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Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Meet the multi-talented Beth Webb

 
 

I’m delighted to welcome Beth Webb, to my blog. Among other things, Beth is the critically acclaimed author of many books for children, teens and adults. Beth, do tell readers something about yourself and what decided you to be a writer. 
 

My Dad always wanted to be a writer and he used to make up stories for me when I was little. He taught me that stories came out of heads as well as books. Before I went to school I used to scribble on bits of paper and sew them between cardboard covers to make books, I guess the urge to be an author was with me even then! 

My first published piece was in a pop magazine when I was about 15. I met a brilliant blues group and wrote about them and was paid three guineas (about £25 in todays money). 
 
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school – there was no advice on ‘how to be a writer’ in those days and my English teacher put me off being a journalist, so I read sociology and psychology. After uni I travelled around Europe, and lived with a hippie commune in a houseboat in Amsterdam and a mediaeval Bavarian castle, I also stayed for a while in an ex-leprosy hospital, then an attic in Rotterdam. I earned money cooking, cleaning, teaching English and selling paintings. I still love the Dutch language and people.  

When I was about 27 I thought I ought to grow up and come home, so I worked for an independent radio station, then a national newspaper where I met my husband. I started writing stories for my four kids as Dad had done for me, and in 1993 I published my first children’s novel.

In 2000 I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, then I became a tutor for the Open College of the Arts. I designed and wrote their course on writing for children. In about 2003 I became a tutor for the University of Lancaster and the British Council’s ‘Crossing Borders’ programme, mentoring emerging African writers.
 
In 2005 I had a BIG break, and signed a major four book contract with Macmillan Children’s books for Star Dancer, my quartet for teens and adults about the end of the Iron Age and the Roman Invasion. When the recession hit, Macmillan cancelled my contract (along with quite a few others). Since then I’ve been caring for my elderly parents and illustrating books for adults with learning disabilities (http://www.booksbeyondwords.co.uk). At the same time, a small independent publisher finished the Star Dancer series (http://www.stardancerbooks.com).  

I’m now working on several new titles for both teens and children. 



 

 
Whew! That’s quite a biography. Tell me, how do you find inspiration for your writing? 

Usually things people say get me thinking. For example, with Star Dancer, I met a lady at a picnic who wanted to be a minister, but her church didn’t approve or women priests. I began to think about all the people who can’t be who they are meant to be because of colour, creed, sex or disability – and Star Dancer began to grow.

When I get an idea I write it down, then from time to time I flip back through my notebooks. I’m often amazed at some of the ideas I’ve come up with. They aren’t bad.   
 

Who are the authors who have most influenced you?
 

Where do I begin? Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, Philip Reeve, David Almond, Philip Gross. I couldn’t have written my historical work without the inimitable Prof Ron Hutton and every collector of fairy stories and folk tales.  
 

Do you base any of your characters on real people?
 
I use character types, or snippets of the things people say or the way they laugh rather than ‘whole’ people. However, there was a bully who I painted a fairly good portrait of in my ‘Dragons of Kilve’ book. I was a bit worried because in my contract I had to sign a declaration that I hadn’t used any real people in the stories (who might later sue). On the grounds that this guy was unlikely to ever read my books – and I had turned him into a rather unpleasant slug creature – I signed!



How do you develop your ideas into books?
 
I daydream a lot, I write down loads and loads of notes in spiral notebooks, I go for long walks and think, I talk to myself and probably most important of all, I tell the stories to long-suffering friends so I can ‘hear’ how the idea is shaping up – and they can tell me whether it works or not.
 

How do you write? Do you have routines and rituals you like to stick to? 

I’m at my computer every day from 8 or 9 am, usually with tea and breakfast next to the mouse, and I work until about 4, when my brain seizes up, then I go for a long walk to think through what I’m going to do next.
 

The Star Dancer quartet, set in the Iron Age, was originally written for teenagers but it crossed over into the adult market. Did that surprise you?
 
Yes, it did. Initially I wrote for older teens (14-18 years), but then I started getting fan mail from adults. I was hugely chuffed. But I think adults probably liked the fact I’d done lots of research and really tried to make the stories work in the historical setting. I think adults also like the fact that the fantasy element has a strong psychological underpinning. Demons and magic all have firm, thought-through roots within my books, I don’t just throw them in for fun.


You also write for young children with your entertaining series about Fleabag the cat.
 
I’ve written six books for younger children. Sadly some of them are out of print now, but I’m best known for a kiddies’ picture book (Junk Yard Dragon), the Dragons of Kilve (short stories for KS2 children), and the three Fleabag books. The Dragons of Kilve is now in it’s fourth edition – soon to be an audio book and Fleabag is now coming out as a new series with illustrations (by me!)




 
How would you describe the different challenges presented by the teenage and children’s fields of writing?

(Beth takes a deep breath…) I could go on far ages about this. How long have you got? In short, children like to be entertained and to explore emotions and the difficulties of life from a safe place they can return to when they close the book. 

YA readers like to be thrown in the deep end with all the rolling, terrifying dangers of high action writing with fantasy creatures like dragons and vampires, danger, death and sex (sex is a sticky question for another day).

Teen readers know the world is a deadly place, they are longing to find a path through – however risky. Watch them play computer games and you’ll see what I mean. Teens don’t like being protected.    


Apart from writing, you work with schoolchildren on a variety of projects. Can you tell me more about that? 

I run workshops and courses for young writers at schools up and down the country, and especially at a place called Kilve Court near Minehead in Somerset http://www.kilvecourt.co.uk/enrichment/ I’m also a professional storyteller and run storytelling workshops and events. I used to tell regularly at Glastonbury Festival, but gave up because of the mud! 


So what’s next? Will there be new stories for Fleabag and Tegen? 

Fleabag is getting a BIG makeover  - Fleabag and the Fire cat is being revamped this winter for publication next year. I’m also planning a prequel. As for Tegen? I’ve been asked if I’ll write what happens to her daughter Gilda, growing up in ancient Ireland, and others have asked for the stories of Sabrina and Owein – and how their ancestors become – well, it’d be a spoiler if I told you who. But I’m not sure. I’ll see what my publisher says when I’ve finished everything else I have in hand at the moment. 


Beth, thank you so much for coming, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
 

Find out more about Beth at her website, www.bethwebb.co.uk. It includes her top tips on writing as well as a ‘contact me’ button if anyone has more questions. She’s also on Twitter as @bethwebbauthor and https://www.facebook.com/bethwebbauthor.

Below: one of Beth's illustrations for Fleabag and the Ring of Fire.