As someone who struggles to find the time to finish his own books, it’s fair to say I’m impressed by Kate Long’s work ethic and her take on the whole process.
And from what I’ve since learned, I’d say this is an author for whom procrastination is just a long word, and dedication is the key to literary fulfilment.
Kate, based in Shropshire but with proud Lancashire roots – raised in Blackrod and educated at Bolton School – saw her first novel published in 2004, The Bad Mother’s Handbook soon becoming a bestseller.
It was set in Bank Top, a fictional Lancashire setting but one based on her own formative patch, the author having left full-time teaching the previous year to dedicate herself to her craft.
That proved to be a wise move, not least with The Bad Mother’s Handbook going on to be serialised for BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, nominated for a British Book Award, and later adapted for ITV, with Catherine Tate and Robert Pattinson starring.
Kate very quickly made her mark, her early success replicated by follow-up Queen Mum (2006), then The Daughter Game (2008), Mothers and Daughters (2010), Before She Was Mine (2011), Swallowing Grandma (2012), and a sequel to her debut, Bad Mothers United (2013).
This week she saw her eighth novel published, Something Only We Know (Simon and Schuster). Yet for all that, it appears that Kate holds down a part-time teaching career as well as continuing to juggling duties at home and as a conservation volunteer.
When I called Kate, she’d not long finished her commitments for the academic year as a teaching assistant in Whitchurch. But within a couple of weeks, she’d be away from her desk again, as part of the team behind an Arvon residential writing course in the Shropshire Hills. So how much of a commitment was her teaching this year?
“Between a three and five-day week, depending on what they needed, which has meant I’ve only been able to write in the evenings.”
Is that odd? Or have you always been an evening writer?
“I’ve been a writer who can write when she needs to, managing to squeeze it in anywhere. I just set myself a word count and make myself get up to it.”
Some might swear they can only write in the early hours or in the middle of the night. So is that just about procrastination perhaps?
“I think the less precious you can be about when and where you write, the more productive and the more practical it is, really.
“If you have nothing else to do other than write, you can claim whatever part of the day you like, for calling down the muse. But I’ve got children, a house, a job, and other things going on.”
When she’s working elsewhere, does Kate tend to take a notepad along just in case something comes to her and she needs to jot it down there and then?
“I always have pen and paper somewhere, and if it comes to it, I’ll write on my hand. But I’ve learned the hard way. If you don’t get stuff down, it vanishes.”
At this point, I bring up the subject of Leslie Thomas, just one example of an author who fitted in his first books around long days working in the city of London. The lesson there I guess is that if you really want something, you have to go for it.
“You do. I met a woman once who was a foster mum, at one point with five foster children in the house. But she would lock herself in the bathroom for half an hour early each morning and do her writing then.”
I have to say, I often get despondent on realising that many authors out there are second-wage earners in a household. Maybe writing is a middle-class occupation. Is that Kate’s experience?
“I don’t think so. I’d say it’s more democratic than it’s ever been. Anybody can write, particularly fiction, have it published and accessible via e-books these days. It’s not confined to any particular group anymore.
“I also think that having a job alongside the writing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can stop you from being too introspective and make the urgency of the writing keener when you sit down and go, ‘Well, I really have to get this done.’ It also provides stimulation for ideas.”
What do you think the teenage Kate Long would have made of the fact that she’d have eight books to her name by the time she’d got to (whisper it) the big five-o?
“I would have been so thrilled, but disbelieving as well. I never thought anybody from my background would have been able to get published by a London publisher.
“My parents brought me up very much to wait your turn and know your place, so it’s been quite hard in that respect to push yourself to say, ‘Buy my book!’ That very much goes against the grain.”
Talking of marketing, it seems like your publishers have struggled in the past to get a handle on how to push you sometimes, certain past cover art suggesting you might be someone writing for the ‘yummy mummy’ niche instead.
“It has been a problem. I cried over the cover of Queen Mum. It’s like going to a really important party wearing the wrong clothes. You feel self-conscious and unrepresented. It’s horrible.
“But the cover I have for the new book I love. And I feel that’s an important step.”
I agree. It should jump off the shelf in that respect. So tell me about that new publication, Something Only We Know.
“It’s about two sisters, aged 22 and 30, one of whom is anorexic, and the way they have to come together to help tackle a family crisis.
“There’s an element of romance too, the younger sister in love with the older sister’s boyfriend, and a lot of mental health issues in there.
“I’m not strictly talking about being in the throes of anorexia either, but those who still have a lot of the behavioural traits and struggle with that mindset on a daily basis.”
I don’t want to label you as an issue writer, but there are clearly a number of issues raised in your books.
“There are, and I think the fire and the drive of the narrative comes from having central issues that you’re looking at.
“But quite often that comes out of the story. I don’t decide to write about an issue then hang a story on it. I start writing, and the issue becomes clear as I go. In this case I really did want to write about mental health issues and eating disorders though.”
It’s easy to tell that Kate researches meticulously for her books’ core themes too.
“I did a lot of research this time, because, my goodness, you don’t want to get something like that wrong. I read a lot of first-hand accounts, and there is a lot of autobiographical fiction about eating disorders.
“I also spoke to Emma Woolf (author, journalist and anorexia survivor), who read the sections I’d written where my character describes what it’s like to think as an anorexic and how she organises her days, after the worst phases of anorexia.
“It was absolutely crucial to get that right, and Emma said I was spot on. And you know you always hear that anorexics look in the mirror and see themselves fat? Well, she said, ‘I never did’. So I thought, ‘Right, my character’s going to be the same then!’
“It’s a mental health issue, and everybody’s going to have a slightly different experience of it. I don’t want to produce a kind of stereotype.”
Was this a harder book to write than your others. I’m thinking of something like The Daughter Game, where there’s arguably a darker edge. Were there moments when you felt this was hard work and just wanted to get on to the next book?
“There are moments in every novel when you have a big panic and think, ‘Oh, this is awful. I don’t know where to go. Perhaps I should just junk it!’
“I would have said that was just me, but reading Sarah Waters’ tips on writing recently, she says the same.
“If something takes a year to do and you’re mainly working on your own, it’s this huge thing in your head. It’s a bit like being underneath a parachute, flailing about blindly, trying to get your co-ordinates.
“So yes, they’ve all had sticky points where I’ve wondered if I should just abandon them and do something else.
“One of the hardest things in writing this was trying to imagine what it was like having a sister. Not only do I not have a sister, I don’t have any aunts or daughters. Sisters are absolutely not on my horizon.”
While she was first published not long before hitting 40, Kate wrote from an early age, with spells teaching in Exmouth, my hometown Guildford and Chester, the latter city where Something Only We Know is set, before her career switch.
It was at school when she first realised writing might be her future, her ‘lightbulb moment’ arriving while reading some Ted Hughes poetry. That said, it took some academic encouragement to put her on the right track.
“My teacher said something that sparked my interest, taking an interest in me. That made the difference.
“The other thing was watching the film Kes, after which I wrote a poem that got short-listed in a national competition. I think I was 12. Again, I think that was a bit of a sign. These things sort of came together, my teacher writing in my book, ‘You must start collecting your poetry’.
“Later, we wrote to each other, until fairly recently, when very sadly I received a letter from her daughter, saying she’d died.”
As a teacher herself, I gather that Kate made up stories and even created home-made books for her pupils. Have any of those books come back to her at signing events in recent times?
“Gosh, no, I think those books would have just fallen apart! But it’s funny when I think about it. I’ve probably been writing all my life. It’s just that I didn’t really think of it as writing.”
Kate has taught at various levels over the years, from primary to secondary and adult education, including her work with Arvon, which is close to her heart.
“I don’t think I’d have been published without Arvon. A tutor there took a particular interest in me and said, ‘You have to finish this book’. And because she was so fired up by it, it gave me the confidence to submit it.”
You’ve said before that if you didn’t have the most incredibly boring childhood, you might never have become an author. I gather you were a natural day-dreamer and deep thinker.
“Very much so! Where else do you go when you’re that bored, except inside your own head?”
One such image she conveyed that springs to mind for this blogger is of Rivington Pike, a sight familiar to many of us in Lancashire, as a giant breast on a hill.
“It is! Have you not seen it?”
And I’m guessing that creative mind is still in tact and those story ideas are still coming fast.
“Yes, I’m never short of ideas.”
Kate regularly pens features for newspapers and magazines between books, not least covering her North West roots and how they helped mould the person she is.
In one, she talks about her family and her Grandad’s sacrifices, circumstances seeing this very bright man missing out on the education he deserved and a chance to shine at Rivington Grammar School, while encouraging his daughter – Kate’s mother – to make the most of her own opportunities.
That will resonate with many of us, those past generations having sacrificed so much for the lives we now lead. So how about Kate’s own education?
“It was the making of me. There was a pressure, in that, ‘Oh, your Grandad would have been so proud’, but it was a positive pressure.
“I always thoroughly appreciated the education I received and was the last child who would have been naughty at school, always well-behaved and doing my homework.
“I was really surprised that other people didn’t see it like that. I saw it as this tremendous privilege, and as a woman I was very aware of past opposition to women being educated.
“When my Grandad sent my Mum to grammar School, he was mocked by his mates at the Cooke and Nuttall Vale paper mill in Blackrod, who said, ‘What was the point in educating a woman?’
As it turned out, both Kate’s parents had grammar school educations, with her father at Rivington and her mother not far down the road at Chorley.
Kate very recently lost her mother though, after a 25-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. She’s clearly still very raw about that, but paid this tribute.
“She was very stoic about it all, and as active as she could possibly be within the way the disease affected her.
“She was just a lovely woman and a huge part of me, now gone. It’s hard.”
That belief in such qualities comes over in certain characters in her books, not least the strong women at the heart of each novel, truly drawn from life.
I put to Kate how it’s a thin line sometimes, with certain authors having crossing it, arguably putting too much of their own family and personal experiences into their books.
As someone who writes such real characters, is this something she’s felt conscious of doing – separating the true from the imagined?
“I wouldn’t ever write about my family. The closest I came was in The Bad Mother’s Handbook, with some of the older anecdotes. Those were adaptations of things my Grandma told me. But nobody in the books is in my family or indeed a real person.”
One reviewer (okay, it was me, and it was for this blog), suggested the Bad Mother books gave us ‘Northern grit-lit with dashes of trans-Pennine rom-com’, yet without portraying any clichéd window on Northern working-class life.
At this point, I tell Kate about a recent conversation with my mother-out-law, when she asked, ‘Who wrote that Swallowing Grandma?’
She’d recently read the book, loved it, and now wanted to read more Kate Long titles. Like my better half, she particularly enjoyed the dialogue and believable nature of the characters.
My better half and her mum also both picked up on a certain mention of buying broken biscuits from Chorley market in that same book. And with that in mind I put it to Kate that those little snippets tend to resonate with her readers.
“Well, I certainly use anecdotes and details from life, just not people. And you have to ask permission sometimes.
“There’s something in Mothers and Daughters about a very poorly new-born baby, and that’s based on my friend’s little girl. The book is dedicated to her, as a memorial to her, as she died at the age of three.
“But I made sure her Mum read it and checked she was okay with it. You have to allow people to have a veto on anything they’re not happy with.”
So is Kate’s father still based around Blackrod?
“Yes, I’m up to see him every month or so, and my best friend still lives in Blackrod. And while I’m married with two sons, my other family is really just me and my dad now, other than cousins of his in Australia.”
Kate’s been based in Shropshire since 1990, where –as her Twitter followers well know – she’s seemingly surrounded by wildlife.
Is that just in recent years, or was she the kind of child that brought home all manner of creatures when she was growing up?
“I was! It caused some consternation at the time with my Mum, me bringing home dead animals, although I lost interest for a while in my teens.
“Settling here I was on my way to the supermarket once when I saw a water vole just sitting by the car park. That re-ignited a passion. I joined the Whitchurch Water Vole group and we do a lot of monitoring and conservation work.
“I’m always to be found poking about in the long reeds!
A few pictures I’ve seen you post suggest it’s all a bit Gerald Durrell at your place sometimes.
“I think it would be a lot more if my husband wasn’t quite as sensible. He still has his feet on the ground.
“A hamster and two guinea pigs is enough, really. And with the hedgehogs outside, we’ve plenty to be going on with.
“The house moves to a rhythm of wildlife. The birds have to be fed in the morning, the hedgehogs have to be fed at night, and the voles have to be checked on, pretty much daily.”
So what’s Kate’s writing room like? Is it away from all of this?
“Ha ha ha! Hollow laugh! I’m sitting here looking at the guinea pig pen, and there’s an exercise bike next to it. It’s just our front room, really.
“Until a few years ago I had to begin writing sessions by clearing Lego pieces out of the way. The desk is mine, but everything else is a free-for-all.”
Kate met her husband, Simon, while teaching in Guildford. Was he from down there?
“No, that’s how we got together – we were both Northerners. He’s from Yorkshire.”
Speaking of the White Rose county, it was Screen Yorkshire that filmed The Bad Mother’s Handbook, and in the follow-up book, central character Charlotte heads over to study in York. Be honest – was that to ensure funding for a follow-up film?
“No! That was a complete throwaway. In fact, when I came to write Bad Mothers United, the follow-up, I really kicked myself and wondered why I didn’t send her somewhere like Bristol, where I went to university!”
So is there any talk of a follow-up film?
“Well, nothing yet, but you know – one hopes. And I won’t be keeping quiet about it if it does happen!”
And will there be a third book in that sequence, perhaps a Bad Mothers Reunited?
“I’ve not ruled out the option of a third, but have other things I’d like to write before then.”
So what are you writing about now and next?
“I’m just coming to the end of a story about a very well-heeled middle-class cosseted woman who leaves her husband and goes to live on quite a rough estate, a bit of a culture shock for her.”
Eight novels in 11 years isn’t a bad tally.
“Yes, although the rate has slowed down a little through going back into teaching. It is easier now that the kids are older though. I wrote my first novel while working full-time and had a baby in the house.”
Do you think your writing style changed a lot since your debut publication?
“I don’t know! I’m maybe too close to answer that.”
Do you ever go back and wish you’d taken out one paragraph and put another in?
“Constantly! I’d revise all the novels and would continue revising them. I’m not alone in that. I’ve heard a lot of writers say they’re never really happy with their work.”
Which authors first spoke to you, would you say?
“That’s so hard to pick out, even for just a handful. I’d mention Alan Garner for his sense of place, and Michael Bond’s Paddington books, as when we went to London, my Dad actually drove me around the streets where they were set.
“I remember thinking, ‘How exciting’, looking out of the car and thinking it possible that he’d be coming around the corner! Even though I knew really he wasn’t real, there was still that sense that it happened here!”
That strikes a chord with me too. I felt the same way about Mr Gruber and Portobello Road. I was in no doubt that it was all real.
“Yes, and that’s why I try and set my books in places sort of based on reality, so people can go and check these things out.”
With so many good author friends, you won’t want to upset any, but what was the last great book you read?
“I’m going to say Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. I love everything she’s written. I love the way she makes the very ordinary fascinating.
“You don’t mind the fact that it takes a while to get much action, because the way she’s describing everyday life is just fascinating.
“That’s both inspiring but simultaneously depressing, because you think, ‘Shall I just give up now?’ She’s that good!”
Will there be a book that covers your obsession with 1970s women’s and girls’ magazines, problem pages and the like (as regularly highlighted on Kate’s Twitter page)?
“I’m going to have to think about that. I’ve put so much work in, I feel I ought to use it somehow!”
It’s got to at least be a coffee table type book for Christmas, and might even make you more money than some of your novels.
She wrote on that subject for a national newspaper when the book was published four years ago, dwelling on her own experiences as an adopted daughter.
At the time she said she was shying away from researching the story of her own birth mother, not least as a tribute to the loving couple who brought her up – the couple she regards as her true family.
So has the rash of programmes since, not least the emotional rollercoaster that is ITV’s Long Lost Family, changed her views on that?
“If anything, I’m more of the same opinion, and no, I don’t watch Long Lost Family.
“My mum was my mum, and it begins and ends there. I’m just so very, very lucky to have had my parents. That’s it, really.”
For all the latest and lots of background about Kate Long, including details about Something Only We Know and how to get hold of a copy, head to her website at http://www.katelongbooks.com/
A review of Kate’s new Simon & Schuster paperback will follow n this blog, but in the meantime the writewyattuk verdict on 2013’s Bad Mothers United can be found here.