This week’s guest on the Smorgasbord is children’s fiction author, Barbara Henderson. I first met Barbara at the XpoNorth creative industries festival in Inverness in 2016 when she was in the process of pulling together a group of people interested in setting up a book festival in the city. Five short months later, fuelled largely by Barbara’s enthusiasm and dedication, the first NessBookFest was launched. In between the two festivals, her first novel, Fir For Luck, was published.
Hi Barbara, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Your debut novel, Fir For Luck, is set during the Highland Clearances. How did you research the book?
A combination. I stumbled across the ruins of Ceannabeinne, the village where my book is set, on holiday in 2013 and took photos of all the display signs. That was the basic outline of events. I had to twist it into the plot, of course. That meant filling in gaps by researching history websites, taking a whole carload of books out of my local library, visiting museums, returning to the places I portray and just sitting there, breathing in and out, as a 19th century character would have done, hearing, seeing and smelling what they did. In the end, I was cheeky and asked a local historian to read the manuscript for me. He did, gave me lots of feedback, and I knew then that I could submit the manuscript without any hidden clangers.
Did you come across anything interesting that you couldn’t include?
Probably too many things to mention. I found some very cool ghost-story type accounts featuring a couple of my minor characters which were based on real people. Sadly, the dates didn’t work, so I couldn’t include them in Fir for Luck. But I’m bound to weave them into a storytelling session at some point.
On your website, you say that you are most proud of your stories for children. What did you enjoy reading when you were growing up?
I was a horse-mad kid, so I loved Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. Lindgren was a staple in my house, as were the inevitable triple-helpings of Enid Blyton.
I confess to a childhood passion for Enid Blyton, her Famous Five books in particular. It was probably something to do with the alluring combo of adventure and cake.
What were you like at school?
I was reasonably academic, and bookish. Not so sporty, and definitely not the cool kid. I was the irritating one who had her hand up while the teacher was still speaking (and not always with the right answer). I had a small group of friends, but I’m still in touch with them today.
What is the Barbara Henderson writing method?
Procrastination is my number 1 enemy. I trick myself by going to Velocity, a local café. Somehow, if I am paying for coffee, it focuses the mind and I ‘earn’ it by making a bit of progress. I can then return home and carry on, but by then I’m in the zone already.
No method, sadly, just doing it. I do, however, often leave the last sentence of a writing session unfinished so that it’s easier to come back. I also read everything aloud before I show it to a living soul.
What are you working on right now?
I have finished the first draft of my next novel, a Victorian boy-on-the-run story, featuring Punch & Judy showmen, a huge fire and a murder. I am now at the editing stage and have a deadline to submit in a couple of weeks. I find deadlines absolutely necessary, even if self-imposed. My main challenge at the moment is to find a decent title. I’m a bit lukewarm about everything I have come up with so far.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Completely depends. A few months, once I have the story straight in my head, but it may take several drafts. There is one manuscript which was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize in 2013. It didn’t win, but I may revise it in the future, meaning that it would have taken me six years to write. It’s hard to pin down.
What has been your best writing moment so far?
Hands down the launch of Fir for Luck in Inverness in September 2016. Waterstones was packed, we sold every single one of 80 odd books (even my own copy), and I signed books for the first time in my life. It also hit the Amazon No1 in its category and was the tenth best-selling kids’ book in the whole of Waterstones that day. That was a good day!
A great day, and very well deserved.
Now that you have experienced a some literary success, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Join a crit group. A proper one, where people will tell you the truth about what works and what doesn’t in your writing. I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; a brilliant investment!
Also: the only way to guarantee that it’s never going to happen for you is giving up trying. Keep going, submitting widely, always. It just takes one to make it through.
Is there any one book you would like to have written?
I was very fond of The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff. Very original and evocative. And Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I find Tudor times fascinating.
Good call. Wolf Hall is a literary masterpiece, and leads us neatly on to the next question.
If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
Jesus? Martin Luther King? I have a Christian faith, so the combination of courage and sense of justice and activism and love really appeals. I’d go for a long walk along the coast and quiz them all day.
A few short questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?
I flit. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro left an indelible mark though.
Kazuo Ishiguro and C.S.Lewis
I’m a ricey and spicy kind of girl. I love Thai Curry.
Awakenings and Dead Poets’ Society
Anything by Emily Smith; she’s a genius. And Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. Never fails to make me cry.
What are you reading right now?
To be Continued by James Robertson
Great interview, Barbara. Thanks for taking part. Where can readers find out more about you?