Welcome to another WELSH WEDNESDAYS interview. Today’s guest is Julie McGowan.
First, please tell us about your connection to Wales.
I was born and raised in the small mining town of Blaenavon in Monmouthshire, but moved to England when I was 11. My family and I (husband, four children, and my parents) were delighted to return to Wales 23 years ago, settling in Usk, where we still live. Having lived in various places in England, this was definitely the best move we ever made and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. In the intervening years the connection to my homeland never left me, as family holidays were always spent ‘going home’ and the vast array of aunties, uncles and cousins still in Blaenavon meant there was always a link to Wales.
I originally trained as a nurse and a Health Visitor, which I gave up when my first child was born. I had always been involved in amateur dramatics and when my husband was Head of an independent school in Hertfordshire, I took on the school drama productions and started writing pieces for the children to perform. This started the writing bug, and from there I went on to write short stories for women’s magazines, local newspaper columns, magazine and newspaper features, children’s shows, and pantomimes, and, of course, novels.
Tell us about the concept behind your book(s).
Our family return to Wales ignited so many memories for my parents which they both loved to recount, so I decided to record these on tape as they were the last of their generation and it seemed such a shame that all the details of the way of life in the first half of the twentieth century would be lost. The more they told me the more I could see a story developing, which became my first novel, ‘The Mountains Between’ which tells the tale of two very different communities each side of the Blorenge mountain between 1929 and 1947.
My second book, ‘Just One More Summer’ came about when I won a competition for the 1st 1,000 words of a novel. It was judged by novelist Katie Fforde and she said she wanted to know what happened next – so then I thought I should write the rest of it, even though I hadn’t actually decided what would happen next! It’s a modern romance, with twists, set in London and Cornwall and has now been taken up by Random House in Germany , where the German language version will be published in November.
When I was researching the war years for ‘The Mountains Between’ I ended up reading a lot about evacuees, and at the same time I was writing magazine features about how protective we are now when our children go off to university at 18. And it really struck me how terrible it was that very small children were sent to goodness knows where in the vacuation, and, from the accounts I read, not always to the wonderful homes that we like to think of when we look back through rose-tinted specs. So ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ was born and tells the story of a group of London evacuees who end up in a small village between Maesteg and Swansea.
My fourth book is ‘Close To You’, which was launched at the Tenby Book Fair – a collection of short stories that have been published in magazines and attracted ‘fan mail’ or have won competitions. My publisher is hoping that it will make a great Christmas present, so I’m busy arranging lots of book signings over the next two months.
One of my favourite characters is Marsha in ‘Just One More Summer’, an older lady who becomes a sort of mentor to the heroine, Allie, who is struggling to come to terms with her husband having left her. Marsha is feisty and strong, but full of understanding and compassion and can also be funny. I could just see someone like Jenny Agutter playing her.
When I’m not writing I run a drama company with my daughter. We take productions that have a health or social message to schools throughout S. Wales. After each performance we talk to the children about the issues. It’s huge fun as well as being worthwhile, and it’s great meeting so many young people and hearing about their lives. I also run a local panto group with my husband – I write the pantos (which then sell online) and he directs, and the shows have now become a firm fixture on the Usk calendar with three sell-out nights each year. Again, enormous fun, and a big commitment, but we have made so many good friends through it over the years. I also teach piano.
Leisure time (!) is spent with our family – all now married and with the first of the grandchildren here and two more on the way. I love it when we are all together as one big rowdy bunch, who all get on remarkably well. I think it’s a throw-back to the family parties I remember as a child in Blaenavon when the whole family would gather at my auntie’s house and have a great time.
Who is your favourite Welsh author?
Richard Llewellyn. In ‘How Green Was My Valley’ his love of Wales and the Welsh way of life, although often so harsh, really shines through. It was the first book that made me cry.
What is the best thing about Wales?
Apart from the Assembly government, which I loathe, I love everything about Wales and its people. The diversity and beauty of its landscapes, where it’s possible to go from east to west and north to south and see such a vast array of stunning countryside, mountains and coastline. My constant cry, when we’re surveying the scenery is ‘Why would you want to live anywhere else?’
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished another novel, ‘Yes, I’m Gonna Be A Star’, set in the early 1970s about a young girl who travels to London, determined to be a singing sensation.
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
The best aspect is getting so embroiled in your story that you switch off from everyone and everything around you and actually know and feel each character’s emotions. The worst aspect I guess is the struggle for one’s writing voice to be heard amongst so many eager for the same recognition. But there is huge joy in seeing your book on a shelf, and even more when someone tells you how much they enjoyed reading it.
What is your advice to new writers?
Be prepared for the time and effort it takes to see your work out there, and make sure you are also prepared for the amount of promotional work every publisher now expects their authors to do.
Julie has been a successful short story writer for magazines and competitions for two decades, in between writing 4 novels, pantomime scripts, songs and scripts for adult and children’s drama productions, and features for national and regional newspapers and magazines.
Her working life began as a nurse and health visitor, and she undertook a range of occupations whilst bringing up her four children, from being matron at schools where her husband was headmaster, to being Town Clerk in her home town of Usk in South Wales, teaching piano, and running a successful drama company with her daughter, which she continues to do.
Julie’s first novel, ‘The Mountains Between’ is set in her beloved Monmouthshire, telling the story of two very different families living each side of the Blorenge mountain during the difficult years between 1929 and 1949. It has been a regional bestseller.
Her second novel, ‘Just One More Summer’ is a modern story set in Cornwall and London, and, as well as being popular in this country, is now being published for the German market by a Random House imprint.
Julie returned to wartime South Wales with her third novel, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ which tells the heartrending story of a group of evacuees sent to a remote Welsh village.
In recent years Julie has become something of a campaigner, successfully heading a protest group to save the local library, and organising a 100,000 strong petition for better cancer treatment in Wales. Her passion for people informs her fiction writing, and her interest in health and social issues triggers much of her non-fiction writing.
In her spare time, as well as reading and gardening, Julie loves spending time with her family and her ever-growing band of grandchildren, and playing tennis.
She also enjoys giving talks about her books and writing to a diverse range of organisations and running writing or drama workshops at festivals.
If you would like to know more about her writing, or to invite her to speak at a gathering, take a look at her website: http://www.juliemcgowan.com, or email Julie on firstname.lastname@example.org – she would love to hear from you!
All books by Julie McGowan are available from W H Smith and Waterstones – to order if they are not on the shelves – and can be ordered from all bookstores.
They are also available on Amazon & as Kindle/e-books