Today it's my pleasure to introduce to you writer Louise Beech whose debut novel How to Be Brave was published as a paperback last week, eBook earlier in the year.
Your novel How To Be Brave is based on a true story – or at least, a series of true stories. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
When my ten-year-old daughter Katy, who has Type 1 Diabetes, began rejecting her life-saving insulin injections it was a horrendous time for all of us. I had no idea what to do. Then I began telling her stories in exchange for her having an injection. When we ran out of tales, I told her the true story of my grandfather, a merchant seaman called Colin Armitage, who was lost at sea for fifty days during the war. His bravery inspired Katy’s and she has never rejected her regime since. In the novel I created a fictional mum and daughter, but I tried to stick to the truth when telling Colin’s amazing story.
Was it difficult to use personal experiences, or did it make the writing easier?
It was incredibly emotional. I faced many tears that I hadn’t realised I’d kept bottled up since Katy was diagnosed with her condition. It made the writing therefore both easier (since the material was so close to my heart) and harder (for the same reason.)
Were you worried about what your family and friends would think? What does your daughter, who partly inspired the novel, feel about having her experience mirrored in a book?
I was definitely concerned that I did all the real life characters in the novel justice. I spoke with relatives and met up with the daughter of one of the other men on the lifeboat. I also did an immense amount of reading and research too, using old newspaper cuttings, letters sent to Colin, and books. My daughter is very proud of the book, but being a ‘funny age’ (thirteen when I wrote it!) she didn’t want the little girl to be her – as in identical – or called Katy. I was happy to honour that.
This is a literary novel, with beautiful writing, but it is also more accessible than many novels in this genre. Some people have suggested that it would also appeal to a YA audience. What are your thoughts?
Thank you so much for your kind words. Curious that you should say that my writing is accessible as my sister once said, in her wonderful quirky way, that I ‘write clever stuff for everyday folk’. It isn’t a calculated thing. I just try my best to enjoy the beauty of language, but try never to let that suffocate or block a good, honest story. I’d be overjoyed if the YA audience wanted to read the novel. Such a clever bunch of readers. I think the story of a young girl struggling with a challenge in life might speak directly to any young person.
When did you start writing How To Be Brave and how long did it take to get published?
I finished How to be Brave (or at least the first draft) in April 2014. Karen (of Orenda Books) read it during December 2014 and offered me a book deal 9th February 2015. I had been trying to get published with previous novels since about 2009, so it’s been a long, long journey, with many tears and rejections. But I never gave up. And I had such a good feeling about How to be Brave.
Can you describe How To Be Brave in one sentence?
It is a book that (hopefully) tells a human story of bravery with which we can all identify.
You’ve been a writer for quite some time, winning many short-story competitions. Was it difficult to write something longer?
It felt natural to move into a longer work. A bit scary though, yes. A challenge but one I was so excited to try. I have always known that one day I had to write about Colin’s incredible tale of survival, and I think I’ve been working up to it for years, learning through every piece, long and short, that I’ve written.
Tell us about your publishing experience. Was it what you expected, hoped for?
Karen (of Orenda Books) completely gets me and the book. She’s as passionate as I am about it, and that’s all I have ever wanted from a publisher. Where other agents/publishers had said they didn’t quite know what niche the novel was, or what bookshelf/genre it belonged on/in, Karen is only interested in books she loves. And isn’t that really all that matters?
Do you have designated writing hours, or can you fit it around your home/work life?
I’m lucky enough to have an accommodating family, and to work mostly evenings and weekends (as a theatre usher) so I get chance to write in peace during week days. I do tend to write first thing in a morning. My brain is more active then. I awake ready to go. But I can fit around anything.
Tell us a bit about YOU! How do you spend your days, how does your family fit in around writing?
I absolutely love my job as theatre usher – I get to see such a diverse mix of plays, and it’s very inspiring as a writer. I’m also part of the breakfast show on BBC Radio Humberside – there are four of us, called the Mums’ Army, and we chat about a variety of topics each week. I love seeing friends and family, adore travelling when I get chance (I used to be a travel agent and it’s stayed with me), and of course writing. I’m always writing, even if it’s only in my head while I pass time on the bus.
Have you treated yourself to something special to celebrate publishing your debut novel?
I actually haven’t but my lovely husband Joe has. He very thoughtfully bought me a gorgeous ring and bracelet, so that my ‘hands look nice’ when I sign copies of the book.
Did you wonder whether using personal experiences would ‘use up’ your storytelling, or is there much more to come?
A lot of my writing has come from personal experience. I’ve written short stories that were inspired by my childhood, by the time our house was flooded in 2017, by my volunteer experience. But everything inspires me, not only my own life – a view, overhearing a passing conversation, an odd coincidence in life that lends itself to something poetic. There’s definitely plenty more to come.
Were you worried about early reviews? And excited when they were so positive?
I was super nervous. I’m very self-critical, which is a very good thing for editing and not stopping work until a piece is perfect, but not so good when it comes to worrying about everything. When I first read some early reviews – especially where readers said they had cried – and they were good, I was overjoyed. It’s all about reaching out to people. Writing something that touches them lets them escape for a while, or inspires.
I’m editing a novel I wrote before How To Be Brave. Another personal one, inspired in part by a youngster in the care system who I did voluntary work with. I also have an idea and a few notes for another book percolating away, something a little different to these, maybe a little darker. We’ll see. There’ll always be another thing to write.
This is a novel about how stories bring magic to our lives. Natalie and Rose are transported to the Atlantic Ocean in 1943, to a lifeboat where an ancestor survived for fifty days. Natalie struggles when nine-year-old daughter Rose is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and refuses her life-saving injections and blood tests. When they begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar they realise he has something for them - his diary. Only by using her imagination, newspaper clippings, letters and this diary will Natalie share the true story of Grandad Colin's survival at sea, and help her daughter cope with her illness and, indeed, survive.