Sunday, 13 March 2011

Interview with an Author: MIRIAM HALAHMY

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

I have written all my life. As a child I wrote stories and poems and I kept diaries. I still keep diaries, especially when I travel. In my teens I added the guitar to my other instruments, the piano and clarinet and I wrote songs and performed them in folk clubs. I started writing professionally after attending a short creative writing course in my thirties, after having my kids. I published short stories, poems, book reviews and articles. I also wrote and published a novel for adults, Secret Territory.

My teaching career took off again after my kids started school and I became Head of Department so there wasn’t much time to write. I continued with poetry and published two poetry collections. In the last five years I have published short fiction for children and teens and now HIDDEN, the first book in my three book cycle for teens set on Hayling Island, is about to be published by Meadowside Books. It’s been a great journey and I feel I have tried my hand at most forms of writing and loved every minute of it.


'There's so much hidden in this little hut, 
and whatever I've dived into here is only going to get more complicated.'

Alix is just an ordinary fourteen year old, living at the bottom of quiet Hayling Island. 
But one cold, misty Saturday on the beach she and her friend Samir suddenly find themselves saving a drowning immigrant. 
Faced with the most difficult decision of their lives, what should Alix and Samir do?

A literary coming-of-age novel, dealing with courage, prejudice, judgement, and the difficulty of sorting right from wrong in our complex world.


* What inspired you to write Hidden?

I have worked with asylum seekers both as a teacher and a writing mentor for many years. I have written an education resource for schools about child asylum seekers and my story, Samir Hakkim’s Healthy Eating Diary, was chosen by Tony Bradman for his anthology on child asylum seekers, Give me Shelter, Francis Lincoln, 2007.

I felt there was more to say about Samir. I was walking on the beach one day on Hayling Island, near where my parents used to live and I thought, ‘What if two teenagers saw a man thrown out of a boat and pulled him out of the sea and the man turns out to be a poor, tortured student who has been refused asylum? What would they do and what if one of the teenagers was Samir?
That was it – the idea was born and now HIDDEN has been published.

The Bridge to Hayling Island
* What made you set the story on Hayling Island? And for anyone who hasn’t heard of it, could you tell us where it is?

Hayling Island is set off the south coast of England, opposite the Isle of Wight. It is a connected to the mainland by a bridge.

 My parents lived on the Island for 25 years and I have been visiting the Island and spending holidays there since the 1970s. My husband and I share a love of the Island and have continued to visit it since my parents died.


I've always thought it would be a great place to set a novel. The Island has many mysterious corners and quiet, deserted spots, fantastic bird life and of course sailing is very popular.

In fact windsurfing was invented on Hayling by Peter Chilvers in 1958. He fixed a curtain to a board and took off on the waves giving birth to a brand new worldwide sport.

* Immigration is portrayed by much of the UK media as being a rather contentious issue. Do you think it’s important to highlight the stories behind the people who come to this country and perhaps challenge some of the preconceptions made about asylum seekers?

I do feel that the more we are informed the more able we are to make up our minds about contentious issues such as immigration. I hope that my novel will help to provide some of the facts and challenge some of the myths about immigration and particularly asylum seekers, while at the same presenting an exciting story with convincing characters.

I have met literally hundreds of asylum seekers over a long period of time and each one has a gut grinding story to tell. As Alix, the main character in HIDDEN concludes, “You should never judge someone until you get to know them. Everyone deserves a chance.
Her views are endorsed by her neighbours and friends on Hayling Island. Mrs Saddler, a rather fierce local figure comments, “We Islanders have always welcomed visitors.

The UK prides itself on being a tolerant democratic society. If we are to keep it this way then we need to give people a chance to prove themselves. After all it was refugees who gave us our national dish – fish and chips!

* You have mentored asylum seekers and refugees and you’re married into an Iraqi family. Did any true life stories or people help inspire your writing of Hidden?

I decided with my first short story about Samir to use the stories of my husband’s large and entertaining Iraqi family as the background. I have learnt so much about ordinary everyday life in Iraq from the family; I even know the names of local streets and markets. I am familiar with the food, culture and even know a few words of Arabic. So it felt absolutely right to continue exploring this rich background, history and politics in HIDDEN.

* You are also closely involved with English PEN and the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture. Could you tell us about these organisations and your involvement with them?

The Medical Foundation was set up by Helen Bamber after WW11 to help survivors of the concentration camps. But it has developed into an internationally recognised charity which supports all victims of torture, providing medical, therapeutic and social support. I became involved several years ago on the Write to Life programme. Writers volunteer to mentor clients and help them to write down their experiences. I have worked with a wide range of clients and still maintain contact with the programme and with two of my former writers.

English PEN is part of International PEN which campaigns for writers imprisoned by repressive regimes around the world. It’s Readers and Writers programme sends writers into schools and prisons. In the past three years they have developed a programme to support asylum seekers who want to write. I have been involved in this initiative since the onset and have run several workshops in Pimlico and the East End.

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal for HIDDEN?

Quite a long time. I had an agent and interest from Walker Books as I finished the first draft and I thought, Hey, that was easy. But by the end of the year my agent had dropped out of agenting and Walker hadn’t followed through. I then had to find another agent which took most of the following year and meanwhile I was reworking the book to make it a more active and exciting read.

I was signed by the Eve White Agency in 2008 and we got a three book contract with Meadowside in 2009. But I think perhaps it was a good thing that there was a bit of a struggle. I’m not likely to take things for granted, am I?

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

I do a great deal of planning in my head and I also keep a notebook dedicated to the work in progress. But other than that I am a writer who discovers the arc of her story as she writes. Essentially the work starts to flow once the characters have become established. They tell me what they want to say, who they will meet and how they will react. It’s a very exciting and fascinating process and part of it is quite mysterious. New characters present themselves and they simply won’t go away. Trumpet Steven is a good example of this in HIDDEN. He appeared as a minor character and just grew and grew until he had carved himself a convincing role in the story.

I do a great deal of research for my books. There are always lots of small things that need checking – the time of the tides around Hayling for example. For HIDDEN I did a great deal of research into immigration and human rights, the political situation in Iraq and Iraqi culture in general. I also did some very specific research into Hayling history and made some wonderful discoveries. I love doing research and I am always adding to my knowledge of the Island and surrounding areas.

* What advice would you give writers trying to write novels based on real issues? How open do you think your audience are to reading and understanding these issues? Have you had any feedback from readers that you could share with us?

I think that young people today are very interested in the world around them and keen to make their own minds up about current, very real and very pressing issues. I believe that fiction can help to provide a route map through some of these issues. My advice to other writers would be to make sure you have a good story line and strong characters. Otherwise it is easy to fall into the trap of lecturing and no-one wants that when they settle down to a good read.

My book hasn’t been read widely yet but I have tried out some of the writing on young people and they loved it. They already had quite a lot of knowledge about Iraq, Saddam Hussein and asylum seekers and were certainly interested to learn more through a well told story.

* Are your publishers open to all your ideas or do you have to censor yourself because of your target audience? Are some issues still considered too risky or taboo?

Meadowside and in particular, my editor, Lucy Cuthew, loved the themes of HIDDEN from the outset. While some publishers rejected the book because of the issues it tackled, Lucy was keen for me to enrich and develop the themes in the book. That was really exciting for me as I felt that there was more I wanted to say, but was holding back a bit because of the reactions of the gatekeepers. I think there will always be people in the industry who are uncertain about taking on certain topics but as writers it is our job to challenge those attitudes and prove that young people will want to read our books, however risky they are.

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

It was accidental really. I had published short stories, poetry and a novel for adults and then I was developing a teaching career. But I moved on from teaching a few years ago to pursue other interests and I won a commission to write a book for children with cancer, Peppermint Ward, Cancerbackup, 2006.  I felt as though a tap had turned on and I immediately went on to write the short story about Samir. That was when I felt ready to tackle a novel and in fact it has turned into three novels. I have continued to write poetry, book reviews and articles for adults but currently I am enjoying writing for teens so much and I have so many ideas, I think I’ll stay with it for now.

I do enjoy reading teen fiction, particularly historical fiction and contemporary gritty fiction. But I still love all the children’s stories I grew up with – Little Women, The Secret Garden, etc., and re-read them from time to time.

* Do you think your experience of working as a teacher has influenced and helped your writing in any way?

Yes, definitely. I have taught teens and children as well as bringing up two kids myself. I relate very well to younger people and have an empathy with them and their view of the world. Therefore I found it quite easy to write about characters who are 14 years old. And of course when you teach for 25 years you have an enormous fund of anecdotes and interesting characters to weave into your writing. My field was special needs and so I taught kids who had a wide range of difficulties and backgrounds and this has certainly influenced some of the choices I have made in my work. For example, Lindy, the bad girl in HIDDEN, keeps the nail on her right forefinger sharpened to a point. It’s quite terrifying. I taught a girl who did this for a while, basically because she was quite a frightened person and this made her very aggressive. Eventually we helped her to relax and feel more confident and she cut the nail right down.

I still take every opportunity to mix with young people and speak to them, to keep refreshing my ideas and also because I basically enjoy their company.

* 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?

There was a lack of good stories targeted at teens when I was growing up and also a lack of novels with girls as the main character, overcoming the odds. Recently a mother of a 16 year old girl told me that there are still not enough challenging books with a girl as the hero and she feels that HIDDEN helps to plug that gap. I remember reading the Just William books and loving them as well as the Famous Five, but girls just didn’t do anything interesting. When I was eleven I was very influenced by reading The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Fantastic adventure story, pushing the boundaries of society as we know it. But not a girl in sight! I really envy the young people today as they have such a wide choice of books to read.

* What’s next for Miriam Halahmy? I understand Hidden is one of three novels published by Meadowside Books, could you tell us a little about the next two novels?

I realised that when I was half way through HIDDEN that I wanted to write more about Lindy, a minor but important character. So Lindy became the main character in ILLEGAL which will be published in March 2011.

In ILLEGAL, Lindy is being groomed by her cousin to become his drugs courier. She is terrified of ending up in prison like her two brothers. But there is no-one in her family to turn to. She teams up with a boy from school, Karl, who is mute after a trauma two years earlier. Although Lindy mocks Karl at first for not speaking, she actually prefers his silent world. Karl helps Lindy to find a way to report Colin to the police without revealing themselves.

I then became interested in Jess who appears as minor character in both books. So in STUFFED, the third book in the cycle, Jess becomes a main character together with her boyfriend Ryan. Each has an awful secret to keep from the other. Will their love survive the roller coaster ahead? STUFFED will be published in October 2012.

All three books are set on Hayling Island, but in three different locations. All the kids go to the same school and the books are set over the period of a year, covering Year 10 and Year 11. So if you enjoy HIDDEN there is a lot more to come, I promise!

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

There are only two ways to become a writer – you have to read and you have to write. There is no getting away from it, you have to sit down and write and write and write. But if you believe in your work and you persevere then you will succeed.

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you’d like to add?

One of the most exciting things that has happened to me during the writing of these books is that I found out that five ‘little ships’ left Hayling for Dunkirk in May 1940. The Dunkirk rescue is an important feature in the book.

I managed to find two of the ‘little ships’ beautifully restored and maintained and was able to go over one of them, Count Dracula and photograph it.

So I have stood on a boat which rescued over two hundred of the 300,000 soldiers stranded at Dunkirk! ( I have a total passion for History.)

For anybody interested in learning about the plight of Asylum Seekers and Immigration here are some links:

Refugee Council   

UK Border Agency - Asylum Support


Hidden ~ a tall tales & short stories review

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Miriam Halahmy's book, Hidden, is the brave choice of subject matter.  Issues of immigration and asylum seekers are never far from the sensationalist tabloid headlines but what's often easy to forget or overlook is that behind these headlines are real people, adults and children; living, breathing, human beings who have their own unique stories of struggle and pain. Stories that many of the book's readers may not even be aware of until they turn the pages of Hidden.  But the tone of the book never falls into preachy lecturing or a forced info-dump of facts, it's a thought-provoking book that informs while delivering a great story.

I think setting it on Hayling Island is inspired as it seems to serve as a microcosm of a country's prejudices and tolerances but it also gives it a sense of claustrophobia - this is a place where everyone knows everyone else.  But, as Alix discovers, we may not always know people as well as we think and we can all be guilty of making judgements and jumping to conclusions about others.  This is a story of struggle and of hope, of prejudice and of tolerance,and of understanding that working out what's right or wrong isn't always black and white.

To repeat Miriam's quote from Hidden's main character, Alix, “You should never judge someone until you get to know them. Everyone deserves a chance.


Miriam featured as a guest blogger on tall tales & short stories in 2009 with her Writing Advice posts:

Why should you join a critique group?

Creative Writing Workshops.



Savita Kalhan said...

A great interview with a very exciting writer! Definitely a book I will be recommending to everyone I know!

kathryn evans said...

Am so looking forward to reading this Miriam! x

Miriam Halahmy said...

I'm looking forward to seeing what you think Kathryn! Glad you liked the interview Savita.

Anita Marion Loughrey said...

Amazing interview and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of Hidden when it comes out next week.

Nick Cross said...

Thanks Tracy, Miriam. Looking forward to the launch...

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