Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Romance Festival Q & A by Anne Bennett

Tell us about yourself

I was born in the inner ring of Birmingham, in a back-to-back house, in 1949. I was the second child of Irish Catholic immigrants, my father came from Fermanagh and my mother from Donegal.  I was an Irish Brummie and there are plenty of us about.  My father worked at Fort Dunlop and so when we were moved under slum clearance in 1956, Mum asked for a place in North Birmingham nearer to where my father worked and we moved into the Pype Hayes Estate.  My brother had passed to Waverley Grammar School and I went to the Abbey in Erdington and in turn passed the 11 plus too and went to Hodge Hill Grammar School.

Not long after I left with a clutch of ‘O’ levels and began work in an office, I met Denis.  In 1966 you got married if you became pregnant if you could hold on to the chap and so that’s what we did.  I was 17 and Denis 19 at the time, but we were soon parents and had to get on with it.  Money was tight, especially when Nikki was joined by a brother, Simon the following year, so I took on evening jobs.  I worked at a Bingo Hall first and then a chip shop and then a much coveted position, the twilight shift at HP Sauce to ensure that we had a little bit more money than we had week.  Simon was four when I noticed the Evening Mail was advertising for mature students at their Teaching Training College at Bordesley, so I went find out about it.  In those day the life skills of mature students were often  taken into account and as I’d run a playgroup for four years that counted together with my ‘O’ levels.  However,  it was nearly November and as I had missed enrolling that years they suggested I use the time until  the following year taking further studies to get me used to studying again and so I toddled along to Matthew Boulton College and booked myself in for two days a week and worked the other three days at Dunlop’s Canteen.  I loved my three years at College and was grateful for the grant though I worked on Birmingham City play scheme every summer so we could have a week’s holiday in a caravan in Wales.

And then I was a teacher and what a joy that was.  I chose to work with the disadvantaged as I felt I could understand them and I always found it so rewarding. I enjoyed all the years I spent teaching and continued with it despite having two further children, Bethany and Tamsin, and what forced me to leave in the end is dealt with later in this article, but leave teaching I did and I found myself with oceans of time on my hands.  We moved to North Wales in 1993 and I began to use the time to write. I wrote the origin of nursery rhymes, numerous short stories and two books for children before submitting a full length novel though the RNA.s New Writers’ Scheme.  I have already documented this and it only leaves me to say that after four books I parted company with Headline, began at Harper Collins and changed agents at the same time and now Harper Collins are re-issuing the four books I had published with Headline so life is good.

Tell us about your latest book

This book, my eighteenth is called A Girl Can Dream.  Meg Hallett is only 14 when she makes a death bed promise to her mother to keep the family together. This was hard enough to do when he father, who blames baby Ruth for his wife’s death, turns to the drink and then brings home another wife, but the looming world war blew the family totally apart two years later With her father called up, Ruth placed in the care of Social Services and the children evacuated, Meg joins the Land Army to do her bit and is immediately drawn to the farmer’s son. Stephen.  He is in the army, but at home recovering from an accident at the camp and she agrees to write to him when he returns.  Despite the declaration of war and the resultant deprivations and shortages Meg is happy until word reaches her that her evacuated siblings have disappeared and no one knows where they have gone.  Despite  Meg’s best efforts to find them, they remain hidden and she knows she will not know true happiness, much as she loves Stephen, till she finds out what has happened to her little brother and two young sisters although she feels Ruth is lost to them all for good.
When did you start writing?

I have been scribbling since I was a small child and as I grew up I had two ambitions in life to write and teach, although I never imagined that I would earn my living from writing, I thought it would remain a hobby.  An accident in the school I taught in caused me to be invalided out of teaching, which broke my heart at the time and gave me oceans of free time to fill and so I began to write in earnest.  And so I feel privileged that I have been able to fulfil the two ambitions I had.  We moved to North Wales in 1993 so we could afford to buy a house big enough to be adapted for me and still have plenty of room for a growing family as I was in a wheelchair at the time.
Tell us about your experience of getting a literary agent

I started taking a monthly writing magazine, Writer’s News and they have details of many writing competition  and I entered one for Valentine’s day and won second prize, which was a year’s subscription to The Romantic Novelist’s Association (RNA) and they run a scheme for new writers who can submit a manuscript to them to edit once a year and it didn’t  have to be romantic as long as it had an emotional content.  The criticism they gave me for my first submission was so good that I kept their words in mind as I wrote the second submission  which they recommended I send straight to Headline and they accepted it and offered me a  2 book contract in 1996.  With the contract under my belt, getting an agent was no bother, as many wanted to represent me and I chose one and she looked over my contract and advised me to accept it and sign it, which I did.
What tips would you give to other aspiring romance authors, looking to be published?

Many people think they can write because they can construct a sentence, or bash out the keys of a computer, but a person wouldn’t call themselves a carpenter as soon as they could hammer a nail into a piece of wood.  They need to learn their craft and so does an aspiring writer.  So I would say read, read and then read some more.  Try to write something every day, even if it means turning off the telly to free up some time, take a writing magazine I found Writer’s News and the bi-monthly sister mag The Writer good, but there may be others.  It keeps a person in touch with the writing, world, gives valuable tips and guidance, often runs a advice section when a person can write in with problems and in the magazines I took  there was a have short story competitions in every issue.  I found it developed good discipline to do those, even if initially I didn’t  send them in.  And when a person thinks they are ready to complete a book I believe the RNA’s New Writer’s Scheme is still very good, but there are other critique services. And when that manuscript comes back with a list of things that are wrong with it, an aspiring writer should listen and take heed, not sink into the depths of despair or  throw a hissy fit and think the reader has got it in for them, because one thing a writer needs is the ability ti take criticism and look upon it as constructive and helping to make the book better.

Where do you write?
Only ever in my small, cosy study.
Where do you look for writing inspiration?

I don’t look anywhere for inspiration.  Things pop into my head unbidden, or I am told a story, or read something and it might only be a sentence that starts the thought processes.  Once that begins I let them fester while the story takes shape in my head and when it demands to be written, I put it down.
Which other authors do you admire?

These are numerous.  Maeve Binchy is at the top and then in no particular order. Catherine Cookson, Rumer Godden, Tolkien, Joanne Trollope, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.   However, ask me in six months and I’ll probably have a different list.  There are so many books and so many dedicated and brilliant writers out there and I respect them all a great deal and they have all inspired me in some way.
Are you on social media?

You bet I am.  Isn’t every writer now?
If so, tell us what you like about it

I love the way everything is so instant today, that if you ask a questions so many take the trouble to answer.  I love the way it is so easy to document events these days and I love al the photos put up by my friends and the way it is so easy to keep in touch.   Many people’s posts on Facebook or Twitter  make me smile, but some are thought provoking or disturbing, when I read about the injustices in the world and I stand in awe of Google who seems to know the answers to everything, making research so much easier.
Where were you born?

I was born at 301 Bell Barn Rd.  It was a back-to-back house in an area known as the Horse Fair in Birmingham’s inner ring but our house opened directly on to the street
What is your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is Queen Elizabeth’s 2 Coronation in 1953.  Just a year or so before this, the houses that opened on the street were fitted with electricity and the gas mantles taken out and so Dad bought a telly so we could watch the Coronation along with half of those down the yard who hadn’t been changed over.  Our telly screen was tiny and it was housed in an enormous box and showed the only channel then BBC and often the picture often looked as though it had been snowing and we thought it was great.  It cost one hundred pounds, a hell of a lot of money in those days and was bought from Wood houses on the Never Never.  I vividly remember watching the Coronation with awe and then we had a party that was supposed to be in the street, but despite it being June it was cold and drizzly rain was falling-  does this sound familiar?  We decamped to an accommodating laundry, also in Bell Barn Rd and after the party all the children were given a coronation mug, which I still have and a golden coach, long gone and I also had a personal present of a pink dressing table set. 
Where do you live now?

We live in North Wales now and I dealt with why we moved from Birmingham earlier.
Dog or cat person?

I am definitely a dog person.
When were you happiest?

I’m happy now.  I think I have a lovely life and I am usually happy with where I am and what I’m doing.  We should all try and take joy in every day. Life really is far too short and regret is a wasted emotion,
What advice would you give your 18 year-old self?

Don’t waste the years ahead.  Life should not be measured in years but rather what you have done with those years.  Honesty is important and kindness, true generosity of spirit and I would caution any young person never to be too busy to stop sometimes and look and appreciate this beautiful world we live in.
What was your most embarrassing date?

I can’t remember one but then I’m not easily embarrassed.
What is your favourite romantic moment?

In 1990, while at school, I was involved in an incident that left me with spinal damage. One of my discs had split open and had stuck fast to the spinal  column and I was in severe pain and couldn’t walk. I had two small operations in the spring of that year to try and ease the situation, but they didn’t and so spinal surgery was attempted in September.  Unfortunately, the wound opened up and my body developed fibrosis in order to protect the wound and continued to grow, wrapping itself around the sciatica nerves running down my legs effectively cutting off feeling and movement.  The hospital tried one more procedure and when that too was unsuccessful they told me I faced life in a wheelchair.  I had to leave teaching and that was as traumatic to me, at the time, as being told I would never walk again.  16 years passed and during those years I began to write and had books published and tried to keep myself physically fit by swimming and later using toning tables.  In 2006 in early August I was cajoled into standing on a vibration plate the owner of the toning tables had just purchased.  I was helped to stand for just two minutes and felt movement in my spine.  Once home I tried to pull my toes towards me and lift my legs off he bed and when I could, I knew I would be able to walk and did manage a few paces using my wheelchair like a Zimmer.  I kept practising and the doctors were astounded and as time passed people got to know and after I was interviewed by a reporter from BBC local radio, GMTV heard about it and wanted me on the show before the news broke in the press .  It was now September and I was actually on the road during promotional work for To Have and To Hold and we had to drive straight to London, So we arrived at Tower Bridge and there I walked across it, holding Denis’s hand, mounting some steps and looking over the barrier into the Thames, all things I hadn’t been able to do beforehand.  And then the presenter produced a gipsy fiddler and there on Tower Bridge in the light of the early evening autumnal sun, Denis took me in his arms for the first time in 16 years and we danced as the fiddler played The Last Waltz.  The presenter cried and so did the publicist and though after that, the story was in all the national papers and magazines and I was on numerous radio shows, including one from Australia and another from Germany and also on television to talk about this  phenomenon that had happened to me, nothing beat that dance on Tower Bridge.  And you know what? Life doesn’t get any better      
What do you wish for when you blow out the candles?

That depends on what’s happening at the time.
What is your favourite smell?

I don’t know what sort of smell you mean here.  I like the smell of bacon cooking, or bread baking, or coffee brewing, but at the moment some of the perfumes I like  are Marks and Spark’s ‘New York’, or ‘Cashmere’ by Next  for daytime use and Esther Lauder’s’ ‘Pleasures’ or Jasper Conran’s ‘Woman’ or similar to use in the evening.
What book would you choose to take on a desert island?

Probably I’d take Lord of the Rings in case I was there a long time
What music would you choose to take on a desert island?

Abba and music of 60s and 70s
Three people you’d like to be stranded on a desert island with

Someone who knew what plants could be eaten safely and how to make a fire from nothing, someone who knew how to hunt and prepare the catch and someone good at constructing shelters and it would be imperative that these three people would have a highly developed sense of humour.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?

My husband, my family and my dog
What is your favourite romantic song?

I haven’t got one.  I like lots.
What is your favourite romantic film?

Ditto to the above.
Do you believe in love at first sight?

No but I believe in an attraction at first sight.  I think you have to know someone before you can love them, but if you are attracted to a person you probably want to spend time getting  to know them better and that can lead on to love.

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