For five years,Suzie Jay worked as a documentary event photographer before taking a break in 2016 to embark on her biggest job yet, Motherhood. She then went on to set up My Little Muse Photography, capturing the beautiful and subtle moments of family life.
In 2015, Suzie and her partner experienced the devastating loss of their son Charlie. This letter is written to Charlie, in support of Baby Loss Awareness week.
Two years ago today I was getting ready to meet you for the first and last time. 21st October 2015, a date made famous by Marty Mcfly in Back to the Future. Growing up, I’d always wondered where I’d be on that day. I never could’ve imagined something so awful, that I’d be giving birth to a beautiful baby boy whose cry I’d never hear.
Though you were born sleeping that day, you were still the most precious thing to us. We couldn’t wait to meet you, to hold you, even though we knew we’d have to give you back. The hospital agreed that you deserved the very best and everyone was so kind and compassionate. When you arrived, our wonderful midwife, Joanne, handed you to me for the first time. She looked me straight in the eye, smiled her big smile and told me you were beautiful. She never faltered for a second. My heart swelled with a mother’s pride. The most bittersweet moment of my life.
That night in the hospital was a drug-fuelled haze of devastation. Surreal and desperately sad. We weren’t ready to say goodbye and thankfully we weren’t rushed. You lay in a cold cot by our sides while we tried to snatch moments of broken sleep. My dreams were cruel, wandering down a maze of hospital corridors looking for you and calling your name. Of course I couldn’t find you. Waking up to the banshee-like screams of other women in the labour ward felt like the cruelest reminder of what we had lost.
During that terrible time, your Dad & I talked and talked. We cried and clung to each other. We planned your funeral. We became closer than ever. Eventually we laughed again. We reached out to anyone who’d listen. We experienced some of the most extraordinary kindnesses, all because of you my boy. We feel proud and privileged to have known you, if only for the briefest of times. You taught us to be open and honest with our feelings, that talking would save us. Through you we learned that life is as messy as it is beautiful, painful as it is incredible.
And to my darling daughter, our rainbow after the storm, we are so eternally grateful for you. Every laugh, every cry, every sleepless night, every cuddle. There are no bad times. Just a rich melting pot of all the feels. And it’s glorious. Did you know that during a pregnancy, cells from a growing baby cross over into the mother? They become part of her. So even after that baby is born she carries them with her wherever she goes. I love that idea, that we’re always connected, even when one of us can’t be here.
Love you forever my babies x
October is pregnancy & infant loss awareness month and there are so many wonderful charities who do incredible work in supporting bereaved parents. Shortly after we lost Charlie, we set up a memorial page to raise money for ARC (Antenatal Results & Choices), a charity who gave us amazing support. If you’re able to make any contribution at all to Charlie’s page we’d be so grateful. All money raised will be donated to ARC. Thank you so much x
Abbey is freshly 40 and preparing to move back to Scotland with Barry the husband and Stanley that cat (after 17 years in London) so that they can share happy times with family. Abbey and her dad, Rikki, are writing and illustrating stories for children with life limiting illness, drawing on Abbey’s experience of having terminal breast cancer as well as her lifetime of working with children through drama. Abbey hopes to create stories in which children can recognise themselves and their medicalised lives but through fantastical, magical tales that will give light to darker moments.
A Letter to my 11 year old self
Dear Concorde (me),
No one is going to remember that type of aeroplane by 2017. No one will have called you that for YEARS, you’re not going to be defined by your big nose. Or your buck teeth. Or your long face. Or your fat arse. Or your cellulite.
You won’t be defined by any of those things because I’m giving you this letter with this almighty tip, the best tip you’ll ever get…
Be kind to yourself.
Don’t be your own worst bully, don’t call names at yourself in the mirror. Please don’t start because you’ll never stop, not until you realise you’ve wasted so much time and now your time’s nearly out.
Right now, you’re 11, you’re at the top of your game, about to be school sport’s champion, fabulous story writer, muscular, a dancer, a keen learner, honest (ish), confident, chatty, popular and a ribby tangle of big teeth and jagged bones.
The school is going to allow a book company to come and sell books to the class and without having to get parental permission you’re going to sign yourself up for some Judy Blume books. That’s when it’s going to start in earnest, the total preoccupation with being sexualised and alluring.
Don’t buy the books, or the Sweet Valley High ones, don’t instigate the BBP CLUB (Boys, Bras and Periods). Keep winning the races against the boys and giving them kiddy backs. You really don’t need to wear that bra you’ve been given by your older friend. Stop hoping the boys are going to notice it and don’t be thrilled when one of them does and gives it a ping.
Don’t see the other girls as competition. They are your sisters.
I’m not trying to deny your burgeoning adolescence, but please listen to me, don’t turn your back on that plucky pre-teen, she’s the better woman.
You are a better woman at 11 years old than I am at 40. Nearly 30 years of telling yourself that you’re not good enough takes its toll.
If becoming a woman is like emerging from a cocoon, you are the vibrant, bright green, juicy caterpillar and I emerged, a drag queen of a butterfly with antennae extensions and streaky tanned wings. I suspected I was a fat moth but I wanted to be a pretty butterfly so badly!
If someone bullies you everyday saying the same things over and over again, you’ll start to believe them, without question. So why didn’t I ever grow out of bullying myself? Why didn’t I stop judging myself as if I was a pubescent boy, obsessing over the biggest breasts and the prettiest face?
I feel such a fool for falling for the beauty myth that I told everyone else to be wary of!
When I got married (yes, that happens, but he’s Barry, not Morten Harket), I had fake hair added to my own, I had eyelash extensions, a padded bra, a corseted dress. Nothing natural was good enough. I wanted to look natural, but with the help of fake things. I wanted to be able to dance with abandon but I didn’t want my ankles to look fat, so I got heels. I battered my skin with an onslaught of sunbeds to get a tan, I got acrylic nails. I dieted, I got thinner.
Then, just a few months later, I got cancer.
Overnight, everything I’ve spent my adulthood cultivating, went.
My hair, that I’d always thought was my good feature (although not good enough for my wedding day), all fell out. Then ALL my hair, head to toe.
A childish, hairless landscape but with lumbering, adult curves and waves.
The eyebrows I’d thought were woeful and my long, thick eyelashes had enough of the insults and left too.
Without hair for coverage I noticed my vagina seemed to have acquired a ledge over the years. My face puffed up and I looked pale, undefined and ugly.
My breast was taken away, the good one that had always been bigger than the other one, “Not so smug now Mrs Left” said Mrs Right. All my very expensive and hugely padded bras were made permanently redundant, push-up only works when there’s something to push.
Lots of scars from complications. Radiotherapy tattoos, crispy, scorched skin.
Then keyhole surgery and my belly fell onto the mattress that night for the first time in my life and it’s never got back up.
An instant menopause and weird comfort eating has made things rub and chafe and I waddle.
But guess what? I don’t care.
I asked everyone to avoid putting photos of me getting married on social media because I suspected it would kill my happy memories of the day. When I got in from having my first head shave I put the photos on Facebook.
I presumed no one would find me attractive anymore so I didn’t care about trying.
I decided I didn’t want to medicalise my body any further and I didn’t have reconstruction on my breast.
I took myself right out of the running and I gave myself freedom and honesty for the first time in a very long time.
For one whole year as my body recovered from the acute treatment I rejoiced in the feeling of being alive and unburdened of the black cloud of regret and bitterness at not being good enough.
I had to be brave and face the world feeling completely naked and plucked. You haven’t started to build all those layers of self consciousness yet, so don’t!
I am sad for what I’ve lost, the body that I couldn’t tolerate before but that I’d love and cherish now. I miss flashing some cleavage, I miss squashing one breast up to the next.
I miss wearing necklines lower than my clavicle.
I miss being trussed up in ‘sexy’ underwear.
I miss my thick eyelashes that never grew back. I miss long hair.
I miss the body that was able to conceive.
I miss having no scars.
But I love being free from that need to be seen as attractive, sexy in particular.
I was so proud of myself for getting to this point, I planned how far my new outlook could take me in life.
Then after a year of the new me, the new me that reminds me of you, I found out that I’m not going to get the opportunity to make this more than just a test drive. The cancer is back but this time it means business.
But it’s not a waste, it’s a realisation and awakening that I’m so glad happened. I feel more fulfilled and open to happiness than I have done since I was you.
So please learn from my mistakes and be bold, like you are now.
Wear flat shiny shoes that can keep up with your strides into adulthood.
Let yourself off the hook, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be well, be healthy, be happy and be free.
It’s the hardest thing to do, but tell yourself you’re brilliant as you are and you’re more than good enough and then make sure that’s true. Live! Make me proud to be me.
If they call you Concorde then fly with it.
With all the love I have,
P.S. I should tell you, because I forced myself not to care, I now smile and pose for photos and I laugh at the bad ones and keep the good ones. Everyone around me is thrilled I want to record our moments together with a photo. I still see the things I didn’t like but I also see good things and I focus on those, instead of beating myself up. I’m no longer ashamed, I actually like what I see, a happy photo is always a good photo. A clever photo might be a pretty one but nothing can beat a happy one.
Abbey and her dad
Abbey and her dad
Abbey and her mum
Abbey is currently writing books, which her dad is illustrating, for children with life limiting illnesses.
Until recently she has also been running children’s drama workshops in London: http://www.stripeysocksdrama.co.uk
Sophy 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.
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!
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!!!
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!
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?
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.
Lora 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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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?
Fiona Gibson started working on magazines at 17 years old when she landed a job on Jackie. She has edited more! and Just Seventeen, writes for Sainsbury’s magazine and the Telegraph, and is the author of ten romantic comedy novels.
Fiona has twin sons who have flown the nest, and lives in Glasgow with her husband Jimmy, their daughter Erin and rescue collie cross, Jack. As well as writing, Fiona loves to run, draw, cook and is a recent convert to the joy of yoga.
How did you end up doing the job you do?
Even since I was a Jackie reader, I have always been obsessed with magazines. One day, when I was around 15, I was lying on the living room rug reading my mag and said to my Dad, ‘I want to work on Jackie.’ Dad’s great – he’d worked for a magazine himself (Architect’s Journal) and knew that Jackie was published by DT Thomson in Dundee. He was totally encouraging. I started firing off comic strips and jokes to various DC Thomson comics – which they paid me a fiver a time for – and when I’d finally finished school, I applied for a job at Jackie.
I worked on various magazines throughout my twenties – after Jackie I went to Just Seventeen, then more! – but when I had my twin boys at 32 I decided to go freelance and have a stab at writing a novel. I was still writing features for magazines by day so I had to write the book at night. The way I looked at it, I was chronically sleep deprived and looked terrible anyway – so it didn’t really make much difference! An agent who’d spotted my features in Red magazine asked if she could represent me.
What are you working on right now?
I am at the very best part – starting a brand new novel. I write two a year, for Avon (a division of Harper Collins) which is quite a stretch and means there’s not much of a break between finishing one and starting the next. But that’s okay – after a few days I’m usually itching to get started on something new.
Describe your first job
I was a junior writer on Jackie which involved writing bits and pieces – like the horoscopes (which I made up) and the multi-choice personality quizzes. To be honest, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d left home and moved into a bedsit in Dundee and found myself working with a fantastic team of lovely people who were my age, or a tiny bit older. I never went to college or university. Jackie was my training for life and I loved every minute of my three years there.
What was your B plan if this career didn’t work out?
I’d had notions of studying art – I have always loved illustration. But although I applied to art college, I didn’t get in. My portfolio just wasn’t good enough. Apart from that, I had no idea of anything else I wanted to do.
Where do you feel most inspired?
I work mostly in my workroom in our Glasgow flat. However I can get a bit cabin feverish and that’s when I take myself off to a cafe, which really helps. I like writing with lots of chatter – plus good music – in the background. I also love working on trains. Working at home can be a little dreary as I am, by nature, a pretty sociable type! And I do miss all the hi jinx and chatter of office life – although friends tell me there really isn’t time for those sort of capers any more.
What advice would you give your children?
Explore all sorts of things so you can discover the general areas of ‘stuff’ that inspire and appeal to you. For me, it was always writing and art – and I loved French at school too. From this, you’ll start to get a feel for what you might like to do in life. There’s terrible pressure to say, ‘I want to be a such-and-such’ at 14 years old, which is nonsense. There’s no need to decide on a specific career path so early. But it is important to be open to trying things so you discover where your passions might lie. I am very lucky in that I love my job and it doesn’t actually feel like work. I would love my sons and daughter to have this sort of life too.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
This came from Dad, who is still fighting fit at 81 years old and sailed from Scotland to Antigua after retirement! He said, ‘Do a bit extra, give a bit more than is expected of you.’ He said it would help me to stand out and get places. I am quite a grafter and so is Dad – he was a freelance architectural photographer and I saw the passion he had for his work. He didn’t mind working late down in his darkroom to get a job done, and he was often driving at breakneck speed to the post office in order to get a set of prints in the post on time. We are similar in that we are a little harum-scarum in our approach, but we both get the job done!
What are you most proud of?
I’ve loved working on magazines and I also love writing novels. Professionally, I guess it’s finding something I enjoy and making a living out of it since I left school 34 years ago, all through raising three children. Personally, it’s being Mum to my three lovely kids – Sam, Dex and Erin. I’m very proud of them all.
What has been your career highlight to date?
I have worked on some wonderful magazines but I have to say the highlight was editing more! at a time when it was flying off the shelves. At its peak – this was early 90s – we were selling half a million copies per issue. There was no competition as such and I had a brilliant team – features meetings were often held in a tawdry wine bar just off Leicester Square and would dissolve into hilarity and chaos. I came up with the idea of Position of the Fortnight – actually, it was semi-nicked from a feature She magazine used to run called ‘Function of the Month’, a kind of icky old sexual thing that we turned into something cheeky and fun. It was a unique and magical time and, happily – thanks to Facebook – many of my workmates from those heady days are still in my life now.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Keeping my mind on the job and not allowing distractions to lure me off track. Generally, I can focus pretty well, but writing the middle section of a book is definitely not easy. It can feel like wading through concrete sometimes. I just have to keep going, battering onwards, then something clicks and writing the last few chapters is heaven. But I’d never say that writing 100,000 words of engaging prose is easy!
Right Now I’m…
Watching: Homeland. My husband Jimmy and I are addicted
Reading: Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran – I just love her
Listening to: All kinds of soul stuff: Al Green, Lou Rawls, Shuggie Otis. I’m a soul girl at heart.
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
Sarra Manning is a fantastically funny woman and a brilliant author of both adult and YA fiction. We worked together on Just Seventeen and she’s a marvel!
Cathy Cassidy is a hugely successful children’s author and one of my oldest and closest friends. We met at Jackie magazine in the mid-80s and get to the point when we need to see each other.
Instagram: @cathycassidy Twitter: @cathycassidyxx