Blog Celebrations - Week 7
A debut author interview
with Helen Peters
and 2 copies of
The Secret Hen House Theatre
THE SCRET HEN HOUSE THEATRE
Since the death of her mother, Hannah's family life has been a bit chaotic. Her father works all day on their dilapidated farm, and the four children are pretty much left to themselves.
One day, Hannah finds a ramshackle old hen house in a forgotten corner of the farm and decides to turn it into a secret theatre.
But when the farm is threatened with demolition, Hannah hatches a bold plan to save it.
But who can she trust? And what will happen when her dad finds out?
* Hi Helen and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Tracy. I’m delighted to be here – thank you for having me!
I spent my childhood on a traditional tenant farm in East Sussex, the eldest of four children, like Hannah in the story. I left the farm at eighteen to go to university and then moved to London, where I taught English and Drama in secondary schools for twelve years before becoming a full-time mum when my son was born.
* What inspired you to write The Secret Hen House Theatre?
I always wanted to write about the farm because it was a very special place and my dad was such an eccentric character – completely absorbed in the farm and totally oblivious to domestic detail, to such a degree that he has never in his life set foot in a supermarket or made himself a meal. But I didn’t think of writing about it as a children’s book until my husband suggested it when I was telling him about the theatre we had on the farm. Once he’d suggested it, it seemed the obvious thing to do.
* Could you tell us about your childhood adventures in the Lucky Horseshoe Theatre?
My friend Liz and I used to write plays and act them out into a tape recorder, complete with coconut-shell sound effects for horses’ hooves. And then, when we were eleven, we had the idea of finding a venue on the farm for a real theatre. With our other best friend and our siblings, we transformed the shed in much the same way as the children do in the book, dividing it into three with a stage in the centre, a dressing room at one end and an auditorium at the other, using wood and nails and things we found lying around the farmyard. We put on a play a year for six years, with our families as audience. We never invited other friends – we kept it completely separate from school. Our first production was a nativity play, but the scripts, sets and costumes got more sophisticated over time. We each paid 5p a week subs towards our expenses and, like Lottie in the book, Liz was amazing at designing and making costumes out of fabric we bought from jumble sales.
* I love the idea that you’ve used extracts from a book you wrote when you were thirteen, with your friend, Elizabeth Pratt. Did you always want to be a writer?
No, because it never crossed my mind that I could be a writer. I thought writers were geniuses set apart from the rest of the human race and marked out from birth as special, and that a book was delivered fully formed by the Muse so that a writer simply had to take dictation. I never met a real writer or even read an interview with one, so I had no idea that writers actually find writing difficult and don’t necessarily write a perfect book the first time they set pen to paper.
* Do you think your drama and acting skills helped you in the writing of your book? I like to imagine you act out the scenes as you write them?
I don’t think it helps in the early stages, when I’m trying to get the story right, but when I’m finessing scenes, I do think of the process a bit like directing a play. I speak the dialogue to get the tone and speech patterns and gestures right. And I think the experience of directing plays made me aware of how the space between people has meaning, so I always consider, in a dialogue, where each person is in relation to the other and how they move closer to or apart from each other during the dialogue – one director called it ‘the dance of the scene’.
* The Secret Hen House Theatre is your debut children’s book. Was it your first attempt at writing a children’s book or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?
It was actually my first attempt at writing a book, although it changed drastically between the first draft and the version that got me the publishing contract. I wrote the first version while I was a teacher, in school holidays. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing because I was embarrassed about my pretensions. Of course, the book was rejected by all the agents I sent it to, and I shoved it under the bed in a box, thinking, Well, that’s that, I tried, but I’m clearly not a writer.
* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal for The Secret Hen House Theatre?
A long time! Ten years. It probably didn’t help that I hid the manuscript in a box under my bed for four of those years. Eventually a friend who works in TV persuaded me to let him read it, and he gave me great feedback, telling me what was good about it and how I could improve it. (‘More jeopardy! More tension!’) So I began to rewrite it, but the rewrite tailed off when I realise that it wasn’t right and I just didn’t know how to fix it. At that point, which was in 2008, my wonderful husband joined me up to SCBWI and booked me on to the annual retreat. The help, advice, encouragement and support I received from SCBWI events and SCBWI people put me back on track and kept me on the right track through two more years of rewriting.
* Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing? And if there are any important lessons you think you’ve learned on your writing journey what do you think they are?
Achieving a book deal changed the way I approach my writing only insofar as I have to be more efficient now because I have a deadline for the next book! With that in mind, I spent a lot more time planning the story before I began to write than I had done with the first book. When I started my second book, I was full of confidence. I had learned so much on my writing journey, particularly about structuring a story – introducing the central problem right at the beginning and then building a satisfying story arc, with each chapter having its own little story arc within that, and having a central event at the heart of each scene. And then I started writing it, and found that although I knew all that stuff in theory, I still made exactly the same mistakes as I had when I was a complete novice. I managed to write two complete 75,000 word drafts which just weren’t working, before I found the right way to tell the story. I don’t know whether this is normal or whether I’m a very slow learner.
* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?
I didn’t read The Secret Hen House Theatre to my children until I had the bound proof, but with my current book, Evie’s Ghost, I started reading it to them after the second draft, just before I was due to send it to my editor. And then I wished I’d read them the first draft, because I wouldn’t have wasted all that time essentially rewriting the same story. As soon as I read the first chapter aloud to my children, I realised that there was something fundamentally wrong with it and it needed a complete rethink. It just didn’t have enough action; it was far too wordy and introspective. Lesson learned: next time, I’ll read my children the first draft!
* Which books or authors did you enjoy reading as a child?
I loved books with real-world settings and female protagonists, like the Little Women and Anne of Green Gables series. I adored Noel Streatfeild’s stories because her characters seemed so real, and I loved boarding school stories like Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, which are hilarious. I’m reading them to my son now and he loves them too. I also devoured everything by Enid Blyton, and Richmal Crompton’s William made me cry with laughter – in fact, he still does.
* What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
Once I was a teenager, I stopped reading children’s books, and it didn’t occur to me to write for children until my husband suggested that I use my childhood theatre as a basis for a children’s book. That was a eureka moment for me. It just felt right, as though everything I’d done before – the farm childhood, the theatre in the shed, being an English and Drama teacher – had all been leading to this. Now I read children’s books all the time and I love discovering great authors that I didn’t know before.
* You’re a member of SCBWI. I was wondering if you could say a few words about how being a member may have helped you in your writing journey?
Being a member of SCBWI has helped me enormously. At that 2008 retreat, I found a critique group, and their advice was invaluable in helping me to shape the book and find the right voice for it. I’ve attended wonderful workshops at the conferences and retreats, and the one-to-ones with editors and agents have been really helpful. Most of all, I’ve met so many lovely and inspiring people, and have discovered a whole world online as well, including your fantastic blog!
* And finally… Do you have any words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
Having had just one book published, I’m not really qualified to dispense wisdom. But I would say, don’t expect it to come easily, but if you believe in the story you want to tell, keep going and keep rewriting until it’s as close as it possibly can be to your ideal vision of your story.
And take advice from great books on writing and from people whose judgement you trust, but think carefully before making big changes. Someone once said that if somebody tells you there’s a problem with your book, they’re probably right, but if they go on to tell you exactly how to fix it, they’re probably wrong. In the end, it’s your story, and some ideas will chime with you whereas others would change the story into something completely different.
INTERNATIONAL BOOK GIVEAWAY!
The Secret Hen House Theatre ~ A tall tales & short stories review
I think The Secret Hen House Theatre could become a timeless classic - it feels so reassuring, like reading an old book from your childhood or from another era, yet at the same time is utterly contemporary. I wasn't surprised to learn that Helen's story was heavily influenced by her own childhood growing up on a farm and her early theatrical ambitions. The story and the world the characters inhabit feels so completely real you can almost smell the farmyard and countryside; descriptions of dust and cobwebs in the ramshackle old farmhouse tickles at your nose and gets in your hair. The uninhibited fun of a childhood where dens can be built and the freedom to play outside makes the world an exciting place.
The story exudes warmth and humour albeit with an undercurrent of sadness and loss, and the struggle faced by Hannah's family to stay in their home and to continue working the farm they love. The characters are vivid and fully-formed and can be endearing and annoying in equal measure. Hannah's feisty and stroppy sister Martha is the prima donna to Hannah's more practical and kind-hearted soul who has dreams and ambitions of her own.
There are enough twists and turns to make this a page-turning read, and although the story ends on an upbeat and positive note it was a relief to see that the author resisted sugar-coating the ending. The Secret Hen House Theatre is a heart-warming story that celebrates family, the countryside and trying to achieve your dreams...
2 copies of The Secret Hen House Theatre to giveaway!
It's easy to enter!
Here's what to do!
- Leave a comment and your name. If you want to leave your email address that's great, if not, the winners will be announced after midday on the 31st July, UK time. So make sure to check in here and on twitter.
- Retweet the competition details on twitter.
and Karen @KLLaing
- TWO winners will be randomly chosen and will each receive a copy of The Secret Hen House Theatre.
- The competition is international.
Midnight, 30th July 2012, UK time.
The Guardian newspaper hat-trick for The Secret Hen House Theatre is featured on Nosy Crow's Website