In particular I was fascinated by the idea of gap year volunteering as a modern rite of passage. My younger son had returned from Belize changed to the point of being virtually unrecognizable after five months in the jungle, and I'd sensed a story. Who was writing gap year novels, I asked myself, targeting young teenagers who might one day want to head off round the world? Nobody, as far as I could tell, so funded by the Arts Council and backed by Fabers, I headed out to Belize to write one myself.
I like adventures. Mostly they’ve happened on screen but over the years research has taken me up the occasional Welsh mountain and Shropshire hill, down a few rivers from source to sea, underground into defunct mines and up into the sky in a hot air balloon.
Nothing I’ve done, however, matches Belize. I spent six weeks touring the country from Caribbean coast to jungle interior, enjoying its extraordinary cultural mix, staying as the guest of the Kekchi-Mayan people and seeing the rainforest with my own eyes - not only its destruction but its incredible beauty. I also saw the very real difference that young volunteers, fresh from school and with no particular skills [apart from a will to learn, work and endure discomfort] had been able to make in helping stem that destruction. And there was the story I'd gone out there to find.
‘In the Trees’ is the result of that trip. Fabers brought it out in 2010 and I’ve been visiting schools, libraries and festivals ever since, telling what I saw and encouraging young people to think about the wider world and understand that it’s not just governments and multi-national organisations that can make a difference, but people like them, with a will to get out there and give it a go.
I have such a story to tell, and this novel feels so important, that I haven't been able to start anything since. But there's another reason too, why I haven't started the next novel.
For the last twenty years I've been writing them back to back. There's been precious little time for seeing the world around me as anything but material for the next book. Those of you who are writers too will know what it’s like. The screen becomes your world, the world becomes your book and the years go by. Now, post-Belize, I've awoken like Sleeping Beauty to find life moved on, my hair turned white, my children grown up and the babies theirs, not mine.
How can this be? How come my husband and I are rattling round an empty house on our own? When did the kids leave? When did that little girl who dreamt of being a writer one day turn into me? And, if I do start writing again - if I dare - will I wake up after another twenty years knowing that the party was over and I might have been there but I'd missed the action?
One of the joys of this last year's sabbatical has been catching up with friends, taking time out for family, becoming a Chancellor in the wonderful Children’s University and making friends online. Which, of course, is what this post is all about.
ABBA is a new venture for me. It's my way of saying I'm here. If authors are online talking to each other, I want to talk too. If they’re sharing experiences I want to share. If they’re giving advice, I want to hear it - and maybe I'll have advice to give as well. And if they’re talking to readers, then I want to be a part of that conversation.
So a new venture this year – and, at the same time, an old one too. Twenty-one years ago my first novel, ‘Midnight Blue’, won the Smarties Grand Prix award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread. As one reviewer commented at the time, 1990 was my annus mirabilis. Well, in celebration of that win, an anniversary e-edition of ‘Midnight Blue’, newly jacketed and re-edited for twenty-first century readers has just been published - by me.
‘In the Trees’ is an e-book too, but 'Midnight Blue's different. This time, as well as being writer, I’m also publisher, marketing director, art director, publicist and editor. Suddenly this feels like being in the jungle again, stepping out into the unknown. The howler monkeys are screaming in the darkness, and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring - but better to make this trek in company than on my own.
So thank you Scattered Authors everywhere for the chance to join you on your Awfully Big Blog Adventure. And forgive me for this first post being so single-mindedly about myself. I do have other things to write about, I promise you. But this is the best way I know of saying hello.