I have decided, after a long period of hibernation, to restart my blog, concentrating on matters of writing, authorship and books. I am beginning with a interview with fellow Honno author, Judith Barrow. Judith grew up in Saddleworth, on the Pennines, but has lived in Pembrokeshire for more than 30 years.
Judith has written the Shadows trilogy, a wonderfully evocative trilogy, the life, loves and tribulations of Mary Howarth and her family.
The story begins, in World War II, with A Pattern Of Shadows. Against a domestic background of family strife, jealousies and dramas, Mary is working as a nurse at the Granville mill that is now serving as a prisoner of war camp for Germans. The one thing she should not do is fall for a German doctor, Peter Schormann, but she does. In the second book, Changing Patterns, with Mary and Peter living in Wales, she struggles to deal with the prejudices of the time and to sort out her relatives who remain in Lancashire. The war is over but strife and tragedy is not. In the third book, Living In The Shadows, the action jumps forward to 1969. A new generation and new dramas, but there’s no escaping the legacy of the past. It keeps catching up.
So here is my interview with Judith
Question: You have written a brilliant trilogy. Did you set out to write the full cycle, or did the first just tempt you into continuing?
Nothing was further from my mind when I was writing the first novel.
The idea for Pattern of Shadows sprang from an occasion when I was in Lancashire researching for a different book. I came across an article about an old cotton mill that was one of the first prisoner of war camps for German soldiers in World War Two.
What I read fascinated me. Not only because it was in Lancashire, near to the Pennines where I grew up but also because, as a child, I spent quite a lot of time in a cotton mill.
Now, before anyone thinks I’m older than I actually am, or that I was exploited as a child to labour in a textile mill, I should explain:
In the nineteen sixties my parents worked in the local cotton mill.
My mother was a winder (working on a machine that transferred the cotton off large cones onto small reels (bobbins), in order for the weavers to use to make the cloth). Well before the days of Health and Safety I would often go to wait for her to finish work on my way home from school. I remember the muffled boom of noise as I walked across the yard and the sudden clatter of so many different machines as I stepped through a small door cut into a great wooden door. I remember the rumble of the wheels as I watched men pushing great skips filled with cones alongside the winding frames, or manoeuvring trolleys carrying rolls of material. I remember the women singing and shouting above the noise, whistling for more bobbins: the colours of the cotton and cloth – so bright and intricate. But above all I remember the smell: of oil, grease – and in the storage area – the lovely smell of the new material stored in bales and the feel of the cloth against my legs when I sat on them, reading until the siren hooted, announcing the end of the shift.
When I thought about the POW camp I wondered what kind of signal would have been used to separate parts of the day for all those men imprisoned there. I realised how different their days must have been from my memories of a mill.
So I knew I had my setting. An industrial town with a POW camp on the outskirts of that town.
I knew what kind of story I wanted to write: I would write a love story, a life story, a family saga.
And I knew the type of family that I needed to live in that town, be involved in some way with the camp. They had to be as real to me as I hoped they would be to my future readers. (See how optimistic I was before I’d even started the book?!!) They had to be a set of diverse characters with interesting lives and one of them had to be the protagonist.
And I knew right away what the protagonist would be like: a young, strong, sometimes feisty woman, with a great strength of characters, loyal to family and friends, independent yet mindful of familial responsibilities. Finally I knew her name, Mary Howarth.
What I didn’t know was how much she and her family would come to mean so much to me.
And that, when I finished the first draft and the story was neatly tied up, I would be so lost. I didn’t want it to end there. I re-wrote it. And then re-wrote it again. In fact I re-wrote it six times. Until, in the end I realised that the family hadn’t finished with me; those characters wanted more of their story told.
So I wrote the sequel, Changing Patterns. Set in 1950/51 it is a continuation of their lives in the aftermath of the war, during the hardship of rationing, and shows how each copes with the result of their actions during the war.
It felt natural, then, to leap forward in time to reveal how the next generation of the Howarth family was affected by all that had gone before. So I wrote Living in the Shadows, set in 1969
Question: Your books are set in industrial Pennines and rural Wales, both areas that you know well, and that comes across strongly in the books. Do you find either one easier to evoke?
One of my favourite things when I’m writing is to evoke a sense of place through description. It only takes a few words or sentences here and there. You don’t need a great dollop of narrative to create a setting. I just close my eyes and picture what I want to see. Sometimes an image will come to me that I know I’ll need as a background for a particular scene, a certain part of the story. When that happens I write it and keep it in a separate file.
But in answer to your question, I have to say it was easier to evoke a town in the industrial Pennines because I grew up a few miles away from such a town in the sixties and, although at the time I was oblivious to the fact, that it wasn’t too long after the war. And I do remember a lot of the late sixties, which is the era of the last book of the trilogy.
Ashford, the fictional town in the book, is actually loosely based on Oldham. I say loosely but for one fact which I’ll tell you about later.
I was brought up in a village in the Pennines. I loved the hills and the moors so it was simple to picture the surrounding area; to describe how it was then. And every Saturday my mother and I would catch the bus to Oldham to go shopping and pay the bills. So going back in time to the days of the old-fashioned Woolworths, the market, the shops on the High Street was a brilliant reminiscence for me.
We moved to Pembrokeshire in the late seventies so I needed to combine the research of rural Wales during the war, immediately afterwards and in the sixties with how I’ve seen it since we’ve lived here. I love the coastline, the countryside, the farmland and the slower pace of life here in Wales. And I know that much of the natural areas haven’t changed too much. But I have to admit, putting together the two, the research and what I saw was a little more difficult. It took me a lot more time and a lot of effort before I was happy with the descriptions, the evocation of the little village of Llamroth
Question: The trilogy is a family saga, covering a period from World War II to the trendy 60s, and each period is conveyed very convincingly. How much research did you have to do?
Simply put… loads. I have thick files of the research I did for each book. Each folder contains a section on the society during each era: the politics and politicians’ names, the social attitudes, houses, furniture, domestic appliances (if any and, if not, what was used beside a sweeping brush, donkey stone and, on washing days, a dolly tub and mangle) clothes, food and recipes, the newspapers and magazines at the time (including children’s comics), toys, films, radio (or television) programmes, shops. Anything and everything to bring the world that the characters move around in to life.
I have to admit, though, I didn’t have to do quite as much research for Living in the Shadows; I was very aware of the life around me in 1969!
Question: A central presence in all three books is the Granville, an old cotton mill that serves as a prisoner of war camp. Is it based on a real place?
Ah, now. This is what I meant when I said the industrial town in the Pennines is loosely based on Oldham except for one fact. The Granville is based on reality. It is created from Glen Mill, the actual POW camp on the outskirts of Oldham.
Glen Mill was a disused cotton mill built in 1903 it ceased production in 1938. At a time when all-purpose built camps were being used by the armed forces and there was no money available for POW build, Glen Mill was chosen for various reasons: it wasn’t near any military installations or seaports and it was far from the south and east of Britain, it was large and it was enclosed by a railway, a road and two mill reservoirs.
The earliest occupants were German merchant seamen caught in Allied ports at the outbreak of war and brought from the Interrogation centre of London. Within months Russian volunteers who had been captured fighting for the Germans in France were brought there as well. According to records they were badly behaved, ill disciplined and– oddly enough, I thought–hated the Germans more than they did the British. So there were lots of fights. But, when German paratroopers (a branch of the Luftwaffe) arrived they imposed a Nazi-type regime within the camp and controlled the Russians.
Later in the war the prisoners elected a Lagerführer; a camp leader. This hierarchy ruled the inner workings of the camp and the camp commanders had to deal with them.
The first ever talk I gave was to about a hundred and fifty people who, I was told just before the talk were, ‘Friends of Glen Mill… you’d better have done your research.’
I had. It went okay. But I’ve never known such sheer panic about a talk since.
Question: There’s a love story running through the books, but because it is a family saga rather than a simple romance, you follow a host of diverse characters. Do you enjoy playing with a large and complex cast, rather than concentrating solely on one protagonist?
I do! It’s like life; we’re all intermingled with one another in this world. We don’t live in a vacuum. As John Donne says” No Man is an Island.”
It’s fun, thinking about what one character will be doing while another takes over the plot, the story, for a while. A bit like characters on stage; they never stop acting.
As long as I remember that whatever the others in the cast do, ultimately it affects the protagonist (and/or the antagonist) in some way, I can keep an eye on everyone. Obviously it can go wrong in the first few drafts but, in the end, it works well.
Perhaps I just like making life difficult for myself.
But the way I write is to give separate chapters, different times, to the main characters’ point of view. I think it works. It’s important that the reader knows just who they are following, exactly whose perspective they are reading.
Question: Do you plan to add to the story, or do you think it’s now complete?
I thought the series would be over by the end of the trilogy. It’s not! My WIP is the prequel set between 1912 and 1924. Working title, Foreshadowing. And it tells the story of Winifred and Bill, Mary’s parents.
Question: Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did it creep up on you?
We were rather isolated as a family so I was a bit of a loner as a child. From being small, I wrote to invent characters that would fill my world and I’m embarrassed to admit I would act them out when I was on my own. I loved English in school and would write huge long stories that the poor teacher had to plough through. I had wonderful English teachers that always encouraged me. Depending what was happening in my life I either wrote a lot or hardly anything but I wrote every day. As an adult I began sending out short stories and poems with moderate success. The novels I wrote I hid away. It was only after I had breast cancer that I found courage to let the world see my books.
It was the best thing I did. But there is a tale to it. Perhaps it’s best I just share it here: http://bit.ly/1Usy8xI
Links to Judith’s books, website, blog etc.
Pattern of Shadows http://amzn.to/1toWbaY
Changing Patterns http://amzn.to/1U1AzHM
Living in the Shadows http://amzn.to/1Uc0Ghp
about me: http://about.me/jbarrow