Sunday, 24 April 2016

Debut Spotlight: Lesley Allen

April is certainly turning out to be the month of debut authors and today I'm delighted to introduce you to another, Lesley Allen whose debut novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir was published earlier this month by Twenty7 Books. 

Lesley Allen lives in Bangor, County Down, with her teenage daughter. She is a freelance copywriter and the press officer and assistant programme developer for Open House Festival. Following the completion of her degree in Drama and English, Lesley spent several years working in PR and marketing before embarking on a freelance career. Whilst crafting words for other people has been her bread and butter for the past two decades, her heart lies with writing fiction. 

Lesley was named as one of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's 2016 Artist Career Enhancement recipients for literature. She is using the award to complete her second novel.

Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir?
Biddy Weir is a shy young loner who lives a solitary existence with her old-fashioned, emotionally crippled father. She is happy to exist in her own wee world, sketching seagulls and examining bird poo – until she is branded a ‘Bloody Weirdo’ by the most popular girl in her primary school. What follows is a heart-breaking tale of bullying and redemption, which spans from the late 1970s to 2000. Set in a fictional seaside town in Northern Ireland, the novel is a stark illustration of the extent to which bullying can affect us all, hitting home the uncomfortable truth that beyond victim and perpetrator, those who are passive witnesses play their own unwitting part in the ensuing damage. Spare, dark and often unrelenting, Biddy’s is a story with universal appeal, which ultimately affirms the value of being different.

Bullying is such a hot and emotive topic, what inspired you to choose this as the subject for your debut novel? 
I didn’t consciously set out to write a novel about bullying, but thinking back on it, I suspect my subconscious had been at work for a while. I remember being in a shopping centre one day, and spotting a girl who had been in my year at school. She looked exactly the same as she did when she was fourteen/fifteen – same closely cropped hair, same thick tan tights, same saggy cardigan and knee-length tweed skirt. At school, the teenage years had seemed to bypass her completely. She was a loner, who wore very old fashioned, dowdy clothes and wandered around with her head bent low. When I saw her at the shopping centre we were in our early forties, but she could have been in her sixties. I couldn’t get her out of my head, and began to think of other women I’d encountered over the years who didn’t necessarily conform to the idea of being ‘normal’, many of whom seemed to be stuck in time. Around the same time, I became aware of some bullying that was going on in my daughter’s class at primary school. I witnessed one little girl whispering vile threats to another (who was timid and sweet) during a school outing, then my daughter herself experienced some unpleasant behaviour from a girl in her class, as well as another child who lived just around the corner. The girls were all around seven or eight years old, and it was so shocking and upsetting. Then one day this character literally popped into my head, demanding to tell me her story. At first I thought she was called Bunty Walker, but I knew she’d been badly bullied at school and I wrote a short story about her quest for revenge. I couldn’t leave her alone, though, and kept editing the story, and adding bits on. Then I realised that she was actually called Biddy Weir, and she wasn’t looking for revenge at all – she just wanted someone to talk to. So I let her talk, and I kept writing down what she had to say - until one day I realised, with some surprise, that I was actually writing a novel. As a nod to the original character, I briefly introduce a Bunty Walker towards the end of the book. 

Ringing into a TV show to reveal something so personal seems quite drastic. Was Biddy at that end point where she had no other choice or someone to turn to?
I don’t want to give too much away, but it was more about taking control for once in her life. Calling the show was a very spur of the moment decision for Biddy – albeit one she made a few hours before she picked up the phone. And it was totally out of character. In all of the time she had watched Honey’s Pot, she never, ever could have imagined making such a call. But the day she did, she was actually in the best place she had ever been – both emotionally and physically. Cove Cottage made her feel very safe, and unusually invigorated. She still didn’t know exactly what she was going to say if she got through, she just wanted to be brave for once in her life: shake off the pain she’d been carrying for over twenty years.

Were there any books you read while writing this book that helped with your research or did you talk to people who have experienced bullying?
I didn’t do any specific research – however if I came across a magazine or newspaper article on the subject of bullying I would sometimes cut it out. I guess over the years there have been books I’ve read or films I’ve watched in which a manipulative bully plays an integral part in the plot, which may have subliminally helped me - from Carrie to Mean Girls, and Lord of the Flies to Simon Lelic’s brilliant Rupture. But on the whole, the bullying that Biddy encounters at the hands of Alison and her friends is based on personal memories of my own schooldays and observations from the past fourteen years my daughter has been at school. I’m certainly not saying that either of us ever encountered anything like Biddy did – not even close. But I still remember being made to feel inadequate and getting cold-shouldered by certain girls throughout my school years, and I’ve witnessed many occasions when my daughter has been belittled or shunned by one or two girls in her year group. Girls can be utter horrors at times! 

What is your opinion on the way bullying is handled these days especially as it is such an ongoing topic in schools and on the net? 
I think one of the messages I hope my novel delivers is that bullying is not a modern phenomenon invented by the youth of today. It is often portrayed as a scourge of today’s social-media society by both the press and anyone older than the internet-age generation – but it has always been a human failing, and it always will be. Of course because of social media, mobile phones and the internet, bullying today is a 24/7 business. At least Biddy had periods of respite after school, at weekends and during the holidays, but whether they are seven, seventeen or seventy, people being bullied today have no escape.  

Despite the fact that bullying is in the news and in our faces on a constant, regular basis, I think that in general, schools and businesses still tend to stick their heads in the sand, and most social media outlets blatantly shirk their responsibilities. And, of course, bullies are not just confined to childhood. If a young bully isn’t nipped in the bud, it will often thrive and flourish into a big grown-up bully, with even more power and even more lackeys on hand, and an even greater propensity to harm others. We all know a few – don’t we?

What message about bullying and getting through the rough times to emerge a more positive person do you wish readers to take from this book? 
I suppose the number one thing would be to tell someone; to confide in someone you trust. This can be as hard to do as enduring the torment itself, but nothing will be resolved until you can find a way to talk about it. And if you can’t actually voice the words, write them down. Don’t worry about your spelling, or your vocabulary – just write down one word, and then another and another, until you have enough words to form the truth you need to tell. It could be one sentence, or an essay; a short story or a whole book – but when you’ve written your words, show them to someone. 

One of the other issues addressed in the book is bystander apathy: the fellow pupils, and teachers, and neighbours who suspect something is amiss, or witness episodes of bullying, or know that Biddy needs help, but either can’t be bothered to intervene or are too frightened to stand up to Alison. If even one person reading the book identifies with this and reaches out in some small way to a friend or colleague or acquaintance they know is being bullied, then Biddy will have accomplished something quietly special. 

If you had to describe Biddy in three words, what would they be?
I guess it depends on whether we’re talking about young Biddy, teenage Biddy, or the Biddy we meet in the prologue and then again in the second part of the book. Overall I suppose I would say she is introverted, loyal, and, yes, probably a little bit weird. But aren’t we all in our own peculiar way?

What do you think the book would have turned out like if it had been written from Alison's perspective?
Gosh, what an interesting question. Maybe I should find out! I do remember reading This Perfect World by Suzanne Bulger during one of my many edits. It is written from the perspective of a woman with a seemingly perfect life who, out of the blue, encounters the girl she tormented at school – and has to face the consequences of her actions all those years ago. Without giving too much away, Bulger’s character, Laura, does have some redeeming qualities, whereas Alison, I fear, has none. 

Are you working on a new book?  If so, are you able to tell us anything about it?
Yes, I am, the working title of which is The Possibilities of Elizabeth. It’s narrated by a young woman called Elizabeth Rose who lies in a coma, the result of a car crash which may or may not have been an attempt to end her own life. She can’t remember. She does know that with no family (they’re all dead) and no friends (they’ve all given up on her) her life was barely worth living at the time of the accident, but isn’t sure if she deliberately drove her car into a brick wall to end it, or not. As she adjusts to her comatose state, Elizabeth realises that she has a second chance, another opportunity to either live or die. It’s her decision. In a series of trips to scenes from her past, versions of her younger self help Elizabeth to make up her mind, revealing a shocking family secret in the process.   

How did your writing journey start?
I’ve always loved writing and as a child harboured dreams of becoming a novelist. But once I started my working life, the words I wrote were directed by clients and controlled by professional constraints. So I tucked the dream in under a rib close to my heart for safekeeping. As I approached my 40th birthday, I decided that I didn’t want to be approaching my 50th without at least trying to see if I was capable of writing words that weren’t just client copy, so I dug the dream out and joined a creative writing group. I was utterly terrified to begin with and vividly remember the first exercise we were set by the teacher: to write a 100-word story in just 15 minutes which must include five given words. I thought I was going to melt in a pool of anxiety sweat. But I did it, and the sense of relief and exhilaration I felt at simply completing this basic task was overwhelming. That was my beginning. It’s been long, bumpy journey, but 13 years my novel – the seeds of which were sown in that writing class – is finally getting published.  The other day I wrote ‘Author’ as my profession on an official form, and I nearly wet myself with glee! 

Has your experience as a press officer and copywriter helped with the writing/editing process?
Hmm – you’d think so, wouldn’t you? I sometimes wonder if my work has been more of a hindrance than a help though as I have a tendency to over-edit as I go along, rather than just let the story spill out, then go back to the beginning and start on a second draft. The constant editing approach is imperative for my copywriting, but is a really bad habit when it comes to writing my fiction. I’m trying very hard to break the habit with my second novel. (Probably not hard enough, though!)

Did you treat yourself to something special to celebrate your publishing deal with Twenty7 Books?  
A bottle of very good champagne! I do plan to buy a painting though, something that will forever more remind me of my debut deal. I just haven’t found The One yet!

Finally have you anything exciting planned to celebrate publication day? 
Well, I have another bottle of very good champagne already chilling in the fridge! I’m saving my launch party for the paperback publication in the autumn, but I’m going for a celebration dinner with some lovely colleagues, and I’m having lunch with my daughter and my agents a couple of days later. It’s not all about food and champagne though! I’ll also set aside some time on the day to go for a long walk along the costal path where I live, and quietly contemplate this momentous day in my life. 

A stark but uplifting story of bullying and redemption, for anyone who's ever been a weirdo

Almost too terrified to grip the phone, Biddy Weir calls a daytime television show.

The subject is bullying, and Biddy has a story to tell.

Abandoned by her mother as a baby, and raised by a father with no time for the problems of puberty, Biddy lives in her own little world, happy to pass her time watching the birds - until Alison Fleming joins her school.

Popular and beautiful, but with a dangerous, malevolent streak, Alison quickly secures the admiration of her fellow students. All except one. And Alison doesn't take kindly to people who don't fit her mould . . .

Tragic, yet uplifting, and startlingly honest, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir is a story of abuse and survival, of falling down and of starting again, and of one woman's battle to learn to love herself for who she is.  

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