Q: Cameron Spark is the main protagonist in your fantastic new novel, Bright Stars. Did he provide the spark of inspiration for the whole book?
Actually, no. It was Bex that I was initially interested in – the feisty activist who falls for a bad boy wannabe rock star. Cameron was caught up in the cross fire and he sort of grew on me. I feel very protective of him but sometimes he can be frustrating.
Q: Bright Stars features a group of four rather disparate university students who become friends before something happens that blows their friendship apart. What made you choose Cameron to tell the story as opposed to any of the others?
After the first draft of the novel where I used all four main characters’ viewpoints, it became apparent that this story belonged to Cameron and the best way of showing this was to have him as the narrator. Hence the ventriloquist’s act of me, a woman writer from Devon, using a Scottish man’s voice.
Q: One of the many things I love about all your books is the sense of time and place. I can understand why you have focussed on Lancaster University for a lot of the action, but why Edinburgh?
I have simply fallen in love with Edinburgh. I go up every year for a few days, in the autumn. I love its two sides – the Old Town and the New Town, the genteel aspect that hides a grimness, its dual Jekyll and Hyde character. It has so much history, layer upon layer of it. Everywhere you look you see beautiful architecture and small telling details. And there’s a ghost around every corner. It’s a relatively small city and easy to get around on foot or bus. And it’s surrounded by stunning scenery. And I’m a sucker for all that tartan.
Q: Bright Stars features a significant event that affects all the characters’ lives. Everyone can have a crisis (or several) in their lives and then discover that what was apparently bad came good in the long term, and vice versa, of course. Have you had any such experiences?
I wanted to explore what happens if you hold onto the past. You can keep wishing things were different but you can’t change what has happened. But you can decide to make a fresh start and, often with help, put the bad stuff behind you. I lost my father to suicide when I was ten years old and that was catastrophic for me. I still think of him every day, 37 years later, and wish he was still here, an old man with grandchildren, but I have learned to live with this. I find that talking about it – and the suicide epidemic we have in the UK, in particular for men of a certain age – makes a huge difference to me and my personal loss.
Q You do a lot of mentoring for CreativeWritingMatters, and I know that those involved have been really glad of your help. When do you think is the best time for a writer to benefit from mentoring?
I think a writer benefits from mentoring when they are starting a new project, changing direction, or are completely stuck. I can’t promise that you will be published but I do believe I can help you see your writing and your story in a fresh way. It also gives the writer deadlines and accountability if they know that their mentor is waiting for the next slice…
Q: I believe you’ve been a judge for many literary competitions, not only those run by CreativeWritingMatters. Does the judging process vary, and what advice have you got for those thinking of entering the Exeter Novel Prize?
Competitions do vary in the judging process but I find that the good stories always bubble up to the top. I feel strongly that entries should be judged anonymously and that the writing should stand on its own merits. At CWM, there are three judges which is a good number. The majority rules. And to be honest, we have never had fisticuffs when choosing a winner. My advice would be to make sure you follow the rules, enter early (though better late than never) and, well, just enter. Because we will read and consider every one of the entries. So do it, if you haven’t already.