A profile of me . . . oh, gosh, what a long nose I have! The whole profile? A tall tree of a person with a unruly streaky-silver leaves, probably a bit muddled about where to stand, searching in her pockets for glasses and a pen. I used to be very short and very young. As soon as I learned how to make letters, I created little booklets of stories. My mother says the earliest one was about our cat, Snowshoes. I loved playing the piano, looking in the weeds for fairies, burying jars with messages for the future, sitting up in a tree with binoculars where I could see south to the new tallest building in downtown Denver (now hardly visible) and west to the front range of the Rocky Mountains. My three brothers and sister were better at making music, drawings and funny antics; I was/am their awed observer. In my middle to late childhood, various rotten things happened to my family— not tragic, just rotten—which some say makes good background for writers, though that doesn't make it less painful when it happens. Luckily, we all got through it somehow and we all love each other like survivors of a shipwreck who lived temporarily on separate desert islands, rescued slowly and partially until we collected together again.
When I was 13, I started writing stories for myself and friends about being with The Beatles. Then friends devised their own stories and we swapped. My first workshop! My dad handed one of my stories to the editor of a local magazine in Denver which was my first sale. A friend's mother asked me to write a letter for the newspaper she edited, then a film review for the teen pages. I was several times in print in various ways by the time I met my first serious boyfriend, who was keen on being a writer, too. I read Great American Writers like Cather, Hemingway and Steinbeck and tried creating serious stories with laconic working men and women, their hearts good and their hands tough. When I was 17, I met a psychology student, John Kennedy (obviously not the president!), who amazed me with his adventurous mind. He led me to Flaubert and Zelazny, Kafka and LeGuin, Dostoyevsky and Silverberg. The world was suddenly bigger, ambiguous and complex, and in fact, wasn't just the world but the universe or perhaps many universes. Even though I had barely scraped my way out of high school, I was also working part-time on a degree in history, working full-time shift work in a hospital, but I was on fire to write. John and I joined the writer's workshop in Denver which is still guided gently by Ed Bryant, a great warm influence. We both began to sell stories; I was writing much more than John, who always found writing painful. I sat at the kitchen table and typed and typed—oh, to have that energy and confidence again!
Unfortunately, my marriage was heavily oppressed by a live-in mother-in-law and John was a socially reticent man, a reluctant traveller, more interested in an internal, mental world. At the age of 27, I saw the sea for the first time in my life, thrilled by the sound, the smell, the endlessness of the Pacific, while John sat in the car and read a book. I was more a creature of the senses than he was and yearned to explore beyond pages. After nine years, I realized that I had to go away to grow up, though I was (an am still) sorry to have caused John such pain, though we remained good friends until his death.
I ended up in Austin, Texas, where I became part of the Turkey City workshop crowd, living with Howard Waldrop. Don't know if I grew up, but those five years gave me new perspectives, great new friends and a deep dislike of hot, humid weather and icy air-conditioning. One of most important things I learned from Howard was keeping a story notebook, a page or two for each idea, accumulating notes until most of a story had gestated. Howard could write an astonishing, fully-developed story on demand by looking into his notebooks for a idea coming into its vintage. But his story notebook was more powerful than mine. I remember doing a public reading from a first draft once and found it so horrible, I hid for hours, hoping that a lot of beer went down my listeners' throats before they saw me again. My writing was up and down; a lot of attempts failed but towards the end of my time in Austin, I wrote some of the short stories of which I am most proud, such as 'Her Furry Face,' 'Silent Cradle' and 'Belling Martha.' I put together a collection and submitted it for the well-respected Drue Heinz Award and was short-listed – to my amazement. Eventually this collection became Faces, my first published book, sold almost simultaneously in the UK and the US.
I returned to a half-written, semi-mystical and sentimental novel abandoned for five or six years before while still in Denver, and found a new voice for the character, a darker tone and plot which became Journal of Nicholas the American. One of the motifs was of foreignness, something I had been close to while working in a Jewish hospital in Denver with many immigrant patients and doctors, then experienced first-hand as a 'foreigner' in Texas.
I became a genuine foreigner again by moving to England in 1985. Able to stay in the UK on the condition that I was self-supporting, I was frightened into hurrying the next novel, Saint Hiroshima, which also was born out of scraps of old ideas. My UK publisher published it with light editing but my US publisher asked for extensive revisions. The HBJ text is a better text, in my opinion, though I haven't re-read either for 20 years. Saint Hiroshima is probably non-genre, but it is the story of two people who experience a subjective alternate history for a short period.
Eventually married to Chris Priest for a long but finite time, I settled into a reading-intensive job for my bread-and-butter, which saps a lot of writing energy; I still pay bills doing it. While my wonderful daughter and son were small in the 1990s, I worked on a historical novel but floundered, then wrote two other contemporary novels which didn't sell, though a chunk of one won a grant from the Arts Council 1998. Looking back, I think I was rushing, desperate to keep in the writing game but without the meditative time to plan, daydream and re-draft. My first impulses don't seem to be the best, no matter how excited I am by them at first. My fiction needs lots of soaking and resting and re-sousing, like Christmas puddings.
For a time, I hoped to re-train to find a different job and tried various paths without much luck, which became another diversion from writing. For a few years, writers from the region gathered to form a workshop in Hastings, a rewarding experience, but faded out. During this period I wrote 'Wind Angels' and 'Vida,' stories which seemed to succeed, boosting me enough to keep going.
The most fun I'd had writing in years was the postal collaboration with Howard on 'One-Horse Town.' We discovered that we both had haunted Troy stories in our notebooks. Howard tried to give it to me, but I knew he could do his bit (Schliemann) best and I could do mine (young Homer), though we edited and added to each other, and shared the rest. I love the story and re-read it without the usual qualms of self-doubt. Wouldn't it make a great film? But that would spoil Howard's desire to live on a minimum income for all his life. He's the only writer who would talk an editor into paying less. However, I had trouble selling a couple of stories in a row; my oomph spiralled downwards until there was a period where the writer in me had nearly vanished. Writer's block is often a painful thing and is sometimes associated with dark thoughts and behaviours. Instead of alcoholism or madness, I found a positive obsession in music and joined a Fiddle Choir as a viola player, which is still an important part of my life. Playing with other musicians is fantastically rewarding even for a plodding musician. (I am probably no where near as good on the viola as Woody Allen is on the clarinet.) I kidded myself that writing was over for me, didn't matter, that I would be happier without the struggle.
But a turn in my private life a few years ago shook that carelessness out; I felt profoundly lost without writing and slowly began to work again. I put myself in the position where I had to write by doing an MA course. As soon as I started dabbling again, the words returned. I took up Ian Whates' dare to write a story for Mythunderstandings and wrote 'We Shelter' and felt like a writer once more. Perhaps this long ramble will put into perspective the stories collected into Wind Angels from such a stretch of time and places.
My current project is a novel, The Lincolnshire Fragment, which might have accumulated enough drafts soon to be let out of the house. Again, shreds of it were born in past attempts, but it's a new thing and has Old English runes, rivers, Estonians, thunderstorms, sex, Orthodox church music, chemistry, the Isle of Axholme and even some folk fiddling, too. Taking my time to write it—at last I've learned not to make myself rush.
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