People often ask me about my writing routine. I can’t truthfully say that every day it’s exactly the same but there are three constants.
The first is that I walk or jog with my dog, often in the woods where ‘Red Leaves’ is set. I find that being outside in nature, whatever the weather puts me in the right frame of mind to write. Ideas come to me as I’m walking or watching Billie our dog chasing squirrels! I try to get to my desk for around nine-thirty, turning my back on whatever domestic debris is still to clear. I check emails to see if anything needs dealing with straight away then I get down to … doodling!
Many writers will tell you that they have little rituals that help them to begin writing. Mira in ‘Artichoke Hearts’ and ‘Jasmine Skies’ is an incorrigible doodler and day-dreamer and I too often begin by doodling a few random words or an image (I keep my doodle pads for reference). After the doodling, when I feel myself ready to write, it’s time for the third and what has become a rather superstitious ritual….touching my artichoke heart charm for luck…some writing days are more productive than others but I wouldn’t begin to write a word without the charm.
The artichoke heart charm began as a fictional piece of jewellery that Nana Josie gave to Mira her beloved granddaughter in ‘Artichoke Hearts’… for me as well as Mira it holds magical powers…it has made something as fluid and intangible as a dream or the imagination… real.
In 2011 my first novel ‘Artichoke Hearts’ was published by Macmillan Children’s Books. Just having my story published was a dream come true but when the story won The Waterstones Award I could not believe it. On the evening of the ceremony my husband Leo presented me with a beautiful silver charm in the shape of an artichoke. He had sent the description of the charm from my novel off to a silversmith and commissioned the piece of jewellery.
So the beginning of my life as an author did feel completely magical….charmed even. I have placed this charm, which travels with Mira to India in ‘Jasmine Skies,’ into the hands of many young readers when I talk about my books and what inspires me to write. I have a ‘Notsurewhat’ sort of feeling that it might bring them luck too!
These days I can’t even think about sitting down and writing unless I am wearing my artichoke heart charm! Like all symbols the potent power I have come to feel that it holds for my writing requires unravelling and is not as superstitious as it might seem. The process of writing all my books has been to try to discover for myself first what’s at the heart of each story. I usually begin with an instinct to write that comes from feeling passionate about something, or a wish to better understand characters or situations.
The charm is a reminder that for every character I write I need to unravel the layers from the tough outer shell of protection that we all learn to wear, to the more tender vulnerable layers at the centre of the heart. Some people call this ‘back story’ – what has happened to a character In their lives to make them behave in a certain way… but I prefer to think of the artichoke layers because I see that in myself, and everyone I know and research, the back story is not something that is or can be confined to the past, but lives with you in every present moment of your life…it’s integral to the identity of each individual heart.
For me the charm that I wear whenever I write symbolises a gift of love from the heart of my family. So my husband, children, brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, friends and wider family are all layers of my heart that inspire. Without these particular layers the stories that I write could not have come into existence.
Part of my back story is of being of mixed heritage; my father from India, my mother from The Lake-District. It’s formed from all my work with young people in community theatre and in schools on creative projects, and from the experience of being a mother. I am drawn to research a wide range of stories like Jide Jackson (the Rwandan Refugee in Artichoke Hearts’ or Dawn (the girl who tragically takes her own life in ‘Kite Spirit’) or Janu (The orphan boy who runs a Children’s refuge in Kolkata in ‘Jasmine Skies) or Aisha (The Somali refugee) or Iona (The Scottish homeless girl in ‘Red Leaves’). All these characters and many others I have written about allows me and then readers to step into shoes of strangers and to take them to their hearts. The charm is a reminder to me that part of my work in writing a story is to peel away the layers of my own heart to understand why these characters and their stories are ones that need to be told. I know if something’s working when I find that a character moves me to tears or laughter.
In my most recent book ‘Red Leaves’ the characters who hide out together in a city wood may seem to have very little in common. Each of them begins with a tightly protected heart, each of them has their reasons to reject each other but the process of the story is one of unravelling the layers of each of their hearts until they’re open enough to meet each other. I can’t ever imagine sitting down at my desk without wearing my artichoke heart charm because it’s a constant reminder of all the landscapes, people and experiences that have so far contributed to the layers of my heart and fed my imagination. In ‘Jasmine Skies’ many readers are horrified when Mira, in an impulsive act of compassion, gives her charm away to a poverty stricken girl, but that reaching out to others – imagining what it’ like to face real poverty, the loss of your beloved grandmother, to be a refugee, an orphan or a homeless child, or a young person who feels the overwhelming pressures of life weighing them down – entering these worlds is the process of telling stories for me and It can be heart-breaking. Sometimes, if I’m in the thick of it when one of my children comes back from school or college they’ll ask me ‘What’s the matter.’ I’ll often explain that I’m feeling sad for a character because I have just written the moment when she…. Then I’ll be reminded ‘Mum! They’re not real…. What’s for tea?’ and I snap out of it…. But actually the truth is if, after much coaxing, a character comes to life they really do become flesh, blood and heart-beat.
My youngest daughter is performing ‘Pinnochio’ for a Christmas show at school and I’m helping her with her lines…To the carpenter Gepetto the little wooden puppet he creates becomes real as soon as he takes him to his heart… It’s why in reality I’ll always wear the artichoke charm for every book that I write… to remind me where my stories come from and that no matter whatever the style, tone or subject, never to forget the heart. Will Mira’s artichoke charm ever return to her? I do know the answer and one day I might write it…