This superhero plans a journey from Cornwall to Scotland with a string of pack ponies! Read on and find out more…
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
I clearly remember the first book I tried writing – it was called The Blue Roan Phantom. I was between 7 and 10 and horse mad. It was heavily based, to the point of plagiarism probably (or is that fanfiction thesedays??), on The Silver Brumby series by Eleyne Mitchell. I loved those books with all my heart and didn’t want the fun to stop, so I carried it on. I used a ye olde typewriter at my grandma’s house and illustrated the cover, which I can remember. It was never finished and unfortunately I believe is long gone now. I’ve tried for years to complete it in various guises but never managed it. I have an idea on the back burner but it is very much on the back burner.
The first book I published is my book of the most interesting and important bits of oxen-related history “Man’s Forgotten Friend: A History of the Ox”. When I got into oxen I was drinking up information about them and realised there was a lot out there which was fascinating but it was all buried and scattered and liable to be lost again. I like to think I dug it up and collated it and put in a readable format for future generations. I’m very proud of that. Oxen have been at our side for thousands of years and virtually built the world we live in but are all but forgotten in the West today. I hope somebody somewhere will read this book and think ‘cool’ and appreciate it! I didn’t write it as a best seller, just to get the knowledge out there.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
I don’t think I have one actually. Sometimes I have to act normal, to get a job for instance, but the truth normally outs at some point. I milk for the neighbours and you work on your own with another person in the parlour for 8hrs a day and you end up knowing pretty much everything about each other!
“So what do you like doing in your free time?” “Oh, you know, riding my steers in stunt shows…that sort of thing.” I’m not a quiet character, I’m curious and brave and bad at keeping my mouth shut. I always have the ‘life is short’ and ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’ sayings in the back of my mind and it encourages me to just get out there, do stuff, learn stuff while I have the chance. I’ve never really been fussed about the naysayers and see no need to hide anything.
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
My husband – his superpower is being strong and sure as rock. I’m something like a fire butterfly, burning from thing-to-thing, but he gives me the support and permanence I need, which enables me to be effective rather than just chaotic. He doesn’t change, keeps his cool at all times and having that yin-yang thing going on with us really seems to work well.
Where do you get your superpowers from?
My daughter changed my life (of course) and drives me onwards. My aim is to live on as a good memory in her and make her able to fulfill her dreams. I also always wanted to be like the adventurers I read about obsessively up until I had her but fear held me back and it was magnified when she was born; I had a massive attack of paranoia about all the bad things that can happen in the world which turned me into a bit of a gibbering wreck. My friend Shadiya snapped me out of it by telling me that due to having a child now the only adventuring I would be doing was in my armchair reading books.
I was so (internally) indignant about that idea I decided to ignore my paranoia and be braver than ever, and since then I’ve achieved a lot of things I had always wanted to and am tackling my adventurer dreams! I think a little dose of genetic crazy from my dad and grandmother helps, too.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
I suppose my whole farm is my secret lair, the place in the middle of nowhere where I have the space and permission to keep my animals and work on all my crazy projects…I live in a caravan/trailer and I own it and take care of it – my husband has no interest in what goes on indoors as long as he’s fed so anything goes! I’m currently enjoying making magical princess bedrooms and ‘Frozen’ themed dancing areas for my daughter. I don’t want to get my violin out but my childhood was a bit spartan so I’m possibly a bit obsessed with spoiling her! She’ll be a proper brat!
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?
Reading. I read so much as a child and I think it grew my vocabulary, fuelled my imagination and taught me the rules and conventions of writing by osmosis. I love to learn and one of my biggest joys is bingeing on non-fiction on amazon or in second hand bookshops. Fiction I’m more picky about, I read less of it and demand nothing short of perfection! I’m short of time to read these days and the temptation is always to reach for the nonfiction so i’m doing something useful with the time but time out to just read a really good story for no reason is important.
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
Green and brown, lots of well-worn leather and wool and probably a snazzy wide brimmed hat with an impressive feather in it – a bit like a musketeer or something! A practical-yet cool outfit for tramping about the world having adventures in, but looking good doing it.
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Boredom is my kryptonite. I can’t stand being bored, I literally start to go crazy. I’m on the go mentally and physically all the time but that’s the way I have to have it or I feel like I’m wasting the one precious life I have….
What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
The supervillian is distraction. I get triggered and enthused by lots of different things and when it happens I just want to throw everything else to the wall and dive into whatever I just discovered, and usually just finding this thing and liking it isnt enough, I have to *live* it and experience it *all*…NOW. That means lots of unfinished projects. I vanquished it and got ‘Bearnshaw’ written by carefully managing my life at the time. I knew I was working against the clock so I worked furiously and didn’t allow myself to watch any films or read any books that might take my attention away from the Wars of the Roses period!
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
That I have to be disciplined or things don’t get done. I have to make a conscious decision to stop myself being pulled away from my current project and I have to give myself a slap if I ‘don’t feel like’ getting on with a project, otherwise they drift onto the backburner and never get done… In the past I thought that I could only write when the muse struck me and then I’d go off the idea and come back to it when I felt like it, sometimes years later. And guess what? The books didn’t get finished!
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
I visited the site of Bearnshaw Tower which features in the book. It was pretty powerful because I had had the idea for the book based on the local legend for something like 14yrs. I knew the area concerned but had only driven past, never to the site itself. Going there made it really real and it’s a stunning, magical and so little-known place. Apart from that I think it really hit me that this this was a reality when it had all been done and I was looking at the digital proofs on Amazon. I self published my ox books which gave me the courage to go ahead and self publish my fiction, and now here was that 14yr old story, from a hundreds-of-years old legend, finally there in book form. I looked at the pages and saw the characters’ names and it had all come to life. Then I was thrilled to see the cover take shape and hold it in my hand – magic.
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I’m pretty happy with my new method of writing, it got me a novel from conception to published in 4 months. It was HARD work, but the job got DONE.
My writing style differs from many seemingly: I don’t write anything just to be writing and edit it later, I really carefully think about what I’m going to write so it’s all planned by the time I sit down to physically write, and I edit heavily as I go along. This means I don’t do many drafts and Bearnshaw needed little editing afterwards, which is great for me because I find the re-reading and re-drafting thing extremely tedious. If I change anything, next time I’ll be paying someone else to spot the typos!
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.
I vaguely remember hearing a famous author on Radio2 – I think it was the guy who wrote that book about the boy spy that’s a film now – and he was describing how he starts at 9 in his office and writes until 5 and really treats it like a job. I remember thinking ‘pffft! that sounds really soulless and wouldn’t work for me’ at the time, but it actually does work!
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
Because it’s a story that has stood the test of time for a reason. The Legend of the Milk White Doe which Bearnshaw: Legend of the Whyte Doe was based on grabs everyone who hears it, there’s just something very compelling about Sibyl Bearnshaw’s story. It worked really well with the tussles of the Wars of the Roses period and if my husband, a Yorkshireman who rarely smiles and NEVER reads fiction enjoyed it you know there must be something good about it!
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
Lots I am happy to say! I have Bearnshaw II to finish and I’ll be spending the summer milking a neighbour’s cows and riding my own cows in the stunt shows, but taking a couple of breaks to take my gypsy mare to the famous Appleby Fair and a special secret project with my oxen….I am also waiting for a harness I commissioned to be finished so that we can finish a documentary we’ve been working on about pulling a canal boat with an ox. As far as I know this will be the first time that’s been done in history and I’m not sure why because on the surface of it oxen are ideal for the work.
I wanted to know if it was purely fashion or some other practical reason why oxen didn’t make it onto the canals. My biggest project is one I call ‘When Engines Had Legs’ and it’s a journey I’ll be undertaking from Cornwall to Scotland in 2016 with my friend John and a string of pack ponies. We’re investigating the history of the pack trains, which got goods about the hilly areas before the roads improved enough for wheeled transport.
Everything was carried by pack animals and I want to experience that and put it all in a book with some good photos of it all. Currently I’m just procuring and training the ponies for it.
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