Ginny Stone – Superwoman! An In-Depth Interview with the Wonderful Author, Mum and Cancer Survivor, Ginny Stone

This week, I am thrilled to be interviewing the lovely Ginny Stone. A busy mum and author living in South Africa, Ginny was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and her book, Out Damned Spot, tells of her terrifying experience. Bittersweet and achingly funny, it is a real and frank account of those dark days.

Ginny Stone is a hybrid author, with 14 books traditionally published and and 7 indie books with more in the pipe-line. She lives in Pretoria, South Africa in a rambley old house with extended family, and took time from her busy schedule to chat to me about life, cancer, pets and living in a family commune!

I recently read your book “Out Damn Spot” which is in fact a true story about your brush with cancer. The book deals with the situation in a fairly lighthearted and even humorous manner, but I suspect it was far from funny at the time?

True story! I actually had no clue how dangerous melanoma was until I hit Google and saw that it’s the biggest killer as far as skin cancer goes – mainly because it goes undetected so often. I was lucky.

In the book, your family were initially concerned in the first few days, but that concern quickly changed into disinterest and, dare I say it, even annoyance that your illness was inconveniencing them. Is that a fair statement?

Erm… not quite! They were concerned— in fact panic-stricken would be more accurate – but once I got the all clear and they realised I was not going to die, they relaxed and stopped worrying. This happened to be 6 days after the op – I was was still sore, woozy from the meds and post-op ghoulies, had no feeling in my upper arm (still don’t) and was reeling from the fact that I, Mrs Indestructible, was in fact destructible.

You come across in the book – and in your posts on social media – as a powerhouse of energy. Always on the go, you strike me as being the mover and shaker in your family, so do you think it was a bit of a shock when suddenly “Mum couldn’t do it all anymore and they had to help”?

A shock of seismic proportions would be a fairly accurate thing to say. Thing is, mostly mum did continue to do it all.  I am my own worst enemy and never ask for help. I think family members should automatically know when I need somebody to step in and feed the cats, make supper or just do general household stuff. That’s stupid because they don’t even see that I’m floundering. I need to learn to ask.

It must have been a very scary time for you, and I can only imagine what you must have felt, but did you ever believe that you wouldn’t recover? That the treatment wouldn’t work?

Okay – so I knew that they would be able to cut out the cancer from my arm easily because it was only stage 1. I wasn’t sure if it had spread though. I kept asking what the treatment would be if it had, and nobody would tell me. “Let’s wait and see,” they infuriatingly said. I guess it’s because if it had spread throughout my entire body, I would up been up shit creek. Luckily, the sentinel node was clear. But let me tell you – having that sucker out was much worse than having the cancer removed. That’s why I still have no feeling in my arm. The doctor never said a word – it was the biggest shock ever that first day when I showered. Why don’t they tell you what might happen, so you can expect things?

And what we all want to know is are you completely healed? Has the cancer gone for good?

Lol – fat joke – who knows! I am covered in speckles and freckles.  I just keep an eye on the ones that I can see. For the time being, yes.

At the time or perhaps since, did you seek the help and guidance of any cancer sufferers’ organisations or websites? Did they help, and can you recommend any for anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in a similar situation?

Hah! It boils down to me and that help thing that I talked about above. I didn’t even think about counselling until long afterwards. It would have been so incredibly beneficial. All I wanted to do was talk about it, and nobody wanted to listen. “Yes, yes, but you’re okay!” was the general beginning of the change of subject sentence. My body was was okay, but my head was all screwed up. I blame my doctor for not suggesting some sort of help, but I think if you have not been through something like that yourself, you don’t really realise how much it messes a person up. Must say, my Instagram and Facebook family were fabulous – but I would recommend some sort of therapy. Unless you are a writer and a gardener – writing my book was cathartic on so many different levels.

You live in South Africa. I know this is a very beautiful country, but one that has its troubles. What is it like living there? And is it really as dangerous a place as it seems?

It’s the most fabulous place. The scenery is so diverse from province to province and absolutely to die for. The people are friendly and it’s not half as dangerous as everybody always blabs on about. Yes, it does have its own troubles and you do have to be savvy where you go, especially at night time. But you have to do that in any country. We have electric gates, barbed wire on the fence, bars on the windows, alarms and locks. Shhh… don’t tell anybody but we don’t use half of them. I have no desire to go and live anywhere else – except maybe near the sea. We have malls too – a fact that sometimes seems to astound overseas people. But no, lions and elephants do not roam freely in the streets.

Now “Out Damned Spot” isn’t your only book. I know you have also written the “Sibo” series of books for children. Perhaps you could tell us a little about them?

Sibo is a little girl who wants to help save the world. She wants all the kids to help her. I wrote the first book when we moved to Gauteng (from the Western Cape) in 2007. My writer and journalist friends loved it and suggested I send it to a lady who had publishing connections. OMG! She slated me left right and centre, told me my topic (global warming) was ridiculous and suggested that I take her writing classes at University. I was mortified, so bloody embarrassed that I could have been so bold as to have thought that lowly little I could write a book. I stashed it in my laptop for over six months. Then started chatting to a well-known columnist in one of the larger newspapers and he loved it and said I should send it to his publisher. They said ‘No thank you’, so I bluntly emailed them back – “No thank you because it’s crap or no thank you because it’s not what you are interested in publishing?” Got a really nice letter by return email, giving me the Publishing Association of South Africa’s website, and saying it was not at all crap – they just did not handle children’s books. I picked 5 children’s publishers from the list and emailed them. The very next day two publishers replied. One emailed and Lets Look Publishers called me and enthused.

There are now 14 titles published in the Sibo series. The first four Lets Look Publishers carried the costs for, but because I’d worked in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field before, I had contacts and was used to filling in proposals.  So I got a few pertinent books in the series funded – the first was on the topic of astronomy for International Year of Astronomy (2009). Thereafter I got commissioned to write Sibo stories on various topics like… nanotechnology (true as Bob – if you are not sure what it is – read the book), biodiversity, HIV AIDS, Chemistry.

Peter Sanderson from Lets Look and I are passionate about road safety – so we crowd funded for that title and got a chunk of funding from Nash Nissan. The following year we got more funding from Super Group SA and – this was very cool – we printed Sibo Looks Right in a slightly less robust format (more like a magazine) and gave them out at toll gates over the Easter break – a time when the roads statistics are shocking.

Sibo on the Move was commissioned by the Gautrain (our version of rapid transport) and they sponsored 10,000 copies of this title. That’s a funny story too – but I’ll bore the pants off everybody if I go into all of my funny writing stories. 

By the way – the other publisher that contacted me – Quali Books – published three other little books I had written and dodgily illustrated on HIV AIDS – and went on to translate them into 8 of the official SA languages. They are still being read.

What kind of writer would you say you are? One who plans and outlines meticulously? Or do you just dive in headfirst, no parachute and no safety net?

Pantser for sure! I get an idea in my head and off I go. But I’m trying hard to change my evil ways.

What do you have planned next? Are you currently working on anything?

My daughter and I write our series “The Imaginaeries” together. She’s the anxious one from Out Damned Spot and has a uniquely weird sense of humour. So, she gives me ideas and I run with them and write the story. So far we have three books in the series – self-published. It’s a modern day fairy story set in a local nature reserve where my husband and I go hiking. It’s a magical place all on its own, named Faerie Glen Nature Reserve. I know, right? Perfect!

Emma had originally created (designed and hand-made) a series of soft dolls with names like Marigold, Ivy Lion and Winona. We wrote them into the first story as some of the Imaginaerie characters – it’s a whimsical tale with some twists, and now we are writing the back, front and sometimes sideways story of each character. It’s going to be an epic series and it’s not only for kids, in fact the last two books are a tad less kiddyfied than the first. The back stories are more novelettes – quick, easy fun reads. There are many more in the pipe-line.

Have also just finished “Wizard of Wigwash – the Adventures of Johnny the Penguin” which I wrote in conjunction with Alastair Kendall in the UK. His dad used to tell him bedtime stories and he always wanted to turn them into a book. Poor dude, he found me just after I’d had my melanoma diagnosed last year, so I was rather straight forward and told him his writing sucked, but his plot was great. I’d write his story for him if I was not going to pop my clogs. I didn’t, so I wrote the story. Of course it turned out a lot bigger than he’d ever been told, and he was great and let me have my way with lots of the story-line. There have been three iterations, but the final version is rather good, if I’m allowed to say so myself.

I’m also busy with the first issue of a “Creative Writers Journal” also at the moment – if anybody wants to submit an entry – please have a look and see what it’s all about. The more the merrier.

I have signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time ever. I plan on writing something about Jack, the hooligan cat and Gemma, the neurotic sausage dog live on the Edge. Bit long for a title hey?

What’s your favourite part about being a writer? And what’s your least favourite part?

Being able to put stories, blogs, whatever into words and have people enjoy reading the end product. I love reading Sibo to kids and knowing that the story has made some sort of an impact. Even when their eyes roll back and you think they are bored, they suddenly perk up and answer all the questions correctly at the end and then fight over who wins a book. I wish I could give them all books. One day when I win the Lotto I’m going to buy loads of my books and give them out free! Oh wait… shit, I better start playing the Lotto then – hey? A friend of mine once called it ‘stupidity tax’ and I’ve stayed away since then.

I effing hate marketing! That’s the yuckiest part of writing – even if you are traditionally published you still need to market. It always feels like you are bragging about your own books, like… buy mine, buy mine!

As well as writing, I know you’re very passionate about your garden. Now to my English eyes it’s a very unusual garden, no less beautiful for that, but I imagine the climate in South Africa can very much dictate the type of plants you can grow?

Succulents rock! They are water-wise and are very rewarding. I love “proper” flowers too though. The weather in Pretoria is great for flowers and plants – they don’t even die in the winter. There’s no frost where we live, although it does get chilly (like  ~2 deg C).

What made you decide to completely restyle the garden? And is it finished yet? Do you have any more exciting plans for it?

When we moved into our house, the back garden was enchanting, shady, tree-filled, cool and green. The front garden was bare red earth with some succulents around the edges.

Whilst I was flirting with cancer last year, I was angry. Really, really angry with the world at large. So I flung myself into sorting out our fugly front yard. We’d tried making a few raised beds when we first moved in (August 2017) but they did not work out that well. Then winter arrived and the front garden was a nice warm place to sit. Albeit ugly as sin.

Chris bought us a divine swinging bench. I used to sit on it (and snivel when I thought I might die) but then I pulled up my big girl panties and started scheming. It went from there. I got fit and toned hefting rocks around the place. I think the family realised that it was an outlet for me and they left me alone. Chris only interfered when I placed the pavers for my long legs – he insisted that I make them closer together.

I still love pottering around in the garden. I appropriate rubble from the side of the road and make cool stuff with it, herb swirls, edgings etc.  The broken plates went up onto the wall in a nice big mosaic. The bench has become a renowned place to sit with friends and family.

Before Mosaic
After Mosaic

We mentioned your family before, and I know you have an eclectic assortment of family members all living in a big house together and I always imagine it to be a bit like The Waltons. Is this true? Or is the reality not quite so rosy?

Chris calls it a commune. I say it’s a mad house. We originally bought the house because it had a pecan nut tree and enough space for everybody. My 85 year old mom has her own granny flat attached to the house. Emma and her significant other have a little garden flatlet, Luan (aka Vetboy – my stepson – 3rd year vet school – no mean feat), Chris and I share the main part of the house. I make supper for six people most nights. Mom cooks the odd one every now and then. It was a rule we made right at the beginning – everybody eats supper together. Sometimes it’s a real pain in the backside, but mostly we manage.

The funny thing was, when I was sick, instead of them all pulling together, everybody went into their own little silo of misery and anxiety and I was left trying to pick up the pieces. Nobody ever talks much about how guilty one feels for putting loved ones through the trauma of your illness.

I have another daughter; she’s married with her own delightful daughter aged 7. We often wish that they lived a bit closer than Cape Town.

I think it would drive me crackers having so many people placing demands on me all the time, so what do you do when it’s all a bit much and you need to escape from it?

Crackers with cheese and pickles on! I go into the garden of course! Or do crafty stuff or hide in the loo with my book. Every now and then Chris and I sneak off for a weekend, but they are few and far between. Luckily I do have my own office. Okay – Chris has a desk in it too, but as he’s at work all day – it’s mine!

Now, as well as sharing your home with your large family, you also have several pets whose antics I and many others enjoy sharing on your social media sites. Can you tell us about them?

I’m quite good at sharing animal stuff hey! It’s because I wrote “A Dog’s Blog” for 8 years as a weekly column in a local newspaper. It was a hysterical look at family life from our SPCA pooch’s point of view. In fact, am still compiling those columns into books. Two down, another three to go!

We inherited Gemma when we bought the house. Her family moved to New Zealand and left her behind. She’s a neurotic sausage dog, had been run over before we got her, so limps like a drunken sailor whenever she thinks she’s not getting enough attention, and is very, very vocal.  Gemma has the best kept toenails in the neighbourhood, thanks to Vetboy.

Then we have Edge – Emma recruited him when we still lived in the complex. She was an abandoned kitten and managed to weasel her presence into the household, much against every reluctant bone in my body to have another animal (we already had Ralph, who had adopted us when he had a perfectly fine home of his own). Edge got fatter and fatter and we thought she was preggy, but kitties never appeared.  Turns out, when we went to have her fixed, that she was a he, about 5 or 6 years old, and had already been neutered. He had just eaten himself into a preggy-looking state, with man-boobs—the whole tootie. Shame, he also has tumours in his throat, and is FIV+. Luckily we have Vetboy in the house – he gives Mr Edge regular injections of cortisone and keeps everything in order.

Then there is Jack aka #Hooligancat.  We got him after Ralphie died. He is the most delightful hooligancat that ever existed. He is also the most wicked. You can read how we got him here.

Do you get to see much of the wildlife in South Africa? And what are your favourite of all its wild animals?

Every now and then Chris, who heads up the Physics Department at the University of Pretoria, has an overseas visitor who needs to be entertained. We usually hive off to the nearest (3 hours away) nature reserve, Pilanesburg, where one can spot some of the “big five”. We mostly manage to see elephant, rhino, giraffe, myriads of buck, hippo, warthogs etc etc. The cats – lions and leopard – continue to elude us though. My personal favourite are the giraffe.

Have you travelled much outside of South Africa? If you have, where has been the location in the world you enjoyed the most?

I was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in Malawi, went to high school in South Africa and landed up staying here. I’ve also been to Namibia, Mozambique, Cyprus, Rome, Amsterdam, UK, Belgium, Switzerland and have visited my sister in San Francisco, or rather, just outside SF. I loved Belgium.

If you could travel anywhere, money no object, where would you go?

My bucket list is to walk the El Camino, not really for the whole pilgrimmy thing, but I love the thought of having my life on my back for a few weeks and not having to worry about much. Otherwise I’d like to just travel a bit with Chris – he’s a great person to travel with.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Ginny Stone for taking the time to have a chat with us this morning, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed hearing about her busy and exciting life. Below is the link to look up Ginny’s books and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning here on A Little Bit of Blake. I hope you have a wonderful day and I look forward to chatting with you again next week.

Regards

Julia Blake

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Just Kidding… 15 Years of Being a Single-Parent

This week my daughter, Miss F, turned 16. Like most parents of teenagers, I look at her and wonder where on earth all those years went to. For fifteen of them, I’ve been a single mum and raised her totally alone with no help from my ex-husband. Whilst this was not exactly what I signed up for, as a wise woman once said – “It is what it is” – so I just had to knuckle down and deal with it.

They’ve been eventful years, in which she’s grown from a tiny baby with the smallest feet ever, to a lanky teenager needing size seven shoes! There’s been a great deal of hardship and sacrifice along the way, but there’s also been side splitting, roll about on the floor moments of laughter as well.

When my daughter was very young and had newly started nursery school, she had yet to learn the art of diplomacy. That sometimes you need to think before you speak and not blurt out things you’ve heard mummy say to a friend when she thought you weren’t listening. A perfect example of this was the case of the classroom assistant. A lovely lady, she nevertheless had the ability to not only talk all four legs off a donkey but persuade it to go for a walk afterwards.

Any parent unfortunate enough to be cornered by her in the playground would stand there, eyes glazed, as she rattled on about anything and everything. Bound by British politeness and a urgent desire not to piss off one of the people who looked after their precious small human all day, the hapless parent would nod and agree, desperately sneaking looks at their watch and seeing the other mummies and daddies scuttling by at speed, thankful for once it wasn’t them caught in the small talk limelight.

One morning we entered the playground and before I could stop her, Miss F ran over to the classroom assistant crying out “Mrs S, Mrs S, stick out your tongue!” Confused, Mrs S looked at her and enquired why Miss F wanted her to stick out her tongue, to which my darling daughter shrieked at the top of her lungs, “Because I want to see if it’s hinged in the middle the way mummy says it is!”

Mortified, I tried to apologise and laugh it off, but this lady was not to be mollified. She gathered up her dignity, swept all the children before her into class, and NEVER SPOKE TO ME AGAIN! I was the envy of the playground. No more sneaking in and hoping to be able to drop and collect without being stopped, I sauntered in as casually as I liked. I was concerned she might take it out on Miss F, who was innocent of any crime other than that of being a parrot, but another teacher – who found the whole thing highly amusing – told me apparently Mrs S had loudly declared that “Really, in these cases it is always the parent who should be blamed.”

We survived the early years quite nicely. Potty training and weaning came and went with no real problems – mostly because I was quite a laid back mum and didn’t pressure her into them until she was ready and wanted to do them. Her flappy mouth though continued to be a problem. Seemingly with no filter, she’d say exactly what was in her mind, regardless of the consequences.

Trying on a pair of trousers one day in a changing room in Next, I looked at my six-year-old who’d been bribed to be good with a packet of smarties and asked – “Do these trousers make mummy look fat?” Giving the question her full concentration, she studied me intently, head on one side, before announcing loudly and with complete candour – “No mummy, it’s your fat that makes you look fat.” Snorts of laughter erupted up and down the length of the cubicles. Needless to say, I did not buy the trousers.

She was quite a studious child, and as books are obviously very important in our house, reading and writing were skills she was keen to learn. I remember one day she ran through to me, all puffed up with pride and declared “come and see, I’ve just written my first word.” Thinking to myself this must be one of those parental moments all the books tell you about, I ran to see. Well, her “word” began with an Z then a Y then a K then an X and progressed from there. I squinted at this word that quite legitimately could have been the name of a firm of Polish builders, before gently asking what it meant. Looking at me as if I was the stupidest person on the planet, she replied – “Well I don’t know! I haven’t learnt to read yet!”

This notion she had the dimmest mother in the world is one that seems to have persisted. Driving her to an after-school club one day she suddenly asked how hard it was to drive. I replied that it was quite hard. You had to pay attention, learn all the rules of the road and what all the signs meant, and then when you’d passed your test and could drive alone, you always had to be aware of what you were doing and what was happening on the road around you. That, in conclusion, it was quite a difficult thing to do. She considered this, then asked – “Well, how did you manage it then?”

And then there were those after-school clubs. Oh, we did them all. Swimming – all the way from tadpole group at pre-school age, right up to marlin group in middle school. Every week we’d hurtle like a rocket from her school which was one side of town, to the swimming pool, which was right the other side. Having only 15 minutes to get her there, changed and in the pool, the drive was always a flurry of her changing in the back of the car, whilst I risked life and limb and probably violated a few traffic laws negotiating school run traffic and all the other manic mummies trying to get their offspring to their extra-curricular activities. We were always late by a few moments, always got a look from the instructor, and once it was suggested we transfer to the later class. But I didn’t want to do that, it would have meant hanging around the leisure centre for 45 minutes because there was no point going home first, and then we wouldn’t have got home to have dinner until gone six o’clock. Nope, I stubbornly refused to change, and so we managed, week after week, always being a few seconds late.

Then there was ballet. Miss F started taking ballet classes at age two. A serious drain on our finances, we managed to pay for them because I thought they were what she wanted to do. For seven long years she’d don a pink tutu once a week and lumber around like a heavy-footed pixie. Until she finally admitted she hated ballet, was crap at it, and had only carried on with it for so long because she thought I wanted her to do it! But she’d rather leave so she could take up archery instead please. When I thought of all the hundreds of pounds wasted over the years on lessons and ballet kit, I wanted to cry, but hey ho, such is the life of a parent.

Archery I didn’t mind. The classes were supplemented by the school and all the equipment was provided. She stayed late after school once a week, so it meant I merely ambled along after all the school run traffic had cleared and picked her up. The archery craze lasted precisely one term and was dropped in favour of rugby. I had no problems with her playing rugby – hey, my girl can do whatever a boy does – but by now she was wearing glasses, so I was a bit concerned about them being broken. As it turned out, I was worrying about the wrong end. Involved in a tackle once day, a ligament tore in her leg and that was her benched for the rest of the term and me having to drive her to and from school every day. And that was the end of rugby.

She sang in the girls’ choir at the local cathedral for a few years, and I lost count of the number of Evensongs, performances and carol concerts I sat through. That lasted about three years, before she got bored with that as well.

Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you the loudest sound on the planet, is that of a young child saying something hugely inappropriate in the worst place they could possibly say it. Once, we were picking up a few bits and pieces at our local branch of the upmarket grocery store, Waitrose. A tad more expensive than other supermarkets, it is right on my doorstep, so we’d sometimes shop there rather than get the car out. When Miss F was practicing her reading, she’d like to carry the shopping list and read out each item to me in turn. We were in the last aisle, the bottled drinks aisle, and she informed me proudly there was only one item left on our list. I asked what it was, and in a voice loud enough to summon the cows’ home, she announced – “COCK, MUMMY. YOU HAVE TO BUY SOME COCK!”

My eyes bugged. My face went bright red. My mouth opened and closed several times because I had no words. All around us, eyebrows were raised, mouths quirked into grins and a nearby shop assistant told me – “You won’t find any cock in here dear, try Tesco.” Snatching the list away, I exclaimed, “COKE! I have to buy cocoa cola!” For months afterwards, every time we went back, I swear the assistants would all smirk knowingly at me.

That same branch of Waitrose used to have those little trolleys for children to push around behind their parents as they did their shopping. A hellishly bad idea, I can only assume they were the brainchild of a committee of childless idiots, and luckily, they didn’t last long. Of course, Miss F thought they were brilliant and absolutely insisted on having one every time we went shopping. One day, I was doing quite a big shop. I’d had an unexpected windfall and was having a little party to repay all the various invitations Miss F and I had had over the years.

Wandering around the shop, Miss F clanked her little trolley behind me, ramming it into the back of my legs every time I stopped, crashing it into a display of tinned goods and sending them flying, and nearly kneecapping an elderly lady. We finally reached the last aisle in the shop and I loaded up the remaining few things on my list into her little trolley because I had no room in mine. Making our way to the check out, I noticed a few people looking askance at us and it suddenly dawned on me that the last aisle had been the alcohol one!

Yep, you’ve guessed it, Miss F’s little trolley was now full of bottles of wine, beer and a bottle of port all rattling away merrily, with Teddy riding high on top. I stopped, realising how bad it looked and hustled her away behind the freezers, where I picked all the most innocent things out of my trolley and swapped for the bottles and tins of booze in hers. Bad Mummy!

One day she came home from school full of the history lesson they’d had about Tudor times, and how King Henry VIII had broken from Rome and created a new religion so he could marry Anne Boleyn. I’m very interested in British history, so we chatted about it for a while, before she asked – “Mummy, is our current Queen a prostitute?” I replied – “Yes, dear, but don’t tell Philip.” Of course, she meant protestant.

Looking back over the years, I remember more laughter than tears, and I really wouldn’t have changed a thing. Well, a bit more money and a bit more time would have been nice, but we managed. And now she’s 16. Regular readers of my blog will know we had her prom a few weeks ago and her Sweet Sixteen birthday party. She’s growing up so fast it leaves me breathless. She’s done with school and is preparing for the adventure that will be college.

Being a single parent is hard, let no one tell you otherwise. You have to be good cop/bad cop, and everything is on your shoulders, and it’s one of those jobs that you don’t know you’ve got right until it’s too late. I think I did ok, looking at the wonderful, kind and hardworking human being she has become, I don’t think I did too badly at all. But, at the end of the day, I did my best, and that’s really all anyone can ask of you.

Having fun with filters on her new phone Christmas 2017

Thank you once again for joining me, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this or any of my blogs, or if you simply have something you want to ask me or have a suggestion for a future topic.

Julia Blake

You Know You’re Getting Old, When…

It’s late Saturday afternoon, in fact it’s almost at that point where we can legitimately declare it Saturday evening and be done with it. I’m late writing this blog – even for me this is pushing matters right to the wire. It’s been a long, exhausting week of overtime, and trying to republish one of my books “Becoming Lili”. The book has merely had a bit of a freshen up comprising of a good edit, new font and formatting, and beautiful line illustrations and chapter heading graphics throughout. Simple, you’d think, and something that wouldn’t cause any undue stress and bother. I mean it’s basically the same book as it was, a book that has sat quite happily on Amazon for the past two years. But, as I get older, one thing I’ve learnt is that nothing is ever simple. However, it was finally done to my satisfaction and I could mentally tick another thing off my to-do list.

I genuinely had no clue what to blog about this week, not a glimmer of an idea twinkled in the dimmest recesses of my brain, and I half wondered whether to not bother this week. But… I made a promise, to myself and to you, that I would always write something. Then on the drive home, I heard a comment made on the radio that set me thinking – “You know you’re getting old, when…”

When what? What one circumstance or event has to occur before you throw your hands up and admit that, yes, you are old! I turned 52 last month, not old, not really, not by today’s standards, but not young either. Realistically I am well over halfway through my life, and there is a sneaking suspicion that it’s all downhill from now on.

So, what characteristics do I feel put me squarely in the “mature” bracket, rather than the “spring chicken” one? Well, for a start, sleep has become both more precious and harder to obtain. When I was younger, I could exist on very little sleep for days on end – I remember one amazing weekend when I practically turned nocturnal, but that’s a subject for another blog perhaps – and then binge sleeping once all the partying shenanigans were over. Exhausted, I literally fell into bed and slept the clock round. I can’t do that now. The ability to turn sleep into an Olympic sporting event sadly eludes me, and no matter how tired I am or how little sleep I had the night before, my body is awake and ready for action at 6am – plead though my brain might for a lie in, nope, insists my body, plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead, up and at it, there’s stuff to be a doing.

I also used to be able to sleep anywhere. Out with friends, we’d all pile back to one or other of our homes and sleep where we dropped – spare bed (if lucky), blow up mattress, sofa, sun lounger, duvet on the floor, in a chair, even the bathtub. But now, I will pay any taxi fare, walk almost any distance or overcome any obstacle to simply GET HOME to my own bed, and my own bathroom in the morning. Because that’s another thing that marks you as getting older, your tolerance of changes in routine and your greater reliance on bathroom habits.

I find as I’m getting older, I am both less concerned and more concerned about stuff. In my teens I cared deeply about everything – the planet, animals, social injustice – all would arouse my crusading zeal and I’d march, campaign and petition to right the wrongs of the world. Now, well, it’s not that I don’t care about those things anymore, because obviously, I do. It’s just… I have so much other shit to worry about that sometimes I am guilty of merely shrugging my shoulders, because really, what is the point of it all? Me getting my knickers in a twist won’t change a thing. On the other hand, my local supermarket rearranging all their shelves so I can’t find any bloody thing will leave me almost incandescent with suppressed rage. Storming round the shop, tight lipped and muttering, trying to find an elusive shop assistant so I can ask with barely concealed sarcasm – “Ok, I give in, where have you hidden the pasta this time?”

I think as we get older, small things are more likely to make us flip than big things, because it’s all too much sometimes. You’re running late, someone had used all the milk so you couldn’t have a cup of tea, every single traffic light was red, and then some ignorant arsehole cuts you up on the roundabout and you want to kill them, because it’s all just TOO MUCH. All the little things that occur to niggle and annoy seem to happen all at the same time, and always when you’re so busy you simply don’t have the time to be mellow about them.

You know you’re getting old, when silly stuff becomes more precious – your special tea or coffee cup, being reduced almost to tears because the shop is out of your favourite breakfast cereal, your comfy slippers, and don’t even get me started on your special pillow.

We get more tired, and we definitely get more set in our ways. In my pre-child days, I loved it when a friend would call out of the blue with an invitation to go and do something then and there. Now the very thought of it reduces me to a nervous wreck, screaming inside that – “no, I had my evening all planned, thank you very much, and I really don’t want to just jump in the car and go and see if we can find a nice pub to have dinner at” – but on the rare occasions this happens, of course, I swallow that voice down and go and always have a nice time, but there is that reluctance to break out of the norm.

You know you’re getting old, when you don’t have time to be ill. I remember last year, when we were on the final countdown to Christmas, waking with a scratchy feeling in the back of my throat. I literally threatened myself “I don’t have time for this!” swallowed a truckload of drugs and just struggled on regardless, because I simply did not have the time to indulge myself by being ill.

I’ve always loved my home, but as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself becoming almost hermit like. In fact, one of my fantasies is something happening that necessitated me having to stay at home for a whole month. The thought of being able to stay home and catch up on all the things I need to do, then have time to merely relax and read… bliss!

But most of all, I think us women know we’re getting old, when we open our mouths and our mother comes out! That’s when you know you truly are beyond all help….

Short blog this week, and no pretty pictures. I am sorry, but time simply hasn’t been my friend this week. Still, as ever, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Enjoy your Sunday, and I look forward to chatting with you again next week.

Julia Blake

Rejection is Good for the Soul, Right?

I’m a writer. Ever since I could pick up a pencil and scribble down stories for my dolls to act out, I’ve written. It never occurred to me I would ever someday be published – self-confidence has always been my downfall, the feeling that I’m simply not talented enough, not clever enough, generally not good enough full stop, to achieve anything has always niggled in the back of my mind. So, I contented myself with writing funny poems to go in birthday cards and writing stories to please myself.

Thirteen years ago, I was asked by a friend to attend evening classes on creative writing at our local college. Intrigued, I went along, and a lightbulb went off in my head. “Yes!” my inner voice shouted. “This is what we’ve always wanted to do, but never had the courage to try, this is it!” I went home that evening, head brimming with ideas, and the next morning wrote 5000 words of a novel. Reading it back to myself, I realised with growing excitement that it was good, no, it was better than good.

To give some background to this story, I was going through the divorce from hell. All my choices had been taken away from me and I was angry, frustrated and shell-shocked, but I’d been left with a very young and vulnerable child, so had to keep all those emotions firmly bottled up inside. I desperately needed an outlet, a safety valve to purge all that negativity. Writing provided that outlet. During the six weeks of the course, I wrote furiously every spare moment I could, the story pouring from me in a dark, twisted, cathartic purge that left me drained but also cleansed. The resulting novel was a gritty, shockingly sexual read that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day. If it did, let’s just say it would stomp all over 50 Shades of Grey and steal its lunch money!

100% enthusiastic about = something we think will make us money!

I was completely new and naïve to the world of writing and publishing and made the mistake of thinking because I’d written “The End” that meant my book was ready for the outside world to see. Of course, looking back now I know it was nowhere near ready. What I should have done was put it away somewhere whilst I started work on my second novel, then perhaps six months later gone over it thoroughly, maybe even had it edited. But no, I hopefully sent out the opening chapters to almost every single literary agent I could find listed in the 2004 Writers Handbook.

To my complete surprise, after only six attempts I was successful in acquiring an agent and was over the moon in ecstatic certainty this was it! I’d done it! That a publishing contract wouldn’t be far behind and my life as a full-time author would soon commence.

Of course, I was being naïve. Of course, I was being stupidly optimistic. Of course, life is never that kind. Or at least not to me it isn’t.

There’s that word “enthusiastic” again

My agent sent out copies of my books to ten publishing houses on her books, and all ten came back with the same response – “it’s interesting, it’s well written, it’s a powerful rollercoaster of a read, thank you for considering us, but no thanks” – Gutted, I was reassured by my agent we’d do better with my second novel which I had by now finished. Confidently, I sent her a copy. She hated it and dumped my arse.

And that was the closest I ever got to having an agent and being considered by a publishing house. For those of you who are interested, the second novel I submitted to my agent was “Becoming Lili”. But she considered it too provincial and boring to have any chance of being a commercial success.

And that’s the bottom line of achieving a publishing contract. Agents and publishers are looking for what they feel they will have the best chance of making money from. They’re not really interested in finding unusual and off-the-wall new authors and they don’t want to take on anything that needs a lot of work to make it commercially viable. The beginning, middle and end of what they are looking for is monetary reward.

This is actually a really nice one – if rejection can ever be nice!

But I didn’t realise that then, so I kept on trying, and trying, and trying. And I kept on writing, and writing, and writing. During that long decade I churned out another four, full length novels, a dozen short stories and several poems. And the rejection slips kept arriving. Every year I would buy the latest copy of the Writers Handbook and would work my way through every single agent and publisher accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Even the postman got so used to them he’d look crestfallen every time he handed me back a large, self-addressed envelope – “Here’s another one come back, love. Shame, better luck next time.”

It was soul-destroying. I’m a stubborn person, so I grimly kept going, allowing myself to hope each time I’d posted off yet another query letter with yet another three opening chapters of yet another book to yet another agent. As the days and weeks ticked by, that tiny hope would steadily grow into a “maybe this time” belief, only to be dashed to smithereens the very next day when the postman would yet again knock at the door.

Guessing that’s a no then

Some of the rejections were standard “no thank you” ones, some were rude and even hostile, most were reasonably polite and one or two were quite nice – well, as nice as a rejection can ever be – encouraging me not to give up, and that although my work wasn’t suitable for them it wasn’t without merit and I should try other agents.

The worst one I ever received I cannot reproduce here, as the name of the agency (and it’s rather a famous one) is watermarked throughout the letter. They basically told me I couldn’t write for toffee, that I shouldn’t give up the day job and just write as a hobby. Whilst I was reeling with shocked hurt over their bluntness, they continued that however, if I wished to purchase a book from them about how to successfully submit your book to agents, then it was a snip at £10.99 plus P&P and if I sent them the money they would send me a copy. By this time, my anger had risen, and I wouldn’t have purchased a glass of water from them if I was on fire. Furiously, I pulled the sample of my apparently crap writing from the envelope only to find it WASN’T MY WORK! That’s right, they’d sent me back the opening chapters of some other poor schmuck’s book. Curiously, I read it, and do you know, it wasn’t half bad. If by some strange coincidence you are the writer of a gritty, compelling book about a lesbian police inspector struggling to make it in a misogynistic, male dominated world, drop me a line, because I’d really like to know how that story went.

Rejection for Erinsmore – at least this one has my name on it

If it wasn’t for tiny successes achieved along the way, I really believe I would have given up, but those brief blips in a sea of rejection made such a difference. My local paper printed one of my poems; I came runner up in the Readers Digest 100-word story; one of my poems won a competition and was included in an anthology.

In 2007, I entered the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future 17,000 word novella competition and was placed in the top four in my category in the world. That was a seriously big boost, because it assured me that yes, I could write, because a panel of top judges had said so. The novella was called “Lifesong” and some of you may have read it.

Finally, in 2014 I was picked up by a small press publisher and again thought I’d made the big time. They liked “The Book of Eve” and had agreed to publish it. But of course, once again my naivety let me down. Small press, whilst I’m sure there are some good ones around who genuinely care for their authors and do all they can to promote their books, are a bit of a gamble. A gamble I lost.

This particular publisher took away my copyright for five years, let me have no real say on cover, format and general look of the book, I have no say on sales platforms or pricing, and I am never allowed to hold a sale or giveaway on my own book. They take 50% of my royalties and withhold the rest until I’ve reached a certain threshold. They also do no promoting or marketing of my book whatsoever.

This is an untenable position to be in. To have given up so much and received so little in return! Valuable and very hard lesson learnt, and to all newbie authors out there considering the small press option, please do your research thoroughly.

In the beginning, the book sold quite well. Family and friends, word of mouth, of course you shift a few copies that way, but without marketing to reach a wider audience the sales dwindled and then stopped completely. At the same time, I got sick, very sick. Too ill to think about anything, let along flogging the dead horse that was my novel, my life now centred around hospital appointments, blood tests, MRI scans, medication and the long, painful struggle back to health.

It was Christmas 2016, “The Book of Eve” had been out for two years. I hadn’t received any royalties for over a year and sadly decided a writing career was not for me. After so many years of illness and not writing a single original word in all that time, I wondered if I still had the ability to create, and even if I did, what was the point? No one was interested. Certainly, no agents or publishers were.

The fate intervened in the shape of an old friend. I’d first met Becky on that creative writing course all those years earlier. We’d stayed good friends, but during my long years of illness I’d become very hermit like and lost touch with a lot of people, her included. Then she contacted me, could we meet? She’d seen that “The Book of Eve” had been published and wanted to talk. She too had had a novel published, although she’d gone a different route and published independently. Had I considered doing the same with my other books? I hadn’t, it hadn’t even occurred to me. Being so isolated I’d had no idea the publishing world had moved on from the seedy, expensive days of vanity press, and that the internet and Amazon self-publishing had opened up a whole new world to wannabe authors.

The rest, as they say, is history. Encouraged and helped every step of the way by Becky, I dipped my toe in the water with “Lifesong”, which was released as an eBook in February 2017. Followed by “Becoming Lili” in April 2017. Then I decided to gather all my short stories, flash fiction and poetry into one collection – including Lifesong – and “Eclairs for Tea and other stories” was published in June 2017, followed by “Lost & Found” in September 2017.

Inspired, the voices in my head started clamouring for attention again and I wrote the sequel to “Lost & Found” – “Fixtures & Fittings” – and released it in December 2017. The following year saw the release of “Erinsmore” in May 2018 and “The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~” in October 2018.

All eight of my books published to date…

Don’t get me wrong, being an indie author is hard work, really hard work. It requires dedication, commitment, perseverance and a really thick hide. It involves you learning to do things you never imagined you could, and the returns can be disappointing. Not many indie authors make enough from their writing to live on, certainly not at first, and I’ve known writers to simply give up, crushed by the never-ending pressure. But, the rewards can and do make it all worthwhile.

One huge benefit, of course, is that you get to keep all of your royalties – no sharing them with greedy publishers who do little or nothing to earn them. You also have full control over the whole process and can make your own mind up about pricing and where you wish to sell your product.

I remember reading an article on J.K. Rowling, about how she’d submitted Harry Potter to twenty-one agents and had been rejected every time, that she was on the verge of giving up when the twenty-second agent accepted it. I remember how my lip curled with derision and I couldn’t help but give a wry bark of ironic laughter and the muttered comment – “lightweight”.

Ask almost any indie published author and they will tell you that no, being indie published and having to do it all yourself isn’t exactly the dream, and that if the right agent/publisher came along with a tempting enough contract, most of us indies would probably jump at the chance. But, in an increasingly competitive market where even the Top Four publishing houses don’t bother to promote new authors, the perks of being traditionally published are diminishing. And at least as an indie author your books are out there, being read and reviewed by someone. Even if only half a dozen people have bought your book, that’s half a dozen more than if you’d let it languish on a hard drive somewhere.

Again, a reasonably encouraging and polite rejection

I read a lot of posts by newbie, would-be authors grandly declaring that they’ll never “lower” themselves to go indie and acting like it’s their choice whether to be indie or traditionally published. I smile sadly, and shake my head, knowing that life and constant rejection will eventually knock some humility into them. They’ll realise, as us more battle-weary and seasoned authors have, that ultimately it is not your choice at all. Oh, it’s your choice whether to try to be traditionally published, but, at the end of day, it is down to the agent or publisher you are submitting your precious book to. That it all hinges on whether they feel your book is “commercially viable” and how lucky you are to hit on the right agent who clicks with your book, and that sometimes something as mundane as whether they have indigestion from lunch will affect how favourably they view your submission.

So sure, aim for the stars, but in the meantime, don’t dismiss the indie option, and never look down your nose at an indie author and dismiss them or their work as being “unworthy” of being traditionally published. Most were merely unlucky. After all, the odds of being picked up by a decent publishing house are higher than those for winning the lottery, and you would never deem someone who didn’t win the lottery as being “not good enough to win” you’d merely consider them unlucky.

Indie authors are the hardest working people I know. Most are holding down jobs at the same time as trying to write the best books they can. They are running homes and raising families, whilst being editors, cover designers, formatters, promoters, marketers and social media experts. On top of this, many are also being incredibly supportive of other indie writers – beta and arc reading, buying, reading and reviewing their books, and helping to spread the word about book launches, sales and giveaways.

Apparently this person felt The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ had sci-fi elements to it! Anyone who’s read it will know how ridiculous this is!

It is a wonderfully encouraging world; one I consider myself fortunate to have stumbled upon. So, to all my friends in this crazy, exasperating, exhausting indie life we have chosen, you are the best. Never give up, because you have so got this, and I applaud and salute every single one of you.

Thank you once again for joining me for our Sunday morning chat, and I look forward to meeting with you again next week.

Love

Julia Blake

No Heat Please We’re British

Us Brits have a weird relationship with our weather, in that we like to talk about it ALL THE TIME. I know foreigners find this strange even amusing, but what they don’t understand is that we have such a lot of weather it always provides a topic of conversation.

If you live in a climate that’s the same all year round then discussing it would be pointless, even boring, but imagine living in a country where you get up in the morning to grey skies and torrential rain, ok, you think, I’ll wrap up and take a brolly. By lunchtime the clouds have rolled away and a blazing hot sun is threatening to boil you alive and so you sit in the park eating your sandwiches, hunched in sweaty misery next to all the others who got caught out as well. On the way home though, a light hail shower surprises everyone, and that evening you have to put the heating on because it’s “turned a bit chilly”. Now, isn’t that weather worth discussing?

Another thing foreigners cannot seem able to grasp is that the UK DOES NOT HAVE AIR CONDITIONING. Ok, have you got that? I know this is an impossible concept to understand, but it’s true and I will be repeating it several more times. Why not? I hear you cry. Well, most of the time we don’t need it. Indeed, our houses are more geared up to keeping us warm than cool. Also, many of our homes were built long before air conditioning was invented and now we face a choice, spend thousands of pounds ripping our home apart to install it, or simply put up with it those few days or weeks of the year that we really need it.

Britain has a temperate although changeable climate. Our winters are never really that cold, our springs are a marvel of greenness and growth, our autumns are a colourful delight and as for our summers, well, ideally they are warm enough to not need a coat but cool enough to be able to sleep at night and not melt into a sticky pile on the pavement.

Recent years have seen a change to this norm. 2018 saw the British Isles gripped in its most brutal heatwave since 2003. For thirteen long miserable weeks, temperatures soared, it didn’t rain and life for most Brits became a sweaty nightmare. It can’t possibly happen again this year, we all thought, yet the past week has seen temperatures reach 40C and once again Britain has suffered because, as we all know, the UK has NO AIR CONDITIONING.

Brits have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the sun. We love it because hey, it’s warm and we can sit in the pub garden and drink as opposed to sitting inside and drinking. We can attempt barbecues, where usually the man of the family sweats his nads off over an open flame, risking life, limb and his forearm hair, struggling to cook sausages and steak for his family and not give everyone food poisoning.

And as they sit there – on metal patio chairs that removed skin from their thighs when they sat down, munching on sausages that are a bloody sacrifice on one side and a burnt offering on the other, and suffocating from the smoke of all the neighbours barbecues up and down the street – they silently wonder if it wouldn’t have been a lot easier if they’d simply cooked indoors.

But no, it’s a sunny day. It’s the rule. On rare sunny days it is understood that Mrs Brit will charge to the supermarket to denude its shelves of meats to be charred, alcohol to be consumed and salad to be thrown away. Whilst Mr Brit will manhandle the barbecue out of the shed and attempt to scrape off the remains of last year’s one and only barbecue, before finally giving up and announcing knowledgeably that the flames will sterilise anything still living on it.

So, on the odd sunny day we know exactly what to do, strip down to the least level of clothing we can without being illegal, drink copious amounts of alcohol, have a barbecue and prance around in the sun like demented reptiles, desperate to soak up every last ray of cancer-giving light. This of course leads to another British complaint – sunburn. Displaying your interesting sunburn being something of a national sport, you are expected to “man up” and cope with it.

But long-term sun, a heatwave that doesn’t last only as long as a bank holiday but goes on and on for weeks, even months – that, we struggle to cope with. Britain simply hasn’t got hot climate customs. We’re all up and out during the hottest hours of the day, and during the cooler evenings and nights, we all want to sleep. This leads to sleep deprivation and short tempers, and far from being happy, jolly times – roasting hot days can be the most miserable of a British adult’s life. Unless you’re on holiday, and then of course you don’t care.

I don’t cope at all well with the sun. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sunny days – so long as I have shade. And I enjoy balmy warm days of summer – so long as it’s not too hot. And it’s definitely been too hot this past week. A redhead with porcelain skin that has a tendency to freckle – and presumably to malignant melanoma – I tend to avoid sunlight wherever possible, because really, what’s the point? I won’t tan, and third-degree burns are no fun. Trust me, I know.

During a heatwave, there’s no more miserable, grumpy, sleep-deprived creature than a British adult. It’s not so bad for children. I was around for the vicious heatwaves of the 1970’s but don’t remember suffering as much as I do now. When you’re a kid, once school is over and the whole six weeks of holiday lie before you, you can spend each day lying in the garden under a shady tree with bottles of cold pop until your mum calls you in for tea. You can live in your swimsuit and sit in the paddling pool reading for hours on end, until your fingers and toes look like an eighty-year-old albino’s. There is no pressure on you to struggle into grown up work clothes – in my case, a top to toe polyester uniform – and drive in a sweatbox of a car to suffer in a stuffy shop, office or factory because, as we know, the UK has NO AIR CONDITIONING. Children don’t have to cope with housework, cooking and laundry, all things designed to overheat and annoy even the most placid of adults.

I remember endless days lounging around the garden, napping under a big tree and crawling into the paddling pool when the heat got too much. Even the hose pipe ban didn’t stop our fun, my father would sneakily fill the pool under cover of darkness and then tell us kids that it wouldn’t be refilled until the ban was over – so no splashing the water over the side, no putting inappropriate things in it, and absolutely NO WEEING in it! (That last wasn’t directed at me, I hasten to add)

I remember how gradually over the days the level of water would creep downwards, and the amount of grass clippings, dirt and bark would grow until a layer of scum floated on the top coating every child who got in and was just waiting to be trodden all through the house. One year we had a plague of ladybirds and went out in the morning to find a struggling mass of the insects on the water’s surface. Appalled, my brother and I set to with cups and buckets to try and “rescue” every single one.

I loved summers back then, but now they seem something to be endured, with the weather either too cold and wet to do anything with, or so blisteringly hot that I cower inside and seek ever more resourceful ways to cope – putting my underwear in the freezer for a few moments before putting it on being the latest.

So, yes, we Brits talk incessantly about the weather and yes, we moan about it. We’re currently moaning about the heatwave and how horrible it is, but that’s ok, because next week we’ll probably be scraping ice off our windscreens with our fingernails and you can bet we’ll be moaning about that as well.

Oh, and one more thing – the UK DOES NOT HAVE AIR CONDITIONING!

Thank you so much for joining me, and I look forward to chatting to you all again next week.

Love

Julia Blake

An Interview with an Author ~ Becky Wright on her latest Gothic novel, vampires & Mr Stoker

There is no denying the fascination we seem to have with Vampires. They have dominated fiction for decades. Most of us if asked to name one, would say Dracula, and of course he is undoubtedly one of the most infamous figures in literature. However, he was not the first blood sucker. During a stay at Lord Byron’s Lake Geneva villa in 1816, it was John Polidori who put pen to paper to create The Vampyre. It was on this same infamous occasion that Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein. It is said that Polidori sculptured his vampire, the suave noblemen Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself; ironically so, as the short work of fiction was first credited to Lord Byron himself by his publishers. Eighty or so years later, there is no doubt that Bram Stoker took inspiration from Polidori’s Vampyre to create what we now see as one of the most iconic characters in horror. What it is about these life sucking, blood thirty villains that we find so fascinating? ~ Becky Wright Author

So, first of all, let me say a big hello to Becky Wright, and congratulations on the publication of your latest book “Mr Stoker & I” which was released just yesterday:

Thank you so much Julia, this book feels like it’s been a long time coming.

Now, I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of the novel, and I absolutely loved it. To me it felt very timeless and had elements of classical novelists such as Emily Bronte and Mary Shelley. Was that intentional?

Honestly, I don’t think it was intentional at all. And it wasn’t until all my beta readers mentioned the same thing that I sat back and thought about it. For it to be described as Gothic literature rather than Gothic fiction, was the best compliment I can get as a writer. I have a true love for the classics, for the lyrical prose, the phrasing; it has a certain kind of timing to it, melodious, like a musical score. I have to admit that I don’t read much contemporary fiction at all, as my heart has always belonged firmly planted in the past. Obviously, it’s rubbed off on me.

In the story, you’ve gone right back to the pre-vampire era, and I think “Mr Stoker & I” could be considered an origin tale. Would you agree?

Right up until the point of marketing; I had never really of Mr Stoker & I as a vampire story. There are no fangs, or bats, no cloaked figures. And that is because you are right, it’s more a tale of vampire incarnation, of how it came to be, of how one family’s desperation finds faith in misguided belief, with catastrophic conciseness. It’s a story of “what if?”

Have you always been fascinated by vampires? Or is this a recent interest inspired by the book?

I’m not a huge vampire fiction reader, for me it’s all about the characters and the emotions they make me feel along their journey. I love horror, whether it’s vampires, ghosts or poor lost souls. Yet saying that, Dracula is without a doubt one of my favourite classics. It sits alongside Wuthering Heights, and for me it’s for about the dark side of human nature. Maybe there is something in Bram’s writing, in his words, that struck a chord in me – fine tuning and orchestrating Mr Stoker & I.

One of the book’s main characters is Mr Bram Stoker himself, the creator of the best-known of all vampires, Dracula. How much research did you do on him, and did you discover any surprising facts about the father of the vampire genre?

I certainly have a passion for Bram Stoker himself, over the past year or so whilst writing I’ve referred to him fondly as my dear Bram. During the whole writing process, I found myself reading biographies, articles, anything I could find about the man behind Dracula. I think the most notable fact was although he was a famed writer in his lifetime – alongside his ‘day jobs’ of  theatre manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, and being manager to Sir Henry Irving – it was not until after his death that Dracula was pulled into the limelight as we know him. As is so often the case with great artists. 

Why do you think Dracula was such an instant hit with the Victorian reader?

Published in May 1897, it wasn’t the immediate success and hit you would imagine with the readers of the time. It wasn’t until after his death that the 20th century readers became more obsessed with Count Dracula. The 1922 movie Nosferatu certainly had something to do with that.

Even though he’s a blood thirsty killer, the appeal of Dracula has never faded from popularity and has spawned a whole vampire culture, what do you think can account for this lasting fascination?

Maybe there is something quite sensual about it. The appeal of immortality, of being devoured. And there is also something quite lustful about vampires. I think that’s how it has developed, that a lot of modern vampire fiction tends to lean towards making death romantic. Although Dracula was not so debonair, or suave, more the desperate blood sucking fiend.

Dracula spawned an entire literary genre, and I wondered what you thought of the recent incarnation of vampires in series such as “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries”?

They are not really my thing. Not to say they don’t have their place; they certainly have their fans and success. They have fulfilled or perhaps fed, an insatiable hunger of the young blood-thirsty readers, who are maybe looking for more romance than actual horror.

A remorseless serial killer or a misunderstood anti-hero? Where do you personally place vampires?

I’m afraid my vampires will always be more blood thirsty killers. Whether they are pretty to look at or grotesque monsters, they thrive on the kill, perhaps with a lingering sense of remorse for the human they once were, but it’s all about their own survival.

Even before Bram Stoker penned the immortal “Dracula” the vampire myth has persisted in folklore, especially in the Transylvania area of Europe, with tales of Vlad the Impaler immediately springing to mind. Do you think there’s any substance to these wild tales? And do you have any theories as to the origins of the vampire legend?

If you look into the history of vampires almost every culture has it’s own origin. Mostly existing in folklore, beings feeding on the vital energy force of the living, which is where blood comes in. And as with most folklore, myths and legends, maybe there is that small seed of fact to begin with.

Now the setting of “Mr Stoker & I” is the quaint British seaside town of Whitby – where Dracula is supposed to have first come ashore. Have you ever visited the town? If you have, can you share your impressions of it.

I adore Whitby. I first visited the town about a decade ago, and without a doubt because of its connection with Bram Stoker feel an affinity with the place. We recently revisited and I didn’t want to come home. Even if you put aside any connection to Bram or Dracula, Whitby Abbey dominates the headland with an open invitation, and the town has a vibe to it, it says – welcome, come sit a while, watch the sea, listen.

“Mr Stoker & I” is such a rich and evocative read and harkens back to a more detailed and sumptuous style of writing. Was this deliberate? Or did this style evolve as you were writing the book?

I had no set-out plan of how the book was going to feel, the style, or even the exactness of its genre. All I knew was Lucy had to tell you her story, and how she was going to do that, well, I left that up to her.

I know this is the question that appears in every author interview, but where did the inspiration for the book arise? Was it a germ of an idea that gradually developed? Or did the whole plot come to you complete?

I had planned – I may still plan – to write a collection of macabre short stories, a collection of Penny Dreadfuls – and an image of a piece of carved Whitby jet came to mind, an elaborate mourning piece of jewellery the Victorians were so good at. Whitby has an incredible collection in their museum. This tiny germ of an idea quickly altered into something quite different, as when I really thought about Whitby I didn’t think of jet, but Dracula, and in turn Bram Stoker and his visit in the Summer of 1890. Then the idea of, what if?

If you were suddenly face to face with a vampire how would you react? Would you be afraid and try to escape? Or do you think you’d succumb to his fatal charm?

Do you know, I have no idea? Maybe the Gothic romantic in me would like to think it was a move of seductive charm and gladly succumb to my fate. But in all likelihood, it would be a moment of savage primitive need, and if I didn’t escape my last moments would be having my throat ripped out. Not very romantic after all… I think I’d run for it.

And a question that I know every reader of “Mr Stoker & I” will want answered. Is that it? Or will there be any more tales from the world of the father of vampires?

For me, Mr Stoker & I has a definite ending, as in, there will not be a sequel to the story and Bram will not appear again. Now, having said that, I do plan another book set in Whitby. There will most certainly be some ties to Miss Lucy and her ancestry and Blackthorn Manor itself. Although I can’t promise vampires, I can promise it will be a dark Gothic tale befitting of its era and surroundings.

One of the wonderful things about the book is its striking and mesmerising cover. Now I know you created this yourself, but can you talk us through the process a little. And was this the image you always imagined for the cover, or one that developed after the book was written?

I cannot take credit for the cover. It was most certainly in its entirety the work of my incredible husband. He plays a huge role in my writing process and knew the story very well before he started. I had a completely different vision for the cover, but having total faith in his abilities, I just let him run with it. And just as well I did, my idea was nothing compared the deliciously dark Gothic feel it has.

“Mr Stoker & I” is so detailed and so sumptuously written, that I wondered how long it took you in total to write it?

I am a terribly slow writer. Not that I think it should be seen as a fault, more a way I work. I put a lot of time and effort in my first draft. So much so, that I’m not sure it ever really is a rough first draft. I tend to polish and refine as I go in order to fully uphold the mood of the book as I write. I feel if it was too much of a rough draft, I would lose interest very quickly. Last year, we moved house whilst in the midst of my writing, which brought with it a whole host of time consuming and brain aching issues with it. Taking all that into account, I spent around 18 months on it.

When I was reading the novel, I couldn’t help but picture it as a wonderfully atmospheric film. Would you enjoy seeing it adapted for the big screen? And if it was and you could choose, who would you like to see play the main characters?

I would love to see it on the big screen, or maybe even better on the small screen as a 3-part period drama. As to who would play the main leads, that is a hard one. When I write, I do have a mental picture of the characters, they creep very quickly under my skin, but never in so much physical form, as in their emotions and thoughts, the essence of who they are, not what they look like. I shall have to give this one lots of thought.

And finally, what can Becky Wright fans expect from you next? Is there a plot already bubbling in your imagination, and if so, can you give us a few teasers?

What’s next? More dark, more Gothic, more horror. I’m working on a novella, something short for later in the year. Id love to say Halloween, but I’ve learnt not to give dates as life changes quickly. What I will say is my main character this time is quite a feisty little number, and not sure I’d want to cross her.

Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy weekend publishing the book to talk to us, Becky. I know I speak for all your readers and fans when I say how thrilled we are that another wonderful book of Becky Wright inspired horror is available to grace our bookshelves.

Should you wish to buy a copy of “Mr Stoker & I” for yourselves or would like to follow Becky, then links are all below.

There’s a Paw Print on my Heart

I’ve always loved animals. As a child, I desperately wanted a cat, but my parents said no. They wanted no animals in the house, they were dirty and too much work. So, I contented myself with befriending all the neighbourhood cats. Eventually, I was bought rabbits for my eleventh birthday. Two little chocolate Dutch rabbits called Bonny and Fluffy – I was eleven, don’t judge me. I loved my rabbits, and through those traumatic teen years often wept into their fur and cuddled their little bodies until they were so tame, they’d jump from the hutch into my arms. But they weren’t a cat.

At 21 I was married with a flat of my own, and at last I could get a cat. So off I trotted to the local stray cat’s home to get a kitten. A dear little fluffball that would love and snuggle with me at night. Instead, I came home with a fat, three-year-old tom cat called Zac. (For the full story of why this occurred and how Zac “chose” me, please read my book “Becoming Lili”).

Right from day one, Zac made it plain I was his human and existed to fulfil his every need. Which I did, because I idolised him. He was good-natured and funny, had a personality as big as all the world, and was the most gentlemanly cat I’ve ever encountered. I once had a friend visit with her two small children who were a bit over-zealous with their attentions towards Zac.

“Zac just hissed at Katie.”

“What?! Oh, my goodness, I’m so sorry, he’s never done that before.”

“No, no, she’s pulled his tail, squeezed his paws, poked him in the eye, stuck her finger in his ear, yanked on his collar and sat on him – I think he was well within his rights to hiss at her!

And that was Zac in a nutshell. In the seven wonderful years I had him, I never saw him lift a claw to a human being – the local wildlife, ah, sadly, that was another matter – I once opened the back door to find nine bodies lined up in a row. NINE! With Zac the mighty hunter sitting there, white chest puffed up with pride he’d provided so much meat for his woman. What was more impressive was they were all lined up in order of size, from a large rabbit one end right down to a tiny shrew at the other. He’d bitten all the heads off though, because of course as provider he got first dibs. A rule I firmly respected. I would always make a fuss of him and then wait until he sauntered off, proud tail in the air, before shudderingly disposing of the bodies in the bin. Well, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, did I?

Once, I was sitting on the sofa when a loud SQUAWK split the evening air. Startled, I looked up as the cat flap burst open and a very large seagull head was thrust through. Shocked, both bird and I eyed each other up, before he uttered another squawk and was dragged back through the flap. Intrigued, I crept over and peered through, only to see Zac, jaws clamped firmly around the seagull’s shoulder, eyeing up the cat flap as if wondering how to get this rather large thing he’d caught indoors. It plainly wasn’t going through headfirst, so how about if he… slowly, Zac backed his butt through the cat flap, his intention clear. Drag it through backwards, that’ll work! Trying hard not to roll on the floor with laughter, I waited until his back legs were in, then tapped him on the bottom and shouted. Shocked, he let go and the gull flew away, totally unharmed and with a hell of a story to tell his mates down the pub that night.

I adored Zac. He was The Boy, my best friend, my comfort. Tragically I didn’t get to keep him for long, and ironically it was his love of hunting that was his downfall. The empty house next door had an infestation of mice, so the sellers called in exterminators, Zac ate a poisoned mouse and that was the end of him. Broke. My. Heart. I’ve had other cats since, and of course I’ve loved them, but not the way I loved him. You never forget your first.

Next came a pair of sisters – Pandora and Perdita – six months old and cute as buttons. Pandora a sleek short haired black cat. Perdita a tiny black and white fluffball. They were as different as chalk and cheese. Pandora was a comfortable, loving, sensible cat, who was also a very impressive ratter and mouser – not quite in the same league as The Boy, but still not bad. Perdita couldn’t have caught a cold if her life depended on it. Jealous of her sister’s prowess, she’d desperately raid bird tables and bring back crusts of bread and foraged bits of cake for my approval. Half eaten McDonalds would be dragged through the cat flap, and once she brought back almost an entire rack of BBQ ribs! They also hated each other, and jealousy would run rife if one caught the other being given attention.

Perdita was a wannabe alcoholic, and visitors were warned not to leave drinks unattended as the cat would have them. Once, desperately trying to fight a serious slug problem in our garden, we put out beer slug traps. We should have known that was a bad idea. Perdita gaily knocked the lids off, ate the beer marinated slugs and drank the juice. She then came into the lounge, squinted at us, puked green slug all over the rug, and lay on her back for the rest of the day quite clearly inebriated.

Then I had a baby; and bringing Miss F home from the hospital I was a little concerned. How would the cats react? Used to being sole centre of our attention, would they be jealous of the baby? I needn’t have worried. Pandora was very polite. She looked at this pink, squirming thing, then removed herself from its presence. Never unkind to the baby, she made her supreme indifference to its existence plain. Perdita on the other hand, was completely different. Right from the word go, it was love at first sight.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a cat loving a baby as much as Perdita loved Miss F. I couldn’t keep those two apart, and in the end, I gave up. They were meant to be. I don’t have a single baby photo that doesn’t have that little black and white scrap in it, and if the baby ever cried, Perdita was immediately there to comfort and cheer. At the time, we had a tank of tropical fish, and every morning after breakfast I’d pop Miss F in her pushchair in front of the tank. Her and Perdita would sit there together and watch the brightly moving fish, mesmerised, and occasionally turning to each other in wonder when a fish would flash by in a blaze of bright colour.

When she started moving around, Miss F was a roller and would roll from one end of the room to the other, right over anything that happened to be in the way. She’d roll straight over Perdita and there’d be a tangle of cat and child, which scared me at first because I thought this tiny animal might be crushed. But no, the cat would emerge, wild-eyed and skittish from the ride, and immediately dash to position herself to be rolled over again.

Perdita was my adorable problem child, no one could pick her up except me, and she stayed as tiny as a kitten. Her ability to be sick anywhere was an ongoing problem, until we realised, she was allergic to cat food (of course she was) and had to buy expensive special formula biscuits for her. Then one day she got ill, she lost weight she couldn’t afford to lose, and her spark faded. We took her to the vet. I knew in my heart we wouldn’t be bringing her back and I’d warned Miss F – who was nine at the time – that we were going to have to be very brave. I was right, it was kidney failure, the curse that seems to get most cats in the end.

Now I’ve been told I was wrong, that I shouldn’t have allowed my young daughter to be present when Perdita was put down, but I stand by my decision. Miss F held her friend in her arms, soothing and loving her as the vet slipped in the needle and that dear little scrap let go of the last thread of life she’d been clinging to. Then we brought her home. Miss F sat and cuddled her body for a while, and cried good healthy tears, then we made a beautiful coffin out of a shoebox and lined it with silk, before holding a moving funeral in the back garden. It wasn’t gross or disgusting, it was natural and healing, and it taught my daughter that yes, it’s fun to have a pet, but taking on the responsibility of an animal means so much more than just feeding them and playing with them. It means cleaning up after them, taking care of their needs and, ultimately, making that tough decision and soothing their way at the end.

That left Pandora. Elderly, quiet and loving, Pandora remained a sweet and gentle creature right up to her own demise two years later. But I have no comforting memories of her end, and her exit wasn’t the loving, dignified death her sister had. I noticed she was off her food; with a sinking heart realised the weight was dropping off her and recognised the familiar symptoms of kidney failure. Bracing ourselves for the inevitable, we took her to the vet.

Only we didn’t see our normal vet – vastly experienced and elderly, he’d been vet to all our animals and knew them well. He was away, so instead we got a young, fresh out of university, vet who perkily informed us that no, Pandora might yet be saved. I was not convinced, as far as I was aware there was no coming back from kidney failure and it was a long, painful death for the animal. I certainly didn’t want that for Pandora, but against my better judgement allowed tests to be run and we brought her home to await results.

Two days passed, two days in which she slowly wasted away. Then my normal vet phoned me at work, furious she’d been left to suffer – I got the impression the young vet had been firmly spoken to – and adamant Pandora’s suffering must be ended as soon as possible. An emergency appointment was made for that evening and I hurried home to collect the cat and Miss F and take them to the vet. But Pandora was gone, and by gone, I don’t mean died, I mean she’d gone as in vanished. Taken herself off into the cold, dark, wet October night to die all alone.

We put notes through doors. Every single neighbour turned out. Every single one. In the darkness they took torches and searched for her, in and behind sheds, under bushes, in compost heaps – anywhere they thought a cat might have crawled to die, they searched. It astounded me how many hearts Pandora had touched in the fifteen years she’d lived on the street, and everyone had a Pandora story to tell. For several hours we looked, but it was no good, we never found her.

The guilt of that lives with me still. She was my cat, I was her human, she trusted me, and I let her down. At the end, when she needed me most, I wasn’t there for her, and the thought of her going alone into that dark night is one that will never leave me.

But life moves on. Miss F was desperate for another cat, a young one this time, one that had chosen her and would be her special friend. The house felt empty without an animal in it, so we went to the RSPCA and found a little, black, nine-month-old girl called Skittles. Sweet, loving and friendly, she settled into our home immediately and now, over five years later, it’s hard to imagine life without her.

But nothing ever goes smoothly, and now Skittles is sick with some mysterious ailment that has left her nervous and reluctant to come into the house anymore. The vet has diagnosed anxiety, but I don’t know how that can be treated, or even if it can be. I wonder sometimes why we bother to have pets; my parents were right in that they can be dirty and a lot of trouble, and then they die and break your heart. But, a house without a pet in it? To me that wouldn’t be a home.

I’m sorry this week’s blog has been a bit of a ramble, I actually was unsure what to chat to you about, but concern about Skittles had me sitting down and pouring my thoughts out to you all. I will keep you posted on Instagram and Facebook about her progress, and links to these are at the bottom of the page.

Next week, we’ll be exploring the fascinating topic of vampires in literature and I’ll have a special guest appearance and interview with the lovely Becky Wright, whose wonderful new book “Mr Stoker & I” will be released next Saturday – trust me, I was lucky enough to read an advance copy and it is fantastic.

Hope you can join me then.

Julia