I have interviewed an amazing range of writers on the Smorgasbord, but Debbie Mathews is a smorgasbord unto herself. Blogger, poet, author of short stories, childrens’ fiction, non fiction, and, appropriately for the Smorgasbord, cook books. if that’s not enough, Debbie is also a photographer, gardener and veg grower and is just completing her garden design course and RHS certificate.
Hi Debbie, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the Smorgasbord. That’s some list of activities listed in your introduction, but what are you most passionate about?
I’m passionate about a number of things: writing of course – I’ve written from the age of 5 – and cooking goes without saying, although I suppose that’s really a passion for eating! My interest in gardening started around growing my own food. I’m 110% passionate about the natural world which translates itself into being a green proponent, and is probably where the photography fits in too. I’m also passionate about justice. Inequality of any kind gets my ire up. I campaigned with Amnesty, Oxfam and CND in my early teens. Aged 40, I gave up my well-paid full-time job and re-trained to be an advocate for young people with learning disability. I worked as an advocate for 13 years and continue to champion the rights of anyone who is marginalised or disadvantaged. I think you could call that a passion. As well as being creative, writing can be a brilliant and powerful tool for justice. A blog is a great place to air ones views.
Where did you grow up, and how does it compare to your present home on the north-east coast of Scotland?
I grew up in South West London – about as far away from life on a farm on the north-east coast of Scotland as you can imagine. I was always an outdoor girl though. We all were back then weren’t we? We had tremendous freedom to roam about as kids, even though we lived on the edge of the big smoke. We had a 100ft back garden which backed onto the rec (the local authority recreation ground) although we fronted a major road. As you know, there are few mountains in greater London. I used to cycle to Box Hill with a friend in the holidays (technically out of my allowable range) as well as Richmond Park (also not allowed). We thought of Richmond and Richmond Park as the countryside! Townies, eh? In the summer my dad used to get us up early and we’d rattle down to the south coast. I’ve always been happy by the sea.
What were you like at school?
Quiet. I went to school relatively late due to having to wear calipers. I think my parents had to fight to get me into a ‘normal’ state school because of my various difficulties. I’d never really socialised with kids my own age. My mum was very poorly when I was young and spent a lot of time in hospital. I think that had an impact on my stability as a little person out in the big-wide-world.
I didn’t mix much with girls. I preferred to scuff about with the boys. They seemed less complicated, and you didn’t have to talk too much with them, you could just do stuff. An all-girls senior school was a bit of a shock, as you can imagine. Most of my school reports from that time have reticent written on them. Debbie has good ideas and is a capable student. I wish she’d learn to speak up more. She is very reticent in class. I’m not sure my parents knew what it was, but it was clearly not good, so I always got told off for it.
When did you start writing?
As far back as I can remember. My mum taught me to read and write before I went to school. Initially books were my escape route, then writing. I wrote poems and stories to start with, and letters. Letters were a great discovery. I had pen-pals from various places in the UK and abroad. I also discovered you could write to MPs and councillors, and I harassed both my local council and the government about all sorts of things. Aged 11, I got my first typewriter. After that there was no holding me back.
Do you have any particular writing habits?
This is where I disclose the secrets about my special routines and impart great wisdom…… No, I don’t have any writing habits, I simply write. I’m not being facetious. Really. I write constantly. It’s maddening. Like all my fellow writers, I keep a pen and notepad with me at all times, and it gets used all the time. I always get ideas at inconvenient moments. I’ve taken to making sure my phone is with me when I’m out walking or running, and I’ve learnt how to use the voice recorder so I can capture those ideas which would otherwise be lost by the time I got home. I’m not much of a night owl, so I don’t tend to write in the evening, although I have often put the light back on, after settling down for the night, to write something in my notebook. My writing habit is genuinely to write, write, write. I’m very bad at keeping concentration on one thing, and worse at editing, so I’m a poor example for any writer!
What are your writing hopes and ambitions?
My ambition for this year is to complete my first novel. I’m just over 35,000 words in, aiming for 50 – 60,000. I keep diverting myself with other projects and really need to focus. I also have a non-fiction project which has been on the go for five years. I have actually finished the text now, although because of how disorganised I’ve been in compiling it, I’ll have to spend some serious time getting the referencing organised. I’ve also challenged myself to be braver with my writing this year and am making myself read publicly – a personal loathing – and enter some competitions. I’m not brave enough to tell you if I’ve already entered any…
My hope is that I will find a way for people to read and engage with my writing; that I will somehow connect.
Who has inspired you?
Corny as it may be, my mum is a complete inspiration. She is uneducated: she bought up her younger siblings and skipped school for the most part. She had a dreadful childhood. She has been ill since she was first pregnant and has had all manner of operations and health issues. She’s been a wheelchair user for the past 20 years. In spite of everything, she has always remained cheerful, giving and creative.
Her spelling and grammar are so atrocious that getting a letter from her requires painstaking deciphering; in spite of that – and sometimes because of it – her letters are funny and touching. She is a life-time letter writer and has written hundreds of letters to friends, family and strangers across the UK and beyond.
At 60, she learned to swim, despite a phobia of water (she saw her brother drown when she was 11) and she started reading voraciously in her 70s. A few months ago, aged 82, she learnt to crochet. She has a personal good grace, humility and tenacity it would be hard to emulate.
It is the ordinary- extraordinary people that inspire me the most, in life and in writing. Malala Yousafzai, Naomi Kline, Charlotte Bronte (whom I share a birthday with); Safia Minney – Founder and CEO of pioneering Fair Trade fashion label People Tree; Charlotte Danks – a 21 year old who has opened 25p Food Shops in Cornwall to help struggling families; Hope Gordon, my friends daughter, who had her leg amputated last year after a decade of pain and suffering, and who rows, swims, fund-raises, and last year completed the Dubai 92km Cycle Challenge having only ridden a bike once in the previous 14 years!
What has been your best writing moment so far?
This?! Nah. I don’t know. That’s a really hard question. I won an award at school and got a £25 book token – that was really cool, but best writing moment? No. I’ve had a bits and bobs published over the years, but I think my best writing moment is to come! Something that probably comes close is submitting a manuscript to Emergents last year and being told that my writing was good. That nothing much needed changing. That was a good writing moment. It’s only been surpassed by the moment that I wrote on my blog that I’m a writer. It’s the first time in nearly 40 plus years of writing that I’ve had the confidence to call myself that.
If you could strap yourself into a time machine and travel back through the years to meet your fifteen year old self, what advice would you give her?
Ha! I’ve done this! Well, not really you understand – although it would be pretty damn cool wouldn’t it – it was a writing exercise for the Wee Writers Workshop that I’m part of. The exercise was to write a letter to your younger self. I put it in the fiction section of my blog as it was technically a creative writing exercise, although it’s pretty much all true.
Here’s some of what I wrote to myself: I just wish you’d gained a bit more confidence earlier on; I wish you’d stopped trying to please your dad sooner– you knew in your heart of hearts it was futile – and got over your fear of failure. Let me tell you this – It isn‘t a secret- you are going to fail. You are not going to get through life only having succeeded.
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?
Hmm. Another really hard question. I mean, one person, out of all the millions of people… I’ll need to think about that one. I think all the famous game changers would be too scary, and possibly too boring. I’d be tongue-tied. So, much as I’d like to spend a day with Nelson Mandela or Shakespeare, I think it would be a waste of my time and theirs. Ooo! I know! I know! Jean-Luc Picard. Not Patrick Stewart, you understand, I’d be far too nervous, no, the fictional and fabby Jean-Luc Picard. We would spend the day flitting at warp speed through the galaxy. Well, our bit of the cosmos anyway. I’ve always wanted to see the earth from space. We would sip Earl Grey tea and talk about how the federation managed to get so many different species to collaborate. We would beam down onto the moon and kick a ball about down there. We’d could maybe take a trip in a shuttle around the planets. I’d get him to introduce me to Chakotay…..no wait, getting carried away here; different captain! Ah well. It would be interesting anyway, and I hope we’d have some fun as well.
A few short questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?
Nope. I can’t do that one. I don’t have a favourite book. I’m fickle. I have books I love at the time and perhaps never read again. I have books I re-read, like Thomas Hardy, or Tolkien, usually on the train; although companionable, they’re not my favourites. I have books I would never get rid of – Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird – and others. Recently I’ve enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I like books that engage me – heart and brain – which could pretty much be anything.
The sadly departed Iain Banks, and perhaps Nick Hornby, Anita Desai…No, can’t do that one either.
Well a side-dish rather than a meal: potato dauphinoise. Potatoes, garlic, cream. What’s not to like?
Ha, that made me laugh. Cream is a no go area for me and I’m not a big fan of the spud, but that’s a whole other story. Back to the point – film?
Again, one is too hard! The Graduate, Toy Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption, The Kite Runner, Dead Poet’s Society, You’ve Got Mail. I’ll stop there shall I?
This is impossible! Everyone says eclectic don’t they? It’s true for me too. I listen to everything and anything. I’m not a big classical or country fan, although there are exceptions. I like traditional jazz – New Orleans and Dixie – and am in love with the saxophone: think the intro to Baker Street Or Lily Was Here by Dave Stuart and Candy Duffer. I was a bit of a rock chick in my youth and still love a thrashing guitar and heavy drumbeat. I saw U2 when they first toured as spotty yoofs and still adore them. I love Van the Man, Coldplay, Nina Simone, Elvis Costello, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd (pre ‘Wall’), Avicii and The Stranglers. Currently I’m listening to Travis, Jack Savoretti and Calvin Harris.
What are you reading right now?
That’s easier! A History of the Rain by Niall Williams, Spectacles by Sue Perkins and Great Garden Designs by George Plumptre (which I found in my dentist’s on Tuesday!).
Thanks Debbie. It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you Lorraine. It’s been great fun answering your questions. Thanks for asking me to join your lovely tasty Smorgasbord.