Sunday, 9 January 2011

Interview with a Debut Author: RUTH EASTHAM

* Hi Ruth and welcome to tall tales & short stories. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Yes, hello, and a big thank you Tracy for the interview!

I’m originally from Preston in Lancashire. I trained as a teacher and have worked with kids from five-year olds to sixth formers. The Memory Cage is my first novel and it’s about a boy called Alex who is very close to his Grandad who lives with the family. Grandad has Alzheimer’s and Alex thinks the only way to stop him being put in a home is to help him remember his life, but as he puts a scrapbook together, Alex, who has tragic memories of his own, uncovers unsettling family secrets.


Alex's grandfather keeps forgetting things.  
Desperate to help him remember, Alex starts collecting old photographs.  But as Alex digs into his grandfather's past, he stumbles across secrets that have been buried since World War II.
Uncovering the truth could save Grandad...  but it might also tear Alex apart.


* What inspired you to write The Memory Cage?

Years ago I was in Romania doing some voluntary work and I saw a boy holding hands with his Grandad through the bars of a school gate. Seeing them gave me the idea to write a story about an adopted boy who was very close to his Grandfather. So the characters came first. The very first line of the very first draft I could hunt out was What’s your earliest memory? and although lots of other things changed in later re-writes, that line stayed!

* The Memory Cage is a touching portrayal of loss interwoven with mental health issues, specifically Alzheimer’s, and the effect of war on a young boy. What inspired you to write about these themes, are they issues that have directly affected you and how much research did you do into these conditions?

I read first-hand accounts of how Alzheimer’s affects families and was really stunned by the number of people affected by the disease. I do have family and friends who are sufferers, but hadn’t realised the problem was so far-reaching. Having family in Italy it has been interesting to see the cultural differences in, for example, the attitude towards caring for aging parents at home. With people living longer nowadays and the disease on the steep increase, I think that the way society copes with caring for dementia sufferers is a huge issue.

I did other research too, on Dunkirk 1940, conscientious objection and the Yugoslav wars. When writing about actual historical events you want to aim to have an authentic voice.

* In writing about mental health problems which are sadly still considered a rather 'taboo' subject. How open do you think your young audience are to reading and understanding these issues? Do you think it can help them to know that they are not alone if they are having to deal with similar situations within their own lives?

I was once lucky enough to meet Jacqueline Wilson who gave me a copy of her amazing The Illustrated Mum. Ten years later I think there still is unease concerning mental health, but also a thankfully growing number of kids’ books confronting the taboos that still exist.

Janet Dowling has written a very interesting, authoritative article called ‘Into the Snake Pit, and Out Again’ on the Booktrust Education website.

I definitely think that stories with difficult things to say can be tackled in children’s and young adult fiction, and don’t think they have to be confined to the straight realism genre either - look at Charlie’s dad in Ellen Renner’s superb novel, Castle of Shadows.

I read a statistic once that 1 in every 3 families are affected by mental health issues. Yes, it could be of great help to read about emotions and situations that have something in common to your own, I agree. Whether a novel tackles uncomfortable issues or not though, I think a key aim for a writer is always to absorb the reader in a exciting story and get them to care very deeply about what happens to the characters.

* What inspired you to incorporate the Yugoslavian War? Although a shocking and deeply disturbing war in which thousands of people died it seems somehow to have been pushed out of our consciences even though it is a very recent European war and within living memory of many people.

In The Memory Cage I wanted Alex to have been affected by war, in parallel to Grandad’s war experiences. I chose the Bosnia conflict, but we know that it wasn’t just people from Bosnia who suffered during the Yugoslav wars. I’m not sure why what happened seems to have been forgotten or treated with indifference by people on the outside. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable for us to think about hundreds of thousands of people being displaced, or genocide taking place on Europe’s doorstep. Also, understanding why the wars took place isn’t straightforward. Having spoken to a Bosnian friend who lived from age 9 in a shelled town, I realise there were complex issues interwoven with a long history of religious, cultural and economic tensions. The same friend says he thinks a lot of people now just want to move forward; but the current political situation makes that difficult.

The Memory Cage centres on how Alex lost his little brother, rather than explicit war details, but the backstory is there and maybe readers will want to find out more and try and unravel the history for themselves.

* Do you feel drawn to writing realism and do you enjoy writing this genre more than any other? Have you tried writing any other genres?

I like realism a lot, but I also enjoy mixing realism with fantasy or the supernatural. Any genre that allows telling an exciting story with some depth.

* Your main protagonist is a young boy. How difficult, or easy, did you find it to get inside the head of Alex? Do you use memories of how you were at that age and adapt them to a boy’s mindset?

Having both a little brother and a big brother, I didn’t find it too difficult writing from a boy’s perspective! Growing up I didn’t like the toys that were supposed to be ‘for girls’ and was much happier with the train set and Lego any time. Ah, gender stereotyped toys! I wanted parallels between Grandad’s story and Alex’s, so I felt having a male protagonist and two pairs of brothers gave stronger connections, but Alex could have been written as a girl, do you think?

* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

My two daughters are 3 and 5, so they’re still a bit young to read the book! But I’ve been lucky enough to have several young people read it and tell me what they think. Some of their comments are on my website. A library reading group of ten 11 year olds in Southampton also read the proofs. During the writing process I meet up with author friends and we share manuscripts and curry… but more about them later! I’ve had good feedback about Memory Cage from adults, as well as child readers who’ve enjoyed it, which is really satisfying.

* The Memory Cage is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

My first attempt at writing a novel was in biro when I was seven! It was about a girl getting swept down a whirlpool and coming out in a magical land. Then there was one about a talking penguin... A few years on, I have several other practice manuscripts and a couple of novels hidden in the sock drawer! I might decide to re-work these in the future, who knows? Whatever happens to the ideas though, I see them all as part of being a writer and honing writing skills.

* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

I have until the end of January to finish the draft of my second book, due out in January 2012! The timeframe is much shorter so I’ve had to work quite intensively on it and be more systematic with the editing. It’s been strange having the run-up to the publication of Memory Cage, and the promotion work connected to that, coinciding with researching my second novel and getting that finished. It’s a really hectic time - not that I’m complaining! Knowing you already have a contract for the book you are writing is wonderful, nerve-wracking at times, but a big psychological boost.

* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I plan where the story is going, often starting with the end-scene and working backwards! A lot still happens on the page; I think it’s important to let the ideas flow flexibly, but I’ve found it enormously helpful to have the structure mapped out in advance of the hard-core writing and editing. I love post-it notes and coloured highlighters!

* Rewrites, Revision and Research: How long did it take you, roughly, to complete your novel? Did you do much rewriting?

It was probably about 5 years from first ideas to getting Memory Cage accepted for publication… and having a couple of babies in-between! Once the manuscript was accepted by Scholastic I began a process of editing, in collaboration with my then editor, the fantastic Polly Nolan. We were very much on the same wavelength and the final tweaks were made up to a couple of months before actual publication.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for kids?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I’ve always loved writing, including poetry and adult short stories, but it was being a finalist in a BBC competition, I guess, that got me squarely focused on writing for kids. I do love cross-over books too, or books with layers that can speak to a wide audience, such as the likes of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

I still know people who are snooty towards children’s fiction, but all I can say is they probably don’t read any! I love reading kids’ books. Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing MauriceThe Amulet of Samarkand, Wolf Brother, Mortal Engines… The wonderfully diverse Geraldine McCaughrean whose The Kite Rider and Stop The Train! are only the tip of the iceberg.

So much to read, so little time!

* You’ve taught in schools in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Italy. Has this helped inspire and influence your writing in any way?

Definitely. Any new place and meeting new people gives you experiences you can draw on in your writing.

* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I was a real bookworm and regularly resorted to reading by torchlight under the quilt!
‘Adventure Stories for Boys’ – course I was determined to read that one! Anything supernatural, tragic, adventurous…

The youth of today may be sophisticated in many ways that we weren’t, and paranormal romance is obviously huge at the moment in YA fiction, but I think all kids, whether of today, or yester-year like me, want an exciting, page-turning read with characters they can really identify with and root for.

I remember being spell-bound as the teacher read my Junior 1 class The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My Dad, a primary school teacher, read to me and my two brothers almost every single night; an eclectic mix from Enid Blyton to Dickens; The Faraway Tree, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Christmas Carol. He helped without doubt give me my love of reading.

* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I was a member of a writing group in New Zealand when I lived there, and then one in Brisbane for children’s and young adult fiction. This inspired me, when I returned to Nottingham, to form a group of my own. We met at a local library every couple of weeks and this was where I tested out initial ideas about The Memory Cage.

I’ve always joined writing groups in every place I’ve lived and found them invaluable for kick-starting ideas and keeping momentum for writing projects. Bums-on-seats-fingers-on-keyboard (or Bosfokking as my writing buddy Josie calls it!) is such a lonely pastime and you have to be really disciplined and ready to re-write work – lots! I love contact with other writers to push and inspire me. Being part of the SCBWI network has been a great source of support too. I meet up with writing friends when I can, Skype with them when I can’t, and we e-mail feedback on each other’s work regularly.

* You were one of six finalists from the 2001 BBC Children’s Fiction Talent Award and shortlisted from over 4,600 internationally submitted manuscripts. Did being shortlisted help open doors for you and would you recommend authors to enter writing competitions such as this?

I’ve always loved a good comp, ever since I won a can of polo mint holes! Being a finalist in the BBC comp was awesome, yes. I met Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen for a workshop, as well as a bunch of amazing aspiring writers who have become close friends. Susie Day, who won the competition overall has 3 published books under her belt now, and Sarah Mussi’s debut children’s novel, The Door of No Return won the Glen Dimplex award in 2007.

Entering competitions lets you set yourself a challenge and gets you to polish your writing skills. Actually I’ve always loved entering writing competitions, right from the days my butterfly poem got published in a library magazine. I first met Michael Rosen at the Playhouse in Lancaster when I was about 12 to receive a prize for a short story I’d written.

The first book I ever won for writing was quite a few years ago - a wonderful tale about a girl struggling to fit into a new culture - The Friends by Rosa Guy.
The second book I ever won was a few weeks ago - a wonderful tale about a boy struggling to fit into a new culture - a signed hardcover edition of Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story for being her 600th blog follower!

Pre-publication, I’ve gone in for the WOW factor and the Times-Chicken House competitions. Why not? It’s hard enough getting on the ladder to publication so I’d say seize opportunities to get a foot on a rung.

* Before finding your current agent and achieving publication, did you approach many agents and publishers? Have you had to deal with rejection along the way?

I was lucky to be taken on by an agent, Anne Dewe on the strength of an earlier novel, but despite some close bites we eventually decided a new book was needed. So I wrote The Memory Cage! A year later, on my Dad’s birthday, I found out that Scholastic were taking it on!

Previous to being taken on by Anne, I did the classic thing of making lists from the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, and had my fair share of rejection letters. Unless you’re very lucky, rejection letters are unfortunately all part of the difficult journey to publication. That’s why if you can be part of a support network, all the better.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Yes – WRITE! Any chance you get, even if you think you don’t have any time!

And READ any chance you get to see how other writers do it and for pure pleasure.

Learn crafting techniques and try them out. The ‘how-to’ books shouldn’t be sniffed at. Learn how to structure plot and keep them firmly led by the goal of the main character. Look to create the snowball effect of one event building on the next and the pace picking up towards that final climactic scene. Join a writing group. Be brave and show off your stuff to others who write too. Be supportive. Be thick-skinned. Be ready to work really hard. Most of all, believe in yourself!


You ask me why I took on Ruth – well, I feel very lucky that she came my way, she is one of those rare people who has a straight line to the heart of things. You find yourself thinking “of course, that is how it is, that is how it must be” and so on. She has this wonderful insight, writes beautifully, is serious but with a lightness of touch.

She has begun brilliantly and I expect great things of her.

Ruth is on Twitter

And you can be a fan on Facebook

Read the first chapter of The Memory Cage on Ruth's website:

The Memory Cage ~ a tall tales & short stories review

'The sea was like Grandad's Alzheimer's. Coming to wipe away everything that was written in someone's life. All the thing's they'd done. All the people they'd known. All the things they'd felt. Stealing away their memories.
What was somebody without their memories?'

I had to share this extract with you because even though several weeks have passed since I first read The Memory Cage, Ruth Eastham's prose and, in particular, this beautifully written and poignant paragraph has stayed with me.
Memory and loss is the central theme running through The Memory Cage - loss of many things; love, family, memories - but Ruth Eastham also tackles several other issues in her multi-faceted, debut novel; adoption, the morality of war, grief, guilt, Alzheimer's.  But she does so with sensitivity and a lightness of touch that makes this an accessible must-read for all ages.
The Memory Cage is a moving, thought-provoking debut novel but with a hint of mystery and intrigue underpinning the sadness that keeps the story moving forward and certainly kept this reader turning the page and, along with Alex, wanting to discover the truth.  All the threads are woven together quite beautifully and the bitter-sweet ending will surely move every reader - it certainly moved this reader to tears.



Candy Gourlay said...

Wow! I'm really excited to read The Memory Cage - congrats, Ruth - enjoy this year! Any chance of a book competition on your blog so I can win YOUR book?

Nicky Schmidt (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Great interview - Tracy and Ruth - and thanks to both of you! The Memory Cage sounds like a remarkable book and I look forward to laying my hands on a copy!

vh said...

Congratulations to Ruth as well for being shortlisted for the Waterstones Prize. Can't wait to read it.

Tracy said...

VH has beaten me to it. :) Congratulations to Ruth on being shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize.

Ruth Eastham said...

Thanks, everyone. I'm really thrilled about the Waterstone's Prize. There's tough competition though!

Nick Cross said...

Thanks Ruth, especially for that Booktrust link - it's really interesting to read a dispassionate analysis of how mental health issues are and aren't handled in children's fiction.

Oh, and big congratulations on the Waterstones prize - it must seem like everything's happening at once!

allanbard said...

Great interview/blog! It seems Ruth Eastham is one of the authors who thinks the best books for children are those who could be read by adults too... I hope she'll read all the comments here, I would like to ask her: Do you use sites like, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to promote your works and to help "remove" stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI - female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures of mythical creatures, good thoughts, poems from fantasy genre, etc? I'm allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hottest fire there's a bit of water, etc). And don't you think every author should strive to create new creatures, the classical, ├Âld like vampires, elves, dwarfs, wizards with sharp hats, fairies, etc. are too ordinary already? That's why I try some new in some of my books (Tale Of The Rock Pieces, The Opposite Of Magic, Kids'Funny Business, etc (weightless korks, glowing, living balls, Brown faces, fiery men, one-eyeds, night fruit, rock pieces, fish-keepers, etc...), do you think I'm right?
Best wishes! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons'hunters - my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).

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