’m currently working on another story set in Wales.
Tell me a little about your writing history/background. What inspired you to write? I’ve always been inspired to write. My problem has been arrested development – which I’ve suffered from for far too long frankly – and a sense of myself as not quite good enough or ready for publication. I allowed my personal life to get in the way for too long as well. I self-published my first book in 2008 – a venture I now view with mixed feelings although I learned a great deal from the experience.
Where do your ideas come from?
I love this question, even though it’s virtually impossible to answer. It makes me smile because more often than not an idea is ‘a moment’ I can’t necessarily describe. Ideas come when the word birds drop them in your path or leave them on the pillow. Ghostbird began life when I reimagined the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd from her point of view, as a reclaiming and a feminist issue. When I first read the story, my initial reaction was: why would it be considered a curse to be turned into a bird? What a gift! Blodeuwedd can fly away and escape her fate! From there the story began to take shape in my head. I have no clear memory as to why I decided on a teenage main protagonist. Not the likeliest choice for someone of my age. Cadi arrived one day, fully formed, and I fell for her.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you? Before I begin, I like to know as much as possible and create a fairly detailed outline. That said I don’t necessarily stick with the plan. I love it when paths open and characters boss me around or when missed opportunities present themselves.
What genre is your book?
It’s a contemporary ghost story with slivers of magic. Although it’s been suggested it might have YA cross-over potential and would appeal to upper-age teens, essentially, it’s a story for adults with adult themes.
How did you come up with the title of your novel?
In more than one mythology ‘ghostbird’ is another name for the barn owl – which is how Blodeuwedd is often depicted in illustrations for The Mabinogion, the book in which her story originated. The title began life as something entirely different however and the decision to change it was initiated by my editor, the discerning, sharp-eyed and lovely, Janet Thomas. A book cover is about perception and reader appeal. Janet was right about numberless aspects of the book and she was right about the title. As I was able to choose the alternative myself, it wasn’t hard to let go of the original. And in any case, I think having to change the title is a positive thing. It allows me to let go, in preparation for sending the book out into the world. The old title was pre-acceptance; the new one celebrates affirmation.
What has been your best moment as a writer?
Best moments are the ones when someone tells you what you write has touched them. Getting the email from Janet with the news that Honno were going to make me an offer was absolutely a ‘best’ moment!
Do you have a special time to write and how is your day structured? My stories begin life as random, handwritten pencil notes. I’m not a linear writer and this note-writing process is ongoing. I often write in bed first thing in the morning accompanied by tea. Deciphering and working out where these isolated scraps and scenes fit into the main narrative can be challenging. At times it’s like having a dyslexic spider running round inside my head. I like to be at my computer by or before ten, or as I call it, writing o’clock. I work for at least four hours. When I’m on a roll, I’m disciplined and can self-manage. I swim two mornings a week and after the Wednesday session, hang out in a local café with my talented writing friend, Janey. We feed each other’s brains!
Do you write every day?
Yes, although I don’t necessarily work seven days a week on my current story. The ‘write everyday’ mantra is a stick writers can easily learn to beat themselves with. What matters to me is writing something every day. I write a letter to a friend in America 365 days a year which flexes my writing muscles.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I’m not sure ‘career’ is the right word. I’m seventy-one! I definitely intend to carry on writing. I’ve almost completed draft zero of my next story and I have another one tangled in the edges of my hair.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I don’t give advice. I do suggest: don’t give up! If you have a story you are passionate about and if you are willing to work hard, take advice, re-write, edit and work some more – and if you’re good enough – you are more likely to succeed. Who are your favorite authors and what is it that you love about their work?
Top of the list has to be Virginia Woolf. I became mesmerised by her vision in my early twenties and remain fascinated by her writing. Reading her encouraged me to take risks. Although I love her novels, it is her letters and diaries I find most intriguing. I’ve read the major biographies about her life and most of the novels based on it.
Other writers I admire include Edna O’Brien, A S Byatt, Alice Hoffman, Cormac McCarthy, Susan Hill, Doris Lessing, Sebastian Faulks and Elizabeth Von Armin. And I recently discovered the rather splendid, Patrick Gale. Each of these writers possesses the ability to instantly create a doorway through which the reader simply has to step. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle has the best fictional opening line ever and I reread Jane Eyre every few years. To Kill a Mockingbird would be my Desert Island book. It has everything. I own a lovely collection of books by Joanne Harris – all her adult novels in pretty, hardback editions. She understands authentic magic and knows the spells that makes it probable. All of these writers (and a myriad others) have encouraged me to do as Francine Prose suggests and “read like a writer” in order to maybe learn a few tricks of the trade, from my betters.
Tell me something unusual about yourself.
I overcame my fear of deep water two years ago and I’m now a MerCrone!
What’s your view on social media for marketing? Used wisely, it’s hugely effective. Twitter in particular, opens doors. I’ve met many generous writers both famously published and on their way, and got to know some of them in real life. I’ve been encouraged and supported and taken care of.
Which social network works best for you? Twitter for introductions and making contacts. After years away I recently re-joined Facebook, which to my surprise is proving useful too. Social media is like cake. Too much of it makes you sick. Get is right and, as we say in Wales, it’s lush!