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

In Conversation With… Georgina Atwell

Georgina AtwellGeorgina Atwell is the founder of www.toppsta.com the children’s books website where children review books and share their recommendations. After a career in publishing and running the ebook store for iTunes, she now mostly works from her home office and tries to forget about the snacks calling her from the kitchen. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children and loves jumping on the train to come into London to meet publishers and discuss children’s books.

How did you end up doing the job you do?
I came up with the idea for Toppsta back in 2009 but just as I was setting it up I got a call from Apple, offering me my dream job of running their ebook store. I just thought, I’m never going to get this opportunity again, I need to do it. But after 4 brilliant years and with two young children, it just didn’t offer me the flexibility I needed and I knew that one day I wanted to run my own business. So I quit. Lots of people thought I was crazy but I’ve not regretted it for a second. I love what I do – the publishers I work with, the books we promote, the parents and children we help and all of it around my personal commitments as a Mum. I’m still working 7 days a week and all hours but it just doesn’t feel like a job anymore.Toppsta

What are you working on right now?
We’ve produced this amazing reading list of children’s book reviews written by our reviewers. I’m incredibly proud of it, it took a long time to put together and we’ve had brilliant feedback from parents, grandparents, teachers and publishers. I’m looking at how we can get it out to schools and parents and whether this is something we can put together on a regular basis.

Describe your first job
My first job was working in a deli near where my parents live in Oxford. I’m a complete foodie so I loved every minute. Particularly when my parents came in and I’d be suggesting all the yummy food they should buy.

My first work in publishing was very different. I was doing work experience for a publisher who had just published a book on pornography to accompany a tv series. They needed to return some of the images to picture libraries but they didn’t know which pictures belonged to which galleries. So I had the very dubious task to phone up various picture libraries, describe the pictures over the phone and see if they recognized the description. I was about 18 and absolutely mortified. I swear the other people in the office must have thought it was hilarious. Anyway, it toughened me up and is certainly unforgettable. I think that anyone coming to Toppsta for work experience has it pretty easy in comparison!

What was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?
There was never ever a plan B. But to be honest there wasn’t much of a plan A either!

Where do you feel most inspired?
After two years I finally have my own office, with a desk. Somewhere permanent for my computer and my books, as well as a door to shut if I need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s pure bliss after working at the kitchen table and having to shift everything back and forth.

But for inspiration, I’m a walker. If I’m stuck on something I’ll grab my coat and just go for a walk and have a think. I honestly believe that we think better when we’re on the move. Sadly I don’t live in a particularly rural area but even a few minutes walking around the block seems to clear my head.

What did you want to be when you were little?
It’s funny, I was a huge reader when I was young, I remember hiding under the covers reading the Famous Five with a torch and I studied English Literature at University but I never had any ambition to work with books. I’ve always enjoyed the business side of jobs; the sales, marketing and products and I think I thought that publishing was all about editing. I went for the graduate scheme at The Financial Times but was encouraged to apply for the graduate scheme at Penguin instead, as they thought I was better suited to publishing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Never assume. They were my grandfather’s words of advice and I think it’s good advice for life. Never assume it’s a bad idea, just because it didn’t work out first time. Never assume you’re going to close the deal until you’ve actually signed on the dotted line. Never assume a friend doesn’t want to see you just because they haven’t replied to your text. Never assume the kids can’t do something just because they haven’t done it before. Never assume.

What are you most proud of?
I love and I mean really love the emails and messages I get each day from parents via our website or social media. Some of them have really brought a tear to my eye. The mums and dads who have been struggling to get their kids to read but through our giveaways, they’ve been getting excited about receiving books in the post in a parcel addressed to them. The teachers who say that a child in their class has gone up a reading level, encouraged by seeing their reviews published on our website. It’s amazing to think that this idea of mine, run from home is actually making a difference. 90% of our Facebook audience are based outside of London, so we’re genuinely nationwide.

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?
Publishing is a predominantly female industry but I feel that since the financial crisis it’s become more conservative in the way that it works. I hear an increasing number of stories of requests for flexibility being turned down; people made redundant whilst on maternity leave; and there are sadly precious few women at the top of the publishing houses. That just seems crazy for our industry. Other, more traditionally ‘male’ industries like finance and law are trying really hard to get more women through the door and are offering more flexibility and initiatives, but in the meantime I feel publishing has gone backwards.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Not working round the clock. I have a tendency to work 24/7, I genuinely just enjoy the job but I’m trying really hard to fit it all in during the day and then read or watch a film in the evening. It’s a struggle, there’s just so much to do but I think for my own sanity (as well as my family life!) it will really help if I can manage it.

Right Now I’m….
Watching: The Crown (yes I know, I’m always late to the good series…)
Reading: Outline by Rachel Cusk for my bookgroup
Listening to: All the Single Ladies by Beyonce. My daughter (4) is obsessed with playing it and singing along.

Pass it on:
The talented Timma Marrett who works with @women_ahead helping women in sport and development.

In Conversation With… Sophy Henn

Sophy HennSophy Henn lives and works in Sussex, England. She studied Fashion at Central Saint Martins, accidentally had a London-based career as an Art Director in advertising, then completed an MA at University of Brighton in Illustration. Now she writes and illustrates children’s books in her studio, with a large cup of tea by her side, and can’t quite believe her luck.
Where Bear?, her first book, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2015. She is also the World Book Day Illustrator for 2015 and 2016. Her latest book, Edie, published 2nd February 2017.

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a book about a little white rabbit who is struggling with his self belief. I wanted to write a book about this as I have seen so many children adamantly refuse to try things or play games with others as they are so worried they are going to get it ‘wrong’. They stop before they have started. But the joy in all of these things is often in the doing and not the result, and we never know what we are capable of unless we give it a go. I can still relate to this as I get such huge nerves before books come out, these feelings never leave us. But we just have to remember to enjoy the doing, be a little braver and have a little more faith in ourselves.
Sophy Henn working in her studio

Describe your first job
I grew up in a smallish town and my first job was a Saturday job in a shop called Robertsons. It was the most amazing shop and was rightly proud of having been described as a miniature Fortnum & Masons.

It had the classic Victorian double fronted shop front and inside carved wooden shelves went right up to the ceiling with gold hand lettering on the surrounds. There were two old fashioned glass shop counters on either side and a big central display. In one of the shop windows there was a coffee roasting machine, where Mrs Roberts the elderly (though marvellously fierce) owner would roast sacks of coffee beans (there must have been at least 10 different varieties), filling the shop and pavement with the smell of coffee.

Now this was very nearly 30 years ago and fresh coffee was something of a rarity, so it was quite the novelty. We had two coffee grinding machines and would grind the beans to the customers requirements (finer for filter, etc) and there was a rather perilous bag clipping/vacuum system for catching the ground beans which would occasionally result in a fine coffee mist!  I had to put in about 6 months on the chocolate counter before I was allowed near the coffee!!!

Oh, and there were no tills, just wooden drawers, with notepads and pencils for adding up. I think my maths peaked at this point as come Christmas people would pop in to buy their Christmas hampers. With so many items to add up and Mrs Roberts’ love of specific prices (£2.73 or £9.56 for example) it was quite the challenge. But there was a constant supply of coffee, chocolates and delicious biscuits and for all her fierceness, Mrs Roberts remains one of my favourite ever bosses.

Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?
My daughter. I know, I know that sounds utterly cheesy, but it is true. If it hadn’t been for her and her love of stories I would never have ended up doing this, my dream job. It was reading picture books to her that planted the seed of the idea that I could have a go myself. Combined with the fact I have used situations she and her friends have found themselves in for the basis of some of my stories, I really couldn’t have done it without her! She is also super supportive and I really try to be better and braver (specifically when doing the surprising amount of public speaking I find I am asked to do) so she can be proud of me!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What did you want to be when you were little?
Firstly a ballerina, obviously, then a detective. That ambition stuck with me for quite some time, fuelled by The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and Nancy Drew. I still LOVE a murder mystery and haven’t ruled out a Miss Marple style retirement!

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?
Well, it’s not exactly original, but ‘do what you love’ is advice I have come to appreciate more and more. So much time is spent working, that to enjoy what you do and get satisfaction from it is surely something to aspire to.
Also…don’t always assume that those older than you know more than you. I spent so much time thinking this, and now I am that older person I realise that’s not the case at all!!!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Don’t listen to any advice” from my wonderful friend Lisette. I was pregnant at the time and this gem specifically related to the avalanche of advice you get as soon as someone finds out you are with child! I have passed it on to every expectant mother I have come across, probably moments before giving them loads of advice!

What are you most proud of?
Being a mum. It’s the most stressful, wonderful, hilarious, upsetting, fraught and satisfying thing I have ever done. I have never tried my best this consistently at anything. The second is having a book published, and for all the same reasons!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What has been your career highlight to date?
I am not sure how you can ever beat the thrill of seeing your first book on the shelf in an actual book shop! But another huge highlight was walking through Brighton and being stopped by a Dad and his little girl, they recognised me from an event I had done at a book shop in Hove and wanted to tell me how much the little girl had taken to Pom Pom. I think she was a bit confused as it was very much Pom Pom she loved ( I know my place in these things!), but to hear her HARRUMPHING away happily made me a smidge emotional! AND she went to school as Pom Pom on World Book Day last year! I am pretty sure I cried again, happy tears!

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Time management. Isn’t that everyone’s challenge though? And if it isn’t, who has got it sussed and please can you tell me how? I think it’s specifically the hours between 2-5pm, where do they go?
Sophy Henn's Studio

Who is your favourite fictional female character?
Probably Clarice Bean! Though I love many fictional females… Aunt Mame, Milly Molly Mandy, Tank Girl, Mrs Pettigrew, Miss Marple, both Sophie and her Grandmother in The Summer Book, and any number of Nancy Mitford’s creations (special mention goes to Linda Radlett). Quite a mix.

Right Now I’m….
Watching: Modern Family – box set heaven and sit-com perfection.
Reading: Patti Smith – The M Train – I read Just Kids last year and loved it.
Listening to: The Beastie Boys – always! Oh and Amerie – Gotta Work, after Caitlin Moran reminded me of it on Desert Island discs, it’s great for motivating you through a tricky work patch. And yes, there is a dance routine to go with!

Pass it on:
Lucy of @LaLaandPom who is an utter joy and creates such gorgeous pompomed wonders.
Nadia Shireen for being a total wit, much cooler than I will ever be and brave enough to admit to not liking cheese (I know???).

Stay up to date with Sophy’s wonderful work by joining her over on Twitter and Instagram.

Edie by Sophy Henn

 

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

In Conversation With… Zoë Howe

Zoe Howe

Zoe Howe – image credit Melanie Smith

Zoë Howe, is a music author, musician and visual artist based by the Essex Riviera. She is married to the drummer Dylan Howe and they have a tortoise-shell cat called Marzipan. Zoë’s books include Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits (2009, Omnibus), Wilko Johnson – Looking Back At Me (2012), Stevie Nicks – Visions, Dreams & Rumours (2014, Omnibus), Barbed Wire Kisses – The Jesus and Mary Chain Story (2014, Polygon) and Lee Brilleaux – Rock ’n’ Roll Gentleman (2015, Polygon).
Zoë’s debut novel, Shine On, Marquee Moon, is out in September via Matador.

 

How did you end up doing the job you do?

By being crazy about rock ’n’ roll from a ridiculously young age! My dad, formerly a late night rock DJ, had a great record collection which he kindly allowed me to explore from a very early age (I treated it with great respect – at least, I think I did), plus my older sister had / has really great taste in pop. There was always a lot of passion for music in our house and I remain musically very greedy! I’m not a snob and have very eclectic taste to say the least. When people ask me what kind of music I’m into, I find it quite hard to answer.

What are you working on right now?

Book-wise, I have my debut novel Shine On, Marquee Moon coming out at the end of September. It’s a rock ’n’ roll love story, tinged with satire and dark humour. Rock chick lit. For boys as well as girls. It’s a bit nerve-racking, but also exciting – and I was utterly amazed and thrilled when I heard that it had been short-listed for the Virginia Prize For Fiction this year! That gave me such a boost.

I decided to self-publish it with the company Matador, who came highly recommended – they take care of the editing, production, distribution etc. I did have an opportunity to work with a publisher I’d not worked with before on this book, and I appreciated that offer very much, but I had made a positive choice to self-publish and decided to stick with my decision. It’s my first novel, it’s a personal project but also I think artists across the board should try to have more control over their work where possible. Self-publishing has changed, the stigma is disappearing. I chose to work with Matador because they put out really good-looking books and strive for quality. More and more established authors are encouraging new writers to self-publish. I think as long as you work with a discerning editor and ensure the book looks good, then it can be a great way to go.

At the launch of ‘Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits’ in July 2009, with Slits Tessa Pollitt and Viv Albertine.
At the launch of ‘Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits’ in July 2009, with Slits Tessa Pollitt and Viv Albertine.

I also play drums and percussion in a few bands. I’ve played since I was about 11. Southend has always had a fiercely vibrant music scene and I’m massively proud to be a part of this continuing thread of Estuarine rock ’n’ roll in my own small way.

Art-wise, as I write, I am sitting by some of my work in the esteemed Leigh Art Trail. I’m a guest artist this year, and very privileged to be so. This particular collection of collages I’m showing as part of the Trail is themed around dreams, enchantment and the heavens and it’s inside a cute little shed at the end of sculptor Karen Christensen’s garden. I’ve made a playlist to accompany it, as is my wont. Lots of Ink Spots, some Clint Mansell, Nico… it’s my strange little beach hut of dreams! I’m also preparing some work for a group show with the fab Piney Gir for next month at Islington’s White Conduit Gallery, which I’m really excited about.

Describe your first job

I was about 12 or 13 and worked part time in a local health shop. Groovy, man. In my excitement, I’d instantly spend my paltry wages on dried pieces of apple and sesame halva. Or I’d manage to save some and then to the charity shop (many of my clothes came from charity shops, or were hand me downs, or were charity shop hand me downs – thankfully it was the 90s when this sort of sartorial caper was de rigeur) or second hand record shop I’d go. Must have been a funny sight, on reflection – this little girl rummaging purposefully through the racks alongside lots of older blokes who looked like Nazareth roadies.

Then I did lots of waitressing in various caffs and at a kosher hotel which was like the Happiness Hotel in The Great Muppet Caper but with fewer musical numbers. I broke my fair share of crockery (saves on washing up). But I did well for tips in the hotel because I was one of the only members of waiting staff there who wasn’t routinely offensive. Read Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen and you’ll get an idea of the ‘vibe’.

What would was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?

I don’t know if you could call any of what I do a career, although I feel very lucky to be able to make some semblance of a living by doing what I love! I think the fall-back plan would probably be to become a rock star or something. You know, something achievable.

Where do you feel most inspired?

Being on the beach near where I live in Southend On Sea. I have space to think there and ideas always come, seemingly from nowhere. Whether they’re good ideas is another matter! I have a particular affection for that beach, it’s almost as if it has a personality and I kind of view it as a friend. I love the crazy sunsets, all the dogs leaping about, chasing geese and having the best time ever (the dogs, not me), the weird stuff that washes up. It’s also one of the only places where I do not listen to any music. I like to hear the water and the wind, the boats clanking away in the breeze, that’s the ultimate music! It feels like sacrilege to plug your ears up against that.

What did you want to be when you were little?

More exotic. Specifically Latina. That was pretty much my sole ambition. (I was obsessed with Rita Moreno in West Side Story.) An impossible dream, no matter how much black hair dye and hooped earrings I got my hands on. I have very pale skin thanks to Celtic blood and a vampiric schedule. I have a ‘studio tan’ – that’s what they’d call it in rock ’n’ roll circles anyway, which makes it sound groovier. All the same I was, however, a pretty good latin and Flamenco dancer as a teenager, as it goes. Olé.

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?

Be kind, but not a doormat. Look for the good stuff and more good stuff tends to appear. Keep a sense of humour. Don’t worry too much about what people think – try stuff out, make mistakes, get better, keep being creative. (Punk helped me MASSIVELY with that). Pick your battles and conserve your energy for what matters. You get one go at life on this beautiful planet (depending on your beliefs) – so turn up the colour, the volume and the contrast, switch channels if you want to, and don’t let the squares drag you down!

 

Wilko Johnson and I at Rough Trade East, pic - Simon Reed : Musical Pictures
Wilko Johnson and I at Rough Trade East, pic – Simon Reed : Musical Pictures

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?

I long for the day when we don’t talk about ‘women writers’, ‘women musicians’ – one day we will talk about WRITERS. MUSICIANS. We have a long way to go. Then there are the ‘women in rock’ articles and events – which on the one hand I support because, otherwise, those voices might not be heard at all, but on the other, and depending on how they are put across, I realise they can potentially either neatly tidy female artists away for another day – (‘female’ is NOT a genre!) or, while being interesting and important, preach to the converted and keep us further separated.

I’m interested in integration rather than further segregation, which I know is rarely the intention, but we can inadvertently reinforce a sense of separateness, as well as reinforcing some of the negative feelings and righteous anger that naturally comes when you are banging your head against sexism every day – and that includes sexism from others of the same gender. Women are not always that nice to each other, are they? When it suits them not to be. Queen Bee syndrome, basically indicative of intense insecurity, and why? Because we’re conditioned to feel there isn’t enough room for all women to have their shot. Just one woman on the panel. Just one woman on that movie poster with five blokes. Subliminally, we’re panicking. You can see why, but what a load of bollocks. Don’t buy into it. It gets in the way of your creativity, which is something that should be joyful and liberating.

What you give your attention to expands, it’s that thing again. I was certainly angry for a goodly while – and anger is, as PiL eloquently put it, an energy – but it can also get in the way and stop you from seeing what’s so great about life, you can get shunted out of balance. Being equal – it’s so simple, but we often make it complex. Being equal doesn’t mean being THE SAME, or squashing our femaleness / maleness / sexuality / personality; it means having an equal chance, an equal voice, being treated and respected as an equal. There still seems to be confusion over this.

There’s also a perception that women writers would only want to write about women, women musicians only want to be work with other women musicians. Whenever I’ve been in bands and have been the only woman – something I have no issue with and don’t even think about – people are often surprised that the rest of the band are boys. Like I’m only supposed to be in a band with other girls? You can be likeminded spirits and make music together regardless of how similar your genitalia happens to be.

Again, it’s about tidying people into neat little boxes. (I’m pretty anti-tidying per se.) It’s too easy to be pigeonholed creatively – and to pigeonhole ourselves. We’re told we have to focus on one thing otherwise we won’t be taken seriously etc – that may work for some but not everyone.

Since childhood my strengths were always music, art and writing and I’m only happy when those three things are ticking along in balance in my life – if one of those elements is missing I don’t feel right at all. The thing is, it took AGES to get there. Finally I’m free of all that conditioning nonsense and I don’t really care what people think about me doing lots of things, life is meant to be fun and joyful and creative. I hate that attitude of ‘you’re this, so you can’t be that. Who do you think you are?’ People can get antsy when you break through the little walls they’ve constructed for you. Well sorry, dearies, if you want to live by weird self-made rules and restrictions, knock yourselves out but don’t give me a hard time if I don’t comply.

To give a recent example, the other day during an exhibition I was involved with, someone I don’t know said, ‘And now you’re an artist all of a sudden!’ I might have misinterpreted it, but it sounded loaded – like, ‘What gives you the right? Get back in your box!’ It didn’t sound friendly. I get that now and again. Well, it’s not ‘all of a sudden’ – you just noticed, that’s all. If you’ll forgive me sounding terrifically poncy, I express my creativity in different ways and at different times, as lots of people do, or should at least feel free to do. It also took a LONG time to get out of my own way and be true to what I a) want to do and b) am ok at, so don’t YOU fucking start, mate.

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Photo: Gary Franklin

 

Who is your favourite fictional female character?

Aunt Dahlia in the Jeeves and Wooster novels. She’s hilarious, as warm and fiery as a single malt and she absolutely kicks ass. No fools suffered by Bertie Wooster’s favourite aunt, no siree.

Right Now I’m…

Watching: The Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. Touch of class, that.

Reading: Austin Osman Spare – The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist. Surrealism, occult, it’s all in there.

Listening to: Louis Armstrong’s divine version of ‘La Vie En Rose’. That beautiful, soft piano lick, shimmering up the keyboard at the beginning is transcendent. When I finally check out, I’d like my spirit to float to its next destination while accompanied by that sparkling, feathery little piano lick. I don’t think I could go far wrong.

Pass it on:

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

Simone Marie (Primal Scream) @simonemarie4

Jane Powell, founder of the charity CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably @Calmzone

Vanessa Lobon, co-director of Doc N Roll Festival @vanessalobon

In Conversation With… Wendy Wason

Wendy WasonWendy Wason is an actress, stand-up comedian and writer. She lives in London with her husband, Stephen Hagan and her three children.

This year she is taking her 5th one-woman show to the Edinburgh Festival.

 

 

 

How did you end up doing the job you do?

After leaving University in Glasgow I worked for 6 months for a PR firm and it was so dreary, I thought “This can’t be it”. Then I got a job acting in Taggart and it changed everything.

What are you working on right now?
I am writing a new show for the Edinburgh Festival and trying out new bits of the show in comedy clubs. It’s very exciting.

Describe your first job
My first job was working in Next. I was so happy one minute then gutted the next when they told me I’d need to find 50 quid to buy my uniform.

What would was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?
There is no plan B. I might be something more realistic like an astronaut. I’m quite into nutrition and yoga, I could do that I suppose.

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Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?
My kids inspire me. They are all so different and brilliant. Exhausting but brilliant.

Who would you most like to work with?
I love Jennifer Saunders. I’d like to work with her. I’d like to be her really. Great career, happy marriage, doesn’t seem that arsed by it all.

Where do you feel most inspired?
I spent three months in Los Angeles a couple of years ago and wrote loads. I think the British winter is really crushing – especially when you’re trying to create something – and it goes on for sooo long. LA is sunny every day and it’s so easy to eat healthily there so I quite like it there.

What did you want to be when you were little?
I wanted to be a marine biologist. I have a thing about dolphins.

Wendy Wason on stage

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?
I give my kids lots of advice. It’s really important to be kind. Random acts of kindness make everyone feel good, including yourself.
Also – don’t stand around blaming people, identify what went wrong and fix it.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Take care of your body. You’ll need it for a while.

What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of my children. I love hearing them laugh together.

What has been your career highlight to date?
Working on Sherlock was pretty cool. I love doing the Edinburgh Festival though. Being part of the biggest arts festival in the world is tremendous.

Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life?
I’d like a tardis or something that could get me places in five minutes. There is an awful lot of travel involved with being a comedian.

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What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Setting aside time to write, exercise, look after kids and spend time with my husband is a challenge. I tend to make it through by the skin of my teeth.

Who is your favourite fictional female character?
I love Jo March from Little Women.

Right Now I’m…
Watching: The People Versus OJ.
Reading: ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ by Murakami.
Listening to: The Foo Fighters. I saw them live last year and they are incredible.

Pass it on: Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
Tara Flynn: @TaraFlynn
Irish actress, comedian. You’re Grand & Giving Out Yards author.
Sarah Benetto: @sarahbehnetto
Stand-up comedian, writer, radio-person, storyteller and wistful vagabond.
Lou Sanders: @LouSanders
Stand-up comedian. Edinburgh Show: http://tinyurl.com/zb2pdh7 Youtube http://tinyurl.com/otvl8a6

You can find Wendy at www.wendywason.co.uk
Twitter: @wendy_wason
Instagram: @woowas

In Conversation With… Suzie Jay

Suzie JaySuzie Jay is a London based event photographer. After becoming disillusioned with life as a secondary school teacher, Suzie decided to jump ship and do something completely different. Fuelled by frustration and a passion for photography, Suzie began working as a photographer’s assistant and subsequently set up her own photography business. Suzie now shoots for various event production companies to create images for PR & marketing purposes. Some of her recent events have been for brands such as Jimmy Choo, Paul Smith, Hackett, Sophia Webster, Glamour magazine & Gap.

How did you end up doing the job you do?

Well I started my career as a secondary school teacher of Spanish. I did a PGCE, worked as a classroom teacher, became Head of Department, the whole shebang. The kids were lovely and the staff were brilliant, but I always felt as though something was missing. In 2008, my friends and colleagues thought I was crazy when I told them my plans to move to London.

The phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire” springs to mind. I’m not ashamed to admit I found teaching in London incredibly tough. By October (4 weeks in), I knew I wanted out. Life suddenly felt way too short to being doing something that made me so unhappy.

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To take my mind off things, I decided to indulge my curiosity for photography. I had always enjoyed using a point and shoot and decided that now was as good a time as any to invest in my first DSLR and learn how to use it.

I very quickly became completely obsessed with photography. It was my escape. I signed up for courses and consumed the Internet. I was amazed at how much you could learn for free, all it took was time, which I had. I listened to photography podcasts on the way to work and evenings were dedicated to devouring photography forums and blog posts. Weekends were for shooting and tentatively posting up some of my own work for critique and comment. It took a friend to point out what was staring me in the face: I should become self-employed and start my own photography business. I decided to go for it.

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In the lead up to the end of the school year, I was teaching full-time during the week and working for free as a photographer’s assistant evenings and weekends. Although it was exhausting, it all felt worthwhile.

My first solo ventures involved shooting weddings of friends. Referrals then followed at a steady, reassuring pace – I was doing it! Wedding photography proved to be the perfect place to hone my skills and find my identity as a photographer. Three years in, I got my break shooting fashion events. A friend worked as an event producer and decided to give me a shot. My first job was a shooting Nicholas Oakwell Couture at Claridges. My heart was pounding the entire time but I loved it.

Since that first fashion show I’ve built my portfolio, developed my network and sharpened my business skills. Although I no longer shoot weddings, I’m really glad to have had this chapter in my career, it brings a documentary style to my event photography that sets me apart from others. I love to look for the narrative at an event and tell a story with my photos.

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What are you working on right now?

I’m mostly shooting fashion and editorial events. This involves lots of fashion shows both backstage and front of house, private dinners and press days. I’m always looking for new ways to build my network and make new contacts too. I’ve recently made a more concerted effort to develop my Instagram feed (@suziejayphoto) and grow my following by posting a wide range of images from all the events I shoot.

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What would was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?

As I started my career in education I always have that nipping at my heels. I know that if my photography career didn’t work out, teaching would be my alternative.

As a freelancer I’ve become pretty resourceful, so maybe I could find a way to teach in a way that wasn’t quite the norm- probably via a blog or something. I’m hooked on the idea of being my own boss so I’m not sure I could simply return to straightforward employment.

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

My partner Paul. When I met him, my enthusiasm and drive was wild and untamed. As an artist and designer, Paul has helped me hone my craft to get it to a place where I’m more consistently happy with the work I produce. He’s a great sounding board and we’re big fans of each others work. He definitely encourages me to strive for more than I believe I’m capable of.

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Who would you most like to work with? 

Bureau Betak. Their event productions are spectacular with photography to match.

What did you want to be when you were little?

Journalist, actress, forensic scientist… I was such a daydreamer as a child I had a different plan for myself every week.

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?

If you find something you love doing, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Its a cliche but it’s true. I’d also encourage them to believe that school really isn’t the defining moment of their life. All you really need to succeed is passion, drive and a spark of an idea. We live in an age where, if you’re willing to really commit to something, you can learn, network and be whoever or whatever you want. It really is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

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What are you most proud of?

The fact that I work for myself. Being your own boss really does feel great. I love the fact that I had an idea to set up a photography business and six years later I’m still going! I still enjoy what I do and I’m clearer than ever about what I hope to achieve.

What has been your career highlight to date?

Well it’s really hard to pick a career highlight because there are so many events that I’m thrilled to be a part of. Each one is so unique. The set design, lighting and choreography is so carefully considered, it’s always a feast for the eyes! I count Jimmy Choo, Mr Hare & Paul Smith amongst some of my favourite shows. I also recently had the privilege to photograph Prince Charles at the Invest in Futures Dinner 2016 which was a pretty special moment.

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

Keeping the faith. Whilst the freelance life can feel incredibly liberating, it can also be a challenge to hold your nerve and believe that the work will keep coming. The fear of failure never really goes away, you just get better at living with it!

Who is your favourite fictional female character?

Carmela Soprano. The ultimate matriarch. She’s flawed in many ways but so strong and stoic – what’s not to love?

Right Now I’m…

Watching: Repeats of Ab Fab on Netflix

Reading: Mick Fleetwood’s autobiography ‘Play On’

Listening to: Bobby Womack’s Soul Sessions has been played a lot lately and I’m addicted to the glorious vocal arrangements of folk rock groups. One of my favourite tunes at the moment is Creeque Alley by The Mamas & The Papas. I’m mostly enjoying songs that translate well to my learning the acoustic guitar.

Pass it on:

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

Nadia Anne Ricketts: @Beatwoven Instagram & Twitter

Heather Davies: @AlpineEthos Instagram & Twitter

Sam Pearson: @Sam_sue_Pearson – Instagram

You can find Suzie at: www.suziejay.com & @suziejayphoto on Instagram & Twitter.