As you know, The Aesthetica Creative Works Competition is now open for Entries, and it’s the only UK competition to support both creative writing and artwork.
We’ve decided to catch up with last year’s Fiction Winner, Louise Beech. Her story, Learning to Breath, is a harrowing and gripping account, told from the point of view of a young girl, Kate. It’s a layered story that unfolds within the wide manifestations of what it means to escape. Judged by Rachel Hazelwood, while the other two winners were Shadric Toop (Art, Judge, Cherie Federico) and Sally Spedding (Poetry, Judge, Kate North).
We wanted to catch up with Louise and see what she’s been up since winning the Fiction Category in 2009. Remember Deadline for this year’s Competition is 31 August.
Q&A with Louise Beech
How has winning Aesthetica Creative Works Competition impacted your writing career so far?
I had my son Conor check the announcement, fearing I’d misread my name. He teased me, said, “No, it’s not you, mum.” I think this only added to the surprise and pride in having won, and the impact has stayed with me; I now boldly enter other competitions and brashly send work to ‘top end’ magazines. Winning gave me the kick I needed to send a play to the BBC and I received a rave review and a request for another. Aim high and really you never fail because you continuously push yourself.
Your stories are often about childhood. Do you think that your own childhood experiences have inspired themes in your writing?
Themes that mostly emerge in my writing are memory (both lack of and its power), family, survival, love, abuse, but above all hope. My own memory with regards childhood is cloudy – much blurs into fog and yet I recall random days in exquisite detail, events from as young as two-years-old. It was a chaotic youth. Both parents were at one time or another physically/emotionally absent due to mental illness, depression and alcoholism. Without my beloved siblings I’d not be who I am – an optimist. Whatever dark or controversial topics I broach in my fiction, I aim ultimately to uplift.
Water also is a distinctive motif in your writing. Can you explain why this is?
Water symbolises challenge to me. I almost drowned aged three. Our home was destroyed during the 2007 UK floods. My grandfather survived 50 days adrift at sea after his ship got torpedoed during the war – the book Man on a Raft/What Cares the Sea? by Kenneth Cooke (the only other survivor of this tragedy) tells the story of their battle. Water trickles into my fiction; a woman dealing with her childlessness aboard a cruise ship, a child escaping an abusive home life with the dolphins, a flood crisis centre’s drama.
At what age did you realise you wanted to write? Can you remember your earliest work?
I remember sitting in my father’s cross-legged lap while he tried to show me his guitar’s chords – he was a professional musician. My small fingers stumbled and he gave up and never tried teaching me again. I was three. His music sheets fascinated me, such strange language that translated into music. Around this time I also recall sitting in the back of our car, John Denver playing, imagining the passing trees as people, whispering their words. I hadn’t yet learnt the alphabet but created stories and scenarios all the time. I suppose a writer writes before they even can; one doesn’t need physical words. When I could physically write I penned my own sequel to the book Heidi, pictures included, just as my daughter now is creating her own version of Twilight, and which makes me smile lots and lots.
How did you begin writing for the Hull Daily Mail?
I’ve no ‘training’ as a writer, not been to university, so I knew I’d not be considered for a professional post. But in a flash of bravery I sent some reviews and articles to the editor. When he invited me to the office I joked with my husband that they probably wanted me to make tea; instead he asked if I might ‘write something every week’ and I said I could try. I clapped my hands in the lobby afterwards, much to the surprise of visitors! And so my Working Mum column began in 2002, exploring the trials and tribulations of being a modern parent. The first year I wrote it voluntarily, and have again since last January due to cutbacks, but writing has never been about money for me. As I often say, if I wanted heaps of money I’d have written myself bigger breasts and been a high class escort.
Has writing a column for the paper helped you to develop your fictional writing skills? Would you say there is an overlapping style between the two?
With the column there are restrictions – I’ve a deadline and I’ve to be aware of an audience and word length and such things as slander and advertising. But these boundaries have trained me well, made me mindful of the reader. While the column is light and simple and comic, in my fiction I can really let rip, exploring much darker themes and more complex styles. I tend to write for myself then, editing for an audience. I’d say the column is my public face and the fiction is my truth, which is kind of ironic since the column is factual and the stories are made up. But what really is the truth?
Learning to Breath has a distinctive style. How did you learn to develop and nurture this style? Have you been influenced by any other notable writers?
Learning to Breathe was inspired by a dream where my daughter, during her bath, swam away with the dolphins. The mood and tone came to me before any of the words – that it would have a water-like rhythm, swinging between past and present, life and fantasy, with no clear indication which was which. I found that long, rambling, waterfall sentences worked well, some forming entire paragraphs. Many writers have affected me. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak so engrossed me that when I looked up from reading our living room appeared momentarily alien and I couldn’t have told you my name. This is what I want from fiction – to be transported, inspired, changed. I love also John Irving’s language, Paul Theroux’ travelogues, Charlotte Bronte’s bravery, Yann Martel, Chris Cleave, Alice Sebold, and John Updike. I love discovering new writers quite by chance, like Robin Black, whose poetic interview in a magazine led me to buy her stunning short story collection; If I Loved You I Would Tell You This.
What advice would you give to other aspiring authors? Any tips on how to enter creative writing competitions?
I’ve read all kinds of well-worn tips – like write what you know – but I reckon you should just write what you love. Write first for yourself and worry about an audience later, while rereading and editing and perfecting. And never, ever think you can’t win a competition. You certainly won’t if you don’t bother submitting, but you just might if you do. I tend to seek competitions and magazines that fit my work rather than the other way around. By this I mean that I write what comes to me, with no market or gain in mind, and when I’m happy with the story I see if it has a style or theme some venue favours. This is how I believe you can be successful in this arena, though the truest success I find to be completing a piece I love.
You are currently working on a novel, can you give us any insight into this project?
I’ve finished The Art of Wishing and am presently sending it out to agents. This task is a far greater one the writing or editing part and you’ve to very thick-skinned when the rejections come thick and fast. It’s the hardest market to break. The novel is a tragic love story where the two main characters, Amy and Joe, discover too late that they are in fact sister and brother. It explores such issues as wishing versus logic, whether blood or circumstance makes us true relatives, and uses a poetic children’s story as backdrop to the main prose. When I wrote the final line – Lola slept on; Amy closed the book – I cried because it was over and I had to leave these characters I’d come to love. I guess I hope that one day some reader will feel this way too.
Where would you like to see yourself in ten years time?
I dream of seeing one of my novels on a shelf in Waterstones and going up to whichever poor creature happens to be nearby and poking them and saying, “That’s my bloody book!” I dream of hearing that some reader forgot their name while reading it. I dream that my father, wherever he is, might read it and be proud that I finally mastered the chords. I dream that my two children are doing well in the world and have found their instrument too.
Interview by Rachael Boon and Ruth Sweeny