Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

Bitter Orange opens with Frances Jellico incarcerated, dying of an unnamed wasting disease though whether she is in a hospital, an asylum or prison is not clear. Only Victor, her friend, the once vicar of Lyntons parish visits, hoping she will confess something before leaving the earth. Even at this early point in the story, nothing is as it seems, with Frances hinting that Victor is not really a vicar and only wears the dog collar so he can see her.

Told in flashback, mostly in first person, Frances now sixty, remembers 1969, her summer of love. She remembers Peter and Cara. Cara who will tell Frances she is beautiful.

I was thirty-nine when I sat on the jetty, and in my whole life no one had ever said I was beautiful. Later, when Cara was folding the tablecloth and putting away her cigarettes, I leaned over the green water of the lake and was disappointed to see that my reflection hadn’t changed, I was the same woman, although for a while that summer, twenty years ago, I came to believe her.

Even though the disease is causing Frances’ memory to fade, which leads the reader to question her reliability, images return in waves, merging and converging. Not all of them pleasant and as she thinks about dying, she remembers her final look through a judas hole.

I am kneeling on the bare boards of my attic bathroom at Lyntons…In the room below mine, a body lies in the pinking bathwater, the open eyes staring up at me for too long. The floor is puddled and the shine of wet footprints leading away is already disappearing.

Frances was approaching 40 when her mother, after many years of sickness, died. She is offered the opportunity of surveying the garden architecture of Lyntons, a deserted English country house, for Mr Liebermann.

A mile away, beyond the parkland, dotted with mature specimen trees, the house – Lyntons – balanced at the top of a green bank. It extended back into shadow, but the view I had was of wide stone steps leading up to a magnificent portico where the afternoon sun buttered eight immense columns which rose to a triangular pediment…behind the buildings the land rose steeply to wooded hangers – a geographical feature of that part of the country: ancient woodland clinging to the sides of steep scarps which twisted and turned for several miles.

When Frances arrives she is greeted by Peter and his younger flamboyant, temperamental girlfriend, Cara. Peter too is to write a report detailing the contents of the house for its new American owner. At first Frances keeps her distance, concentrating on the job in hand, dreaming of discovering a Palladian Bridge and writing an article that would be published in The Times. She wanders through the gardens, surveying all she sees.

I sat here while the sun rose higher and attempted to draw the bridge and lake in my sketchbook. I was used to being alone and mostly content with solitude even when in the middle of a London crowd, but here, sitting by myself beside Lyntons’ lake, I was conscious of the couple up at the house and found myself wondering what kind of people they were.

Encouraged and welcomed, Frances, or Franny as she becomes is soon embroiled in Cara and Peter’s lives. Some people are storytellers and some, listeners; Frances the latter. But the stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the claustrophobic lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur with devastating consequences. But for who? Nothing is as it seems in this novel.

Although Cara and Frances seem opposites, one loud and gregarious, the other quiet and withdrawn, they have similarities. Both from oppressed, sheltered childhoods with mothers that chastised, both from fatherless families. Both wanting love.

Bitter Orange is a quiet story, one that leaves you feeling uneasy the whole way through. One just ripe to become a classic film. Though instead of reading the novel, I listened to the story narrated by Rachel Bavidge, and spent many happy travelling hours lost in another time. I’m left though, with more questions than answers, and wanting to re-read the hardback version. Isn’t that how a good piece of fiction should leave you?

 

Thank you to Penguin for the review.

Published by Fig Tree.

Follow Claire on Twitter: @ClaireFuller2

 

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The Foster Child by Jenny Blackhurst

Jenny Blackhurst lives in Shropshire where she grew up dreaming that one day she would get paid for making up stories. She is an avid reader and can mostly be found with her head in a book or hunting Pokemon with her son, otherwise you can find her on Twitter or Facebook. Her favourite film is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but if her children ask it’s definitely Moana.

The Foster Child is Jenny’s new thriller with ‘a heart-stopping twist’ from the bestselling author of How I Lost You. This is spooky psychological suspense at its very best and will be perfect for fans of Close to Home by Cara Hunter, Friend Request by Laura Marshall, and The Guilty Wife, with a hint of Stephen King’s terrifying classic, Carrie.

When child psychologist Imogen Reid takes on the case of 11-year-old Ellie Atkinson, she refuses to listen to warnings that the girl is dangerous.

Ellie was the only survivor of a fire that killed her family. Imogen is convinced she’s just a sad and angry child struggling to cope with her loss.

But Ellie’s foster parents and teachers are starting to fear her. When she gets upset, bad things seem to happen. And as Imogen gets closer to Ellie, she may be putting herself in danger…

Completely engrossed, I devoured this in two sittings and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. An exhilarating read‘ – Nina Pottell

I’m delighted to welcome author Jenny Blackhurst to the blog to answer some questions about the depiction of foster care in The Foster Child.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I was made redundant in 2011 when my first child was 4 weeks old. I started writing as a way to cope with the changes I was going through being a new mum and finding myself unemployed and signed my first contract in 2013. I never thought for a second I’d be a full time writer but I left my day job in August 2017 and am lucky enough to write for a living now.

  • What made you choose to write about a foster child?

I think that Ellie’s problems with fitting in to her new town are amplified by the family tragedy she has been through, and her feeling of being completely alone, so her being an orphan in foster care was vital to the story. Her being in foster care is just another way that she is different and alien to the children of the small village.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Not myself personally. I have people close to me who have direct experience with the care system but that’s not my story to tell.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

I was most aware of this when creating Imogen, who is absolutely determined to help Ellie because of the stereotyping she is facing. Imogen isn’t the most professional of people but everything she does (at least at the start of the book) is because she is sympathetic to the shortcomings of a system that might not always work for every child. Readers often tell me they just want to give Ellie a hug so I think I’ve managed to make her a sympathetic character.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m currently working on a book called The Night She Died, about a woman who throws herself off a cliff on her wedding day.

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

I only really read crime fiction at the moment, mainly psychological thrillers and to be honest I’m not reading about any diversity in characters whatsoever. Every book I currently read seems to be about a white woman in her late 20’s early 30’s, it would be nice to see a cast that represents the diverse society we live in. Having said that, I think we need to address diversity in the writing community as a whole, because I don’t feel our books will be truly representative until our authors are.

  • If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Marnie Riches writes a wonderful series of crime novels set in Manchester – Born Bad and The Cover Up which have a cast of white, black, Asian, Jewish and Irish characters. Her George McKenzie series split between London and Amsterdam has a black lead character.

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

There are far too many to choose one! I grew up loving The Faraway Tree so my favourite characters were Bessie, Fanny and Joe, but I also wanted to be Nancy Drew, or Fatty from Enid Blyton’s Mystery series.

 

Follow Jenny on Twitter: @JennyBlackhurst

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Safe With Me by Grace Lowrie

Grace Lowrie has worked as a sculptor, prop maker and garden designer, and had her debut romance novel Kindred Hearts published in 2015. A lover of rock music, art nouveau design, blue cheese and grumpy ginger tomcats, Grace is also an avid reader of fiction – preferring coffee and a sinister undercurrent, over tea and chick lit. When not making prop costumes or hanging out with her favourite nephews, she continues to write stories from her Hertfordshire home.

Safe With Me is an emotional and evocative story about the deepest bonds of friendship.

Abandoned as children, Kat and Jamie were inseparable growing up in foster care. But their bond couldn’t protect them forever.

From a troubled upbringing to working in a London greasy spoon, Kat’s life has never been easy. On the surface Jamie’s living the high-life, but appearances can be deceiving.

When they unexpectedly reunite, the bond they share becomes too intense to ignore. But as secrets come back to haunt them, are they destined to be separated once more?

Perfect for fans of Hilary Boyd and Nicholas Sparks.

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome author Grace Lowrie to the blog to answer some questions about the depiction of foster care in Safe With Me.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

As a child I was always reading books and writing short stories and poems, but as I got older my time became monopolised by other interests – music, art and gardening to name a few. Recently the idea for a story came to me and the characters started holding conversations in my head – it was a case of write it down or go slowly mad so I began writing in earnest. I never considered what I might do with resulting 100k word manuscript, but an author friend was kind enough to introduce me to her publisher, Accent Press, who then offered me a contract for what became my debut novel, Kindred Hearts. I still feel incredibly grateful and it has spurred me on to write a series of three more novels, of which Safe With Me is the first.

  • What made you choose to write about characters that had been in foster care?

I am fascinated by the bonds we form as children and their potential power. For most of us, our closest relationships are automatically with our parents and siblings in our early years, and we take them for granted to a certain extent. But it occurred to me that if you are abandoned as a child, you must have to find enough strength and trust to forge your own meaningful relationships. As I considered this, two fictional characters emerged in my imagination – two children who relied upon each other in care and then lost touch. I wanted to explore this bond between them and weave it into a love story, because I’m a romantic at heart.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Not directly no. I come from a small, close-knit family and each member feels vital to my existence. It is perhaps my fear of losing them that makes me so sympathetic towards, and curious about, those whom have had to manage without the family they were born into, whatever the reason.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

Very aware. As children we have very little control over our upbringing so it is unfair to make negative assumptions about somebody based on their childhood – yet it happens all the time. Both my protagonists in Safe With Me conceal their pasts for exactly this reason. For me the focus of my story is the relationship between the two characters, and the positivity and strength they gain from it, rather than the fact they were in care.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

The next book in my Wildham series, Before We Fall, is due to be published in August. It follows the relationship between two characters dealing with mortality and substance abuse, among other things, but is more romantic than it sounds!

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

I think nowadays there is a greater awareness of diversity than ever before. With the explosion of self-publishing it is possible to find and read books featuring characters from all walks of life, and the internet makes it easier than ever to track down the subjects you are interested in. That said, most mainstream literature still has a way to go to really promote diverse characters in a positive light. In my view the elderly, for example, are often widely under-represented and disrespected, despite the considerable experience, wit and wisdom they have to offer.

  • If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

I recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and heartily recommend it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I have so many! but today I’m going to say Roald Dahl’s Matilda, for being brave and precocious, despite her neglectful parents.

 

Thanks to Accent Press for the review copy.

Follow Grace on Twitter: @GraceLowrie1

 

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A conversation about Tracy Beaker…

Jacqueline Wilson’s new children’s novel, My Mum Tracy Beaker is due to be published October 2018. In an interview with The Observer, Wilson revealed, that it was after seeing mothers reading The Story of Tracy Beaker, to their children, that she came up with the idea. “…I thought: if we were in real time, Tracy herself would be in her 30s. And I’ve always thought that, even though Tracy had lots of problems in her life and a pretty rubbish mum who was never there for her, Tracy herself would be a good mum, no matter what.” The book is narrated from the perspective of Tracy’s daughter, Jess.

Tracy, who in the 1991 bestseller chronicled her childhood in a care home nicknamed the “dumping ground”, is now trying her best to raise a child on a low income in an expensive city and a materialistic world. As a single mother who is in and out of work, she struggles to make ends meet and lives in a housing association flat, similar to the one Wilson herself grew up in Kingston upon Thames, south-west London. “It’s a setting I feel really comfortable in.” Wilson goes on to say she wanted a realistic sequel. Adding: “How many young women without much education earn enough, with a daughter, to be able to buy their own home in London today? Being Tracy, she wants to be independent, but with a child, how can she be? So she’s having to scratch around.”

There is huge excitement as fans look forward to finding out what became of one of the most popular characters in children’s literature. But not everyone is looking forward to the new book:

I was disappointed. Tracy Beaker was back, not as I thought she would be, i.e. an adult with a degree in social work, but as a single mum fighting to make ends meet. It would seem Wilson ignored what happened in the TV series. Nothing wrong with single mums or council estates, except that as Tracy Beaker was the first child to be portrayed in care with an absolutely huge following, I wondered why the author was reinforcing a care stereotype – single mum on the dole here, rather than drug addict, criminal, or homeless (as far as we know).

Following the announcement, a heated discussion broke out on Social Media and in particular amongst the care experienced community:

Ashley Cameron, honours student at Stirling University and researcher for former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale MSP, said: “The amount of times I was asked ‘is your life like Tracy Beaker?’ was infuriating. Jacqueline Wilson needs to realise that the stigma still exists for care experienced young people and she is reinforcing that stigma with her new instalment.”

Yasmin Jade Barton: I used to get sick of kids in my school saying they ‘wished they could be in care because Tracey Beaker makes it look like fun.’ Kids used to ask me if I lived at the dumping ground all the time… Couldn’t even bare to tell them the horrible reality that kids in care face. The show especially did nothing but solidify further stereotypes about kids in care, and I personally find it borderline offensive. This follow on book has just reinforced that Tracey was always destined to amount to nothing, that growing up in care meant she wasn’t successful & that she’s still unhappy.”

Sophia: “I think the books are damaging, they glorify serious subjects and dilute them down to child level understanding, but without explaining how wrong the actions happening are.”

Taz Trev: “Tracey Beaker did contribute to stereotyping “care kids” it is also seriously triggering for those that had horrendous experiences in care homes. For many of us the experience was anything but “Tracey Beaker” and to now progress her to a single mum is for me just reinforcing the stereotype.”

What seems apparent from these comments is that there is a conflict between the lived experience and the fictional story. The Tracy Beaker novels and TV series are written or rather set up with a particular conflict that is resolved either at the end of a chapter or episode more often idealistic rather than realistic. Real life in a children’s home isn’t like that. Life in care is tough, there is rarely a happy ever after or certainly not one that happens very quickly. And yet we all want that happy ever after…don’t we?

My research is about changing the narrative around the stereotypes/statistics that say care leavers end up in negative situations. I want to see care experienced people given success stories not re-inforce the old yarns. When I say success I don’t necessarily mean all jingling, stars and banners, but the more ordinary, everyday life; looking after oneself and one’s family like thousands already do.

Not all care experienced people disliked Tracy Beaker:

Billie Jane – who started the initial conversation on Care Leavers Rock* said: “I remember as a child loving Tracey Beaker and being asked by all my friends if my children’s home was like the ‘Dumping Ground’ and being compared to Tracey! I know it’s aimed at 7-11 but tbh given the plot…I may have to read the new book to find out how Jacqueline Wilson feels growing up in Care impacted on Tracy! I’d say Jacqueline Wilson has always been sensitive to the whole Looked After Child thing and I think that came across in the original book. It was brave of her to even attempt it… it’s how CBBC portrayed the home in the TV series that was the problem… plus this book is actually from the perspective of her daughter, not Tracey!”

Lisa Cherry, trauma trainer, said something similar: “I’m really intrigued by all the negativity around this. She is a writer, one of the few writing about ‘care’. She initially wrote about care when nobody was interested or dared to have a go. Of course there are problems with writing about something that is by definition harrowing and showing it to the masses but I think the potential for her to raise a discussion about transgenerational trauma is a very welcome one. Without getting it wrong, how can anyone get it right? How can we talk about it? She is brave for even daring to tread in this space.”

Megan Sutherland: “I loved the Jacqueline Wilson books. I liked that the characters were dealing with things I was and helped me feel less lonely and weird. But I hated my friends assuming that that was what my life was actually like and that everything could be easily solved and would always have happy endings too.”

Children in care nowadays are encouraged to reach their potential, to go to university, and so on – so the grown up Tracy Beaker, scratching to make ends meet, in and out of work; from such an established author, made me uncomfortable. There has been a huge move to improve how care experienced people are seen and remove the stigma that sometimes surrounds them. But, am I being idealistic wanting a more positive care experience representation?

Chloe Hamilton feature writer for inews, after quoting the usual suspects – ‘the statistics’, went on to say “Turning Tracy Beaker into an X Factor super star, a high-flying human rights lawyer, or a self-made entrepreneur might have made for an aspirational children’s story but it wouldn’t be realistic.”

[Call out here for all the care experienced lawyers and self-made entrepreneurs – because there are a huge amount out there.]

This for me is part of what’s wrong with the care narrative and why I was disappointed with Wilson’s latest premise. The Tracy Beaker story was aspirational, even at the start of the story she was already a star and famous! She set herself up as a writer and used her ability to imagine different outcomes to her life to change her ‘care’ narrative.

Award winning author of Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2014), Kerry Hudson, says: It is impossible for me to overstate the importance of positive role models, positive outcomes in narratives for young disadvantaged people living on the edges. They provide a window of hope, the tools to reach that new horizon and, when I was young and at risk of slipping into dysfunction entirely, changed and saved my life.

Lisa Cherry said: ‘…for me the bigger picture is around the impact of having been in care upon her own child. Granted, there could have been different ways to do this but transgenerational trauma is difficult to convey in art. I am more interested in how she does that. How do we have that conversation if everyone lives happily after?

Asked if Tracy gets her happy ending, Wilson apparently squirmed, saying: “I don’t want an ‘absolutely everything is quite wonderful’ ending – after all, at the start of the first book Tracy herself says life isn’t a fairy story where everyone lives happily ever after. I’m dealing with adults leading adult lives, and I want to be truthful to all that.”

Overall, what this ongoing discussion illustrates – is that care experienced people don’t want negative portrayals and that is a hugely positive thing. It doesn’t mean success or failure. It means they want change for themselves, they want inspirational and aspirational stories about themselves and don’t want to be portrayed as victims of their pasts.

Tracy Beaker was published in 1990 when there wasn’t any representation of the child in care. Wilson has never forgotten the stigma that was attached to children in care in the 1990s, and said there were a lot of problems with the books initially because they dealt with this subject matter. It was difficult to sell merchandise and the rights to the books because Beaker was not seen as aspirational, she says.

Divorce, child abuse and parental neglect all feature regularly in Wilson’s bestselling children’s books. And what we do know is that Wilson’s own childhood was unhappy. In 2007, Wilson’s autobiography Jacky Daydream was published. Writing in the Guardian, she said: “My childhood wasn’t happy. I could have written a misery memoir for adults with lots of harrowing details, but it seems a little sad and pathetic to be whimpering about such long-ago things. It’s not elegant and it’s not even wise, when there could be all sorts of repercussions. In my fiction for children I deal with worrying topics like divorce, death and domestic violence, but I always try to write from a child’s point of view and don’t dwell too insistently on disturbing incidents. I used this method as a template for my autobiography.”

After her mother died in 2015, Wilson opened up even more about her unhappy childhood. What this tells us, is that with the sort of traumatic background that Wilson had, she could easily have been a child in care. That is quite a revelation. Though not a surprise. And a reminder that as readers it’s good to respond with kindness rather than anger to things that may trigger us from the past. An author who writes with such knowing, in my opinion, often has personal knowledge even if that knowledge is transposed through fiction.

There are already a huge amount of negative care stereotypes in fiction, an over-abundance of kids from care or adopted who become serial killers in crime fiction. If writers must use ‘other’, then carrying out impeccable research and making a story believable, rather than lazy use of a stereotype, is a must.

So far Wilson has not commented on what could possibly be perceived as a negative response to the news about the new novel. And we still have some time to go before we can read the new book as it’s not published until later this year. Let’s be absolutely clear and fair, we can’t really have a proper discussion or answer any questions until the book is published and we can see what the whole storyline is.

What needs to happen now? It would be a really positive move if publishers and writers were to organise a conversation around care in fiction, like they have for other less featured diverse characters and include the care experienced reader too, it’s long overdue.

 

 

*Care Leavers Rock is a group for people who were in care at some point in their lives. They build lasting friendships and relationships, answer questions and queries about leaving care issues from education to living alone. They have care leavers who work directly with children and young people as professionals and they also have care leavers who left care a long time ago but still have a special voice. All care experienced people are welcome.

 

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Interview with Jacqui Grant from The Beat

Thanks to Jacqui Grant from The Beat for interviewing me Sunday 11th March about my Doctoral Research – Hiraeth: Finding a Fictional Home and care experience in fiction. You can hear the interview here.

In 2012, I met Lemn Sissay for the first time when I attended his event, From Pip to Potter. I also met Josie Pearse who was in the process of completing her PhD at Cardiff University and was investigating historical foundling narratives in fiction and their place in the foundations of English Literature. I was inspired to continue my studies and start a PhD. It took a few years to get this organised and I’m now two years in and enjoying the support from my supervisor Rebecca Smith and being a doctoral researcher at University of Southampton. The research looks at care experience in fiction plus I’m writing an autobiographical novel inspired by my own leaving care in the mid 1970s.

There are currently 94,000 children in care in the UK. Over 60% of children in care are looked after due to abuse and neglect. Children in care are 4 times more likely than their peers to have a mental health difficulty. 

They might be living:

  • with foster parents
  • at home with their parents under the supervision of social services
  • in residential children’s homes
  • other residential settings like schools or secure units.

They might have been placed in care voluntarily by parents struggling to cope. Or, children’s services may have intervened because a child was at significant risk of harm.

Having spent my childhood in care and experienced stereotyping, stigma and labelling from a young age, I grew up saying, but, but, but…At the age of 11, I told a social worker, I want to write a story about my life…I’m still writing.

Here’s the link to the short story that was mentioned on the programme and recently published in Wards journal: Fallen Women

Rosie writes about the things most important to us – family, relationships and home. Her story “Fallen Women” is a devastating tale of a woman meeting the grandparents who rejected her. It’s a story of hypocrisy and loss, but also of endurance and how people can sometimes survive against all odds and make build new families, the families they deserve. – Rebecca Smith

A brilliant story, Rosie. I was gripped all the way through and loved the way it ended. Congratulations on its well-deserved publication – Joanna Campbell

 

Enjoy!

 

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Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

Stephanie Butland lives in Northumberland, close to the place where she grew up. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and loves being close to the sea. She’s thriving after cancer.

Loveday is so spiky and likeable. I so loved Archie, Nathan and the book shop and the unfolding mystery’
Carys Bray, author of A Song For Issy Bradley and The Museum of You

THIS BOOKSHOP KEEPS MANY SECRETS . . .

Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look carefully, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are some things Loveday will never show you.

Into her refuge – the York book emporium where she works – come a poet, a lover, a friend, and three mysterious deliveries, each of which stirs unsettling memories.

Everything is about to change for Loveday. Someone knows about her past and she can’t hide any longer. She must decide who around her she can trust. Can she find the courage to right a heartbreaking wrong? And will she ever find the words to tell her own story?

It’s time to turn the pages of her past . . .

I loved ‘Lost for Words’ and was delighted to read about a care experienced character who was intelligent, articulate, a lover of words and books and of course feisty, vulnerable and not a stereotype. So it’s my absolute pleasure to welcome Stephanie to the blog today to answer some questions about the representation of Loveday Cardrew.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

It took a while! I wanted to be a writer when I was a child, and studied English to degree level. Then real life took over and, though I always wrote, it became more of a back-burner activity than a burning passion. That all changed when I was diagnosed with a breast cancer in 2008. I started a blog, which not only helped me to manage and process what was going on in my life, but also led to my first book deal. I wrote two memoirs about my dance with cancer, then turned to fiction. ‘Lost For Words’ was my third published novel.

  • What made you choose to write about a care character?

For me, novels happen when three or four separate ideas get stuck together, like tissues and toffees in the bottom of a handbag! So when someone told me a story about an adoption went wrong I started to think about what it would be to be thrust into the care system when you believed that the adults in your life were as unshakeable as the earth you stood on.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Not directly. Many years ago, though, I worked with jobseekers who had been unemployed for a long time; many of those had been through the care system in some shape or form. They made a big impression on me.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

Very aware – though that is true of any character I write. An important stage in the writing of anything is talking to people who are living the life you are imagining. For ‘Lost For Words’ I spoke to women who had been fostered at the age Loveday was and during the period Loveday was, social workers, and long- and short-term foster parents.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

In April. look out for ‘The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae’, about a young woman who has had the heart transplant she has needed for all of her life, and now needs to learn to live. Right now I’m working on a novel set in the second wave of the feminist movement. It’s great fun to research, though I am shocked to find that the 1980s, which feel like yesterday to me, were actually thirty years ago!

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

I think if we want more diverse literature – and we should, because literature helps us to understand the world – we need more diverse writers. Publishing isn’t as accessible as it could be; within publishing, many people are aware of this and working towards changing it. The internet has been a great disruptor of the status quo in that respect.

  • If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

I don’t think we recommend on basis of diversity, I think we recommend on the basis of the novels we love and the characters that make us feel something, or show us a different world. On that basis I’d recommend ‘A Tale For The Time Being’ by Ruth Ozecki’ and ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel. ‘The Gap Of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson is wonderful, too – her take on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale deals with the themes of adoption and abandonment very sensitively, and the writing (as always with Winterson) is breathtaking.

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved Laura from ‘The Little House On The Prairie’. She had such a good heart and so often got things wrong, and I felt for her so much.

 

Thanks to Zaffre for the review copy.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @under_blue_sky

Stephanie’s latest novel, The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae will be published 19th April 2018.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

Eleanor Oliphant

No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter…It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.

At the office where Eleanor has worked in accounts for nine years, she’s an outsider and a bit of joke. People talk about how weird she is behind her back. It’s at a works do that she falls in love from afar with the singer of a band. She has to wait until Monday to find out more about him as she doesn’t have a computer at home. Her work computer crashes and this is how she meets Raymond Gibbons, a down to earth kind man who smells of cooking and cigarettes.

He loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet. A lot of unattractive men seem to walk in such a manner, I’ve noticed. I’m sure the training shoes don’t help.

Eleanor struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. She is a creature of habit wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day, buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend and is a bit of a loner.

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.

Closed off, alone, and unfamiliar with the world, the reader discovers Eleanor has spent time in care and has to endure visits from social workers who stare at her scars. Though she still speaks to the caustic-tongued “Mummy” who the reader suspects is incarcerated, every week on the same day at the same time.

Mummy always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.

One simple act of kindness pierces the walls Eleanor has built around herself. And with the start of a friendship with Raymond, she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.

After they witness an old man who falls in the street, Raymond invites Eleanor to visit him in hospital. Whilst getting ready she ponders whether she could become a musician’s muse and this in turn leads her to reflect on her image both internal and external and we learn that Eleanor survived a fire and emerged like a ‘little phoenix’.

There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.

Despite her routine, it’s the obsession with the imaginary love of her life, a singer, whom she hopes “Mummy” will approve of, that leads Eleanor to start to make changes to her appearance. She decides to make herself over from the outside and work her way in.

…that’s what often happens in nature, after all. The shedding of skin, rebirth. Animals, birds and insects can provide such useful insights. If I’m ever unsure as the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do? Or, ‘How would a salamander respond to this situation?’ Invariably, I find the right answer.

After a visit to a beauty parlour and much pain – something she tells us she is familiar with – she is horrified at the Hollywood bikini wax, this was not the answer she was looking for.

I had come here to start to become a normal woman, and instead she’d made me look like a child…I pulled my trousers on, consoled by the thought that the hair would surely grow back before our first intimate encounter. I didn’t tip Kayla on the way out.

Humour works to reduce the pathos and strangeness of a character who speaks with a comical and strange mix of archaic Victorian primness and precision. At work Eleanor resents having to contribute to leaving presents, baby gifts and special birthdays.

Whoever had chosen the engagement gift had selected wine glasses and a matching carafe. Such accoutrements are unnecessary when you drink vodka – I simply use my favourite mug…it has a photograph of a moon-face man on one side…Along the top, in strange yellow font, it say Top Gear. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.

Food is also an issue for Eleanor and she remembers being invited to a friend’s house where they had fish fingers and beans, which she had never seen before. And when asked by the family what she usually ate, recited a list of rather precocious list of cuisine.

Asparagus veloute with a poached duck egg and hazelnut oil. Bouillabasse and homemade rouille. Honey-glazed poussin with celeriac fondants. Fresh truffles when in season, shaved over cepts and buttered linguine…Of course after I was taken into care, I rapidly became acquainted with a new culinary family; Aunt Bessie, Captain Birdseye and Uncle Ben all featured regularly…It was one of the ways in which my old life and new life differed.

Hilarious and tragic. Eleanor’s past relationship with food highlights how mealtimes, food, or even just new living patterns can be torture for young people in care where everything feels strange and is so different from whatever they have been used to.

‘Being in care wasn’t always much fun. I mean, it was completely fine, I had everything I needed, but it wasn’t all picnics and pillowfights…They call young people in care “looked after”. But every child should be “looked after”…it really ought to be the default.’

The mystery of what really happened in Eleanor’s past is also a mystery to herself which keeps the reader interested in her future. As clues are dangled, events that took place begin to unfold.

This is not memoir or autobiography. It’s a fictionalised portrayal of the legacy of trauma, a writer who has done her research homework around the silence that accompanies this and the ultimate loneliness that difference and reclusiveness can create. Eleanor’s story is all too familiar to those who have experienced the ‘care’ system, arriving traumatised and often leaving even more broken. Told with warmth, humour, and a sad poignancy, weird, quirky, and eccentric, Ms Oliphant will have you laughing and crying simultaneously. Here is a character you will really care about.

 

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The Orphans by Annemarie Neary

Annemarie Neary’s novels are The Orphans (2017) and Siren (2016), both from Hutchinson/Windmill Books, and A Parachute in the Lime Tree (2012) from The History Press Ireland. Her short stories have been published in many places in Ireland, the UK and the US, most recently in the award-winning anthology The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland. Her own awards for short fiction include the Michael McLaverty, Bryan MacMahon, Columbia Journal and Posara prizes. Irish-born, Annemarie is a former lawyer and lives in south London with her family.

The latest novel, The Orphans, is about family, loss, grief and obsession. Consisting of many layers, the novel explores the effects of abandonment, of loss and childhood trauma.

Neary is a fine prose writer and The Orphans is a very well-written book – markedly so for this genre… The ending is artful and beautifully ambiguous, and as mentioned, the writing is excellent.’ – Sunday Independent

Eight-year-old Jess and her little brother were playing at the water’s edge when their parents vanished. For hours the children held hands and waited for them to return. But nobody ever came back. Years later, Jess has become a locker of doors. Now a lawyer and a mother, she is determined to protect the life she has built around her. But her brother Ro has grown unpredictable, elusive and obsessive. When new evidence suggests that their mother might be alive, Ro reappears, convinced that his sister knows more than she claims. And then disturbing things start to happen.

I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome author Annemarie Neary to the blog to answer some questions about the depiction of the two orphans in her latest novel also called The Orphans.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

Like many other Dublin students with literary pretensions, I started off by writing terrible poetry in Bewley’s café. I think that put me off, actually! It was years later that I started to write fiction. I joined a weekly writing group (in North London, as it happens) and formed the habit of fiction — reading aloud every week, critiquing other people’s work and learning so much from their feedback.

When I stopped working as a lawyer, I decided it was now or never on the writing front. I became much more focused, wrote constantly, and began to realise that I had no material at all until I’d developed something with a shape.

I had a big stroke of beginners’ luck when my first published story won the Bryan MacMahon short story award at Writers’ Week, a long-established Irish literary festival. That gave me the confidence to keep going. In 2012, A Parachute in the Lime Tree (set in Ireland in 1941 and related to that first story) was published by The History Press Ireland. I continued to write short fiction, had lots of other stories published and broadcast here and there, won some more awards.

I signed with my agent, Zoe Waldie, a couple of years ago and my first two suspense novels, Siren and The Orphans, were published by Hutchinson (Penguin Random House) in 2016 and 2017. I’m currently working on my fourth novel, and on some new short stories.

  • What made you choose to write about orphans?

For me, fictional choices are rarely conscious – instinct and intuition seem to matter more. That said, this is a rare case where I can pinpoint the root of a piece of fiction. Years ago, a friend told me about someone she’d met who, along with a sibling, had apparently been abandoned on a tropical beach in childhood. The fate of their missing parents was never resolved, and the children took very different paths in adulthood. My friend didn’t have much more detail and I was never able to find anything on Google, but those two children wouldn’t let me go. I became deeply interested in what might have lain ahead for them.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

My first reaction was no, but actually I do have some indirect experience. When we were children, my parents used to invite two young sisters from a religious-run orphanage to stay with us at Christmas and Easter and for a week or so over the summer. We had no family connection with the girls, and I’m not entirely sure how it came about. I think my mother must just have contacted the orphanage – it was probably a much less formal matter back then. Their mother was still alive but unable to care for them, and I do remember feeling very embarrassed about how privileged we must have seemed.

My mother is still in touch with the younger of the two girls, with whom she formed a close bond. The relationship with the older sister was less successful – I think she felt uncomfortable and out-of-place. She was older than us, and very silent. I do remember picking the girls up, about 30 miles away in the nearest big city, and feeling a complicated mix of guilt, dread and sadness. I wonder now how much say the girls had in the matter. Probably very little.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

My orphans are raised by their mother’s sister, so they haven’t had precisely the same experience as children brought up outside their own family. Moreover, the mystery surrounding the fate of their mother means that they are not conclusively orphaned. While I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon you mention, something of this has seeped into the novel. Ro tells his story to any woman who will listen, but Jess is much more circumspect about her past, largely for this reason. They are both very much aware of the various orphan stereotypes, and Ro in particular ‘tries on’ various role models for size.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I am working on something set overseas, at the shadowy margins of the oil industry, with two strong female characters – a geologist who stumbles into a mire of intrigue and corruption and the interpreter with whom she is forced into an uncertain alliance. I’m still finishing the first draft, so I should probably leave it at that for now.

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

As soon as I declare them missing, you can be sure that they’re there somewhere! I saw a very interesting piece of art recently —  ‘Food for Thought’ by a young Saudi woman artist, Maha Mullah. I’d be interested to read a novel from that perspective.

  • If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved all those orphan girls – from Heidi to Anne of Green Gables to Pippi Longstocking – for their free spirits.

 

Thanks to Annemarie for the interview.

Follow Annemarie on Twitter: @Annemarieneary1

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Your Life Your Story

22554959_10154841869488414_8217166459113465412_nHome! Hiraeth! A fantastic few days running Your Life Your Story as part of National Care Leavers Week 2017. A trauma informed writing workshop with Lisa Cherry and organised by Amanda Knowles, Trustee and Director of The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities and Richard Rollinson, The Barns Centre Executive Director, in Toddington. We had 14 care-experienced adults with an age range from 18-59. They were described as: “…extraordinary, and courageous people”. They were this and much more. Inspiring and inspirational. Warm and funny. Resilient. Beautiful human beings giving to the world and living truly exceptional lives.

It was a strange feeling running a workshop for care experienced individuals in a building that was once a children’s home. This was our Hiraeth, we had come home and the air was filled with expectation.

Writing our personal stories is the most vulnerable kind of writing we can do. We fear being laughed at, rejected, or that our words will be met with silence. And in turn, we ourselves remain silent. And yet there are a lot of care-experienced people who want to share their stories, for all sorts of reasons. Personal, therapeutic, for family, for history and publication. When I started the PhD, looking at the representation of care leavers in fiction, there was very little published about care leavers, but over the last few years there has been an explosion of new stories, new voices, often finally being heard after years of being invisible.

Some of the books I used or referenced in no particular order, included:

Novels:

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

Island by Jane Rogers

The Panoptican by Jenni Fagan

All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

The Seven Sister by Alex Wheatle

Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

Memoir:

Plot 29 by Allan Jenkins

Autobiography:

The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt

Fifty-One Moves by Ben Ashcroft

Non-fiction or Informational Text:

The Brightness of Stars by Lisa Cherry

Books about writing:

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

A Novel in a Year by Doughty, Louise

We tell bits of our story in order to have relationships. It would be difficult to have relationships and friendships without having some version of a life story floating around. The act of telling our story acts as a framing method or even a re-framing of previous life experience.

I’m interested in re-framing, whether that is fictional, autobiographical, memoir, or nonfictional. It gives a semblance of making sense of the chaos left behind. Stories are life, life is stories. A life story is written in pencil, not ink and can be rubbed out and changed. You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story.

It’s also important to realize that you’re not just living out your story, you’re actually in charge of it. Even if it is a terrible story, which is hard to share; the act of sharing, writing and rewriting gives a new realisation and possible resolution. That awful sense of being unable to change what went before can suddenly be lifted. For example, a simple act of changing point of view, can suddenly release a narrator and give them a distance and freedom to write their story.

We can take control of our narratives – our stories, by how they are told, what’s included, what’s left out. We can change the ‘single story’, the single narrative. And the truly exciting thing about this is that you can put out a new version of yourself and live your way into it.

Moments:

A young man who didn’t want to hold a pen, let alone write his story, transformed into a confident person who stood up and read out his writing.

Watching people change their ‘I’ into ‘he’ or ‘she’, third person narratives and finding their voices and freedom from their pasts.

Hearing a woman and mother, give herself the words that meant she finally found the words to write about her inability to honour her mother’s tragic death.

Seeing a man who could only doodle his thoughts and feelings suddenly break through and not only put together sentences, but paragraphs, chapters and is now half way through a novel.

#NCLW2017 Your Life Your Story. The story starts now and is written in chalk not ink. Changing the narrative.

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EVERY Child Leaving Care Matters

Some of you may remember the Every Child Leaving Care Matters (ECLCM) campaign started by Ben Ashcroft, myself, Ian Dickson, Ed Nixon and Lisa Cherry back in December 2013*. This was when the government announced its two-tier system for children in care. Those in foster care would be allowed to remain with their foster carers until they were 21. But those in children’s homes were not included and would still have to leave between 16-18, even though arguably the residential sector cares for possibly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people who may be unable, or indeed choose not to be fostered.

Since then we have seen the issues around children in care explode throughout the UK which is fantastic and needed to happen.

Ben Ashcroft, has steadfastly kept in his mind the children from a residential home who were with him when the government first made the announcement. ‘What about us,’ they said. ‘What about us?’ From that day Ben determined their voices would be heard.

Ben is author of 51 Moves a story that chronicles the harrowing experiences of the social care and welfare system and his journey between 9 and 18 years of age and its impact. By the time he ‘went straight’ at 17 years old, he had been moved 51 times and had 33 convictions. Though as he says: ‘None since’.

He has campaigned for many improvements to a child’s experience in care including getting rid of the awful dustbin bags used to transport their belonging. And he is only too aware of the criminalisation of the children of the state: “Having children convicted for crimes too young is a bad move. Unless it is absolutely necessary then no child should be locked up. Offences that are minor should be dealt with within the house be it foster care or residential care. We need to remember children only get one childhood and one life. Convictions wreck futures for mistakes made as a child.”

Four years later and the ECLCM campaign is still going. They have had meetings with Sir Martin Narey as part of the National review of residential children’s homes. They have a formal affiliation with the Care Leavers Association. They submitted a report to and appeared before the Education Select Committee, ‘Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options’, in 2013. And despite the committee recommending that the ‘Staying Put Option’ should be available to all children leaving care, the government ignored their Select Committee.

Since then ECLCM have submitted to other committees, attended APPG’s on Looked After Children where there was of course overwhelming support for the extension of the right to ‘stay put’ to all looked after children.

Though the petition continues to grow, it is no longer the primary focus of the campaign. It is a political matter and to succeed, ECLCM must engage with politicians. There are at least 60 MPs who openly support the campaign notably Bill Esterson, Emma Lewell-Buck, Sarah Champion, Alan Johnson, Craig Whittaker and George Howarth.

ECLCM took part in a dialogue/discussion with the DfE about what ‘Staying Close’ might look like. Subsequently, ‘Caring Teams’ has evolved and have enabled ECLCM to have some ongoing influence in the future Staying Close/Put Pilots and their evaluation.

It is very clear that this government will not consider Staying Put for all residential care leavers. Through discussions and negotiations the ECLCM involvement has led to tangible improvements in the proposed framework for the eight ‘Staying Close’ pilots.

Young people leaving care will be able to ‘stay close’ to the children’s home they are living in at the time they are due to leave care. Where young people are placed away from their ‘home’ area, these ‘out of borough’ ‘Staying Close’ placements must be close to the children’s home they are living in not in their home Local Authority area.

The ECLCM team have transitioned from an exclusive demand for ‘residential care to 21’ to a current focus on Staying Close – as described in the blueprint Caring Teams. Staying Close is not a final solution – but a major step forward. As part of these discussions ECLCM are working on a paper for Caring Teams.

Ben’s personal journey has been extremely hard at times as he battles with his mental health. He says of his recent experience: “Luckily I went through intensive treatment with a psychotherapist, psychiatrist and counsellors. Those professionals helped me get my life back together with a lot of hard work and conversations.”

The cost of caring by those with huge hearts cannot be underestimated. And in my personal experience, care experienced people have some of the hugest hearts I’ve ever seen. After taking time to recover, Ben decided that walking would be really good for his mental health. Not one to do things by halves, he is walking over 250 miles from Halifax to Parliament!

Ben decided to walk from Halifax to Parliament to spread the word of the ECLCM campaign. Ben left Halifax on Sunday 24 September to walk to London stopping off at Littleborough, Manchester, Haydock, Sefton, Liverpool, Chester, Nantwich, Eccleshall, Cannock, Dordon, Lutterworth, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Dunstable, St Albans before arriving in Parliament this Wednesday 11 October. If you want to join Ben for the last couple of legs of the walk, contact him via Twitter.

When Ben arrives in Parliament he will be addressing MP’s and supporters of ECLCM at Portcullis House.

 

Follow Ben on Twitter: @AshcroftBen

Follow ECLCM on Twitter: @ResCareTo21

 

*Myself, Lisa Cherry and Ian Dickson have since left ECLCM but continue to support the campaign and original principals of all children in care being treated equally.

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