Monday 16 March 2020

Writers in their Landscape - Kit Berry by Steve Gladwin

For those of you who missed my first interview with Sue Purkiss, (what on earth would you do that - luckily you can still find it on the archive on 16th February!), I'm conducting a series of interviews with fellow writers on the theme of 'a writer in their landscape'. But don't expect that to be the only subject we touch on, because this is merely a springboard for us to explore around the theme and the experience.

This month its my great pleasure to have Kit Berry talking to us, about her creation Stonewylde, her life, paganism, creative experiences  - and somewhere in a wide-ranging interview, landscape gets a mention. Welcome, Kit and thanks for chatting to us.

Thanks for asking me.

Now, one of the things I wanted to do with the people I interview, is to take the main theme of ‘landscape’ deeper than just the obvious questions, each time focussing on something different and personal to the author. On this particular occasion I’d like to go further into the idea of the act of creation and how it is actually affected by the writer’s love, (or not) of a particular landscape(s). Can we start by putting you right in front of the first view you had of landscape which particularly affected you, and could you describe it for us?

1        I’ve always loved nature and felt happiest when outside in beautiful surroundings.  I grew up surrounded by woods, but always loved the rolling hills and big vistas.  I lived in Ibiza as a teenager and really enjoyed the beautiful mountains and landscape there, and in my early twenties moved down to Dorset (Weymouth) to go to college.  Dorset really got to me – the amazing vistas of hills and woodlands, the sea, the cliffs and beaches.  Although due to my husband leaving us, I had to bring my three sons up on a council estate there, I was very lucky that it was surrounded by hills and woods, so it was a far cry from a built up area.  We walked regularly in the amazing landscape, visiting hillforts, woodlands and the rolling hills. Dorset has to be my favourite place, although I’ve seen many other wonderful places too.

 Now when I’ve been on retreats with you at Charney, you are generally out for a morning and/or evening walk. Have you always done that? Do you walk to gain inspiration perhaps, or like myself and others, to process and try out ideas? Or is that part just sheer enjoyment.

 At Charney, I love the landscape right on the doorstep!  I always try to walk in the mornings and evenings if possible, and at Charney generally head for the lovely hillfort (though it’s not really on a hill).  I also love the fact that there are hares around.  I don’t walk with a purpose to gain inspiration or process ideas – I just love being outside in nature.  I’ve been involved with the International Forest Therapy movement in Finland, and fully subscribe to the beliefs that being out in nature is the most therapeutic and healing of all experiences – it promotes a sense of well-being and reminds us of our place on Earth – we’re just one more species in this wonderful creation.

Your Stonewylde series is about a community which most people would call pagan, and which at times reminds me of my own experiences of druid camps and the like – where time often feels suspended and at the least a bit woolly, and it can feel odd if you have to leave it to go to the supermarket. Can you tell us about your pagan journey – if you would call it that – and how it might have led to Stonewylde?

My pagan journey was inspired by a close encounter back in the year 2000 with a hare in the beech woods near where I lived in Dorset.  My mother had just died and I went for a walk alone one sunny evening in the summer – and literally came face to face with a hare, only about a metre away from me on the path, basking in a pool of golden evening sunlight.  We had eye contact and I couldn’t believe that the hare was just sitting there, almost communicating with me.  Eventually, after a few minutes, it quietly turned and loped off into the undergrowth.  I felt so very honoured and touched by the amazing experience, and went home and researched hares on the internet, discovering their links with witchcraft and magic.  This led me to explore pagan beliefs and rituals – my mother had been a devout Christian but of the rather hypocritical kind, who didn’t really practice what she preached and was highly judgmental, and so although I was obviously devastated by her death, it also kind of released me to a new type of freedom.  I did a great deal of research into paganism and the Old Ways, and with the idea of Stonewylde already brewing – a secret community cut off from the outside world – it seemed the ideal way to go.

However, over the years, I’ve become a little disillusioned with some aspects of pagan practices.  After a wonderful term of evening classes run by Oxford Continuing Education at Reading University on ‘The Anthropology of Ritual and Religion’, I came to understand that human beings need to worship something, need to have leaders in religion and deify things, and need to feel they belong to some movement or other.  This compounded my disillusionment with some of the pagan groups I’d taken part in various events with, and made me realise that actually, it was nature itself that I loved, and not the rituals, chanting, crushed velvet or antler horns, nor the egos of the people leading the rituals.  So now I don’t ever attend anything like that, but get my spiritual fulfillment from being alone, outside in nature, watching the moon rise, gazing at the stars, the sunrise and sunset, watching birds and wild creatures, and simply feeling part of this amazing creation.  That fulfills a deep need in me that no organised group could ever match. 

Like Sue Purkiss, last month’s subject, I know you to be a generous sharer of some wonderful landscapes on facebook, often early morning and evening. How did your journey with photography begin?

I love taking photos in nature and sharing them, and although I wouldn’t in any way call myself a photographer (all my photos are taken with my phone!) I did study photography at college in Weymouth as part of my degree – English and Media Studies.  We were taught about composition and balance, and in those ancient days, had to develop and print our own photos in the dark room!  So I’ve always had an interest in this, but mostly I just want to share some of the beautiful sights I come across with others.  I know a lot of my Stonewylde readers share my love.

Let’s move on to your creation, Stonewylde. Did the place come to you fully formed and was it based on an actual place?

I used to drive past Charborough Park in Dorset during the 90s, and this was at a time when there were all sorts of secret cults being outed in the press.  The high stone walls and huge gates made me wonder what was behind and within.  It wasn’t till much later I realised this vast estate was owned by the Drax family – and Richard Drax is now the Conservative MP of the area!  After my encounter with the hare in the beech woods, I started to imagine a secret pagan place, tucked away from the outside world and practising the Old Ways, and of course thought back to Charborough Park.  Stonewylde, the place and community, came to me fully formed, as a relic of feudalism, with the elite living in luxury in a great hall, and the humble workers living happy lives in an idyllic village. Living in beautiful Dorset at the time, the landscape of Stonewylde was right on my doorstep and this inspired me for a lot of the settings in the book.

So, at some stage during your adult life, possibly earlier than that, you decide you want to write this series, which might be deemed fantasy. What in the way of inspiration is behind you? What are the other landscapes you loved and writers whose work you revered?

I’d always wanted to write – my passion as a child was reading, and at school my favourite thing was writing stories.  But life gets in the way, doesn’t it?  My degree was a step forward towards this, although at that point I was more interested in TV production.  I became pregnant during my last year of that, which put paid to my dreams, and had three sons in four years.  My husband then leaving us completely scuppered any ambition, and I spent years doing very menial jobs, trying to supplement our meagre income (cleaning jobs, working in the local shops, etc).

My break came after helping at my sons’ primary school in all three classes and really enjoying it.  The Open University started a PGCE, and the headteacher approached me and offered to sponsor me through it, as he said I had a natural aptitude with children.  This completely turned my life around and I felt fulfilled and happy.  I recognise the power of story and would read to my class every single day, and we did a lot of creative writing too, crossing over (as you could in those days) to other subjects. So in history I’d get them to imagine they were a person living in the period in question and write a story. Writing has always been really important to me, and the creation of Stonewylde was a dream come true! I prefer the term ‘magical realism’ to describe the series rather than ‘fantasy’.  As a youngster I read a lot of historical fiction, and this is a genre I’m writing in now.

Do you landscape is important in fantasy fiction? Are there tricks to writing it, or do you just set down what’s in your head?

I think landscape is important in any fiction – setting is vital to the plot.  I don’t know of any tricks to writing it – I just describe what I see in my imagination.  For instance, Hare Hill at Stonewylde – the hill overlooking the sea with a single standing stone at the top, the place where the hares gather every full moon to dance, cavort and then moongaze – came to me fully formed.  I didn’t have to construct it. I think when an imagined landscape becomes totally real to you, you just have to gaze around and describe what you’re seeing.

So, you’re on one of your regular rambles and quite by chance a door opens and you’re able to enter the mysterious, closed community that is Stonewylde. We’re stepping silently behind you, our guide. What are you going to point out to us?

If a door opened and we entered Stonewylde … I would point out Hare Hill, the moongazy place, Mother Heggy’s cottage, the Village Green and the Stone Circle.  All very special, magical places to me.

Something I’ve developed a recent love for is the sections in wildlife documentaries when the landscape is revealed from above. Imagine you’re flying over a place you’ve always wanted to go and you’re going to land in a few minutes. Where would it be? What would you see?

I’d love to fly over Norway and land there! Or any part of Scandinavia really. I’m half Danish and my father took us on a driving tour of Norway, Sweden and Denmark when I was 12 years old. I remember a lot of it but would really love to return now. I love the time my lovely second husband and I have spent in Finland with the International Forest Therapy group (it’s so very clean and underpopulated there, as well as being beautiful) and for my 60th birthday present, my three sons took me to Copenhagen for a long weekend – I love that place!  But I do recall Norway as being especially beautiful, so I’d love to fly over it and land there.

Are you greatly taken with the notion of worlds between worlds and liminal spaces which we can enter under certain conditions? How do you see the world in that respect and has it informed your writing at all?

Worlds between worlds – to me, that sums up my feelings about nature and being outside.  When I walk my two beautiful dogs every morning in the open fields and woods on our doorstep, I often feel that sense of something else being just out of sight, just round the corner.  And I think that’s what imagination is – the ability to open a secret door and enter another world, a liminal space.  And hopefully take your readers with you! Two of my favourite books as a child were ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘Peter Pan’, both of which transport you to a totally different but secret place.

I’d like to finish my asking you a bit more about Stonewylde itself. How much do you feel it is part of you? Is there any aspect of it you might change if you were to write it again?

Stonewylde feels like my fourth child - it’s very much part of me.  I’ve had some amazing feedback over the years from readers, and most of them say that to them, Stonewylde is a real place where they can go in their minds, walk the landscape, dance with the hares and forget all their troubles.  And no, I don’t think I’d change any aspect of it if I were to write it again – it’s complete and just right in my mind.  I’m currently negotiating with a production company to adapt the books into a TV series, and my big fear is that they’ll spoil the wonderful world of Stonewylde by not portraying it correctly.  Hopefully I’ll get some say in how it’s represented!

Thanks, Kit - it's been really fascinating

My pleasure 

.Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'

PS A re-focused version of my interview with Kit will be appearing in the first edition of 'The God's Shed' at the end of the month. For more details in the next week or so, go to the link immediately above, or direct to http://www.storiesoffeelingandbeing/thegodsshed

Thank you

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