On Saturday 14th October WAMfest offered us a feast of writing from local women, ranging widely in theme and narrative style. The literary day started with a discussion of young adult writing, led by Liz Rastrick, and featured two local authors with very contrasting books. Potkin and Stubbs, written by Sophie Green, has been described as neo-noir. It features the adventures of Lil, a thirteen year old girl and a would-be investigative writer and her ghostly companion Nedly; it is set in bleak, dank, corrupt Peligan City. In contrast, The Other Side of the Whale, written by A H Hayton, is set in the Suffolk countryside. The protagonist is a teenage boy, Joss, who is sent to foster parents in Hoxne when his troubled mother accidentally burns down their Ipswich home. Then, following an accident, Joss is magically transported back in time to Anglo-Saxon England.
Both writers commented on young readers’ relish for gore: the grittiness of noir and the brutality of Anglo Saxon times. Sophie commented that she balances the spookiness with humour. Both authors did extensive research but agreed on the need for this not to intrude, ‘not to parade your knowledge’. For both, the narrative is character driven, the characters’ motivation, hopes and dreams carry the story.
The lunchtime session was led by Ruth Dugdall, who introduced four local, independently published authors, with very diverse stories. Belinda Rose Bond wrote her debut novel in lockdown. She set out to write about her mother and grandmother, both born in Rangoon. What started as recording family history evolved to become a fictionalised story of her family, immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of Rangoon. Caroline Goldsworthy started her writing career writing psychological thrillers. Her first book, Tangent, focussed on the 2006 Ipswich murders. More recently, she has been writing cosy thrillers; as she says, ‘for my own sanity’. The fourth writer, Jackie Carriera, has written plays, novels and short stories. For her, writing is a quest, an exploration of human nature.
The large conservatory at Harvest House was bathed in hot sunshine for the early afternoon session, as Amanda Hodgkinson talked to Polly Crosby and Kate Worsley about their recent books, both set in or near huge glass buildings. Polly Cosby discussed Vita and the Birds, set on the Suffolk Coast in the 1930s and the 1990s. The earlier character, Vita, unhappy and trapped in her large house with its grand conservatory, meets and befriends Dodie, an artist and a free spirit. In 1997 Dodie’s granddaughter, Eve, returns to the coast where she had spent childhood summers with her grandmother. She finds a bundle of letters that lead her to a story that overturns what she thought she knew about her family. Kate Worsley’s novel Foxash is also set in the 1930s and is narrated by Lettie Radley, the wife of an out-of-work miner from County Durham who moves near Manningtree to take part in a Government scheme to put the unemployed to work on the land. They move to a smallholding in the Essex village of Foxash and the narrative emerges from there, as they grow their commercial plants in the enclosed world of the glasshouse. Outside is the wild countryside where they do not belong.
Amanda points out similarities in the books and common themes. There is a strong sense of place and space in both and of the importance of the landscape. Also, in both cases, the protagonists are isolated from the community. In particular, the main characters in Foxash are uprooted, not welcomed by the locals: they are in the country but not of it. Interestingly, Kate says that for her, ‘from the landscape come the characters’, and Polly agrees. This contrasts with the approach of the morning authors for whom the characters are central.
A couple of themes recurred throughout the day. One was the effect of lockdown, which varied depending on where people were in the writing process. For some, it was an opportunity to begin writing for the first time. Others found that the writing offered an escape from the tedium and anxiety of the pandemic. But, for those about to launch their new book, lockdown closed everything down, as public engagements and school visits were abruptly cancelled.
Another theme was the reluctance of women to produce published work. Women can be slow to believe that what they do is valid, that anyone would want to read what they have written, that they have the right to have their words published. The value of writing courses and writing groups was emphasised, offering a supportive network. Events like WAMfest also play their part, affirming those women who have been published, while inspiring and encouraging others to do the same.