Sunday 16 February 2020

Writers in their Landscape by Steve Gladwin

My Interview with Sue Purkiss

Over the next few months and basically as long as there are people to involve, I will be conducting a series of interviews on the theme of 'Writers on their Landscape', (basically what is says on the tin. Over the next few months you can expect authors as varied as Kit Berry and Stonewylde, Scott Telek and the first few books of his massive new Arthurian saga, Elen Caldecott on her exciting new novel, The Short Knife, and John Dickinson on his own trilogy.

Before we begin our wanderings with Sue Purkiss, however, I'd just like to make clear, as I hope is clear in this interview, that landscape is merely a stepping off point for the authorial musings of many things, and that there are many varieties of landscape to me found, whether it be the created landscape of Stonewylde, Sue's own views on the landscapes of home, birth and fiction, here in this interview, or both the outer and inner landscapes of Arthurian fiction in Scott's work. I hope you enjoy them all. And without more ado, here's my interview with Sue Purkiss.

Now, Sue,  as you know, this is the first in a new ongoing series of interviews with writers which has the loose title ‘Writers in their Landscape’. I’d just like to begin by saying that you’re one of the people I might call the facebook snappers. You have this in common with our March interviewee, Kit Berry, and others in that you seem to take genuine delight in just in taking but also in your sharing photos – and I’m sure it’s not just to show off your photography skills!

Having said that, you clearly have some skill in it, as well as a love for it. So perhaps you could tell us how photography started for you and perhaps what your first picture was, if you can remember it?

My mother had a black photograph album filled with small photos from a box camera, which she’d kept since she was a teenager. I used to love looking through it, and I think that’s probably where my interest in photography began. When I was about twelve, I saved up and bought my first camera. It was from Boots and it was called a Koroll 11. I don’t remember what my first picture was – maybe it was of our dog, Whisky, who was a rather grumpy West Highland White terrier. I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

Now this is something I’m going to ask people to do every month. I know you live in Somerset and indeed we first me in the English office at Kings of Wessex school in Cheddar. However, I have no idea where you were born. So, could you please describe the place of your birth to us as if you were looking at it. You can tell us where you are at the beginning, or after if you prefer.

I’m in Cotmanhay, which is a sort of suburb of Ilkeston, a former mining town in Derbyshire near the Nottinghamshire border. I’m looking at our house, which is on a council estate. The streets are all named after Derbyshire beauty spots – Beauvale Drive, Monsall Avenue, and so on, but it’s not in truth a very beautiful place. Our garden is lovely, though: Mum is an excellent gardener. Round the back she grows chrysants, very carefully. Sometimes she even shows them.

Cotmanhay Farm Estate, with the primary school I went to in the centre.

So, Sue, we’ve established where home was, but is it a place or area that has given you much in the way of inspiration.

So far, I haven’t used the area I’m from in my writing very much – although it does form the background to the first part of a book I’ve been working on for a while. It’s based on my father’s experiences as a prisoner of war, so in that case, it’s fairly incidental – the setting, unusually for me, wasn’t part of the inspiration.

What is clear is that Somerset and all its contrasting landscapes, from the levels and the marshes of Athelney, or the Mendips where you live, has inspired two of your books,  Warrior King and The Willow Man. Does Somerset have a particular magic, do you think, or perhaps several different kinds?

I think Somerset is a very magical county. It has several quite distinct landscapes. I live on the Mendips, and I’ve always thought I preferred hilly countryside. But there’s something very special about the Levels. They can be quite eerie, specially when a blanket of mist settles close to the ground, and the tops of the trees float above it like disembodied wraiths. The Willow Man is set mostly in Bridgwater, but the characters are, in different ways, seeking to be free of the situations they’re in; and I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but maybe the references to the willows on the levels, and the climactic scene on Brean Down, reference my own feelings – that the countryside represents freedom, and cities are places where you feel trapped.

The evocatively named Avalon Marshes, on the Somerset Levels.

Of course, people experience different landscapes throughout their life, whereas others remain forever in love with the place or area they started. Do you think you have a particular favourite type of landscape, Are you more at home in woods than mountains, or whatever?

I like open hillsides, with heather and gorse. And I love the sea – perhaps partly because I was brought up about as far away from it as you can get in this country.

On the Mendips.

Your most recent book, Jack Fortune and the Hidden Valley, which my partner and I thoroughly enjoyed, I would describe as a good old-fashioned yarn. But it also has real heart in it and a central constantly developing relationship. All this however is enhanced by Jack’s actual travels with his uncle, to begin with just in the Himalayas, and later with Jack’s solo venture into the hidden valley in search of the fabled blue rhododendron. Are you a frustrated Himalayan explorer?

Well, kind of. But, like Jack, I’m not good with heights. I’d definitely rather write about mountains than climb them. But I am fascinated by them.

Now it’s time for our next bit of landscape visualisation. Could you describe the hidden valley for us and Jack looking into it? I’m sure no-one will notice if you cheat and use the book!

One of the best things about the valley is the contrast between the approach, which involves snowy precipices and a terrifying ice bridge, and the valley itself, which is sheltered and full of glorious rhododendrons – white, scarlet, lemon, purple – and perhaps even the elusive blue one which Jack and his uncle have come so far, and gone through so much, to find.

And in total contrast we have the eerie, and potentially deadly marshes of Athelney, where King Alfred and the hero of your book, Warrior King, his rather amazing daughter, Aethelflaed go pretty much underground in full knowledge that the next battle might be their last. I have some knowledge of that area, as I used to live on the levels for three years. It’s a very specific area, isn’t it – a bit like the Norfolk Broads have come to Somerset! I can imagine your wanting to write about Aethelflaed as a character, but having the levels as a background must also have been tempting.

On the original Isle of Athelney, reading Warrior King to a group of school children.

 Yes, Warrior King, of course, is about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aethelflaed, and he had close ties to this part of Wessex. I first became interested in him when I went to Athelney one day, where he took refuge in the marshes, and I realised that the landscape I was looking at was not very different to the one he would have seen. There were lots of other atmospheric places associated with him too – an important battle took place near Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, and another near Eddington – Ethandun – in Wiltshire. Interestingly, there are white horses carved in the hillsides in both those places.

Can you tell us about any other landscapes you have used in your books and what specific qualities they might have? And are there any tricks for writing about or creating a landscape and making it feel real?

I used Axbridge, the next village to Cheddar, as the background to my first book about a school for ghosts. And the classroom was based on one in the first school – a lovely old room with a beamed ceiling. I’ve written short stories set in Brittany and Seville. As for making it real – the easiest way to do that is to describe a place you know, especially if it’s the sort of place that gets under your skin. If I’m writing about a place I don’t know, I use photographs, diaries, books – anything. I need to be able to ‘see’ it.

So will Jack Fortune be exploring again? Can you give us a clue where he’s going and why you picked it?

Well, he might. And if he does, he may well venture across the Atlantic…

Finally, is there anywhere left you’d still like to write about?

Lots of places!

Thanks, Sue, for sharing all your favourite landscapes.

Absolutely my pleasure!


Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Sue and Steve!

Steve Gladwin said...

And thanks for the lovely pics, Sue. It was a pleasure.