I'd like to welcome you to my interview with writer, Fay Sampson. Enjoy.
Hello Fay. Can you please introduce yourself?
I’ve been a published author for 42 years, having started my career teaching mathematics. Well, Lewis Carroll did both. A subject which has whole books on imaginary numbers has to be a good grounding.
I am currently living with my husband in the Devon village of Tedburn St Mary, 6 miles west of Exeter. I am lucky enough to have a cottage, the oldest part of which was built in the time of Shakespeare. All my father’s ancestors come from Devon, so it’s good to feel that I live in the sort of house many of them did, cob and thatch. Of course, running water, electricity and central heating help.
How long have you been writing?
I started writing seriously for publication in 1969, the year my younger child started school. It took 5 years and 5 books before I got the first one accepted. But my first payment for writing came when I was nine. I won a competition with a story about the birth of the Co-operative Movement, “How the Money got into the Black Box”.
What first got you interested in writing?
My parents were great story-readers. One of my earliest memories is of sheltering in the cupboard under the stairs during an air raid, with my sister and evacuee cousins. My mother read us “The Water Babies”. As I grew older, there were other evenings when my father read aloud to us as my mother, sister and I sat sewing or knitting around the fire. That was my first introduction to “Swallows and Amazons”, and to Dickens.
Do you attend a writing group?
We have an affiliated group of the Association of Christian Writers which covers most of Devon. We meet occasionally to critique manuscripts or try our hand at writing exercises. It’s a good way of encouraging each other, sharing in the triumphs and disappointments. The criticism is helpful too.
What genre(s) do you write? What drew you to this/these genre(s)?
I’ve been a bit promiscuous. I started writing for children, with a near-future adventure story set in Africa, when the affluent world had been rendered uninhabitable. More children’s books followed: historical, humorous school stories, SF. But my chief love is fantasy. The Pangur Ban series is set in Celtic times between the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, with a romp around my favourite Celtic sea-coasts, Celtic literature and illuminated manuscripts, and Celtic Christianity.
I was combining writing with part-time teaching, but I was accumulating other ideas which needed more space to write for an adult readership. I took voluntary redundancy to launch into the 5-volume sequence, Daughter of Tintagel, since republished as Morgan le Fay. I was attracted by this troubled character who was said to have been schooled in a nunnery where she learned witchcraft. More historical-based fantasy followed, and then straight historical novels.Recently, I have strayed almost accidentally into crime fiction. I set out to write a novel about a woman researching her family history (a hobby of mine), but dark deeds in the past became entwined with dark deeds in the present. I am currently writing two series of crime novels for different publishers: The Suzie Fewings novels for Severn House , and The Aidan Mysteries for Lion. It’s not the crime itself which really interests me but the other dimension I can bring to the novels: family history in the first and the sacred places of the British Isles in the second. And I always did like a good adventure story.
Are there any genres that you don’t enjoy writing? Why?
I enjoy writing for older children, but I don’t have a natural bent for younger ones. In the adult field, romance interests me less than a good thriller. As a child, one of my favourite genres was pirate stories, and I migrated to Alexander Dumas and Robert Louis Stevenson. I suppose I was something of a bloodthirsty child. I admire Jane Austen, but I don’t have ambitions to write like her.
What types of things do you write?
My natural medium is the novel. When I try to write short stories I get too interested in my characters’ past lives and their current situation. Before I know where I am, I’ve got enough material for another novel. That said, I do from time to time contribute short stories to anthologies when I’m asked.
I’ve written a lot of fiction set in Celtic times, and in particular around the Celtic Church. I found there was a danger of trying to put too much of my fascinating research into the novels. So I siphoned it off with a narrative history of the Celtic Churches in the British Isles: Visions and Voyages. I then proposed to my editor that I write a book about Arthur and the Church. She said, ‘Did you mean the Anglo-Saxon Church?’ I didn’t, but who am I to turn down a good contract? So I wrote Runes on the Cross, the story of the Anglo-Saxon Church. I’ve also written a couple of books on religious festivals, also a spin-off from the research for novels.
You mentioned earlier that you're a published author. Where can we find your publications?
Yes, I’ve had 45 books published to date. See my website: www.faysampson.co.uk.
Have you sent your writing to agents/publishers? Have you received any rejections?
I started by sending my work to publishers. I think I was afraid of an agent telling me no publisher would want it. My very first response was a ‘We would have liked to publish this but we’ve just done a similar one’ letter. Exciting enough to keep me going for five more years and five more books. I finally gave in and submitted the fifth to an agent. She got me publication, but when she turned down the next, a found a publisher for myself. Most of my career I have worked without an agent. But in the current world of publishing it’s hard to get taken seriously without one, and the contracts get more complex. So now, yes, I do have an agent, though all the contracts I have got since then have come through my own contact with the publishers.
Would you consider self-publishing/e-publishing? Why/why not? Are you interested in eBooks, or do you prefer the old fashioned paper-made books?
I wouldn’t want to self-publish. I think, with perseverance, I could learn the technical side, but I’d be hopeless at marketing. My time is better spent writing the stuff. The same would be true of independent ebook publishing. Some of my recent books are already put out as ebooks by my publishers. I’d like to get my backlist in electronic form too. Perhaps in the case of ebooks it might be easier for a published writer to reach an audience online.
Who/what influences your writing? Where do you get your inspiration from?
One of my greatest influences is place. I live in the West Country, where I was born, and where my ancestors go back for very many centuries. I first started writing children’s novels inspired by places in Devon and Cornwall. I’ve moved farther afield since, but I still have a strong sense of place. I often write with a map spread out before me so that I can visualise how my characters move through the landscape. I’ve had a lot of fun, too, visiting, or revisiting, the places where I want to set a book, so that I really get the feel of it.
My fantasy writing has been inspired by writers such as Alan Garner and Madeleine L’Engle.Even when I am writing fantasy, the passion I feel about some modern issues creeps into the books in disguise.
Do you have a writing routine?
Like almost all serious writers I know, I have a daily routine. I spend the morning writing original stuff. A couple of hours in the afternoon are spent on sensible things like housework and gardening. Then it’s back to my study for lower-level work, like editing my own or other people’s MSS, dealing with publisher’s queries, etc.
Do you start out with a complete idea for your stories, or do you just start writing and hope for the best?
I usually have an overall idea, but not a fully-fledged synopsis. Quite a few of my novels are based on history or legend, so that takes care of the basic plot, but I let my imagination go on the received material, so that the resulting book is uniquely mine. I often find writing crime novels that my original outline doesn’t provide enough for a full-length book. The twists and turns that arrive spontaneously in the course of the writing are usually better than the ones I think up in cold blood.
Do you have an editing process? Do you have someone else read over your work? Do you read your work aloud to yourself in front of the mirror?
I sometimes read extracts of my work at a writing group. This isn’t entirely a good idea. I love reading aloud, and I fear my listeners react as much to the reading as to the actual words.
My sister is a keen and discerning reader and is not afraid to offer criticism. I ought to use her more than I do.I don’t read in front of a mirror, but I certainly hear the words in my head as I read through my work. It’s important to me that the sound flows, and that the characters come across as individuals.
What do you enjoy the most/least about writing?
What I enjoy most is the incredible privilege of being able to spend the best part of my day letting the words flow on the page in this lovely language of ours.
I enjoy least that sag in the middle, when the first enthusiasm has faded and the end is still a long way off. You wonder whether anyone but you is going to want to read this stuff.
Have you ever attended an open mic night for spoken word performers as either an observer or performer?
I have sometimes read a sample of my work aloud at a writing course or conference. I enjoy this, because I love the sound of the words and I think I can make them sing for other people. I used to be more of a writer than a storyteller, though I have learned my craft as the latter.
Have you ever entered any writing competitions? Have you ever won?
At the age of nine I won a competition with a story about the birth of the Co-operative Movement. But I was entered by my school. We were taken to see a film about it and then had to write a story from what we had seen.
South West Arts used to give small literary awards for work-in-progress. I sent in work and won several of these. But I don’t usually enter competitions. This is because I don’t expect to win and waiting for the results slows down the process of submitting work to be published. It’s more time-efficient to go straight for the real prize, which is publication.I once entered the Peninsula Prize for a story set in the South West. I only had a few months before the deadline, but I adapted a novel I had previously written for teenagers. It made the longlist but not the shortlist. But I did find a publisher. I felt really sorry for the winner, who had been offered publication as part of the prize, but the publisher reneged on that after a year.I have three times been shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, but that was for books already published. And the Spanish translation of The Watch on Patterick Fell won the Barco de Vapor Award for selling over 100,000 copies.
How important is it for you to share your writing?
I’m not quite sure if I have understood this question. Yes, it’s not enough for me to write in isolation. I really want people out there reading my books. I do have a few rejected manuscripts, but from time to time I find a way to rewrite some of these and find a publisher.
PLR (Public Lending Right) is an important morale booster for authors. The sums involved aren’t great, but it is evidence that people are actually borrowing the books from libraries and reading them, even ones which have been out of print for a while.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given with regards to writing?
My writing group has a wonderful member, a successful writer himself. I have sometime read work aloud to be greeted by the single question, ‘So what?’ It’s a really useful reminder that everything in a novel should be there for a reason, not just because you enjoyed writing it.
What advice could you give to a new writer?
The advice I heard at a children’s literature conference from Nina Bawden. ‘The only difference between anyone who can write a decent letter and a published author is persistent motivation.’ In other words, work, and keep working.
I wish now I was one of those writers who keep a notebook. I’ve had lots of wonderful experiences, both at home and around the world. But I didn’t record them at the time, and I don’t have a great visual memory. Lots of that precious material has faded away. Nowadays I go on research trips with camera and notebook. I try to find the words that will bring back those memories.
Apart from writing, what are your other hobbies/interests?
Walking, family history, and involvement in my lively and outgoing church.
If you could have written anything, what do you wish that could have been?
The Sound of Chariots by Mollie Hunter. It’s a wonderful story about a working-class girl who goes to grammar school and has a teacher who opens up her mind to the world of writing. In terms of experience, I could have written it myself, and wished I had.
I love the over-the-top poetic language of Mervyn Peake in the Gormenghast trilogy. I hear so many echoes of Celtic poetry.
Another favourite is Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, a wonderfully woven fantasy based on an old Welsh legend.A book I could never have written, but think everyone should read is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. You think you know the horrors of slavery until you read it.
What types of things do you read? Do you think your writing reflects your book tastes?
Modern novels that have attracted me from the book prize shortlists.
Historical novels.Teenage fantasy.I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction for its own sake. The books need to have an added richness that comes from somewhere else. Otherwise yes. Since childhood I have enjoyed books with a bit of swash and buckle. Most of my stories have a strong element of adventure in the plot, and that’s what I enjoy reading. I haven’t yet written a modern story that goes to the heart of today’s dilemmas, but they sometimes creep into the fantasy in disguise.
Do you have any favourite lines from novels/plays/poetry/songs, or any favourite literary quotes?
Fantastic first line from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond.
“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.T.E Lawrence: Those who dream awake are dangerous, for they may live their dreams, to make them possible.
What are you working on at the moment?
Another Suzie Fewings genealogical mystery.
Would you be able to provide a short piece of your work?
The white cat, Pangur Bán, was a killer. He crouched and waited.
There was definitely a mouse in the hole. He could see two bright black eyes watching him.The cat’s white claws were tucked out of sight, but he was not resting. He lay low and still, but he was not asleep. Under his half-closed eyelids a narrow line of green showed, pierced by a black slit. He was watching. Every muscle was stretched tight, like a bent bow-string, an instrument of death.‘Don’t move,’ said Niall the monk, ‘or I’ll murder you.’Pangur Bán did not answer, though he could talk very well when he wanted to.Behind him, in the dusty sunlight, monks and nuns were bending over books, copying. As they traced the words, they said them aloud, so that they hummed over the painted pages, like brown bees in a meadow of flowers.Where the open door gave on the sea, and the light fell brightest, young Niall sat painting the great title page of his Gospel. Three years he had been working on it, and there was no artist like him in all Erin. He was a giant of a man, an oak tree. But his strong brown hands could trace patterns as delicate as a spider weaving a cobweb on an April morning, and then paint them with all the splendour of the hills in autumn.The calfskin page in front of him was stabbed with compass points. Red ink-dots, like drops of blood, traced the pattern. Ribbons of purple and blue twined between them,. coiling, curling, circling. Knots of gold ended alarmingly in serpents’ heads. And beyond their scarlet tongues, silver chariot wheels spun and spiralled upwards, till the whole rich carpet of the page became a letter Þ, flanked by astonished angels.From Pangur Bán.
© Fay Sampson
Thank you very much Fay.