In Conversation with… Nadia Shireen

Nadia Shireenchildrens book author and illustrator

Nadia Shireen mainly writes and illustrates children’s picture books, (although she does write and illustrate other things as well). She lives in London.

1) How did you end up doing the job you do?

I took a very long-winded route to get here. I’ve always loved drawing and writing, but when I went to university I thought I should be sensible and get a law degree. My English teacher was furious. She glared at me, shook her head and angrily whispered, “That’s it… you’re going to be a bloody lawyer!” (Mrs Aldridge, if you’re reading this… I’m not a bloody lawyer.)

It became clear about half an hour into my law degree that I hated it. But I pointlessly slogged through it. In fact, I carried on and did an MA in Criminology… which was even more pointless!

I eventually moved down to London, rented a very cheap room from a kindly relative and started working in the magazine industry. Everyone told me it would be impossible to get a job, but I just kept turning up to the same office, trying to make myself useful and essentially refusing to leave. I wore them down in the end.

I worked as a sub editor and production editor on a variety of magazines for the next 10 years. I had a lot of fun… but eventually it had become a bit of a drag. The work was unsatisfying and I was bored. I started doing evening classes in illustration to perk the week up. Then I found an illustration course in Cambridge where I could study part time, allowing me to continue working four days a week in London. It took two and a half years. At the end of it there was a degree show, where I displayed my end of term project – a dummy of ‘Good Little Wolf’. To my utter shock and disbelief, some publishers liked it and offered to publish it. I can’t tell you how surprised I was – it was a bolt from the blue – but it was fantastic and it changed my life.

2) What are you working on right now?

My next picture book, which is about a plucky young girl with black curly hair who challenges a big, horrible, powerful monster… Any similarities between any persons living or dead, etc etc…

3) Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?

Music has always been the thing that takes my brain to new and unusual places, so I’ll go for the pop stars that formed my musical foundations: The Beatles, ABBA, David Bowie and The Pet Shop Boys.

4) Who would you most like to work with?

Well, it’s not something that can ever happen, but I always loved those ridiculous Monty Python annuals. I think I liked them more than the tv programme. I love all the funny annotations, the way they’d mess around with layout and type and all that. And obviously Terry Gilliam’s drawings and collages are brilliant. I wish I could have drawn a few bees and hedgehogs for them way back when. It might be fun to collaborate with some funny writers and create something similarly silly.

5) Where do you feel most inspired ?

I get really inspired by being outside, ideally in wild, quiet places… places far away from noise and humans, where the sky feels huge and open. That’s when I feel relaxed and insignificant. It’s liberating to remember how little we matter, in the grand scheme of things. I grew up in Shropshire, and you can get to the Welsh border in about 20 minutes. I think about the places we would go to when I was a kid, like Lake Vrynwy, Church Stretton, a little place called Inwood. Now I live in London and don’t really get out into the open much, and I miss it. The closest I get is having a very slow jog around Hampstead Heath. I hate running but also secretly quite like it. I like it when my legs get muddy and achy, and the wind stings my cheeks. It’s good when I can allow my brain to drift into a different gear, so that creative ideas can breath and move around a little.

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6) What did you want to be when you were little?

I wanted to be a cartoonist and then I wanted to work for Smash Hits magazine. I’ve sort of managed both, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.

7) What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

Always start with the strongest colour, or the most extreme idea. You can tone it down later if you need to.

8) What has been your career highlight to date?

I never thought I’d have a job that would take me into schools, but now I do. When I see children getting enthusiastic about drawing or writing stories, it gives me a huge buzz. Once I watched a class perform a play based on one of my books, where they had winningly adapted ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ into ‘Honey, Honey, Honey’! How good is that? I feel privileged to do what I do, and meeting young readers has been a hugely rewarding aspect of this unexpected career.

9) What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?

I procrastinate a lot, which feels like an even bigger sin now my working hours are mostly dictated by childcare.

10) Who is your favourite fictional female character?

It’s a toss-up between Rizzo from Grease and Darlene from Roseanne.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Hey, Duggee and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (not entirely my choice, but they are great.)

Reading: The Sellout – Paul Beatty;  The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 – Sue Townsend; Head On – Julian Cope.

Listening to: I typically start the day with the Lauren Laverne show on BBC 6 Music. And then I play around on Spotify for the rest of the day. There is so much music, and not enough time to listen to it all, and that makes me anxious and annoyed.  At the moment, my most recently played albums are by: Solange, The Blue Nile, Eluvium, Julianna Barwick, Childish Gambino and Anna Meredith. I also enjoy making comforting playlists full of the same old songs in slightly different orders.

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Anna Phoebe, violinist @annaphoebe

Chloe Lamford, Set designer @chloelamford

Harrington & Squires, letterpress studio @bobandhorace

A Letter to… Our Last Embryo

author picRachel Cathan is a writer from Bedfordshire. In 2001, a mutual friend introduced her to a part-time pub DJ in Southend-on-Sea. A month later, they had moved in together, around seven years later they tied the knot, and a little while after that – just like so many couples before them – they made the exciting and terrifying decision to start a family. And then, like a growing number of couples today, well…not a lot happened.

Throughout the subsequent years of fertility investigations and failed treatments, Rachel kept a diary of her experiences, and it’s from these first-hand encounters in the world of infertility and IVF that her first book, 336 Hours has been adapted.

Rachel is mum to Ruben and Delphine.

Website: www.rachelcathan.co.uk

 

Dear Speck of Dust (for that was the size of you when we met five years ago),

You might never know how we used to talk about you, even wave to you on occasion as we drove past the turnoff for the fertility clinic where you lived.

‘Hello, little one’ we would call out, and just for a moment my heart would lurch in recognition of the life that could one day be mine. But then I would check myself, realise my foolishness, and feel the searing shame of knowing that this was as close as I could get to calling myself a mum.

Six months had passed since the day you were conceived, and finally the day had arrived to thaw you out from your frozen state and bring you back to your home.

You won’t recall any of this, of course. And nor will you recall the trusty weekend staff who had given up their Sunday morning to perform your transfer; a compassionate gesture since your mother had (typically) ovulated on a day that was not conducive to normal opening hours. But I can see them gathered around us still, the embryologist holding out a miniature straw, no bigger than a sewing needle, containing our last embryo.

‘Mrs Cathan’ he told me, ‘I need you to confirm this is yours.’

I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms and prickling the skin behind my knees, as your transfer was performed to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D-Minor. As we laughed uncomfortably at the dramatic choice of soundtrack, I attributed my sweat-drenched self to the uncharacteristic 32- degree heat outside. But we were in a state-of the-art, fully air-conditioned laboratory, and the truth is I was as scared as I had ever been.

I feared so badly that you were destined to be only a dream, like a beautiful town, glimpsed from behind the closing doors of a train, whose imagined possibilities would haunt me for a lifetime.

Is this what you would come to represent? The road untravelled; the opportunity missed; the one that got away?

The next two weeks passed in an agonising time-warp that seemed to last for months. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you were hidden out of sight, arguably both dead and alive. I analysed every twinge, every pulse and every pinch. Even quantum physics could not bend my mind like the days that would determine your fate.

But that was five years ago. It’s 2017, and I now know the result that those two weeks would bring.

All I can say is it’s just as well that the embryologist couldn’t tell us too much when he introduced our embryo in a straw. He couldn’t tell us that what he held between his thumb and forefinger was a time-travelling collector of dinosaur relics, a superhero fanatic, and a swashbuckling leader of a mutinous pirate crew: the infamous Caption Walrus.

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He omitted to mention that, if successful, this embryo would be leaping from armchair to sofa by day, a cutlass whistling through the air above his head. And then sprawling diagonally across our bed each night, a tattered blue rabbit fiercely tucked under one arm.

I’m so grateful that there was no information sheet explaining how the contents of our straw would grow. Because how could I ever have borne the responsibility? How could I have survived the two weeks before the pregnancy test, and indeed the nine months that followed, knowing the scale of catastrophe if I didn’t get you into this world?

You had to be here; it’s so obvious to anyone now. How could our planet ever have been complete without that miniature John Travolta dimple in your chin? How could I bear to be awoken without your face a millimetre from mine, demanding I answer an urgent question about the dubious superpowers of Popeye?

It’s just as well, too, that our embryologist was at a loss to share the less enchanting traits of your character: your stubbornness, which would turn every remaining dark hair on my head a solid grey, and your night-time alertness of a bat.

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They offered me no advance warning on that fateful August day that you would be a plunderer, not only of treasure, but also of sanity and sleep. I didn’t realise that the world and its many failings would soon be solely my fault, or that I would so often be walking the plank.

But just as you have no idea of your beginnings, you are probably also unaware that I am secretly enjoying these things to which you drive me each day: every eye roll, every coffee, and every sigh.

I will be forever thankful that you pulled me through those closing doors and on to the other side. And that, whatever happens from here on in, I would every minute choose the reality over the dream.

336 Hours cover copy

Rachel’s first book 366 Hours is available now from Amazon and all good bookshops.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures on CBeebies and Catastrophe on Ch4 (not with the same viewing companions, I should add)

Reading: The Unmumsy Mum Diary and Hurrah for Gin (must-have reads for bad parenting days)

Listening to: BBC Radio 2 (I’m no longer fighting the fact that I’m old)

Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog? Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles

Rachael Rogan: @RogansBooks
Rachael owns a fabulous independent bookshop in Bedford and made a trip to London to meet with Lucy Mann and Sophy Henn last year. She would be a great contributor to The Muse!

Rosanna Slade: @RosannaSlade
Rosanna runs her own yoga practice in Bedford – inspiring woman with a great outlook on life and now a new mum.

Delyth Johnson: @Thischangedme
Delyth is the co-creator of the app, This Changed Me – an inspirational way to use technology to create a better work/life balance and achieve personal goals.

 

 

In Her Words…. Sarah Topping

sarah-t-the-museSarah Topping is a freelance creative copywriter at Playing with Words. She lives in London with her husband, son and more books than they currently have room for.

http://www.playingwithwords.info


The Child that Books Built

Last week I asked my four-year-old what he’d like to be when he grows up.

‘A SPACESHIP!’ he cried.
‘You mean a spaceman?’ I asked.
‘No! A rocket launcher!’ he replied.
‘Okay . . .’ says I, ‘anything else?’
‘A caroderodontasaurus!’ he exclaimed, before running off.
‘Okay,’ I said again, before Googling the above and calling after him ‘It’s carcharodontosaurus!’ (but 10/10 for even knowing what one is).

Aside from the fact it’s physically impossible for him to be either of these things, I like his enthusiasm. As my parents wished for me and my brother, I wish for him to be whatever he wants, as long as it makes him happy. Though not a drug addict. Or a criminal. Dream big, little one, and see where it takes you. Because you never know, one day, that thing you loved so much as a kid could become your career, if all the necessary ingredients fall into place to make your dream happen.

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In these increasingly fathomless and downright scary times we face whenever we see the news, I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot; specifically, escapism. I’ve deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone because the bombardment of incomprehensible news is too much. And when it comes to escapism, I’ve realised how fortunate I am. I deal in escapism on a daily basis, for I am an avid, ardent, hopelessly devoted lover of books and reading. I thank my lucky stars this is the case. On the day things here began to seem so weird and uncertain, June 24th 2016, I found myself sitting on our sofa clutching this pile of books with an ice-cold G&T in my hands. I held them and concentrated very hard on what they represent. On this day that was so fuelled by lies and scaremongering, to me, these books stood for imagination and magic and humour and kindness and charm, wonder and adventure.

It helps to seek comfort in what you love, so I found reaching for the bookshelves a natural thing to do. But where did it begin? I have my parents, my English teachers and professors, and without a doubt, my school library and our local village library to thank for fostering and encouraging in me this unconditional love of stories and words (and spelling. Oh, spelling!). The hours I spent in that old Grade II listed building, with its nooks and crannies perfect for curling up in, with a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Point Horror, Sweet Valley High, Adrian Mole, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton to name a few, are immeasurable. I didn’t know it then, as a frizzy haired kid with crooked teeth, but one day, my access to so many authors and illustrators and their imagined worlds would very much become my reality.

Because now, it is my pleasure and privilege to not only be a lover of books, but to have made books my career. For ten years, I worked at Penguin Books in London, moving from Penguin to Puffin and what is now Penguin Random House Children’s. When I see that Penguin or Puffin on book spines’, I see in my mind a place where book magic is made. A place where I spent hours surrounded by books, thinking about books, writing copy for and talking about books. When I read picture books with my son, I don’t just see the names of certain authors and illustrators; I remember a train journey I took with them or seeing them draw live at an event (yes, it’s Quentin Blake I’m thinking of here and it will forever be a Total. Life. Highlight.).

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As someone who adores books, you can guess what a special place it was to be. Since becoming a freelance creative copywriter in 2014, I have delved into the wonderful world of Harry Potter via Pottermore, I’ve discovered How to Train Your Dragon, written about motherhood for Ladybird and how to celebrate World Book Day. I’ve happily revisited the worlds of the BFG, Matilda, Charlie et al, amongst many other delightful projects, for both adult and kids’ books. I’m not throwing these names around lightly either, please know that. I’m more than a little overwhelmed to know that this year, my blurbs will feature on some of Enid Blyton’s most iconic series’; stories I still have the bumper hardback editions of, complete with sellotaped spines and inscriptions from my family wishing me luck in my 1988 ballet exam. For that little girl, whose recently rediscovered 1988 school report notes ‘Sarah is a keen reader. She always has her nose in a book’, it’s a childhood dream come true.

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It is a special and privileged thing to be able to do what you love, and love what you do. I know that. This is why, taking all of the above into account, it’s so unbelievably sad and frustrating that libraries up and down the country are faced with cuts and closures. Talented and dedicated librarians are losing their jobs and future generations of readers are being punished. And it truly is a punishment, when these community spaces are not valued enough for what they offer everyone who steps inside and into a room filled with shelves of life-enhancing information and imagination enriching stories. Beyond that, they are being denied the experience of these books; yes, an eBook is convenient. But what about the smell and feel of the physical book? Beautiful, enchanting illustrations that sweep you away? You can’t lovingly smooth the pages on the Kindle app. Tap vs touch; it doesn’t compare.

Yesterday this quote by Professor Stephen Krashen, illustrated by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, made me stop and stare. So simple, and so true. ‘Reading for pleasure, reading for life.’ It strikes such a chord because I am a case in point. I was, and still am, lucky enough to have access to so many books, as does my son and our new baby will too. I cannot imagine my life, or my children’s lives, without books. I’m so delighted when I see my little boy independently sitting with a book in his lap, gazing at the pictures and ‘reading’ the words he knows well, or when he asks me at 6.30am for a story. Well, obviously not delighted straight away because I’m so bleary-eyed, but once I’ve had coffee the answer is yes. It could never not be.

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When it comes to reading, the doors it opens can’t be underestimated. And a love of reading cannot be supported if library doors are being slammed shut. ‘Ssssssshhh, we’re in a library!’ is a fond and familiar refrain, for these are places to be treated with respect and love. But there’s nothing to be quiet about when it comes to saving our libraries. Never mind ‘Sssssshhh!’. It needs to be a deafening roar.

Right Now I’m…
Reading: Most recently I loved Little Deaths by Emma Flint – devastating, mesmerising and I’ll have to read again, and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – can’t stop thinking about the ending.
And when it comes to children’s books, the top five picture books we return to time and again are Kicking a Ball by Allan Ahlberg and Sebastien Braun, Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants by Giles Andreae and Korky Paul, Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell and Captain Jack and the Pirates by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury.

Listening to: The ‘Hypnobirthing Relaxation Audio Colour and Calmness’ app with Katharine Graves.

Watching: The last series I binge-watched was The Missing series two, v chilling. And over Christmas we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Netflix and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen ever since.

Pass it On…  Nominate up to three women that you’d like to see featured on The Muse:
Katya Shipster @chaletdesoie
Katya is Deputy Publicity Director at Michael Joseph, mother of two small boys and co-owner of the stunning Chalet de Soie in Morzine, which she and her husband renovated from the ground up in 2013, whilst living and working full-time in London.
Blog: http://chic-happens.net/

Helen King
@hegsking
Helen is the former Head of Education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre and Head of Campaigns for the National Crime Agency. Helen is now Director of External Relations for Pause, which works to help women who have had multiple children removed, as well as being mum to four young children. That phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it?’ Totally applies to Helen.

Shannon Cullen @imwreckedmother
Shannon is a Publishing Director at Penguin Random House Children’s, mother of two and her brilliant new book, I’m Wrecked, This is My Journal, which she recently wrote on maternity leave with her newborn son, publishes in March.

In Her Words… by Sheila Norton

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Sheila lives near Chelmsford in Essex, and has been writing avidly since childhood. For most of her life she worked as a medical secretary, retiring early to concentrate on her writing, Sheila is the author of 11 contemporary novels.  Part 1 of Sheila’s brand new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017.  http://www.sheilanorton.com/

 

 

In at the deep end: How a failed swimmer finally overcame her fears

I’ve occasionally been asked, in interviews or on questionnaires, to talk about my proudest achievement. Without wanting to be mawkishly sentimental, my personal response is always ‘my family’ – because, well, obviously bringing up my three daughters was the best (and sometimes the most challenging!) thing I’ve done, and I’m not afraid to say how proud I am of them all. But the interviewers have usually wanted a writing career-based response, and there have been lots of possible answers, from winning two short story awards, to selling my first novel to a publisher, to writing so many of my earlier novels alongside working at a busy full-time job in the NHS. But there’s another answer, that has no connection with writing or even with my family, and it’s this: I’m ridiculously proud of myself for learning to swim!

I was never what you could call an active child. I spent most of my time with my head in a book, or dreaming up stories in my imagination. True, I did at least have to walk everywhere – I didn’t learn to drive until my mid-thirties – and that, together with the lack of junk food available during my post-war childhood, might have kept me from an early obesity-driven grave. I did take up cycling at one point before I passed my driving test, mainly to get to and from the shops more quickly. But I gave up after the massive humiliation of being overtaken on a hill by an eighty-year-old acquaintance, who waved and called out to me as she passed, while I could only manage a wheeze and a puff in response.

School PE lessons were, for me, the devil’s own torture device. You know the stories about the child who nobody wanted to pick for their teams because she was so totally useless at every game? I was that child. I suffered that mortification on a regular basis. I never learned the rules of netball. I hated hockey with a vengeance, scared stiff of being hit by the ball or clouted by someone’s stick. In tennis lessons, I’d actually sit down on the grass court and pick daisies. And in gym sessions, I’d wait for as long as I dared in the line to vault over the bloody horse, letting other girls go past me when the (strident, bossy, scary) gym teacher wasn’t looking, and then run up to the thing and pretend to fall over or hurt my ankle at the last minute. How did anyone actually get over it? I watched all the mega-popular sporty, athletic girls with a strangely detached feeling of awe and wonder. Detached, because I didn’t even want to be like them. I wasn’t interested. It all seemed such a profound waste of time and effort.

Swimming, of course, fell into the same category. School swimming lessons when I was a child consisted of being coached enthusiastically for galas if you were one of the best swimmers, and being pretty much ignored to hang around in the shallow end holding a float and feebly kicking your legs if you weren’t.

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Almost 2 years old and in love with the sea

However, when I was eleven, my dad taught me to swim in the sea. The sea and I have had a lifelong love affair. From toddlerhood, I’d always trot into the shallows enthusiastically, despite not having a clue how to survive if a wave knocked me over. I was, of course, too much of a coward to go out of my depth. But on one family holiday, Dad decided to show me how to float, and then how to throw my arms around in a rough approximation of the front crawl. It couldn’t have been pretty – Dad wasn’t a great swimmer himself – but it worked. I was thrilled. I could swim! Well, after a fashion. By the time I was a teenager, I could just about flounder across the width of the shallow end, often putting my feet down halfway. To all intents and purposes, I was still virtually a non-swimmer.

When my three children were born, all within less than four years, I decided to take them all for swimming lessons, and was thrilled when they all learned to swim at a young age. Not only that, but (because they were being taught properly), they were confident in the water, learned their strokes correctly and all became very good swimmers. I was extremely proud, if a tad envious – but it never occurred to me that I could have done the same. I’d long come to terms with my limitations with regard to anything physical!

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Sheila’s three daughters all loved the water

And that was pretty much how I remained until a holiday in Australia in 1997. One of our trips was to the Great Barrier Reef. On the boat out to the reef, a marine biologist told us about the amazing sights we’d see by snorkeling in the sea above the reef. I guessed I’d have to miss out on that. But then, she added that if anyone was a nervous swimmer, she could tow them along with a lifebelt and point out the marine life.

‘I’m going to do that!’ I decided, carried away by the moment.

I hadn’t quite thought it through. When it came to being fitted up with my snorkel, mask and fins, I panicked.

‘I’ve never swum with my face in the water before!’ I blurted out to the marine biologist.

I suppose, in my naivety, I’d kind of hoped she’d feel sorry for me, give me some advice, or somehow devise a way I could see the life below the surface without actually getting my head wet. Instead, she gave me a slightly supercilious look and said:

‘So what makes you think you’ll be able to do it now?’

And I reacted in what was, for me, a very uncharacteristic fashion. I sat up straight on the edge of that boat, squared my (shaking) shoulders and retorted:

‘Because I want to!’

The first few minutes were very scary. For a start, I didn’t like not being able to touch anything with my feet. I held onto that lifebelt so tight, my knuckles hurt.

‘Now just rest your face on the surface of the water,’ the (young, fit, sporty) marine biologist instructed me and the other wimps she was towing.

Just like that, ha! But – I did. Surprise, surprise, because of the mask, nothing went up my nose or into my eyes. I could see below the surface! Wow!

‘Just relax and float,’ she went on.

And, yes, I did. I experimented with breathing (having up till then been holding my breath in fear), and it worked. I could do it! Breathe in, breathe out, nothing happened – I didn’t choke, I didn’t sink, I didn’t drown. It was amazing! I saw some fabulous sights during the next half hour – brilliantly coloured coral, huge fish who gazed back at us with disdain, shoals of tiny bright fish who darted backwards and forwards in front of us – but none of it compared with the excitement I felt at the very fact that I’d done it. I didn’t let go of that lifebelt for a single second, of course, but that was beside the point. I’d snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef! Me! It was an experience I’d never forget.

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Discovering a new found love of snorkelling

But back home, back in my real life as a wimp, the excitement soon wore off – until one day soon afterwards, my friend Geraldine told me she fancied going to adult swimming lessons.

‘But you’re already a good swimmer!’ I said.

‘No, I’m not. I want to improve my strokes.’

Improve them? I’d just be satisfied with getting some. After a few moments of deep breathing to control my nerves, and before I could change my mind, I said:

‘OK! I’ll join up with you.’

We both started in the beginners’ class. On the first lesson, our instructor asked us to show him what we could do. Geraldine set off powerfully across the pool. What the hell was there to teach her, I wondered? I followed, gasping my way untidily along for a few metres with my head held high. Needless to say I wasn’t expecting applause, but unlike school swimming lessons, there were no scornful titters. The instructor asked me whether I could try putting my face in the water. I shook my head. What, without a snorkel? You must be joking!

‘Just try, for me – duck down very quickly,’ he encouraged me.

Right. I was conscious that everyone else was waiting to get on with the lesson. I ducked my face in and out within a split second, coming up with my hair all over my face, spluttering and rubbing my eyes.

‘Two pieces of advice,’ the instructor said. ‘Tie your hair back. And get some goggles.’

It’s no exaggeration to say those words changed my life. Within weeks, kitted out with my hair band and goggles, I was learning to swim – properly. Within months, I was joining Geraldine in the ‘intermediate’ class (she’d been moved up straight away). Within a year, we were two of the select group of four adults who made up the advanced class. At the age of 49, I could finally say I was a swimmer. I’d learned the correct breathing for front crawl. I’d learned breaststroke, which had always been a complete mystery to me. I’d learned back crawl, and had even had a go at butterfly. I could swim lengths – several lengths – more lengths the longer I learned, the stronger I got. I could pick up a brick off the floor of the pool, jump in at the deep end, and swim wearing pyjamas for survival training. I was finally doing all the things I’d admired my children for doing when they were a fraction of my age.

Despite my excitement, I knew I’d never become a really good swimmer. I’d probably left it too late for that. Sometimes I regret never learning properly when I was young – I missed out on so much enjoyment. But then again, the thrill of having overcome my fears and lack of ability later in life has never worn off. At the peak of my (admittedly still limited) fitness, I undertook to swim a mile for charity. I didn’t find it easy. But every time I felt like giving up, I remembered that scary gym teacher at school, and thought: If only you could see me now.

Nearly twenty years further on, I tire more easily and accept that I have to stop frequently during my thirty lengths, to take a few breaths. Ironically, I find now that I can’t swim without my face in the water – it hurts my neck too much. But yes, I still swim regularly and with asthma and arthritis among other things, I know how good it is for me, and it’s still (apart from walking) the only active pursuit I’m even interested in. I’ve realised it suits me because I’m not at all competitive. I swim alone, the only contest being with the constraints of my own body. When people ask me if it’s boring, just swimming up and down the pool, I reply that it’s my thinking time. Many a plot twist has been devised during a few lengths of crawl!

And of course, my love affair with the sea is still going strong. I might not be so keen these days to fling myself into the freezing waters of the English Channel at all times of year, but give me a warm ocean, a snorkel and the chance to jump off a boat moored in a beautiful blue bay, and I feel as close to paradise as any ex non-swimmer could possibly be.

 

Right Now I’m….

Watching: ‘Game of Thrones’

Reading: ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’ by Bill Bryson

Listening to:   ‘A Head Full of Dreams’ by Coldplay

Pass it on:

Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Fenella J Miller @fenellawriter  Prolific and very successful self-published historical novelist .

Emily Yau @EmilyWhyy   My editor at Ebury Books, who also performs in musical theatre.

Jojo Moyes  @jojomoyes  One of my all time favourite novelists

 

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Part 1 of Sheila’s new digital series ‘The Vets at Hope Green’ will be released by Ebury Press on 19 January, followed by the paperback of the complete story on 1 June 2017.

 

In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

image1Lora is a wife and mummy of four sons.  In 2012 her family were devastated when her third son, Finn was born sleeping.  

Her brave and honest account below was written to promote Baby Loss Awareness Week this week.

 

In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

My third little boy, Finn, is 4 years old. He would have started school in September, joining in his brother’s morning rituals which are sealed with a kiss goodbye in the school playground. I imagine he would be delighted and excited by the prospect of being a big boy and starting school.  I imagine. I imagine everything about Finn, as he isn’t with me anymore.

The aftermath of losing Finn was deeply wounding. The grief was engulfing and all-encompassing whilst my deep sense of guilt was choking. I lived on the fringes in the early weeks, as babies born sleeping seemed to be one of the great unmentionables.

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Lora with Finn

I was angry. Angry at my own body; angry at those people who were still pregnant; angry at those who tried to comfort me with their own sadness of miscarriage (I have had four of those too). Finn was a perfectly formed 5lb 8oz little boy. He may have been stillborn, but he was still born.

Finn is irreplaceable, yet a few months after his passing my arms felt desperately empty and I became pregnant again. Interestingly, I felt more normal when I was, as suddenly friends who had gone quiet were more comfortable speaking to me again. At 34 weeks, our family was blessed with the arrival of our fourth little boy Joshua Finlay Martin, known as Joss. Our tiny miracle perfectly filled our yearning arms and helped us smile again.

With Joss in our lives, I felt strong enough to start the beginning of our new future. Sadly, this was short lived as one week post-birth I learned that my beloved father had, unbeknown to me, started an aggressive battle with cancer. (He had withheld telling me whilst I was pregnant as he didn’t want me worrying). He put up an incredibly strong fight with the bravest of faces, but four months later cancer took my Dad and enveloped me in the tentacles of grief yet again.

This grief was akin to carrying a boulder around with me all day. I struggled under the pressure, my knees buckled and my arms strained to maintain grip. But letting myself go through this grieving process, allowing myself to feel angry, to unapologetically feel like I had been wronged, that I was the victim, that life was unfair, was in hindsight key to starting the healing process.

It takes time to feel human again and I remember feeling a huge sense of pressure to seek professional help. For reasons that I don’t even understand myself, I couldn’t face this. I couldn’t tolerate the thought of exposing or sharing my deepest feelings with someone I didn’t know. I was much more comfortable being the shoulder to cry on, rather than the one doing the crying. Or maybe I just didn’t want them to take the pain away?

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Lora’s dad with his grandson Joss

You can’t heal every wound and I believe that is OK. The ache in my heart is important and I don’t ever want it to fully subside. It’s what tells me that I love Finn so deeply, it’s how I take Finn everywhere with me and it’s my barometer which helps me evaluate what is important in everyday life.

However, I am not ashamed to admit that contentment and happiness are a big part of my life again. I spent the early part of this evening with Sonos belting out some big tunes in the kitchen whilst my husband, three other children and I busted some shapes amongst a furore of laughter! However, as I sit here writing this article with a glass of wine on standby, I am joined by tears rolling down my face and a very heavy heart and it got me thinking about how often I cry now. Is it daily? No. Is it weekly? I’m not sure. Is it about Finn or my Dad? I don’t know and really it doesn’t matter because I love and miss them both. But what I do know is that crying feels much easier and more manageable now, as I know that happy times are just around the corner again. I’d actually go further to say that shedding a tear is for me now is a therapeutic exercise. It’s always done privately, in a quiet moment at home or maybe on a contemplative country walk with my faithful four-legged friend, but for me it is like releasing the pressure valve which allows me to be the wife, the mummy and the friend I want to be. Crying (and writing!) are my own personal forms of healing it would seem.

In fact, I jest about writing, but actually in the early months after losing Finn I found myself enslaved to the computer as I completed a piece of writing which captured our two days with him. This documentation of Finn’s time with us proved to be somewhat cathartic. I was conscious that time could possibly erode the details and I was keen to preserve as much of that time as possible. It’s neither a heart-warming or uplifting read, but it is an honest and precious account, you can find it here: Forever My Finlay 

It is clear to me now that I was particularly fortunate to be surrounded by such a strong and patient group of people who gave me the platform to face the future again with renewed strength and hope. However, one of the most painful struggles I faced in the early months was the discomfort that clearly resided in many friends, dare I say some extended family members too. I get it. Giving birth to a baby who isn’t alive is a difficult reality for everyone to face. Many people don’t have previous experience to draw upon when dealing with friends in this situation. What do you say to them? Talking about said baby will only cause further upset surely? So, many simply said very little. At best ‘how are you?’ At worst, nothing. Certainly there was never any mention of his name. I don’t want Finn to become a forgotten member of our family or his name to be a taboo word in my presence. I yearn to hear his name still. Yes, it may bring tears to my eyes, but it also brings music to my ears.

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Lora with her boys and husband David

So looking back now, how do I reflect on all this? I do believe I can see the world in many more colours than I did before we had Finn. Having witnessed both the fragility and blessing of life I am more self-aware than I was before, I count my blessings with much more commitment and I look to really enjoy and not second-guess the good times. To get to the place I am in now, I had a choice to make; I could stagnate and let the world move on without me or I could re-join the journey and start moving forwards again. I chose to jump aboard life’s train, in part, because I owe it to my incredible family unit, but also because I am so grateful to be alive. Many people didn’t go to bed last night or didn’t wake up this morning. But I did. And I am grateful.

I am also much more mindful now of how I react to others facing difficult times, whether great or small. I always try to step off the ledge and offer the comfort that I feel I didn’t always receive. To be honest, this has had a varied response, some have closed me down not wishing to go any further, but equally some have welcomed that subliminal nod which allows conversation to unfold.

I don’t profess to have a secret ingredient as to how best to get through times such as these, I think everyone’s road to reach their new normal is totally personal and unique to them. What I would say though is if I can, then you certainly can too. Also, for those readers who do have a friend out there who does need you, then don’t let your social awkwardness stop you from being the friend you want to be or the friend you need to be.

Everyone’s life will undoubtedly have ups and downs. I believe it is critical to appreciate and savour the ups because this creates the reserves of strength that you need to deal with the downs.

Finally, my advice when you are going through your own crisis: listen to advice but don’t allow this well-intentioned counsel to take you in a direction you are uncomfortable with. Trust yourself and you will find the right path back to happiness.

For anyone looking for support following the loss of a baby, the following charities offer excellent advice:

Sands 
Tommys 
Saying Goodbye 
The Mariposa Trust 
Baby Loss Awareness

In Her Words…. by Abigail Tarttelin

 

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Abigail Tarttelin

 

Abigail Tarttelin is the author of award-winning intersex novel Golden Boy, and editor of I Hope You Like Feminist Rants zine. Issue #2 on Motherhood is for sale online now at http://civilizedanimal.bigcartel.com.

Follow Abigail on Instagram @civilizedanimal

 

 

 
In the last week, I have made three long distance journeys in my car, to meet a newly-born relative, visit an old friend, and collect a colleague from the train station for a very exciting work project. I own a 2014 New Generation 1.2 SE Hyundai i10, with Bluetooth, a roomy interior, and leather steering wheel, and I love driving it. Before I bought it I made a list of requirements, then whittled it down to my deal-breakers: it should be five-door, economical, and easy on the eye. I scoured What Car? for vehicles that fit the bill, leased a Chevy Spark, visited several garages, and rejected all but one on the grounds that the lads working there assumed I didn’t know anything about cars, and asked if my parents would be paying (hell, no).

I couldn’t afford the optional stop-start technology but at £40 for 440 miles the standard SE is cheap to run, and, because I bought it new, came with five years of unlimited-mileage warranty, roadside assistance, and health checks. The engine is near silent and does 80mph on the motorway without hassle.

Yesterday I was filling up my tank, watching another woman disembark her vehicle, and thinking about how much I like to see women driving. I get oddly emotional about it. Stranger still, I also like seeing women at the petrol station. I asked myself: why?

First, I suppose it’s because just fifty years ago, it wasn’t the done thing. Even today, in parts of the world, it is forbidden on religious grounds (Saudi Arabia), or uncommon (for example, in Afghanistan or Egypt). These women are exercising a right which wasn’t theirs until recently.

Women driving has changed incrementally over the last 5 decades. In my family, my Nan never learnt to drive; my great aunt – a gutsy, single mother – got her license later in life, and my mother passed her test in platform shoes and drove to London the next day. My cousin remembers her as the cool auntie who would pile the kids in her estate and take them on adventures. She lived far away, on the coast, and had a hip, long-haired boyfriend (my Dad). In the UK, the percentage of women driving rose from 50% to 64% between 1995 and 2010. I am represented in this statistic, passing my test two days before my eighteen birthday in 2005, and then my advance driving test the next year.

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Abigail’s mum

So, the swelling feeling in my chest is partly that each woman driving is a little victory in the face of history, but it’s also, for me, about something more personal than that.

These women are going somewhere, at their own volition. When the car runs out of juice (here comes the petrol station part), they will not be stopped, because they have the economic power to fill it themselves. A car is an intimate personal space, for a woman to be alone, an individual, an independently thinking and moving person; a momentary bachelor, no matter her personal or marital situation. She is the driver of her car, her life, her ambition. She is an active force, and not passively carried to her destiny in the passenger seat, or stopped by the headwind. She is an arrow, shot from a bow she strung herself, moving through the world at her own will, and in her own time. She strides valiantly through the oil moistened forecourt with her bank card in hand, as men (why are there always so many more men than women at petrol stations?) stare at her, wondering where this goddess came from, and where she is going. But they’ll never know, because she doesn’t rely on f***ing anyone.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Chelsea Handler on Netflix

Reading: Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Listening to: Beyonce’s Lemonade

Pass it on:

Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Brodie Lancaster (Filmmes Fatales zine editor) @brodielancaster

Sarah Winter (Versailles actress) @sarahelizwinter

In Coversation With… Shelley Harris

Shelley Harris

Shelley Harris is a novelist (Jubilee and Vigilante), writing teacher and mentor. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, two sons, two cats and a snake.

Shelley is on Twitter: @shelleywriter and her website is shelleyharris.co.uk

 

 

How did you end up doing the job you do?
In the kind of messy way most authors end up doing it – through trying and failing, trying and learning, trying and succeeding. When I was just about to give up, I met my literary agent Jo Unwin over a cup of tea at a writing festival. After that, things moved quite fast, but the whole process had taken years; I started in my twenties when I was living in Paris and finally got published when I was settled with two kids.

What are you working on right now?
I’m sloshing about in the primeval soup of my next novel. It’s a slow, slow process watching it form (is it forming…? is that…? am I ready to…?). Part of me adores this bit because it’s so liberating, and part of me is terrified I’ll never get there.

Describe your first job
It was a bit grim, truth be told. I worked on a local weekly paper in the recession of the early 90s. Usually, local journalists get trained and ship out fairly fast, but there were no jobs to move to. So everyone stayed, stagnated, and set about being as toxic as possible. Seriously: the vegetable shows were light relief from what happened in the newsroom.

On the bright side, I learned to write tightly and to deadline and I managed to see films for free. Of these skills, only one seems to have stayed with me.

What would was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?
By the time I was published, I’d already completed Plans A (reporter) and B (teaching: a job I relished), plus a whole load of other letters. Mystery shopper, seller of wine, hawker of greetings cards, Oxfam shop volunteer, full-time parent – you name it.

Who would you most like to work with?
When you’re a writer, ‘work with’ can have a wide application. I’d like to work with Olivia Coleman (who is my perfect Jenny Pepper – the protagonist of Vigilante). And I’d really, really love to collaborate on a graphic novel version of Vigilante with artist Alison Bechdel.

What did you want to be when you were little?
I wanted to be two things: a writer (natch) and an actor. I still hanker to act, but comfort myself that writing is its own kind of method acting. I’ve definitely slipped into role a few times to get a sense of what the world feels like for my characters.

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What are you most proud of?
Professionally speaking, I’m actually most proud of having written my novels. In the end, it’s not the publication – thrilling though that is – but the arse-breaking process of writing them that makes all the difference. I’m proud of doggedly getting up again multiple times after failure and rejection, and just keeping going (fun and character-forming!).

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?
I would love the industry to be properly diverse. My experience is that it’s filled with lovely and dedicated people drawn from quite a narrow social band, and that they unconsciously reproduce what’s most familiar to them.

It would be nice if authors got paid a living wage, too.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Yawningly predictable I know, but having to keep quite so many balls in the air is pretty challenging. It’s hard to get that intensive, uninterrupted focus on my writing when I’m also a hands-on parent, teacher, mentor, friend, partner, housekeeper, family communicator and so on. I actually love the texture that diversity gives my life – not to mention the material it offers – but it can be frustrating, too. We tease men for being monotaskers, but when I’m in a certain mood it seems like the biggest gift patriarchy has given them.
Who is your favourite fictional female character?
Of course, that’s an impossible and unfair question – how could there just be one? But Mattie in Lissa Evans’s Crooked Heart might come close. She’s a former Suffragette living in wartime London, and I can’t imagine there’s a reader who hasn’t adored her.

Right Now I’m…

Watching: the entirety of The Good Wife. Most of the time I think it’s a standard law drama (set in a firm where all the women are preternaturally beautiful – yawn), but then there’s something really playful or clever in the writing, and I let Netflix roll me on to the next episode.

Reading; Kit de Waal’s ‘My Name Is Leon’, the story of two brothers in care who are separated because of their different ethnicity. There’s not a trace of mawkishness, but it absolutely grabs your heart.

Listening to: Belle and Sebastian’s The Boy With The Arab Strap on repeat. By rights I should have been doing so for years, but have only just discovered Belle and Sebastian through the good offices of novelist Stephanie Butland.
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Naomi Frisby (@frizbot), whose The Writes of Woman has become more than just a cracking book blog. She uses her platform creatively to lobby for equality in the (very un-equal – see above) literary world.

Sarah Franklin (@SarahEFranklin), one of the people responsible for the current short story renaissance. She founded Oxford’s Short Stories Aloud, a literary night bringing together actors, authors and cake. Her blend of warmth and incisiveness has attracted writers such as Margaret Drabble, Rachel Joyce, Jon McGregor and Tracy Chevalier. Sarah was a 2015 Costa short story judge.

Stephanie Butland (@under_blue_sky). Stephanie juggles two fascinating careers – as a novelist (Letters to My Husband, The Other Half of my Heart) and as a thinking expert (she’s one of only 40 De Bono master trainers worldwide). I’m especially fascinated in how these two skills cross-fertilise.

Vigilante