Welcome to my weekly blog series – Author Interviews.
Each week I get to interview an amazing author on what it was like for them to write their book and the challenges they overcame. I also get to glean some useful writing tips and find out what authors are wearing these days whilst they hammer out their books.
Today I am very excited as inspirational author Sue Hampton has agreed to come and sit in my red chair.
Tell my readers about yourself and the book / books you have written
I’m an ex-teacher, now an unusual professional author because I have 27 titles with 6 small publishers, for children, teenagers and adults and across genres. I’m also an Ambassador for Alopecia UK, having lost all my hair 35 years ago. My latest book, RAVELLED, is my first short story collection (for adults).
When did you write your first book?
The first title published was the historical adventure SPIRIT AND FIRE in 07 – “enthralling” said Michael Morpurgo – but the first story I wrote was THE WATERHOUSE GIRL, a children’s novel built around an eleven-year-old character with alopecia. I held it back, even after Michael Morpurgo called the manuscript “beautifully written” and once I’d found a publisher, because while I still wore wigs my baldness was a secret and the book would blow my cover. It was published once I decided to own my hair loss – and to share, when I’m booked by schools or adult groups, a message about diversity, identity and respect.
How long did it take to write your first book?
I wrote THE WATERHOUSE GIRL over an intense five weeks but then returned to it years later and edited, expanded and reworked it, bringing in a whale and more humour. This process took a few months.
What was your motivation to write your first book?
I’d wanted to be an author since the age of 6. As a primary teacher I needed powerful stories to read at Story Time, and well-written stories to illustrate techniques and everything words can do. Some of the books on the classroom shelves inspired me, like Morpurgo’s. Others fell short. I was approaching 50 when I decided to make it happen, and my subject, exploring through a fictional character my own experience of alopecia, was the obvious one for me. It was therapy but Daisy Waterhouse also changed my life – when I realised she was the person I wanted to be. It earned me the role of Ambassador for the charity and enabled me to support others but I never imagined that outcome.
What writing issues did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
I’ll answer that in a career-so-far context! I have learned to adapt my style again and again as I’ve explored different genres, and with one YA title, THINNER THAN WATER, I had to accept an editor’s stripping back and chopping of my default literary flow when writing (in close third person) about a streetwise urban teenager called Kim who is self-defined by toughness. This worked, because the other teenage protagonist is as different from Kim as she could be, so because Fizzy’s chapters have a fluid, dreamy musicality and spirituality in their tone and vocabulary the contrast is sharp and effective. Encouraged by this success (I’m not talking sales but in my own critical judgement) I decided that in my adult novel FLASHBACK AND PURPLE I would use four distinct voices, each with a register, style and perspective. That’s quite a challenge, but challenge motivates me. I’m not interested in series. There are so many kinds of story, which is why I’ve now written a collection of them (RAVELLED).
Did you go through any bad writing patches during writing your book – what kept you going?
I don’t get writer’s block. I occasionally lose heart but never for more than a day because my husband, Leslie Tate, is an author too and talking to him usually shifts things on. Together we appear (we get booked by writers’ groups, reading groups, libraries, U3As and run Berkhamsted Live) as #authorsinlove and we support and sustain each other. I don’t think I would have survived the brutality and injustices of the book world without him! He’s gifted and we believe in each other.
Are you a plotter or do you just write / see what happens?
Generally I let my characters lead because whatever the audience or genre they are at the heart of every story. In the case of SHUTDOWN, a futuristic teenage novel, I knew what the big climax would be before I began but had to find my way there. Sometimes with children’s adventures/mysteries I have to stop around two-thirds of the way in and plot out the remainder to ensure that I hold on to each strand and don’t leave any of them hanging. When I write adult or YA fiction the process is usually freer, allowing the story to develop organically from character, with the exception of RAVELLED because short stories make certain demands that must be met rather fast.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
The joy of falling in love as a writer with characters I know more intimately than real people, and the intensity of the commitment to them and their story. And the joy when any reader experiences that same thrill, whether that reader is a child in a school (I’ve been to 600) a Facebook friend I’ve never met or an author I respect.
What is the worst thing about being a writer?
The business. That means the whole idea that a book is a product, success is defined by sales, celebrities draw big advances for books they don’t write, and profile matters more than talent. All of that can leave authors like me without big publishers feeling needy and even on occasions humiliated, as during the Waterstone’s signing where a guy walked in, read the sign and said, loudly and sarcastically, “Oh, wow, Sue Hampton’s here.” Pause, different voice: “Who the hell’s she?” No fun for the author shrinking at the table. I also hate self-promoting.
Have you ever considered quitting writing, and if so how have you worked through this?
Yes, for the reasons above. I hoped that praise from Morpurgo, Beverley Knight and, in the case of RAVELLED, many respected and established authors, might earn me a contract with a big publisher and enable me to reach more readers. The disappointment when a big break crumbles can be tough. I suppose belief that I have something to offer as an author keeps me trying – and that desire to improve, to challenge myself.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I used to run down the corridor early each morning as a teacher and work until 11:00 at night so I’ve had enough stress, thanks! No targets or regimes but I’m an early riser and may start writing before most people are at work. It varies. I take time out and as I also spend some days as an author in school leading writing workshops, aiming to inspire.
Do you suffer from procrastination and if so how do you handle it?
Well yes, checking Facebook and Twitter and book orders before I start writing but that’s part of the job really. I’m quite disciplined but the key thing is that once a book has started to roll there’s nothing I’d rather do than write it.
Which is more important – plot or characters and why?
Characters. I don’t read plot-led fiction so I rarely write it. I’m more interested in characters, their interior lives and dramas and their relationships. My children’s novels need plenty of action of but I begin with characters and they determine it.
What have been your 3 biggest learnings during your writing career?
- It’s tougher out there than any writer thinks it will be and luck is rare.
- There may be a difference between compromise in dealings with editors and surrendering identity or integrity – but there may not.
- Publishers all function differently, like species, but small ones may well be more respectful and less controlling than the big boys.
How do you manage social media as a writer?
Usually with half-hearted reluctance. I hate being bombarded by authors myself. I try to exercise judgement and restraint and I won’t pay to be marketed. However, I’ve just paid two lovely students who’ve set up their own company to make a promo film for RAVELLED because in it I can share my ideas about writing as well as extracts from the stories – and be bald and bold of course.
Do you have any tips or advice for budding aspiring authors?
Write what you want or need to write but read widely and critically too. Be inspired by the greats and earn from them. In my case those are George Eliot, Tolstoy, Dickens and Virginia Woolf in particular but also, in contemporary writing, Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, Susan Fletcher, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Strout. The children’s writers I admire most are Morpurgo of course, Malorie Blackman, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield and Geraldine McCaughrean.
Do you ever think of the next book whilst writing?
Yes. I have a notebook for when ideas come to me. Most do generate books.
What do you wear to write?
Big earrings, tops of many colours but nearly always red, leggings usually. I have author outfits which are smarter but equally vivid variations and may involve heels or dresses at times.
If readers want to get in touch how do they contact you?
Hey Sue – great interview!
- Wow that must have been amazing when Michael Morpurgo said your book was ‘enthralling’ and ‘beautifully written!’
- I loved how you decided to ‘own your hair loss’ and share your experiences with others. So inspirational!
- Anyone who can write a book over an intense five week period is a super star in my eyes!
- I can relate to falling in love with characters and I agree its one of the best things about being a writer.
- I love your writer fashion – big earrings and red leggings!
If you are an author and would like to appear on my blog please get in touch.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/79577679@N00/5448848999″>the chair in the attic</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a>