Friday, 15 July 2016

Owl Song at Dawn - Author Q&A

I'm proud to be on the Blog Tour for Owl Song at Dawn today, with a Q&A with author Emma Claire Sweeney. You can read my review of the novel here.

Emma Claire Sweeney has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund and Escalator Awards, and has been shortlisted for several others, including the Asham, Wasafiri and Fish.

She teaches creative writing at New York University in London; co-runs – a website on female literary friendship; and publishes features and pieces on disability for the likes of the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday and The Times.

Owl Song at Dawn is inspired by her sister, who has autism.

V: Hi Emma, welcome to my blog, and thank you for the opportunity to ask you questions about your fabulous new book, Owl Song at Dawn.
I've read that you were inspired to write this book by your sister, who has cerebral palsy, and also your Grandma, who provides the inspiration for the main character, Maeve. The story of Maeve's life, dominated by her family's determination to care for her 'severely subnormal' twin sister is heartbreaking. Though the quality of the way the authorities care for people like Edie has, one would hope, changed for the better, in what way is Maeve's life similar to your own in caring for your sister?

E: The positive aspects of the relationship between Maeve and Edie are quite similar to those shared by my sister and me. Lou has an amazing capacity for happiness, which rubs off on other people. Just the other night, after the northern launch party for Owl Song at Dawn, Lou persuaded three of my friends, my parents and me to parade around the living room in a human choo-choo train. Her lack of inhibitions gives the rest of us a great excuse to shed our reserve too.
Some aspects of care tend to get over-emphasised in narratives of disability. I’m thinking particularly of toileting. Most people who support someone with disabilities don’t feel defined by this aspect of their role, nor do they see it as a demeaning part of their loved one’s life. In my novel, I have tried to show that these aspects of care are simply a small part of a much richer and more complex relationship, which involves listening with the heart.
One of the things that I have learnt from Lou is that there can be dignity and kindness for all of us in seeking and accepting care.
 V: Do you think society has changed that much from when your book is set (in the first half of the 20th Century) in the way able-bodied people look at those with disabilities? How would you like to see it change, and do you think it ever will?
E: Maeve and Edie were born in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Before long, the Nazis had begun trialling methods of mass murder on people with disabilities. These deaths have never been adequately commemorated. What’s more, Britain played a role in this shameful history since the Nazis were inspired in part by some of the eugenicist ideology prevalent in the UK. When a forced sterilisation bill was debated in parliament in 1931, it was successfully opposed only in favour of incarcerating people with learning disabilities in asylums. One of those who spoke out against forced sterilisation, nonetheless described people with learning disabilities as having “infantile and puerile minds, with perversions, with anti-social tendencies”.

On many levels we have clearly come a very long way since then. People like my sister can grow up in loving families, surrounded by supportive friends. People with learning disabilities and autism have achieved high-profile positions as actors, for instance, and as social activists. Couples with learning disabilities have married and some have raised children of their own.

Yet, these are the exceptions. Even now, learning disability is under and misrepresented in the media. Most people with such disabilities still face great opposition from family and state if they try to forge romantic and sexual relationships. Young people with disabilities are three to four times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers and disability hate crime rose last year by 41%. Only 6.6% of adults with learning disabilities have any kind of paid employment. These are troubling indicators that we have yet to learn the lessons of the past.

Even on the more benign end of the spectrum, our attitudes to learning disability can be damaging. When I mention my sister’s cerebral palsy and autism, I am usually offered sympathy on the assumption that her life must be miserable and my childhood must have been tough. This is hardly surprising given that as recently as 1983, when Lou was diagnosed, the doctor told my parents to focus their love on her twin, Sarah, and on their eldest daughter, me; put Lou in an institution; forget there had ever been three.

Sarah and I are both profoundly grateful that our parents ignored the doctor, daring instead to share their love and attention between all three of their girls. Far from a miserable existence, Lou has a compelling joie de vivre that defies preconceptions about disability, and even calls the term itself into question.

V: Maeve comes across as a very strong character, but her life doesn't seem to have moved forward for years, including the denial of her own chance to have a family. Was she punishing herself through guilt at being able-bodied, or guilt regarding the incident in the bath?
E: Good question! If the lives of the twins had panned out differently, I suspect Maeve would have come to terms with her guilt at being born the non-disabled twin. Her situation taught her that life is unfair, so she would have learnt to accommodate this knowledge. It’s her feelings of guilt at her brief yet devastating neglect of Edie that really cause her life to stall. I wanted the novel to speak of how a life may be damaged and restricted by forgivable mistakes and wrong beliefs – a few moments of inattention, a poor choice of boyfriend, a misperception of the reasons why he deserted her, an excessive self-blame.

V: Have any other writers influenced you? Is there one you'd consider to be a mentor? 
E: Two writers in particular spring to mind: one a mentor and the other a peer. 

Jill Dawson taught me at UEA well over a decade ago, and I’ve considered her a mentor ever since. She played a hand in pretty much every positive development of my early writing life. Nowadays, Jill runs Gold Dust mentoring scheme, so lots of emerging writers get to benefit from her refreshing combination of warm encouragement and tough straight-talking. But, more than anything, it was Jill’s writing itself that influenced me. I’ve always admired the way she writes technically ambitious novels about complex subjects, and yet does so with a deceptive lightness of touch. Wild Boy was a particular influence because it is also a novel that questions stereotypes of disability. Set in eighteenth-century France, the novel is inspired by the real-life story of the wild boy of Aveyron. Through the portrayal of both this child, Victor, and Doctor Itard, who attempted to educate him, Jill Dawson explores the varied faces of autism with nuance and insight.

The ethos of Jill Dawson and Michèle Roberts, who both taught me at UEA, centered around collaboration. As a result, I have a fantastically supportive circle of writer friends. One of these friendships actually has its roots in pre-UEA days. Emily Midorikawa and I met during our early twenties, when we were living in rural Japan, working as English teachers by day and scribbling stories in secret by night. Back then, we were so shy about our ambitions that we could not even speak of them to each other.

After almost a year of friendship, over plates of Japanese pasta in a garlic-themed restaurant within a small-town shopping mall, we finally ‘came out’ to each other as aspiring authors. In the decade-and-a-half since then, we have shared every one of the uphill struggles and celebratory moments of each other’s creative journeys: offering encouragement, critiquing work-in-progress, sharing news of publication opportunities, being there to empathise when the going got tough.

Our own experiences as writer friends prompted our interest in the female alliances of our favourite authors of the past. We set up a website, Something Rhymed, on which we post our findings and now we are writing about the subject in greater depth. It is a particular pleasure that my next book, A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë. George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, will have both mine and Emily’s names on the cover. 

V: How hard did you find writing Owl Song at Dawn, with it being linked to your own circumstances?
E: There were certain areas that I couldn’t let my imagination inhabit: sexual or physical abuse, for instance. It was just too painful for me to bring to life such a scenario. However, I came to feel that there were perhaps some benefits to my reluctance to write about this subject. Sometimes a novel’s depiction of abuse in asylums can overshadow the primary trauma of incarceration itself. 

I discovered that even at the height of institutionalization from the 1930s-1950s, only one-third of people with learning disabilities were ever sent away. This sparked my interest in the two-thirds who tried to remain together as families, and the pressures that might have been brought to bear on them. Such matters were difficult but therapeutic to write about because I was rehearsing various scenarios about my own future with Lou – some of which I hope might come to pass and others that represent my deepest fears.

V: You describe the setting for the book, Morecombe, very fondly. Have you lived there, or do you have fond memories of it as a seaside resort?
E: My story began to emerge when I could hear the voices of my main characters: twin sisters born in 1933. Maeve is fêted as the cleverest girl in town and Edie is diagnosed as ‘severely subnormal’. But they both spoke with Morecambe dialects. This posed a problem because I had never set foot in the town. 

Since I hail from Birkenhead, I tried to relocate my novel to the Wirral’s coastline. But, try as I might, Maeve and Edie refused to morph their Lancashire dialects into Scouse.

At this point, I accepted that I’d simply have to put in the hours, investigating Morecambe’s history from 1933 to the present day. No more excuses: I’d simply have to get it right.

I had been drafting and redrafting for some time before the reasons behind my fascination with the town finally dawned.

My sister had spent a few years at Beaumont College in Lancaster – a college for people with cerebral palsy and associated disabilities – and they used to take trips to the seaside. On some subconscious level, Morecambe is a town that I associate with my sister and her disabilities: a welcoming place where she experienced the happiest of times.

V: I love the way the book is told through Maeve, as if she is telling it to her sister. With the switching between telling their story in the past, and the present day, did you plan the majority of the story out or did you find yourself developing the story and characters as it went along?
E: I’m so glad that you liked this aspect of the novel because I really wrangled with the structure. I always knew that I wanted to piece together a patchwork narrative because I feel that our minds are made up of fragments of memories, reflections, visceral experiences and the voices of others that we’ve internalised. I did plan the story out first, but, as I wrote, the characters’ lives evolved and I had to change the plan radically with each of the novel’s many redrafts.

V: Are you writing a new book now?
E: I am in the midst of writing A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë. George Eliot and Virginia Woolf with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa. 

After that, my next book will be another novel. But it will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. My next novel will be narrated by her.

Thank you, Emma, for a fascinating insight to your writing!

Book Review: Owl Song at Dawn by Emma Claire Sweeney

In addition to my Author Q&A with Emma Claire Sweeney on the Blog Tour for Owl Song at Dawn, here's my review of this fabulous book. Thank you to Lucy at Legend Press for the advanced reading copy.

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe's 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve's crow, the dawn to Maeve's dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.
Owl Song at Dawn is a heart-rending, beautiful story, set in the present day, narrated by Maeve, as if she is talking to her 'severely subnormal' Edie. Maeve's life has been hard and lonely, and we learn gradually what brought her to be desperately trying to keep a run-down Sea View Lodge as a welcome holiday retreat for people with special needs.

Her tale is interspersed with glimpses of her younger life with her family, as they provide full time care and love for Edie along with the support of Maeve's friends, Vince and Frank. We learn of the battles with the authorities, who just want to institutionalise Edie. We've all heard of the old barbaric institutions; but we never really hear of the strength of the families determined to support their loved ones.

Vince is a gentle, caring character who obviously cares a great deal for both Edie and Maeve, but it is Frank who steals Maeve's heart. But life never happens as we plan it. Maeve has subsequently devoted her life to others, providing care, support and employment to two lovely young people with Down's Syndrome. These two, Len and Steph, are gorgeous, innocent characters, with a wicked sense of humour and a sensibility about them that many 'ordinary' folk would not afford them.

Maeve has dedicated her life to caring for others, to the detriment of her own quality of life. She has no surviving family of her own, and when a face from her past, Vince, turns up bringing sometimes painful memories, she is reluctant to let him back into her life

She's a great, feisty character, and the author has depicted this sometimes cantankerous octogenarian with a great deal of warmth and empathy.

It's a beautiful story, wonderfully written and well worthy of 5 stars.

You can buy Owl Song at Dawn here (other retailers are of course available!).

Monday, 11 July 2016

WOW! Blown away by this mascara!

Just a quicky today - my first review of a beauty product.

I just HAD to post this because I was so amazed by this £5.99 Maybelline Volum' Express Lift Mascara. It actually does what it says on the tin; it's incredible!

I usually spend up to 30 seconds per eye clamping my poor eyelashes with my evil-looking eyelash curlers (honestly, they look like an instrument of medieval torture), trying to make my eyes look like I am awake.

Then on Saturday I found this Mascara. I was looking for something non clumpy as I am going to start wearing contacts again, and was in a bit of a rush when I grabbed this miracle in the hellishly busy Westfield Stratford branch of Boots. I tried it this morning - with no other make up so I have used filters in an attempt to blur my poor ravaged skin - and look! Curly lashes! I actually watched them go up as I applied it (ooer!).

Maybe it's Maybelline? Damn right it is!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Book Review: One Wish in Manhattan by Mandy Baggot

Christmas: it’s the most wonderful time of the year … to fall in love.
The temperature is dropping, snow is on its way and Hayley Walker is heading for New York with one wish … to start over.

With her daughter Angel, Hayley is ready for adventure. But there’s more to New York than twinkly lights and breathtaking skyscrapers. Angel has her own Christmas wish – to find her real dad.

While Hayley tries to fulfil her daughter’s wish, she crosses paths with billionaire Oliver Drummond. Restless and bored with fast living, there’s something intriguing about him that has Hayley hooked.

Can Hayley dare to think her own dreams might come true – could A New York Christmas turn into a New York Forever?

Travel to the Big Apple this Christmas and join Hayley and Oliver as they realise life isn’t just about filling the minutes … it’s about making every moment count.

A big warm-hearted story, full of Christmas sparkle that will delight fans of Jane Costello, Miranda Dickinson and Lucy Diamond.
My Review:

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, Bookouture, for the advanced reading copy. Although this book has been out since before Christmas last year - yes, I was a bit slow getting to this, but reading it in the height of British Summer (yes it was raining) did not detract from the Christmas Spirit of this lovely book.

So we have Hayley, a single mother who is desperate to fulfil her daughter's secret wish to find her father. All Hayley knows is that he could be somewhere in New York.

Oliver Drummond, a bigwig CEO of his family's company. He's too busy and too scared of ending up the same way as his father and brother to enjoy life to the full. He won't let anyone close to him, so goes through the motions of meaningless one night stands with beautiful women and being the faceless CEO to his nameless employees.

Then Oliver encounters Hayley and her daughter, Angel, several times; each time becoming more and more intrigued by this feisty pair.

This is the third Mandy Baggot I've read, and I love her writing! It's never cheesy or whimsical, which a story set in New York at Christmas could so easily be. The love interest is yes, another young, hot and successful CEO who meets an 'ordinary' girl, but forget Mr Grey or Gideon - this relationship is much more believable. And still hot! And our hero isn't such a twisted, tortured soul - yes he has issues, but doesn't everyone?

Full of great characters along with great story-telling, One Wish in Manhattan is a truly magical tale which whisks you away to the bright lights of the Big Apple and catches you up in one hell of a snowstorm.

Can someone please put some extra hours in the day so I have more time to read Mandy's other books?

You can buy One Wish in Manhattan here (other retailers are available of course!), and don't let the fact that it is only July put you off. Remember, a book is for life, not just Christmas!

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Grey Fog

This blog post is a bit random - it's not a book review, or anything to do with books. It's just an effort to how I am feeling at the moment; how many people suffering from depression may feel at times.

Some of you know I suffer from depression at times; some of you may have no idea or don't really care. Some of you may be embarrassed. Some of you may even identify with what I am trying to say.

I feel disconnected. Numb, sometimes. Other times, raw, like an open wound. I'm going through the motions of living. Plastering a smile on my face assuring everyone that yes, I'm fine thanks, how are you? I've been hiding from it for so long I've got lost.

This time it has been going on all year, probably the longest bout I've had.

January is always a hard month. So many sad anniversaries, so many people loved and lost. This year is this worst in a long time. Lemmy, Bowie, Wogan, Rickman, Corbett. Victoria Wood. Grizzly Adams. Sounds ridiculous doesn't it. How I can be so affected by the deaths of people I didn't know personally; had never met. But they have been in my life ALL my life.

I thought it would get better. I thought as the days grew longer, the darkness in my head would recede. But it hasn't. 

Instead I've been going through the motions, convincing myself that it WILL get better, I just need to carry on as normal. 

After all, there are people around me suffering far worse than I; people with cancer, some fighting it with everything they've got, some resigned to the fact that it means the end for them eventually but in the meantime they're going to enjoy what time they have left.

Then there's me. Nothing physically wrong - well except for the diabetes, which, having been under control, has gone awry cos I can't curb my appetite for everything bad; and the plantar fasciitis in my right heel which makes every step agony. Jeez, don't ask her how she is. How long have you got?

I know what I am supposed to do. I know what I am supposed to eat, what exercises I should be doing on my foot, what I should be writing to fight the anxiety, how to be mindful, how to breathe. I've had the training. But it's not working. I'm not working.

I struggle to get out of bed. The daily battles with the children, their constant niggling and backbiting overwhelms me, leaving me exhausted before the day has begun. 

If I'm going in the office, which very luckily I only have to do once or twice a week, I drive the 62 miles there, quite often with the radio on full blast to keep me from falling asleep. I do my work, pass pleasantries with me friends and colleagues, go through the motions of normality. Then I drive home again. Once I found myself talking to myself about there being no aliens. Another time, more recently, I was waiting to put my carrots in the lane I needed to take for the M25. WTF?! Exactly.

When I'm working at home, I log on to my laptop at 7:30, maybe do the school run, and work, sustained by the cups of tea and coffee my lovely husband brings me. Then at lunchtime, I set my alarm for 1.5 hours and fall into a deep, deep sleep. Then I wake up and carry on working till 5, 6 o'clock. Dream job - I am very lucky to be able to work as I do.

But I now cannot concentrate. Whether it's work, in the office, at home, reading a book, watching a favourite TV series, I find myself either distracted and fidgety, or I fall asleep.

I struggle to fulfil my book review commitments, leaving everything till last minute. I joined the Romantic Novelists Association's New Writer's Scheme again this year. My novel is all planned out; it's going to be brilliant. I have until 31st August to send the full manuscript in for a full critical review.

I've got 13,500 words written so far. Nowhere near the 80,000 word novel I intended.

Nothing's working any more. Three weeks ago I gave in. I went to my GP and told her my current antidepressant wasn't working. She gave me another one to try, with instructions on withdrawing from the old one and introducing the new one. She signed me off for three weeks.

I don't feel better yet. I'm on a low dose of this new tablet, which can be increased. I don't think the side effects are that bad, though my sense of taste has changed, making everything taste bland. I'm sleeping a lot, but I think that is the depression. I physically ache. That feeling of disconnection is still there; I go places but I'm not present. My glucose levels are ridiculous; but I can't deal with that at the moment. One thing at a time.

This week has been pretty tough. I (stupidly) got involved in a political argument on Twitter with a couple of old 'friends'. Or rather, they decided to attack me for my views, which I do not force down people's throats, constantly pushing me to justify myself. Usually I just walk away, but this time I felt I had to stand up for myself, to prove to myself that I wasn't so weak. In the end, exhausted and feeling battered beyond belief, I gave up, saying I was too tired, I couldn't cope with this on top of my depression. Then I was attacked for hiding behind it; then was told by one that, by the way, I was the reason the other one had cut themselves.

I'm not stupid. I know ultimately I am not responsible, They have their own issues. But it was still very upsetting. I've blocked them now.

I probably sound like a right whinger/hypochondriac. But anyone who lives with depression knows that it is so hard. What may seem like a simple solution to one person can be an insurmountable task to a sufferer. I am lucky in that I have the support of my family and my real friends. Otherwise, instead of just thinking about driving the car into that tree, I would actually do it.

Sunday, I went into London by myself, to meet friends I only know online. I could so easily have stayed in bed, but my husband gently encouraged me to go, knowing that one of them was returning to Australia and I'd regret it if I didn't meet with her. I survived. I may have floated around the tube, in a bubble, but I met up with these awesome people and we spent hours talking. It was great. But now it feels like I dreamt it.

I feel guilty, but the thought of going back to work on Wednesday fills me with fear. I like my job; I just can't do it at the moment. I can't do much at all. I am hoping that I can get a little bit longer off work, just to let this medication do its stuff. 

The thing is with depression, is that you cannot see it. There are no outwardly visible symptoms (other than a miserable face). I don't look ill. Sometimes I wish that I could hurt myself physically so that there are wounds to see (but I can't - I'm a wuss. I don't like pain). Trying to set an example to our children is so hard; three of them are adolescents and hormonal, trying to show resilience when you are at rock bottom is pretty bloody difficult. My kids are brilliant though. I had another melt-down earlier, and my eldest son came and sat beside me on the bathroom floor, holding me, supporting me. My husband holds me too, takes care of everything else so I don't have to. I hate that they have to see me like this, but I'm proud of them, too.

The colour black is often associated with depression - the Black Dog, the Black Hole of Despair. But for me it's more of a murky, grey fog. Sometimes it lightens, more of a mist, sometimes allowing the sun to shine through; other times it is suffocating and the only escape is the sanctity of sleep.

I know there is light. I know I will be 'fixed' and will be on an even keel again soon. You may ask 'How can I help?' The answer is I don't know. Just be you, and carry on as normal. Just be patient with me. The sun will shine again soon.