I used to interview writers all the time, since 2020 though I moved to have a conversation through the podcast, and later this year you’ll get to meet Abigail when she joins me. Before the podcast I had over 300 written interviews, like the one below and I thought it might be fun to bring the format back for Hysteria so that you can meet the readers and get properly acquainted.
I also want to thank Abigail for being the first to put her head above the parapet to answer some of my sensible and not-so-sensible questions. Abigail is reading for the Poetry category this year and you can find out who else is joining her in this endeavour on the Meet the Readers page.
What is one thing that no-one would usually know about you?
I have carried the metal pellet from an Airsporter Mk II air rifle in my head since the age of thirteen when I was shot in the eye at point-blank range. An operation to remove the pellet failed because it was found to be buried in my skull, three-quarters of an inch from my brain. No one was able to tell me at the time whether leaving it there was entirely safe but it was, by all accounts, safer than trying to remove it.
Are there any occupational hazards to being an author?
Have you ever wished that you could be or do anything else instead of writing, and if so what? My childhood ambition was to be an artist and I did show some ability, gaining O level art at a good grade. My home background, however, is strongly working class and my parents discouraged me from entertaining any such fanciful idea. They wanted me to become a secretary like my mother. I did actually go to secretarial college and once wrote Pitman shorthand at 130wpm. Sadly, though, in a real office, I grew bored and restless, lasting only a couple of months. Thus began a long list of employment positions that included working in a large old-fashioned mental health institution, being a Field Officer for Grapevine, a young people’s sexual advisory service, and selling newspaper advertising on the road until, finally, I settled into teaching at a large comprehensive. I still like to dabble with paints as a relaxing change from writing. I use mainly watercolours.
Have you ever written naked?
Yes. One very warm summer, at a time in my life, when I was single, I became semi-nocturnal and worked through the night, seldom sleeping before dawn. It became my habit to sprawl naked on the bed with all my books and papers around me. I ruined quite a lot of bed linen because of my preference for an ink pen and my childish love of writing in a rainbow of brightly coloured inks.
What is the single biggest challenge you faced when writing your book?
The biggest challenge I have faced in connection with my writing over the past several years has been trying to find the time and, indeed, the energy to write while simultaneously acting as sole carer to my very elderly mother. Somehow, though, over the past eighteen months, I have managed to write several short stories and assemble a collection of some sixty poems under the title Out of Eden. My mother, bless her, passed away under somewhat distressing circumstances early in 2023 and it was not until I had finished arranging her cremation and funeral service that I realised how exhausted I was. I am currently trying not to put any pressure on myself. I am still writing but I am trying not to beat myself up if I don’t write every day.
How do you remain sane while working?
I’m not sure that I do remain sane, or even that I want to. My daughter, when she was much younger, used to make frequent, if affectionate, references to you and your mad poet friends. Now she is a mum herself and I have an adorable grandson, I revel in the fact that my family pet name is Nanny Mad.
Are you jealous of other writers?
I think that anyone who answers this question in the negative is probably fibbing. Writing is a tough business and getting your work published is tougher. You’d have to be a saint not to sometimes feel a twinge of envy and I am certainly not that. On the other hand, the most empathic and generous friends I have are themselves writers. If you find someone you ‘click’ with who will read your work and comment thoughtfully and honestly in return for a similar effort on your part, then value and nurture that relationship because it is surely a pearl of great price.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My poetry is very much rooted in one or both of these: my personal life experience in which I include family narratives and my longstanding interest in women in history. I have written many poems about the strong, working-class women in my family going back to my great-grandmother, Matilda Ottley (nee Walker), and extending into the present to include my daughter, Matilda Ottley-Smith. My current project is a collection centreing women in history, both the famous and the unknown. At present, I have eighteen poems including St Joan, Elizabeth Barton, Juana of Castile, and, in the 8th century, Queen Eadburh, Wife to Beorhtric King of Wessex. My short fiction tends to be rooted in a kernel of ‘truth’ which may or may not be historical. For example, in The Long March Home Jiang Qing, better known as Madame Mao, reflects on her long life and her relationship with Chairman Mao prior to committing suicide by hanging. Her death occurred in the bathroom of the hospital where she was being treated for throat cancer.
What is your favourite TV moment of all time?
I haven’t owned a television for more than ten years, although I do occasionally watch films and tv dramas on my laptop. My all-time favourite television series, though, was, and probably still is, I Claudius with Derek Jacobi.
Are there any habits you wish you didn’t have?
The habit of self-denigration. I grew up in a world in which little was expected of working-class girls except that they should first find a nice husband and then settle down to the serious business of raising a family. It was clear quite early on in my life that I was never going to fit comfortably into this pattern but to have aspirations for a life outside it was seen as a species of awkwardness. If you were born poor and a girl, getting a decent education was much, much harder then and obstacles and put-downs were par for the course. That being the case, I found it difficult to build my confidence. Another aspect of my experience that fed into this was being a survivor of early sexual abuse and extreme male violence.
If you could commit the perfect murder where would you hide the body?
On both sides, my family is mainly composed of Londoners. On my mother’s side, the links are with South London goings back to the early eighteenth century. On my father’s side, the link is more with the East End of London, with my grandfather, Percival Tallett being born a true Cockney. As a result, when I was growing up, the names Richardson and Kray were very familiar to me, as was the expression to wear a concrete overcoat. Stories about the victims of gang warfare who were supposed to be buried in concrete under the M25 and sundry other local building sites were rife through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Out of respect for the boys in my old manor, I am going to say that I would look for a major construction job that involved going deep, like a bridge, a flyover, or a multi-story car park. I would seek to ensure that the body was deposited there immediately prior to the tipping of the concrete. My grandfather, the Percival mentioned earlier, used to work for a company in Purfleet that produced cement.