Friday, 15 June 2012

Interview with Helen Spring - historical fiction author

The simplest question often receives the most unexpected of answers. Usually, if I ask an author what inspired them, they reply, ‘Oh, a sentence in a novel,’ or ‘an unexplored subplot in a film I saw,’ or ‘a character I noticed at a train station.’  All of these things are drawn from the writer’s life experience, a small trigger giving birth to something more. So, when I asked Helen Spring what inspired her to write The Chainmakers, her answer was all the more unexpected.
‘My Grandad,’ she said, ‘I have always been a little in love with him, which is surprising because he died fifteen years before I was born.’
I put down my pen and leaned forward in my chair. ‘Tell me about him,’ I said. And so, she did.

 ‘Grandad was a blacksmith, and Mother recalled running from school to watch him working at the forge. She would stand there, a little afraid of the noisy clamour of hammer on red hot metal, as showers of fiery sparks surrounded him and fell onto his bare arms. She was sure he would be burned but he never was.
Mother described her father as tall, strong and sinewy, with very dark good looks, and curly black hair. His eyes too, she remembered, were  ‘Irish eyes, deep blue with long dark lashes.’
It is perhaps then not surprising I find myself a little in love, but I think it was the stories of his kindness that really sealed it for me. Mother was the youngest of seven children, she had three brothers and three sisters and so was doted on, not only by her parents but all her older siblings too.  Mother recalled vividly being with her father when he finished work, and they called at the local shop where he bought a punnet of strawberries . What a treat!  He hoisted her on to his shoulders and strode home, with his youngest astride his neck, stuffing herself with strawberries. 
This was the essence of the man, strawberries were a luxury they couldn’t afford but he had the kindest of impulses and would always make life fun, whereas of course his poor wife had the difficult job of bringing up all the children on very little. I can’t help feeling for her.
When the First World War began, Grandad was just too old to be called up, although the two eldest boys went right away. However, the skills of a blacksmith were in great demand, and very quickly grandad was directed by the War Office, to the Belfast shipyards to help build the ships which were suddenly so badly needed. There was no choice in the matter and he was away for four years, and his family missed him sorely. Money would arrive from him every week, but letters were few, and there was no leave during that whole time.
When he eventually came home he was not the same person. He was half his previous weight, having been overworked and underfed all the time he was away. He had lived in a hostel, where food was scarce and poor, and he slept in a kind of dormitory, where you dared not take off your boots to sleep or they would be taken in the night. When he came home he was as broken down as many who had been at the front, due to the heavy work and long hours, and lack of food and sleep, all of which was justified as being ‘for the War effort.’  In truth he was a casualty of war, and died shortly after he returned home.
Mother recalls that even in those last few weeks, he was full of fun and jokes, and would take great joy in hearing her recite the poems of Longfellow, which she was learning at school, his particular favourite being  ‘Hiawatha.’
He was a man of huge heart and loving kindness, who loved his family and always did what he considered to be his duty. I wish I had met him but even without the privilege of knowing him, I find him so easy to love. That was why it seemed so natural to draw upon him when I wrote my first novel The Chainmakers.

Each time I read The Chainmakers I find something different to say about it. You might expect a novel inspired by a grandfather to be rather staid, safe or domestic but this book encompasses a broad horizon and evokes a catalogue of emotions. In the days of Helen’s grandfather men had to be tough to survive and that is what The Chainmakers is all about; ordinary people in a harsh world. Just as Helen’s grandfather had to work hard to forge his chains of iron so do we all have to forge a path for ourselves. Whether we craft a flimsy, weak-linked chain or an iron strong one, is down to how well we learn to wield the hammer.

Set against the blistering heat and grinding poverty of the chainshops of the Black Country, this compelling love story charts the struggle of young Anna Gibson to forge a new life from the remnants of betrayal by her lover and a tragic marriage of convenience.
A simple offer of work as a model proves to be the catalyst for complete change, taking Anna from the sunny beaches and liberal attitudes of an artist's colony in Brittany to the struggle to survive and make good in the immigrant community of downtown New York.
Anna learns her lessons well, and she finds herself still making chains, but now chains of restaurants, leading to wealth if not happiness. Then comes Prohibition, and Anna's decisions involve her in a gangland feud which threatens her family and friends in a frightening web of intrigue and violence.
How do we recover from the agony of a lover's betrayal? What is true love anyway? Can we befriend lawbreakers without getting hurt?
These questions are at the core of this unusual and compelling book. Written with humour, colour and passion, Helen Spring weaves an absorbing tale of obsession and complex emotions, and their far-reaching consequences.

The Chainmakers is available at just 77 pence on Amazon Kindle.

Helen Spring’s other works include: Memories of the Curlew and Strands of Gold, both available on Amazon.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A reflection on two weeks of social netsquabbling

I don't usually complain. Well, maybe I do but I try not to complain too much on here. I want my blog to be light, interesting, informative and sometimes it is ...sometimes it isn't. Above all I am determined it won't be nasty. I never use it to demean other writers or blast other people's opinions because, quite frankly, it isn't in me to do so.

I hope that the people who visit this page are, or will soon become, my friends and that they feel that way too. Those people who don't like it here, don't have to come back. That is the beauty of a free world.

The same applies to my books. You don't have to like them, you can just take them to a charity shop, pass them on to someone you don't like much or, if you really hate them, put them in the bin. That is your choice. I read lots of books that aren't to my taste but you won't see me shouting to the world that they are 'crap' and the author has no idea what she is talking about. Courtesy, it seems, is a dying art.

It isn't just my books and opinions that have received some harsh criticism lately, the social networking sites that I visit have  been awash with snide, sometimes vicious comments about self publishing, historical accuracy, the correct positioning of a comma and it all leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Everybody seems to think they know it all and leave no room for other opinions or other agendas. A very good friend and fellow writer of mine was in tears the other day over some spiteful comment from a so-called reviewer and, whereas she might not be the best writer in the world, you tell me who is.

There seems to be a new way of reading these days. It isn't enough to open a book and appreciate the story for what it is. No, we must all look for reasons to call it 'shit.' We ignore the prose, the engaging characters, the rich, heady atmosphere and squeal in disgust, 'Oh my, look that comma shouldn't be there and the stupid author hasn't justified the margins!'  If you walk through a lovely park or garden looking for dog pooh, dog pooh is all you will see.'

We all write for different reasons, some of us want to educate our readers, some of us want to make them feel all warm inside and some of us want to provide escapism, some of us want to make them laugh. For every type of writer there is a group of readers who will love their work and look forward to each new publication. Even I have a trusty little band of followers who constantly ask me 'when my next one will be out.' You see, it takes all sorts. Equally there will be those that don't enjoy it. and that is fine. So if your thing is fantasy or high brow history don't label steamy romance as 'crap' just because it isn't to your taste. And that works both ways. Everyone is different. It might be a good idea if some of the people who spend their days nitpicking other people's work, sat down and attempted to write their own perfectly formatted, historically accurate, realistic, expensively bound, grammatically perfect novel. I, for one, will buy it like a shot.

The one thing that all writers do share (even crappy little self-published no-naughts) is that they all want to improve their writing. That is what good writers do everyday. They sit at their computer and strive to get better. Writing is a learning curve, a pretty harsh one sometimes and ALL writers need help and support to be the best they can.
When my children were small, if they made something or wrote a story, I told them how marvelous the good bits were and then pointed out how the not so good bits could be improved. I didn't slap their hands and tell them they were useless. That is what I think the writing world needs. Self-publishing and e-books aren't going to get away and,  yes, the standard needs improving but there are ways and means of achieving that. Ok, some of us have a long way to go but it is a road we all travel together and, it seems to me, that driving past in fancy juggernauts and splashing the little people with mud isn't the best way to go. Why not pull over and offer them a lift instead?

Please excuse the typos :)