Name Gill James
Where are you from
I come from the Midlands, UK, West Bromwich to be precise. I’ve also lived abroad, on the south coast of England for 37 years and more recently in Greater Manchester, since 2007.
A little about yourself `ie your education Family life etc
I live with my husband and aged cat. I have two grown-up children living in London. I was a Modern Languages teacher from 1974 until 2000. I then became a freelance writer and part-time university lecturer. I am now a Senior Lecturer in English and Creative Writing – so writing has become part of my paid day job.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’m currently working on the third book in my Schellberg cycle. http://www.thehouseonschellbergstreet.com/ These are set in the 1940s and touch on the Holocaust but are also what life was like for ordinary German citizens. Books one and three are for young adults and book two for adults though they’re all really crossover.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I always enjoyed writing – all the way through school really though there wasn’t much opportunity neither at Grammar School nor later at University. I always like the idea of it. Then, when we were on holiday in Spain and some rather bizarre things started happening I found myself writing a novel for children. I realized that this is what I really wanted to do.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I first got a writing routine – one hour a day and / or 1000 words. I’m now on two hours a day and / or 2000 words. When I “retire” (do writers ever?), I’ll go to four hours a day and / or 3000 words. I also tend to write a couple of hours on Saturdays and Sunday and whilst on holiday. I write, therefore I am a writer.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
It was the rain in August when there should not be rain in August. The magnificent caves, full of mystery. The way the mountains dipped their toes in the sea. It was in Nerja http://www.nerjatoday.com/ 1988, the first time we went on holiday there. It continues to inspire me.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I’m not sure. I’ve been told I write very clearly. I hope that’s a compliment. I don’t think I have a specific voice as different works need different voices. I write longer fiction mainly for children and young adults but I also write a lot of short and very short fiction for adults as well as articles for writers and academic papers for academics. All different styles. They really confused some voice recognition software – so much so that I had to take it out.
Fiona: How do you come up with titles?
With great difficulty though I never have problems with names. I usually have a working title and then come up with something much better once the text is complete. The House on Schellberg Street started life as Potatoes in Spring because the German girls were more interested in the early potato crop in 1939 than the war. It was just too clunky and rather ridiculous. The house, however, unifies the three plot strands.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I hope my book carries a message but I don’t want to thrust it on to my readers. Rather, I want to say “Look, this is what I see. What do you make of it?” In the Schellberg cycle this is showing what may have happened to a young Mischling (half Jewish, half German) girl who came to England on the Kindertransport, the friends and grandmother she left behind in Germany and the little school for disabled children that her grandmother ran in the house.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
About one fifth of it is based on verifiable facts. The rest I’ve worked out by normal historical research, including some fascinating letters I’ve been privileged to see, repeating the experiences of my characters as far as possible and just using the writer’s imagination.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The first Schellberg book is based on my mother-in-law. The second one is about her grandmother. The third, Girl in a Smart Uniform, is completely fictional. The fourth will be based on my husband’s grandmother. The fifth revisits the German friends but will be a fictionalized version of them.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
This is a difficult question. I love books and it’s rare that a book doesn’t please or influence me. I’ve been helped a lot by other writers – my professors who helped me though my MA and my PhD, members of the critique groups I’m in, other writing friends and writers with whom I’m acquainted and of course my lovely Creative Writing colleagues at the University of Salford. http://www.salford.ac.uk/ug-courses/english-and-creative-writing
I keep a blog on books I’ve loved: http://gillsrecommendedreads.blogspot.co.uk/
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’m reading Robert Muchamore’s Rock War. I like Robert Muchamore a lot. I borrowed this particular copy from the library as I like to support my local library. Half of what I read is for children or young adults.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Again, if I find an interesting book or author they go on my recommended reads blog. http://gillsrecommendedreads.blogspot.co.uk/
Fiona: What are your current projects?
As well as working on the Schellberg cycle I’m producing 140 stories 140 words long. On certain days I write just one of these – inspired by the first picture I come across on Twitter. You probably get the picture. I’m also writing an academic book on the dark side of literature for children.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
I have to mention SCBWI – the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It must be the most supportive organization for children’s writers – both published and unpublished. http://www.scbwi.org/ They also publish a daily e-zine – which is excellent and free – you don’t have to a member to receive it. http://www.wordsandpics.org/ .
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Absolutely – but I also consider my day job is part of a writing career.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Nothing drastic. However, I always find at readings that I want to line-edit as I go along. I think we carry on improving all the time.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I read a lot. I think you sort of catch it.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here’s part of the opening to Girl in a Smart Uniform
“No. God, no. Oh, you’re so careless.”
The wheelbarrow toppled to one side. The wheel came off and wobbled drunkenly towards the gutter. Three of the bottles of herring smashed on to the ground and a fourth struck the side of the barrow. All four of them broke and scattered the fish and its pickling source over the ground and the barrow. The sharp smell of the fish in vinegar made Gisela feel sick.
Eberhard was trying to hold the barrow upright. It was no good though. It tumbled to the ground, spilling Gisela and the three large cans of carrots on to the cobbles. One of the cans bashed into her leg as her head hit the ground. The large sack of potatoes burst.
“God in heaven,” spluttered her mother. “Can’t you take more care?”
“Give me that, you great clux,” snarled Kurt, grabbing the barrow from his brother. “You should have let me push her.”
“You always complain so much.”
“Well she’s big enough to walk now.”
She was she supposed but she was always so sleepy when they went on these shopping sprees. It was the same, the last Friday in every month. As soon as Vati came home they would set off with the wheelbarrow to the market and the shops. They bought fresh food for the first half of the first week then for the rest of the month they would live on what came in bottles and tins and some dried meat. Gisela didn’t like that so much. It made her gag.
“You’ve got to eat. Come on now her,” her mother said.
“I’ll have hers if she doesn’t want it,” said Kurt.
“You won’t. She’s growing just as much as you are.”
She gave it to him anyway. He made her. “I’ll pinch you if you don’t. I’ll tell Mutti you wet the bed again.”
Now, everyone was staring at them. People were shaking their heads and muttering. Frau Neyer offered two jars of beans to Mutti. Mutti shook her head at first and but then Frau Neyer made her take them. Heidi skipped over and offered Gisela half the bread roll she’d been chewing.
Gisela frowned. “No thank you,” she whispered. Mutti always said poor people like themselves and the Neyers only offered things to be polite. It was cruel to accept offers.
“Go on, take it,” said Eberhard. “You’ll wish you had when we run out of food.”
She still felt sick. “I don’t feel very well,” she whispered.
“It’s probably because you’re hungry. Try this.” he opened one of the bags of sugar and dipped the bread into it. He handed her the sweet treat.
She took it gingerly, bit into the bread and began to chew. Yes, it did taste good.
“Thank you Heidi,” Eberhard called after the little girl. “She’s a bit too busy to thank you herself.”
“Never mind that. Let’s rescue as much of this as we can.” Kurt was already stuffing the fish, along with a fair amount of dirt into the fresh baked bread they had bought. “I guess it’s fish for supper tonight.”
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
It’s always challenging. I actually find I write less well on the day it all seems to flow. So, I’m pleased to report, perversely, that I’m struggling with Girl in a Smart Uniform
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
That changes every day. But I think I’m a pretty constant fan of Maeve Binchy, even though I don’t write her genre. She got people and places so right.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I have a whole journey planned for the Schellberg series, based on the journeys of Renata, Clara and Käthe and also possibly involving all of the places mentioned in each of the five books. I’m considering some sort of crowd funding for this, with also developing several workshops and events and possibly creating a non-fiction book to sit alongside the stories.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The publisher, Crooked Cat, http://crookedcatpublishing.com/ and I discussed the concept and originally worked with stock pictures. However, as we couldn’t get it quite right we decided to commission an artist. In the end, they commissioned my son, an artist, who does book illustration. So, it’s become a real family book, in fact.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Those days when you’re convinced all you’re producing is rubbish
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I’m happy with my book but I’ve still not written THE novel. I hope that I’ll continue to grow as a writer.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Never give up. If you really want to make it you will. It’s an enormous if, however.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Let me know what you think. Either way.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
I can remember discovering the library and then discovering the Famous Five. I loved those stories and I wanted to be able to write as well as Enid Blyton. My teachers didn’t approve, however.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
When I was bogged won with researching a lot about Nazi Germany I loved watching Stephen Fry and Alan Davies on QI. Lately The Big Bang Theory.
The young German girls made me cry – more than the Jewish and other Holocaust victims. They didn’t know what they were doing. I’m now writing to find out how they felt when they did start to realize. I expect that to be painful.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
I would love to chat writer to writer with Charles Dickens. He was a popular writer who we now see as a great literary person. He was ahead of his time and a fabulous story-teller.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
I don’t think I want a headstone. But I hope they’ll still read my stories after I’ve gone.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
I sing with a choir. I love it. It’s good for mental and physical health and I interact with people in a completely different way from in my isolated day job and writing life. These two ways of life complement each other well.
I also swim and go to the gym a couple of times a week. Good thinking time.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
All British drama. It’s one thing we’re really good at. Black Mirror, Waterloo Road. Holby City, Casualty, Broadchurch, Silent Witness, New Tricks – BBC Radio 4, too. Also from elsewhere: Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Neighbours. Story, story, story.
I also like watching programmes about fabulous homes – and working out where I would have my writing room.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
Wine, chocolate, free range meat, Thai. Classic FM.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
The point is – I can actually do anything I want to do. I just write about it. Now, that little antique shop in Brighton ….
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
Link for The House on Schellberg Street http://www.amazon.co.uk/House-Schellberg-Street-Gill-James/dp/1909841617