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Thursday, 16 January 2014
Mary Wood on Success in her Sixties.
Readers with long memories may recall Mary Wesley's bestselling novel from 1984, The Camomile Lawn. It caused a particular stir as being a remarkable instance of a writer in her seventies having an overnight success. In response, Mary Wesley remarked with dry humour that her 'overnight success' had only taken a few decades of honing her craft in relative obscurity to achieve.
I'm pleased to say that, thanks to the e-book revolution and the help it has given to self-publishing authors, my guest this month, author Mary Wood, hasn't had to wait for nearly so long. She has, however, had to wait a while for the mainstream publishing industry to find out what her many readers already knew - that she writes cracking stories.
Mary, Welcome and thank you so much for
coming to talk to me. It’s very exciting news about your contract to publish
seven books with Pan Macmillan. What’s the secret of making the transition from an indie to a mainstream author, and how did you feel when you
signed on the dotted line?
MW For me the transition came out
of the blue. An editor at Pan MacMillan was checking daily to see how the books
she was involved in were doing on Kindle. Always she would see my book, Time Passes Time, in the charts and
began to wonder who I was and what my books were like. One day she downloaded
the book and read it. She loved it and contacted me; she asked if I intended to
write anymore like it. I didn’t, as the novel was set in a period I didn’t
usually deal with – WW2. It came about because I had needed to tell more of the
story of one of my characters from TheBreckton Trilogy and the timeline had
reached the war, so it had been a natural progression.
However, I wasn’t about to miss
this chance, so I said, yes. In my email back to her, I was able to include an
outline of a book I hadn’t previously thought of writing. Again, she loved what
I sent and asked for 100 pages in novel form. Soon, I had an agent knocking on
my door, the brilliant Judith Murdoch, and all has happened since.
Signing on the dotted line was
thrilling and frightening at the same time. By now I had learnt how different
traditional publishing is to self-publishing. The main difference being that
everything moves at a much slower pace. I have to wait a long time after
finishing a book for it to be published. All my work has to be passed and
worked on by a team. I have lost control of my writing life – but, the plus
side of that is, I can now get on with my writing… at least, I will be able to
once my self-published books come down from Kindle, as for a time, I will still
have a foot in each camp.
HS You have written five
successful novels, including the bestselling Breckton Trilogy. Much of your writing addresses difficult, often
harrowing issues like family betrayal or sexual violence. You deal with them
sensitively and the popularity of your novels indicates that they capture the
attention of many readers. What do you think is the appeal of such issues?
MW I think readers today, or at
least some of them, don’t want issues to be smoothed over. Many live lives steeped
in these issues, and they want the world to know what it is like for them. I do
get reviews from readers who don't like the detail I go into, but I accept them and understand that
for some I may go too far. Or, perhaps, what I write about is too near to the
truth for them to cope with.
My tackling such issues stems
from my time working for the Probation Service. Yes, my books are set in the
past when women and children had no voice, but the same things are going on
today and having a voice doesn’t always make a difference. Fear supresses
freedom to speak.
Daily, I saw the effects of drug
taking, rape, child sex and murder, and always it incensed me how little the
public realised the truth behind the headlines. How they could hear of, or read
about, these abominations without it touching their lives. This is because they
do not realise what the word ‘rape’ encompasses, or what the murdered person
suffered before death, or the horrendous injury to the child’s body and mind,
or the distress of the addict, and besides this, the wider impact on loved
ones. I have a burning need to show it as it is.
HS What set you on the path to writing?
MW I was born to write – not an
airy-fairy statement, but a truth based in my ancestry and my childhood. The
thirteenth child of an upper middle-class mother and an East
End barrow boy – an unlikely combination that worked, I was
brought up with a lot of love, but in poverty. The kind of poverty that meant I
walked a mile and a half to catch the school bus wearing plimsolls, with many
more holes than those meant for the laces, through ankle deep snow.
All of this gave me empathy for
the less fortunate, which developed into a fascination for social history –
material for the future.
In our home we had shelves full
of a legacy from my mother’s past – books. And not just ordinary books, but
classics that I became addicted to. No other child of my standing had recourse
to such wonderful reading matter, or a highly educated mother to help the
appreciation of them.
Mother would often say I took
after her grandmother, Dora Langlois, in the way I had my head constantly in a
book and made up fantastic tales around simple happenings. Great-Grandmother
Dora was an author in the late eighteen and nineteen hundreds, and I’m very
proud to be thought to be like her. It gave me enormous pleasure recently to
discover her book, In the Shadow of
Pamenkh, listed on Amazon – though sadly it is no longer available to
HS Life hasn’t always been easy
for you. Has writing been something that has helped you to keep going through
MW Yes. I have taken many knocks,
lost many loved ones, young and old, but always I had my writing to take me
into another world where I could forget for a time. Writing helped too as I
coped with ME and Breast Cancer, but life is like that, full of ups and downs
and I have far more ups than downs so I am very lucky. I have a wonderful
husband of 50 years standing and four amazing children besides 12 grandchildren
and 17 great-grandchildren, whom I love very much. My life is full of good
friends and exciting events – who could wish for more?
HS Do you have favourite novelists
who have inspired you?
MW I love Penny Vincenzi. She
influenced the style of my writing in the way she gives one chapter to each
character even if there is no connection between them at first, and then brings
them together in a powerful story. Mostly though, I think I have to give credit
to Catherine Cookson. Despite all the classics I read as a child, Catherine was
the first author to take me deeply into the story and make me feel a part of
it. I became that girl trying to bring up her siblings in a cave, or the maid
in the big-house, or the genteel young lady so wrongly used by her suitor as I read
Catherine’s books. And I knew what it was to really feel the emotions of the
characters. I wanted to do that for my readers.
HS Some writers say that listening
to music helps them to access emotions they then use in their writing. Does
music play a role for you?
MW No. I need complete silence to
allow me to hear my characters and connect to them.
HS What made you chose Ireland and Yorkshire
as the settings for your Breckton Trilogy?
How much of the detail was based on research and how much on personal
MW In the Yorkshire folk and the
Irish, I detect true grit: a sense of having lived life at the raw, and of
having experienced the earthy feelings and emotions I wanted to portray. I have
friends from both of these areas and they influenced me with their zest for
life, no matter what it threw at them.
I think everything we write comes
from somewhere within us, I know it does for me. Research is secondary to that
– the means of dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s, although facts are still
important and support imagination.
HS Writing dialogue in local or
historical language is always a risk but you carry it off brilliantly. How did
you prepare for it?
MW Listening is the answer to
that one. I lived in Leeds for a very short
time, and loved the way they spoke, and everyone loves the Irish brogue. I made
mental notes of how I would spell the way they pronounced words in order to get
the sound over. At first I really overdid it to the point that when one of my
daughters read what I had written she was terribly upset and said to her
sister, ‘I never knew mum was dyslexic!’ Bless her, she hadn’t realised I was
trying to write dialect! After that I learnt to tone it down and just give a
flavour of the dialect and I think that is why it works. Also my novels are
peopled by rich families too and the way they speak gives a balance.
HS As you’ve said, you come from
a large family. Is it hard to find the space and time to write, away from the commitments
a large family usually entails?
MW Writing around family and work
commitments was never a problem. I didn’t start to write until three of my
children had flown the nest. Only my son was still at home at the time and he
couldn’t wait to read the next chapter as it came off the typewriter. And the
girls waited in anticipation for me to send each instalment. How they all read
so many versions I do not know, but they have always been encouraging and very
proud of me. Now I am retired and spend a lot of my time in Spain, they understand when they
visit that I need even more time to devote to my writing and so they enjoy
their holiday around me, though of course I try to spend some part of every day
with them. Apart from this I have an amazing husband who completely takes over
the running of the home and all that entails, so I am very lucky.
HS It’s clear from your author
and Facebook pages that you very much enjoy contact with readers. Do you think
that coming from a large family has made you particularly sociable?
MW Possibly. We were a very happy
family and enjoyed interacting with one another. Often we would not leave the
table after Sunday dinner until darkness had descended outside as we debated
everything under the sun and chatted away. Music filled the house, classical
and pop - and laughter and rows vied with each other keeping the noise level
high. However, all of this often sent me into my own little world where I loved
peace and quiet and I would find somewhere to read and lose myself, as I love
my own company too. I am a people person though, and give my love easily and
willingly to all, and this comes back to me in abundance.
HS Currently, you live in Spain.
Do you have plans to feature your adopted country in your work one day?
MW I don’t think so, though never
say never. Spain is a
retreat for me, but I remain a British citizen and spend as much time in Britain
as I do here. I love the lifestyle in Spain, though. It is relaxed and
happy and the sun gives you that feel-good feeling. A good all round
environment for a writer.
HS So what’s next? Is there a new
novel on the way?
MW Yes, I’m working on a novel
which I have to deliver to my publisher by the 1st of December. It’s
set between 1910 and 1950, a period of great strife for the world. I’m really
enjoying writing and researching it. There is so much material to get to grips
with as during these years there wasn’t a family untouched by war, or flu
epidemic, or the awful recession of the twenties, or the fight to get women the
vote, or the general strikes. And yet amidst it we had the antics of the ‘roaring
twenties’, the emergence of cinemas and film stars, big bands and rock ‘n’ roll
- an amazing background to pluck many situations from.
Though the even more exciting, ‘what’s
next’, is: this is the year when I will see, for the first time, two of my
novels in bookshops, libraries and supermarkets. Something I never thought
would ever happen, and something I am so looking forward to. It is the realisation
of my dreams.
HS Mary, it’s been wonderful
talking to you and added an interesting dimension to my reading of your novels.
I rejoice with you in your success – long may it continue.
MW Thank you, Harriet, for inviting me to do this interview
with you, I’ve really enjoyed it and hope your followers enjoy it too. If
anyone has any questions, please let me know and I will be happy to answer
them. Best wishes to you and to everyone, Mary.