Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Questions and answers

  
 
 
What is your earliest memory?
 
A car journey when I was four years old. I grew up in Orpington, Kent, and our family were driving back home after a visit to pedigree poodle breeding kennels near Tunbridge Wells. We had bought a miniature poodle pup. We called him Kimmings. He was officially a silver poodle, but when very young he was black. I have a vivid memory of sitting behind the front passenger seat craning my neck in excitement to look at my mother in front, with this tiny bundle of black wool on her lap – our new puppy. I was fascinated by him and couldn’t take my eyes off him.
 
 
 
 
Any other outstanding memories?
 
Yes, Kimmings went on to live for 15 years as our much-loved family pet. He came on every holiday with us and I have video footage of him barking at shadows, lying exhausted at the top of  Welsh mountains, and standing with his head out of an open car window, enjoying the feeling of his long ears streaming in the wind. He was put to sleep by the vet when I was aged 19 – he had cataracts in both eyes and kidney failure. I was told of his death by my father Ken while we had lunch together in the flat above our family toolmerchant shop in Woolwich High Street, A.D. Skillman. Dad told me that Mum had just rung to give him the sad news – she had taken Kimmings to the vet to be put to sleep. I was eating at the time, and then I knew what it meant for food to “turn to ashes” in your mouth. Later, I wrote an In Memoriam for Kimmings (which I still have amongst my juvenilia). I also refused to allow his bed to be used by our cat Sukie, and insisted that it be destroyed instead, because it belonged to Kimmings and we would be betraying him if we allowed any other animal to use it.
 
  
 
 
 
Which books did you love reading as a child?
 
The stories of Mary Plain by Gwynedd Rae – a little bear born in the Bearpit at Berne in Switzerland who is found and adopted by a man she calls The Owl Man because of the glasses he wears, and she is taken by him on a journey including a stay in a hotel where she also meets The Fur Coat Lady. Other favourite books in my childhood were Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, an Australian children’s story, as well as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. All of these books I thought witty, brilliant and imaginative. The adventure stories of Enid Blyton were among my top favourites too. And certain beloved books I have read over and over again: Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis, Heidi by Joanna Spyri, The Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge. Among the most thrilling books I’ver ever read is King Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard. I also enjoyed the books of Monica Dickens: e. g. My Turn to Make the Tea and the stories of how she tried her hand at a career in nursing and a career as a new reporter. Again I found her a very funny writer, and one who described her experiences in ways I could identify with. In addition poetry was very important to me, especially the poems of Walter De La Mare and narrative poems like The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes and The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have long loved Shakespeare’s sonnets and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later I discovered the Liverpool Poets – Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. I admired their poetry in print and at public readings.
 
 
 
What made you want to be a writer?
 
When I was a child I read Enid Blyton, and her fiction inspired me to write children’s adventures stories like her. I wrote many, but none ever made it publication. I particularly enjoyed the Famous Five books and also The Castle of Adventure and The Island of Adventure. I suppose I identified with different aspects of Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and Timothy the dog. The love of writing that Enid Blyton first instilled into me has never left me, but only strengthened over the years. I am that annoying person at workshops and conferences who always sits there with a notebook apparently writing down everything that’s said, but in reality recording all the names of the other people on the workshop together with whatever personal snippets of information they share about themselves.
 
 
 
 
 
Which authors have influenced you?
 
I have loved many books in my life, but the ones that stand out for me all seem to have three ingredients: archetypal themes, emotional charge and X factor.
 
Some have the power to shock and electrify the reader: authors such as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Shusaku Endo. Others have characters that haunt you through the years: Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, Cathy and Heathcliffe, Lizzy Bennett and Darcy, Pip and Estella; perhaps Bathsheba from Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd  or Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray; or the master-criminal Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, or maybe Dorothea in George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Nicholas Darrow in Susan Howatch’s Mystical Paths.
 
And I also favour authors who are witty, perceptive and brilliantly funny – like P.G. Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, David Lodge, Jerome K. Jerome, Dodie Smith, Stella Gibbons and Jilly Cooper. I respond to authors whose work shows warmth and compassion, such as Katie Fforde and Joanna Trollope, or those who sail to the furthest reaches of the human psyche, such as Iris Murdoch or Susan Howatch. And among my most-loved books are those which tell of a small person harnessing the power of loyalty, friendship and love to overcome great odds – JK. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I have marveled, too, at the imaginative fireworks in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
 
Finally, as a postscript to this, I remember a line from Virginia Woolf’s essay How Should One Read a Book? “I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns…The Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”
 
 
 
 
What were your previous jobs?
 
I have worked in admin in the following places: in London – BBC Schools Radio, the British Council Visitors Department, the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, Queen Mary College, University of London, and the Church Mission Society. In Kent – the Chairman’s office at the Kent Messenger, and the European School of Osteopathy. In Australia – the University of Queensland and the Brisbane City Council. In Warwickshire – the University of Warwick, the Church Pastoral Aid Society, Social Services, and the NHS – far too many to contemplate, and these don’t include all my various temp jobs.
 
I once had a temp assignment with a company which lost its opportunity to change the course of history – a firm in Tunbridge Wells which supplied ceiling tiles and partitions to the Middle East, and which had supplied and fitted a suspended ceiling to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces just before the Gulf War. One of the directors said to me, “We should have installed a device up there which emitted a poison gas…” They were subsequently to discover how they might have changed the course of world history over the next two decades.
 
On another occasion, whilst working as a shop assistant at Swan & Edgar department store in Piccadilly Circus during the Christmas rush, I accidentally threw the till off the counter onto the floor. The impact reverberated around the entire festive gifts department. My line manager, a prototype for Mr Humphries, picked it up and replaced it on the counter with smoothness and panache, and said to me, “Don’t you like this till?” We then carried on serving customers as if nothing had happened. 
 
 
 
What was the first job you ever had?
 
At the age of fifteen, I took a school holiday job on the assembly line at Morphy Richards factory in St Mary Cray, Kent. I was one of the team making pop-up toasters. My job was to put the spring in that actually created the “pop-up”. Despite the fact that I had been given a dexterity test before getting the job, every so often I lost my grip on the springs and they would ping across the aisle, in through the entrance to the ladies toilets.
 
 
 
 
What are the best and the worst jobs you’ve ever had?
 
The best was at the BBC, where I worked with lively and witty producers, presenters, broadcasters, scriptwriters, actors, studio managers and all kinds of creative people and had great fun recording programmes both in studio and on location.
 
The worst was a job as a temp at a company called “Imported Meat Trades Ltd” (I’m a vegetarian). After the first day I was asked not to come back again.
 
 
What are your favourite things?
 
Radio programme              Radio 4: The Today Programme with John
                                                Humphreys
                                                Radio 4: Just a Minute with Nicholas Parsons
 
TV programme                    Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman
 
TV drama series                 Doctor Who
                                                Sherlock
                                                Merlin
                                                Outnumbered
 
TV sitcom                             Only Fools and Horses
                                                The Vicar of Dibley
 
Films                                      Notting Hill
                                                The King’s Speech,
                                                Nativity!
                                                Avatar
 
Songs                                   Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields by the Beatles
 
Songwriters                        John Lennon and Paul McCartney
 
TV Personalities                Dawn French, Stephen Fry, James May, Jeremy
                                               Clarkson, Richard Hammond
 
Books                                  Crime and Punishment by F. Dostoyevsky
                                               Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
 
Colour                                  Blue – lapis lazuli
 
Stage Musicals                  Oliver!
                                               The Phantom of the Opera
                                               Les Miserables
                                               The Wizard of Oz
 
Screenplay writer              Richard Curtis
 
Dogs                                     Miniature poodles and golden retrievers
 
Food                                     I’m vegetarian, but curiously enough the best meal
                                               I’ve ever tasted involved Kalamari. It was served
                                               with Greek salad and washed down with
                                               Domestika and followed by slices of Karpoozi
                                               (water-melon). The reason why it is outstanding in
                                               my memory is probably because of the ambiance,
                                               climate and location of the meal: a water-front
                                               taverna in the Greek coastal town of Oropos, north
                                               of Athens.
 
Music                                    Beethoven, Mozart and Bach
                                               The Protecting Veil by John Taverner
                                               Divenire and Nightbook by Ludovico Einaudi
                                               Blessings and Journeys by the Northumbria
                                               Community
                                               The Book of Kells by Iona
                                               The Blessing Tree by Philip Riley and Jayne
                                               Elleson
 
 
 
 
How did you get your ideas for Mystical Circle?  What inspired you?
 
My ideas came from various family relationships and many different people I’ve met over the years. These inspired me for the father son relationship in my novel, and also that between the two sisters.
 
The Cotswolds location for Mystical Circles was inspired by three places. Firstly Totleigh Barton at Sheepwash, near Beauworthy in Devon where I once attended a five day Arvon Foundation poetry course: it boasted a monk’s room, as does the farmhouse in my novel. Also the diverse group of students on the course inspired me for the group dynamics of my story.  Secondly my imagination was fired by the Lygon Arms Hotel in Broadway in the Cotswolds, a wonderful setting for a psychological thriller. My favourite piece of research involved afternoon tea there. The manager took us for a tour of the most historical rooms in the hotel including the Cromwell Room. The owners of the inn were neutral during the English Civil War and thus hosted guests on both sides of the conflict. I used some of the details of the interiors here in my descriptions of Craig’s farmhouse. And thirdly, for the setting of Mystical Circles, although I ultimately chose the Cotswolds as my favoured location, I was also inspired by a farmhouse near the Forest of Orleans in France owned by the eccentric uncle of my then boyfriend, Juan. We visited Juan’s uncle there several years ago. This uncle (now deceased) was a colourful character who had fought on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War, spent a few years in jail after the war ended, and later fled to Paris after dealing in contraband. When I met him, he displayed a love of practical jokes, leaving plastic rats and spiders for me to find in odd corners. He also owned a parrot, which I came upon by surprise in his sitting room, exactly as I describe Juliet coming upon the gold and blue macaw in my novel.
 
Finally, my own spiritual journey has been a lifelong quest; and I feel the Cotswolds as a place is very spiritual.
 
 
 
How long did it take you to write?
 
Mystical Circles has taken me about six years to write if you include detailed research, seeking feedback from consultant editors and literary friends and various rewrites as the story has evolved.
 
 
 
Have you ever joined any mystical circles yourself, or sat at the feet of a guru?
 
Yes; in the past I did occasionally live a life somewhat akin to that of  a ‘spiritual gypsy’. I went from door to door (metaphorically) with sprigs of heather and pegs, gathering whatever charms and potions the gurus had promised me…
 
My experiences of hunting in ‘Guru Land’ led me from the insights of the late Laurens Van Der Post and the inspirational writings of the late Dr Raynor Johnson via a mystical mountain in the Himalayas (Mount Neelkanth near Badrinath) to a dream yoga course in Brisbane Forest Park.
 
I lived in Bayswater in London for eight years and during my time there I attended courses and lectures at the Theosophical Society in Gloucester Place, and investigated spiritualism at the Spiritualist Association in Belgrave Square and at the White Eagle Lodge, Kensington. I also became a member of the Centre for Spiritual & Psychological Studies which met at the Royal Overseas League, St James’s Street and spent a weekend with the group at Hawkwood College near Stroud in Gloucestershire. I additionally studied the teachings of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh at his Body Centre in Belsize Park and at his Hertfordshire branch Medina Rajneesh. In both places I experienced Dynamic Meditation and his own brand of group therapy.
 
While working at Queen Mary College, University of London, in the Mile End Road, I went regularly to chanting and meditation sessions held at the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order based in Bethnal Green, and lunched daily at their vegetarian restaurant. During a weekend Buddhist retreat in a school on the south east coast of England, I was told, ‘If you’ve been searching all your life but have never found what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.’
 
I lived in Brisbane, Australia, for four years and during that time I went to classes in human potential and personal growth at the Relaxation Centre of Queensland run by the charismatic Lionel Fifield.  Elsewhere in Brisbane, I also tried the isolation tank, and past life visualisation using crystals.
 
My most quirky New Age experience was in Australia, walking backwards through the rainforest as part of a residential Dream Yoga weekend held at Cosmos Lodge, Mount Nebo, Brisbane Forest Park.  It was on this occasion that the course leader, a dream interpretation guru called Greg, spoke the memorable words: ‘If you master the art of lucid dreaming, death will be a breeze.’ He also stated,’Knowledge is like a Mars Bar – a little of it is wonderful but too much of it won’t do you any good at all.’
 
But ‘the past is another country; they do things differently there’ (with acknowledgement to Scott Fitzgerald in his novel ‘The Great Gatsby’). I am now a Christian; even so, all the experiences I’ve described above have enriched me, and I wouldn’t want to have missed any of them. 
 
And as a postscript, more recently, my work in a local community mental health team in Leamington Spa enabled me to consolidate my experience in the rich and fertile fields of bizarre phone calls with clients. This experience has also had some useful input into my novel Mystical Circles.
 
 
 
What’s the appeal of some of these spiritual groups and mystical circles?
 
In the words of Theo, one of my characters: I believe people want to experience the spiritual reality here on earth in their own bodies… they want to say, not ‘I believe’ but ‘I know.’ That was certainly how I felt when I was trying out these groups. 
 
 
 
 
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer?
 
Read a lot, listen to people’s conversations, closely observe every aspect of their personalities, be fascinated by human behaviour and interaction in groups, and be persistent, stubborn, single-minded to the point of obsession…never give up, always believe in yourself despite all evidence to the contrary, and hold out for what you first dreamed of.

Comments on: "Questions and answers" (2)

  1. […] For anyone with spiritual yearnings, Susan Howatch’s books are manna for the soul. And I am one of those. […]

  2. […] It seems that they may be few and far between. But I’ll be happy for you to prove me wrong! Find out here about other books I love. Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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