Jun 20, 2011

Nine Questions with Judith Barrow

Judith Barrow, author of Pattern of Shadows

Author Judith Barrow
AmeriCymru: Hi, Judith and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. Your most recent novel Pattern of Shadows is set in a WWII POW camp. Care to tell us a little more about it?

Judith: Pattern of Shadows is the story of Mary Howarth, a nurse in the hospital of the German POW camp in her town of Ashford in the North West of England. Initially courted by a guard at the camp, Frank Shuttleworth, she soon realises that he not what he seems; he is a moody, possessive and dangerous man. Mary comes from a difficult background but she’s loyal to her dysfunctional family and, as the main breadwinner, she accepts the weight of the demands on her; she toes the line.  Then she meets Peter Schormann. Peter is a German prisoner. He is also a doctor and under the rules of the camp he works in the hospital alongside Mary. As a civilian nurse Mary Howarth has been warned against the dangers of being too friendly towards any of the patients or German doctors.  However, as the story unfolds Mary’s initial dislike slowly turns to cautious respect for Peter’s skill as a surgeon, then to an illicit friendship. Mary rails against the familial and national loyalties that constrain and forbids her feelings for a man who is considered an enemy. In times of war such a relationship is called fraternization. And fraternization is a dangerous and serious offence. Loyalty and love usually come hand in hand. In Pattern of Shadows they are absolutely opposed. And, inevitably, alongside that conflict there is jealousy. Unable to believe that Mary is rejecting him, and suspicious of her feelings for the German doctor, Frank confronts her - with dreadful consequences.

AmeriCymru: What attracted you to the 1940's and to this particular setting? How did you research the period and conditions in the camps?

Judith: Having studied history I’ve always been interested in the past and consider the 1920s and 1930s and the 1940s and 50s particular poignant times in the UK.  

Pattern of Shadows was inspired by my research into Glen Mill, a disused cotton mill in Oldham, Lancashire, and its history of being the first German POW camp in the country.I was researching for an earlier book in the Local Studies and Archives in Oldham, Lancashire while staying in the area, but reading about the mill brought back a personal memory of my childhood and I was side-tracked.  My mother was a winder in a cotton mill and, well before the days of Health and Safety, I would go to wait for her to finish work on my way home from school.  I remember the muffled boom and then the sudden clatter of so many different machines as I stepped through the small door, the sound of women singing and shouting above the noise, the colours of the cotton and cloth - so bright and intricate.  Above all I remember the smell: of oil, grease - and in the storage area. the lovely smell of the new material stored in bales.  When I thought about Glen Mill as a POW camp, I wondered what life would have been like for all those men imprisoned there. I realised how different their days must have been from my memories of a mill and I knew I wanted to write about that.  But I wanted there to be hope; that something good could come out of the situation the prisoners were in.

I spent months travelling back and forth from my home in Pembrokeshire to the Local Studies and Archives in Oldham to research and read articles about the camp in the local newspapers printed during the war years and I even found a plan of the mill itself.  I read stories of events recollected by local people and memoirs of the German ex-POWs. Once back in Wales, I found as many websites as I could that contained details of both WWI and WWII; it's astonishing how many there are, especially of personal memories handed down through generations.  And then there were my own family’s reminiscences of the war in that area.  I read books, watched documentaries on the History channel of Sky TV and bought DVDs of the same.  I lived and breathed the 1940s for months. I talked to anyone who would listen and listened to anyone who would talk to me about the war.

I dreamt about it.  Often I would wake up in the night immediately thinking about a scenario, a character, a piece of action, description, that would move the story on, and write it in the notebook I keep by my bedside.  And then wake up again in the morning to realise that none of it worked.

When I first thought about Mary Howarth, I was told a civilian nurse wouldn’t be allowed to work as a civilian nurse in a hospital attached to a POW camp.  Not possible, I was told. I contacted the Imperial War Museum - and I found that they had records of one.  If there was one, I thought, there could be two; and so Mary gained credence.

AmeriCymru: You have written previously for children.  What particular challenges does an author face in writing for a younger audience?

Judith: I think the one obvious factor, when writing for children of any age, is not to patronise; children can spot that a mile off.  But there are also different challenges for each age group. With picture books for the under fives, say, not only are both pages and words restricted but it’s important in this genre, more than any other, to show not tell because the words work in conjunction with the illustrations and if the pictures say something, the author doesn’t need to.  Also remember, unless an author is well known as an author/ illustrator, the publisher chooses the illustrator, so an author leads the way and needs to be explicit.  Younger children love repetition, same sounding words, short, snappy sentences – and so do the parents – and it’s the parents who choose and buy the books for this age range.

For older children, or early teens, it’s also important not to be didactic; if an issue is raised I feel it must be balanced by both sides of the argument. No moralising, no hidden messages, no prejudices.  And, of course, the story must a good one, able to hold the reader’s attention. And here there are stumbling blocks.  If an author doesn’t read the books actually available to the age group he’s writing for, there is no chance he will capture the contemporary popularity for the genre or the language.

AmeriCymru: A story of yours was published in the 2008 Honno Anthology 'Coming Up Roses'.  Do you have any plans to experiment further with the short story form?

Judith: I have trouble with the short story.  My husband says I write as I talk – too much!  He’s joking – I think!  Anyway, it is a a problem paring my writing down.  Unless I have a good idea of a story that I can get across to the reader in less than two thousand words I tend to leave it alone.  I like themes and stories running parallel which suits novel writing more than short stories (although the true aficionado of the short story might disagree)  And then, most times my characters take on a life of their own and refuse to fit into a short story.

AmeriCymru: You have also written three plays, one of which was performed in the 'Play Off' competition at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea.  Care to tell us a little more about that experience?

Judith: Well, it was an experience seeing my words actually come to life on stage; to see them interpreted in a different way than I’d envisaged.  The Dylan Thomas Centre is a lovely place and the theatre not at all pretentious or grand and I’ve seen quite a few plays performed there. I’ve often wondered how other writers felt.  Of course more long-standing playwrights must be used to seeing directors’/producers' versions of their work but I certainly found it disquieting.

Having a play made into a short film was exciting; made by a small company I was involved from the beginning and had great fun.  I’ve also written radio and television scripts.

AmeriCymru: You are currently working on your third novel 'A Silent Trauma'.  Without giving away anything important, can you tell us more?

Judith: In a very small way I’ve been involved with a charity that has campaigned for years in the UK, for recognition of the damage caused by a drug.  It’s run by volunteers and for various reasons, the numbers have dwindled down to a very few.  Some years ago I wrote an article for their newsletter.  Following that I received many letters from women who had been affected and, from their stories, the idea of a novel began to grow.  So it’s fiction built on fact and it’s tells the interacting stories of four women who have been affected in some way by the drug and the friendships that are made by that common bond.  It’s difficult to market issue based novels but my publishers Honno are willing to take it on and I’m hoping that, not only will readers find it to be a good read – but that it also raises an awareness of the drug.  I’ve been told it’s a poignant, funny, thought-provoking novel.  A Silent Trauma will be published by Honno in about September, 2012.  

AmeriCymru:   What's next for you?

Judith:  The sequel to Pattern of Shadows – Changing Patterns – will be with Honno by the end of summer and expands on Mary and Peter’s story. But it also gives voice to other members of the family. The connection between Wales and the North of England grows stronger as the family deal with various problems together.  Mary and Peter marry – and they not only face the reaction of strangers in post war Britain but – initially -also that of some members of Mary’s family. But one tragic event may prove to be the catalyst that brings them together.

I also have a children’s novel  Wings which is with  Gwasg y Bwthyn, a North Wales publisher who only publish one children’s book in English per year and who  has forwarded my book to the Welsh Book Council for approval to print. They have promised to let me know by the end of June – fingers crossed.

It’s set in the old mine works around the Saundersfoot area in Pembrokeshire. The protagonist, Luke, lives at a time when children are born with wings that grow until the age of twelve, when they are  given the task by the Blashans (creatures who live in a cave in the cliffs around Bosherston ) that will grant them special powers for the rest of their lives. As adults they lose their wings. Luke’s task is to save the people of the county from a tsunami, manufactured by the Malfeasants (adults who have refused to relinquish their wings and have been banished to the mines).

I enjoyed writing the book; it was a complete change from my usual genre and I’m thrilled it’s being considered for publishing.

AmeriCymru: Where can people buy copies of your books online?

Judith: Amazon; I have an author’s page there.  Online from Waterstones and WH Smith; I’ve done book signings up and down the UK for both stores and was picked up by WH Smith for their chart lists last year.  And, of course, from Honno, my publishers.  They’re a small Welsh press of great integrity who give women with any connection to Wales a voice.  Look at their website www.honno.co.uk - their list is eclectic and for many years they have published some very successful books including Cold Enough to Freeze Cows, by Lorraine Jenkins, who is a finalist in this year’s People's Book Prize with her third novel.

AmeriCymru:  What are you currently reading? Any recommendations?

Judith: I’ve just finished reading Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, a fictional but insightful story set in the USA, of a professional woman degenerating into Alzheimer's; a well crafted story, beautifully told with emotion. Sounds quite traumatic, and is dark, but there are lighter moments throughout and certainly leaves one thinking. I would recommend Emma Donoghue’s Room, Maya Angelou’s I know Why the Caged Bird Sings a long- time favourite of mine and, perhaps Kate Summerscale’s fiction on fact novel. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, quite laborious in parts with an open ending but certainly a book that leaves one wondering who actually did the deed. I also loved Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – it tells the story of an old man in a nursing home reflecting on his time as a young man as a vet in a travelling circus; great characters, brilliant anecdotes and well researched.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Judith: I was excited to be be contacted by AmeriCymru. With friends in the USA, having Welsh ancestry and living in a beautiful part of Wales - Pembrokeshire – for over thirty years I was very pleased that I could answer the call to help the connection between the two countries. It’s a great concept and I’m glad to be part of it. I think it's important never to forget your roots and AmeriCymru epitomizes that.

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