OUT NOW: The Forgiving Sand by Theresa Le Flem

The Forgiving Sand by Theresa Le FlemA daughter of the artist Cyril Hamersma, Theresa was raised in London and married at nineteen. After having three children in quick succession she trained as a hairdresser, took up pottery but ended up working in a factory to pay the bills. After her eventual divorce she married again in 2006. Finally, having the support of friends and family, and with her children settled in New York and Kent, Theresa is able to follow her passion for writing and express her strong views about social injustice. She is an avid listener of Radio 4 and a keen gardener, growing all of her own vegetables. Her first novel, The Sea Inside His Head, was also published by Robert Hale.

The Forgiving Sand by Theresa Le Flem

1994, Cornwall.

With the fishing industry in crisis it is becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet in a small, coastal town. Christina’s quiet beach café is losing money and her ruthless brother-in-law, René, is determined to close it down. Disabled since childhood, Christina is determined to maintain her family business but neither her mother nor her sister are interested in helping her.

But when John Madison, a widowed and lonely local skipper, desperately seeks Christina’s help with his young daughter she is both disturbed by and drawn to him.

Who can save her beloved Sea Cafe? And when John asks her to take a risk, will her heart be torn in two?

For an interview with Theresa about her writing, click here.

The Forgiving Sand by Theresa Le Flem is available to buy now with a limited time only discount of 30%

The Forgiving Sand by Theresa Le Flem

Author Interview: Theresa Le Flem

The Forgiving Sand by Theresa Le FlemA daughter of the artist Cyril Hamersma, Theresa was raised in London and married at nineteen. After having three children in quick succession she trained as a hairdresser, took up pottery but ended up working in a factory to pay the bills. After her eventual divorce she married again in 2006. Finally, having the support of friends and family, and with her children settled in New York and Kent, Theresa is able to follow her passion for writing and express her strong views about social injustice. She is an avid listener of Radio 4 and a keen gardener, growing all of her own vegetables. Her first novel, The Sea Inside His Head, was also published by Robert Hale.

Here she talks to us about the inspiration behind her writing and why social issues are so vital in her storytelling.

When did your love of writing begin?

As a child, I always had my head buried in a book. I began by writing poetry and associate this with feelings of melancholy. By the age of thirteen I had my own typewriter and began delving into my parents’ copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. So exciting! This was when I began sending work, poems and short-stories out to publishers. The feel of a newly typed manuscript in my hands thrilled me and it still does to this day.

How do you come up with your ideas?

The idea for The Forgiving Sand came to me with the phrase: ‘On the underside, rust was seeping from steel rivets onto the shingle, staining it amber.’ This line, which is about a derelict fishing-boat, appears in the first chapter of my second novel. British Social History in general interests me, especially when it involves unfairness in the workplace. I’ve written about the coal-miners in The Sea Inside His Head. When I was employed in a factory, I resented giving up my day, especially in the summer. The low wages didn’t seem worth the time I was sacrificing, but I still had to go to work. It’s a bit like the commitment of having to go to school every day which I truly resented as a child. I still wonder why school has to be compulsory for children. I think they miss so much. Everyone deserves to be free to choose.

I’m quite religious and when I’m in a creative mood, I think about the mystery of life and the wonder of nature, especially when I’m out walking. I walk our greyhound three times a day and it gives me lots of thinking time. When an idea is hatching I get a sensation, like a yearning for something, but for what? It’s quite intriguing. A character will just come to me and I get to know them by deliberately trying to think ‘inside their head’ to quote a familiar phrase! Only then will I discover what’s going to happen in the next scene.

Waterstones photo theresa le flemYou are vocal about social issues. Is it essential to you that some sort of social injustice be included in your novels?

Underlying a lot of life’s issues are social injustices just waiting to pop up and declare themselves. My characters are in touch with reality. They have to eat, go to work, they might have money-problems – but life for ordinary people is like that. Under my protagonist’s skin there’s a vulnerable person who needs to achieve something (otherwise there wouldn’t be a plot). Finding their problem, and how they set about solving it, creates a story; this is what draws me, and the readers, to become involved. More than that, a person who cares about something so intensely that it causes friction in a relationship provides the basis for a strong love story. I’m not interested in political issues as such, only in how it affects people personally. Love, hopefully, has to survive outside pressures like unemployment, therefore my love stories aren’t just about love. Nor are they just about physical and sexual attraction. That comes into it of course, but I like my characters to have depth and soul.

How do you go about writing a book? Do you plan first or just dive in?

I just dive in. As I said earlier, a single phrase comes into my head and that can start me off. I won’t necessarily start at the beginning; it’s purely character lead so I can’t plan. Half-way through I might have to start planning though. When the novel’s almost complete, I isolate each scene and juggle them about a bit. I do a lot of cutting and pasting after the first draft is written, making sure the pacing is right and the dates correct. I think of the plot as a succession of hills and valleys. The ‘hills’ are the dramatic bits, when something happens to further the plot and these are in place at the first draft stage. Going through the manuscript again I add the ‘valleys’, when I can give the reader time to relax and have a look round at the scenery.

What made you choose Cornwall as the setting?

It couldn’t have been anywhere else. It’s a spiritual place. In the opening chapter of The Forgiving Sand, my character is torn between the beauty and the haunting melancholy of the landscape. There’s a certain atmosphere there which I haven’t found anywhere else. I love Cornwall and have lived there, on and off, for several years. My first glimpse of it was when my father wanted to join the artist’s colony in St. Ives in the 1960s, so we all moved there to a tiny fisherman’s cottage. I had just left school and I worked as a waitress in a café on the harbour. In that beautiful setting I felt inexplicably sad; this was the inspiration for my novel.

Do you have any particular quirks or rituals when you’re writing?

I have to be alone to write. Fortunately I have my own study upstairs and I usually try to stick to the hours between 10am and 5pm, breaking for lunch to feed and walk the dog, and do housework I suppose. I used to spend all day writing but recently I’ve had to give more time to ‘social networking’ – it’s essential these days of course. I also spend a bit of time on background research. At the start of the day I like to sit down at the PC with a cup of tea and put on a CD, either pop or classical, depending on my mood and what I’m writing about. Music often feeds my imagination.

What books do you love to read?

These days I mostly read non-fiction because I don’t have time for research otherwise. I do love reading novels though, especially the classics like Dickens. Recently I’ve been reading more contemporary stuff. I’ve just read and enjoyed ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon and ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce. Currently I’m researching the lifestyle and history of Romany Gypsies because that’s the subject of the novel I’m currently working on. This is a kind of relaxation for me, indulging in my love for nature and taking a break from troubles in the workplace to pursue the freedom of the open road. As with The Forgiving Sand, it will be set in Cornwall.

Theresa’s latest book, The Forgiving Sand is out from 31 May 2013.

How did Margaret Thatcher spark the idea for a love story?

The Sea Inside His HeadSome thought Thatcher’s cool approach cold and insensitive; others admired her courage and determination but as the National Coal Strike of 1984 dragged on and political arguments raged between the government and unions the effect on ordinary people was emotional and real. Without coal, there would be power-cuts. The stocks of coal would be depleted when the winter came. This would mean, unless the strike was called-off, power stations and factories would be forced to shut-down, bringing the country to a standstill.

I lived in a Kent mining village during that time. Tilmanstone Colliery, near Dover, was threatened with closure too. Many of the miners were descendants of those who travelled on foot from Wales or the North of England specifically to work in the Kent coalfields early in the twentieth century. They were loyal, hard-working people. To their delight the Coal Board provided new houses to accommodate them, with all mod-cons. This was a luxury they were unaccustomed to, and the job promised a secure future. But by the 1970s the industry was in trouble: 34 pits were closed before Margaret Thatcher came to power. When Ian MacGregor became Chairman of the NCB in 1983, he resolved to shut all uneconomic pits. Arthur Scargill reacted with hostility, saving jobs being his priority. Those who continued working were threatened at the picket-lines. To protect them, the police were called in and so the situation escalated. Where emotions are running high, and people’s livelihoods are at risk, it’s easy for things to get out of control.

On the horizon, in the Midlands where I now live, eight wind-turbines have been built to generate electricity. Everything changes. In 1984 I looked out of my window and saw the headgear of the colliery standing tall and proud against the sun – now, in 2013, it is the blades of a windmill turning instead. One thing I know, we would be completely lost without electricity and there’s nothing like a lovely coal fire on a winter’s night.

Tilmanstone Colliery

Tilmanstone Colliery. Copyright: Theresa Le Flem.

My book, The Sea Inside His Head, explores the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on a young couple – the coal-miner Bradley and his wife Helen. Perhaps I could compare the effect of the National Coal Strike as like being thrown into a war situation, when a couple’s home-life is suddenly devastated by things happening in the outside world which are beyond their control. The strike stopped their routine in its tracks; it caused my protagonist Bradley to reflect on his job, working as a coal-miner, and wonder to himself whether that really was what he wanted to do with his life. It also caused Helen to re-assess her own role and perhaps discover in herself skills she never knew she had.

Bradley, in the opening pages, witnesses his father dying from Pneumoconiosis and after this he begins to resent the pit. He is thrown into a helpless situation, wanting to work to earn extra money to start a new life somewhere else, but with the very job he had come to loathe denied him. Debts mount, but his family and friends are all supporting the fight to keep the pit open. It leaves him feeling lonely and isolated. Finally, in a moment of desperation, he tries to tell Helen about his true feelings but she is adamant they must fight on.

Neither Bradley nor Helen know what is in store for them as the months pass and there is no sign of an agreement. Helen, busy running the soup-kitchen, also becomes heavily involved with organizing the fight to keep the pits open while Bradley retreats to his allotment, keeping his thoughts to himself. Helen is gaining confidence and when an NUM meeting is called in the village she urges Bradley to attend:

‘You’ve got to tell them we’re not open to compromise,’ she said importantly. ‘Tell them we’re managing. We’ve got plenty of money in the kitty and support from all over the country. We’ll get by, so long as we stick together, for as long as it takes. Let that Maggie Thatcher know she’s got a real fight on her hands! I’d like to stand up and say we’re behind them a hundred per cent – the strike’s not just about money, it’s the principle of it!  We want prospects! Job security! Oh Brad!’ she cried, reaching out and grasping his upper arms with firm hands, her eyes shining. ‘We want jobs for life, don’t we? It’ll be worth it in the end.’

Bradley doesn’t have the heart to dampen her enthusiasm but when Helen proudly talks of their baby son’s future, and how he could follow in his father’s footsteps, Bradley replies bitterly:

‘Future? Look where it got my old dad, in his grave without a breath of life in him before he was forty-five! Is that your so-called future? Is that what you want for me, and for our Sam?’

What happens to Bradley and Helen?  You will have to read my book to find out!

– Theresa Le Flem, author of The Sea Inside His Head

Theresa Le Flem Heads to Canterbury for a Book Signing and Talk to Discuss ‘The Sea Inside His Head’

The Sea Inside His HeadA daughter of the artist Cyril Hamersma, Theresa was raised in London and married at nineteen. After having three children in quick succession she trained as a hairdresser, took up pottery but ended up working in a factory to pay the bills. After her eventual divorce she married again in 2006. Finally, having the support of friends and family, and with her children settled in New York and Kent, Theresa is able to follow her passion for writing and express her strong views about social injustice. She is an avid listener of Radio 4 and a keen gardener, growing all of her own vegetables. The Sea Inside His Head is her first novel.

Last week, Theresa enjoyed a talk and book-signing at Waterstones, Canterbury. Here’s how it went:

The venue for my talk and book-signing was the Coffee Shop in Waterstones, St. Margaret’s Street, Canterbury in Kent. It was Sunday afternoon 16th September and my dear husband Graham, electrical engineer by day and my proof-reader by night, was supplying everyone with a complimentary glass of wine or orange juice.

‘So, what made the Miners’ Strike different to other strikes?’ I began, as I looked round my audience, with a curious smile. The people, including two ex-miners, a miner’s wife and several writers, looked at each other, mumbled and shook their heads. I tried again. ‘Why was it different to say, the teachers’, or civil-servants’, or the dustmen’s strike?’ I asked. ‘Well, I’ve got a theory!’ I went on to explain: other workers might strike about pay, hours, or cut-backs, and although united by their grievances, a strike does not have the same impact on their lives. The reason the miners were so strong and became so heated is because many were related by blood. Their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers had all been miners for generations before them and mining was the only job they knew. This is why I believe it all became so aggressive – so emotional.

Waterstones photo theresa le flemAnd they weren’t necessarily Kent people. Many of the men who worked in the Kent coalfields were descended from miners who moved down from the North – from Yorkshire and Lancashire, from Scotland and Wales. Many of them walked all the way because they couldn’t afford the train fare. Someone in the audience called out, ‘And they were trouble-makers in their own pits up there!’ I had to agree, as I had already learnt that some of them had been ‘blacklisted’ for causing trouble before. One of the ex-miners added, ‘Yeh, and they had new houses here to go to!’ This was true; in the early 1900s the Coal Board built houses for them, creating new mining villages around the pits. The miners’ children ran from room to room switching the lights on and off, amazed to find hot and cold running water and indoor bathrooms.

This brief discussion led me nicely into the four short extracts I had chosen to read from my novel: The Sea Inside His Head, which is a love-story set during the 1984 Miners’ Strike. After the second, I paused to reach for my sparkling water and as I did so a few began to show their appreciation. This spurred me on and I finished the last two extracts to some hearty applause. Questions and answers followed, and by this time I was feeling exhilarated – the audience were genuinely moved by my reading.

‘How long has coal-mining been going on in Kent?’ someone asked. I replied that it began when coal was discovered during initial excavations for the channel tunnel, at Shakespeare Cliff in Dover, in the 1890s. After this I went on to answer questions about how I first became published, where I lived during the strike, where I was living now, and more. During the general buzz of conversation – as by now the audience were all talking to each other too – Graham announced that Waterstones were hoping to close in ten minutes and if anyone wanted to buy a book and get it signed, now was the time to do it!

Theresa Le Flem

For more information on Theresa Le Flem and her books, click here

Theresa Le Flem on Writing ‘The Sea Inside His Head’

The Sea Inside His Head A daughter of the artist Cyril Hamersma, Theresa Le Flem was raised in London and married at nineteen. After having three children in quick succession she trained as a hairdresser, took up pottery but ended up working in a factory to pay the bills. After her eventual divorce she married again in 2006. Finally, having the support of friends and family, and with her children settled in New York and Kent, Theresa is able to follow her passion for writing and express her strong views about social injustice. She is an avid listener of Radio 4 and a keen gardener, growing all of her own vegetables. The Sea Inside His Head is her first novel.

In this interview, Theresa tells us where her ideas come from and how she goes about writing a book.

Where did the idea for The Sea Inside His Head originate from?

When the idea for The Sea Inside His Head first came to me, it was Christmas Day 2006, and I was sitting by a roaring coal fire. Feeling so happy and secure, my thoughts turned to the past when my life was far from easy. The atmosphere of the old mining-village came back to me, and I remembered not so much the tension of the miners’ situation but the peace of the churchyard nearby. It was the contrast of the anxiety, poverty and aggression associated with the strike, set against nature, in all her timeless freedom, which gripped me. A phrase came into my mind, I reached for my notebook and I was away!

What sort of process do you follow in your writing? Do you plan in advance?

I don’t plan at all until I get to know my characters, and they themselves create the novel. I have glimpses of scenes and I write these on scraps of paper and lay them out – like stepping stones – across the floor. Then I move them around until I have the plot. Writing fiction gives me freedom to re-visit the past and meet characters who might otherwise be just faces in a crowd. I can wander through rooms I remember as a child, and recall arguments from a safe distance. Writing acts like a scrapbook for my memories. It’s also a great healer… I hardly ever watch drama and shy away from violent scenes on TV and film because I don’t like being on the receiving end of someone else’s imagination. But when I’m the one in control it’s not scary. My writing is very visual.

Once an idea for a book strikes me – just a feeling, an atmosphere, or anything really – I begin to research and the bare branches gradually produce buds, leaves and send down roots. It’s a three dimensional organic experience. I use books for research mostly, although the internet is useful. But without having faith that there is a reader out there, who will read what I’ve written, I don’t think I could write. I need to voice my imagination, but more than that, I need to know someone is out there listening. I can easily imagine The Sea Inside His Head as a film.

What books do you read in your spare time?

I read mostly classics, my favourites being D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Their portrayal of characters is just stunning.

The Sea Inside His Head is published on 30 April 2012 in hardback and is available now to pre-order with a 30% discount for a limited time only.

Theresa Le Flem on ‘The Sea Inside His Head’ and Why Coal Mining Made the Perfect Subject Matter

The Sea Inside His HeadI was living within a stone’s throw of Tilmanstone Colliery, which was a few miles from Dover in the Kent coalfields. It was during the 1984/85 National Coal Strike. Although not directly involved – there were no miners in my family – the impact the strike had on the community is something I will never forget. There were positive and negative aspects to this: the camaraderie between the miners was strong. In poverty and in fighting their cause, the people were united against the enemy. The enemy in this case was Margaret Thatcher and her government. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) did all they could to keep the pits open and save the mens’ jobs and the threat of closure affected not only Tilmanstone but the pits throughout Kent and all over the country. The proposed closure of certain pits, which were regarded as uneconomic and out-dated, provoked outrage. I’m sure most people remember the terrible scenes of violence shown on the television news. Seeing the police gathered in such vast numbers at picket lines filled most ordinary people with horror. I saw the lines of police first hand, arms linked, marching down the village street with all their shields.

Very quickly, feelings of antagonism emerged against those who didn’t support the strike – those who might betray them. A miner who continued working, or who broke the strike was labelled ‘a scab’. These men became outcasts; there was no mercy shown. This is probably when my feelings came into play. I have a tendency to sympathise with the persecuted.

Local families who had members belonging to the police-force were also targeted. Just like the ‘scabs’, their houses too were daubed with graffiti declaring the word ‘Pigs’. The village shops had steel shutters affixed to them for protection at night. Barricades lined the streets and the village began to resemble a war-zone. Differences of opinion split the community; when mothers met in the street or outside the school I remember a hush; conversation became subdued and eyes became watchful. I didn’t personally know anyone who broke the strike, but generally I began to realize how strong hostility ran not only towards the ‘scabs’ but to their families, friends and those who associated with them. I recall a young miner joking about enjoying the freedom of not having to go into work, just like a kid on his school holidays. Another miner agreed, complaining that if he could put in for redundancy he would, but it would mean he would have to break the strike. Most men wouldn’t consider this option – it was out of the question, the ultimate form of betrayal. If a man broke the strike, life simply wouldn’t be worth living. In The Sea Inside His Head, this fact comes home to Bradley in a tragic way.

I’ve worked in several factories where I never saw the daylight – only the awful artificial strip-lighting. I often felt like a prisoner, but I made many good friends, and enjoyed the companionship of people as hard-up as myself. I hope and pray that in portraying Bradley’s difficulties, some light will be shed on the subject of ‘scabs’ and the pressure of debt. What forced them to make this difficult decision? Do they deserve the total rejection they receive even now, from the mining communities? Can they, twenty-seven years later, be understood and forgiven?

Theresa Le Flem

The Sea Inside His Head is published on 30 April 2012 in hardback and is available now to pre-order with a 30% discount for a limited time only.