Helen Harvey Interview


An interview with Beth Webb by Helen Harvey, an A level  student at Cirencester College (now at St John’s College, Oxford).

When and why did you decide to become a writer?

When? I guess I was about three. My first book was just pages of scribble (I hadn’t learned to write yet). I was taking writing seriously by the time I was in my teens, and published my first article in a pop magazine when I was 14. I didn’t think I could ever be a real writer, that was out of ordinary people’s reach.

Why did I become a writer? I have an obsessive need for stories. I can’t not write. If I am not physically writing, I am telling stories, or painting pictures of stories, or asking people to tell me their stories. Or maybe BBC 7 is on…

What difficulties have you come across trying to become a successful published writer?

Loads! Learning to write well was my first obstacle. Like so many people I was taught to use too many adjectives and I was convinced that ever-so embroidered writing was ‘good’ writing.

Next, I had to think of ways to earn a living whilst writing and raising my four children. Then I had to find someone to publish my work. It is very hard to be taken seriously in the publishing world. I was once told ‘publishing is very much a matter of tastes, and it’s the guy that has the money (i.e. the publisher) who has the taste.’ Sadly this is very true. The knack is to find an agent and a publisher who genuinely love what you write.

What is it like being able to write fulltime?

Unbelievably wonderful, I feel like Cinderella has gone to the ball, and the clocks have all stopped at 11.55 pm! I get up, write all morning, after lunch I garden or walk while I plan what I am going to write the following morning. I spent the rest of the afternoons reading books on Iron Age or Roman history. I work about 8 hours a day. Sometimes more.

Did you enjoy English at school?

I loved it, both the technical grammar and the literature. I couldn’t believe my luck on my first day in secondary school I discovered we were going to study stories (although they called it English Literature). I thought I’d gone to Heaven!

What jobs have you had other than writing?

My first real job was in a corsetry department of a big shop, (and yes, I really did have to lace a lady into one of those big-boned things you see on old films!) I have been a cleaner, a cook, a portrait artist (mostly in pencil), a radio broadcaster and a newspaper journalist.

I also help to develop ‘Books Beyond Words,’ a series of illustration-only books for adults with learning difficulties.

In the last few years I taught creative writing to all sorts of people, but most of all I enjoyed working with teenagers at Kilve Court Residential Education Centre and working on the British Council’s Crossing Borders project, mentoring new African writing. In the future, I hope to keep a little work going in both those areas because I love them.

Where and when do you write?

I write when I have time. Since I gave up my other jobs, I tend to get up early (anything from 6 – 7 am) and I write the next chapter while I am still in my nightclothes and eating breakfast. I now have a study that overlooks my garden, but I wrote ‘Star Dancer’ in my bedroom. I HAVE to be able to see greenery – preferably trees and plenty of grass while I work. I feel claustrophobic and miserable if I am staring out at a street.

You have an MA in Creative Writing. How much did the course help your writing and would you recommend this degree to others interested in becoming writers?

The course helped me hugely, it enabled me see my own weaknesses and showed me how to package my work professionally. I met some superb writers and we looked at each other’s work critically and encouraged each other. It also gave me the confidence to believe in my own work (terribly important).

As to whether creative writing degrees are a good idea, I think, to be honest, that if a young person wants to write, they would do better to do another degree or another job for a while first, to give him / her something to write about. Moving straight from school to a pure Creative Writing degree doesn’t guarantee publication. Life experiences and some tales to tell can then be honed with a Creative Writing degree or MA later. 

The best writing teacher is you. But be an obsessive reader first!

What type of books do you enjoy reading?

I usually have at least three books on the go at any time. I ignore my bedside table and pile them all on my bed!

My tastes are very eclectic. I like mostly fiction: action, psychology, mystery, crime, especially something with some philosophy behind it. I read a great deal of young people’s fiction. My greatest influences are: Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Lewis Carroll, Ursula Le Guin, David Almond, Philip Gross, Alan Garner, and of course Tolkein and C S Lewis.

My other passion is books of folklore, myths and legends. I have a huge collection.

What books did you read when you were younger and what books would you recommend for young readers now?

My first book-love was Nathaniel Hawthorn’s ‘Tanglewood Tales,’ but I don’t know if it would appeal to a modern young reader. I was totally hooked on all myths and legends, especially the Greeks, and I think everyone should read old tales. Kevin Crossley-Hollen does excellent adaptations. I really don’t think Lewis Carroll can be beaten, nor can Ursula Le Guin, her adults books are stunning teenage reads as well. Terry Pratchett for sanity, Michael Morpurgo and Anne Fine are pretty essential reading.

What writers for young people do you draw inspiration from and enjoy?

The ones I have mentioned already. Monica Furlong’s ‘Wise Child’ was a real turning point for me, as was Diana Wynne Jones ‘Fire and Hemlock.’

To be honest, the authors who have helped and inspired me are too numerous to mention. Everyone should regularly read ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ and ‘Now We Are Six’ as medicine for life’s bumps and bashes.

What advice would you give to any of your readers who wanted to become a writer?

This is me and my Macmillan Editor Rachel, discussing my latest book

Basically, read, read, read and read. Anything and everything. Have a special notebook, (it’s called a ‘Thunks’ notebook for useful thoughts) and when you have finished a book, make a quick note of what you thought; was it good? Why? If it was awful, write down why.

Also look at my page ‘About Writing’ for my ‘start-up tips.’ Also, there is more to writing than just being published. Do it because you love it, it doesn’t matter whether your teacher or your family like what you write. Write because you want to. If you get pleasure form writing, then do it. That is what matters.

Believe in yourself, love words, love stories. If you have the chance, go and listen to a live storyteller, (watch how Tony Robinson or Hugh Lupton do it!) and try and capture his or her live energy and ‘oomph’ in your written work.

Try telling stories as well as writing them. It’s great fun, no spelling mistakes and it saves paper! You don’t have to remember or learn them word for word. Just turn the story into a DVD in your head, press your mental ‘play’ button and tell the story as you see it happening in your imagination. Easy as that.

Whether you are writing or telling, start with an easy one like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ try putting it into modern dress:

‘Little Red was on her way to Granny’s after school, she had promised to go straight there, but stopped in HMV to look at the latest CD releases.

Then this bloke came up to her…’

You can finish it.

What is your favourite book that you have written and why?

People always ask me that, and I can’t answer because I love them all for different reasons.

The Dragons of Kilve because they are lovely and cuddly and at least a little bit based on my own children!

Wanted One Dragon because everyone should have a dragon in their cellar (or shed).

The Magic in the Pool of Making, because I think it’s important to think about issues like pollution and misuse of our planet, also racism disgusts me.

The Fleabag books because I adore the main character – he is a real cat by the way, and he lost his leg at the hip under a milk lorry at 5.00am one morning, but lived to a ripe old age. Also it was great fun making up a completely new world!

The Witch of Wookey Hole because I love caves and wandering about it them. I love being a bit scared. I think it’s healthy as long as it’s safely done. I also enjoyed discovering who Hester really was and all about her past, and seeing the modern world through her eyes!

Foxdown Wood, because it’s about a place I loved, and part of it is true.

Star Dancer, because I have just finished it, so it’s still fresh and alive for me. Again, it’s about real places that I love. Tegen lives in a world that fascinates me. Given a chance, I think I wouldn’t mind time-travelling there! Her sense of wonder at the world and at nature (which she perceives as ‘magic’) is so exciting.

If you could be any character from a book (any book/one of your books/Stardancer) who would you be and why?

I already am in several books. I’ll leave you to work it out!

Why do you like writing fantasy so much?

Because life in the real world is hard. Fantasy isn’t just an escape, it enables me to take one or two steps away from reality to consider life from a ‘safe’ distance, think about it, and come back to reality with a few difficult things worked out. Also it’s fun. I had a teacher at school who terrified me. I think she encouraged fantasy in me because I used to sit and day dream about how I could teach her a lesson… mostly it involved learning to throw my voice, pretending I was her imaginary long-dead sister doing a ‘Marley’s Ghost’ on her from the back of the classroom!

Having said that, you might think I always have a ‘message’ in my books. I do and I don’t. I put ideas that are important to me into my stories, but whether you choose to ‘see’ them, or want to discover your own, or none at all, that is your privilege as a reader.

I give you my stories, you take what you want.

If you could be a mythical creature what would you be and why?

Can I shape shift and be a unicorn on nice days and a dragon when it’s cold and wet please?

The unicorn is because I’ve always secretly wanted to be beautiful and to be able to run and run and run… The dragon part is because I wish I was wise, but I would like to have permission to be crusty if and when I feel like it. I also like warm caves. Can I be a vegetarian dragon please?

Why do you think stories are important?

Essentially they are comforting . A well-written story should be a safe place to curl up and feel safe. For me, they are also the best way to explore the ‘real’ world and learn to be brave and noble and face down dastardly enemies. If you learn to do it in a story, you can do it in real life.

  Look at my page Storytelling. I have written a bit more about stories there.

Where do you get inspiration for your books?

From the most unexpected places: ‘Star Dancer’ came from a conversation over hard boiled eggs on a picnic. ‘The Magic in the Pool of Making’ came from something my eldest son asked me when he was about eight. ‘The Dragons of Kilve came from a chance remark my middle son made while walking over some dragon-shaped rock formations on Kilve beach, near Minehead. ‘Foxdown Wood’ came from a friend’s house and garden, and some real-life experiences. ‘The Witch of Wookey Hole’ came from caves of that name in Somerset. The ‘Fleabag’ books came from my friend’s cat (see above) and my Mum’s opal ring which really does have a ‘fire’ in it.

I always have my ‘thunks book’ near to hand, and I make a note of ideas that spring to mind. When I am stuck for ideas I look through old ‘thunks’ books to see if there are any ideas that would make a story or a poem.

You can read about how and why I wrote Star Dancer here.

Anything else you think we might want to know about you or your books?

Not that I can think of. If you have any more questions, why not email me on the Contact Beth page?
Oh, one last thing, I do have a favourite charity I’d like everyone to know about, it’s Book Aid on http://www.bookaid.org/cms.cgi/site/index.htm . When I was in Africa I was told about children being mugged on their way to school for their books. These books were then sold to other children! I was incensed!

Do you remember the old Oxfam advertisement: ‘If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish you feed him for life?’If you and some friends club together every month, you could join The Reverse Book Club and help to make books and education available to everyone. It really is a world-changing operation!

If you can read, give someone else a chance to do so too! Just click on the link above.