Author feature – Kathryn Simmonds

By | September 5, 2014

A few weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of reading Love And Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds – you’ll find my review here.  Kathryn’s been a little busy recently – welcome to the world, baby Clara! – but I’m quite delighted she’s found time to pop in (between feeds…) and answer a few of my questions.

Welcome Kathryn!  What was it like taking on a full length novel?  I see that your previous writing was short stories, drama and poetry.  Did it need a different discipline?

Writing a novel was a test of stamina. The hardest part was finding the discipline to just sit down and bear with it, to keep faith that all the mess and muddle would eventually come right. But it was exciting too, and freeing to have so much space after poems and short stories.
Looking back, I can see how my previous writing experience fed into this book.  Reading and writing poetry gave me a respect for structure – I’m quite drawn to circular patterns, and there are some circular aspects to the structure of my novel – and it also taught me how to use images. Short stories gave me some practice with character, and drama is all about dialogue, which I love writing, so there’s lots of dialogue in the book. The trickiest thing was plot: as a reader I enjoy novels with a strong story and definitely wanted my reader to turn the pages. Love and Fallout is set in two time frames so each chapter had to move the story on.  During the editing I tried hard to make sure there weren’t saggy bits where I’d gone on a little journey for no particular reason.
I was in my mid 20s when the Greenham Common Peace Camps were in place – working for the civil service, wishing I’d had the guts to chuck it all in and join them. You’re a great deal younger – what made you want to base your book around that time and those events?
It was an era I was interested in and wanted to know more about. The protests provoked such strength of feeling and touched so many women’s lives, and I found the research totally absorbing, it spurred me on to keep writing.  At Greenham, women were meeting each other who might never have crossed paths in everyday life and this seemed like a gift for a novel. I wanted to explore ideas of peace, particularly the difficulty of achieving peace as an individual, and so the large symbolic backdrop of Greenham became a contrast to the personal struggles of my main character, Tessa.  There’s an old song ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’ and that became a through-line, a way to chart Tessa’s journey through the book.
Did you talk to any women who were there? I only ask because the book feels as if there’s first hand experience in there somewhere…
Yes, I did speak to a number of women who’d visited or lived at Greenham because although writing a novel is a creative act and I wasn’t attempting documentary authenticity, the spirit of Greenham needed to feel true.  When I began the book I was teaching a weekly poetry class at Morley College, just around the corner from the Imperial War Museum, and in the afternoons I’d go with my notebook and spend the afternoon listening to Greenham archive interviews – not just with the women protestors, but with members of the military and those who were against the encampments. 
Research was an immersive process and I read everything I could find and later on I sought out women who’d either visited or lived at the camp.  I didn’t want to conduct any face-to-face interviews until I was well into my own research as I didn’t want to end up using direct experiences.  In fact it was quite easy to meet women who had some connection to the camp – even my own editor told me she’d visited as a student. I also sent the first draft of the manuscript to Ann Pettitt, co-organiser of the original march to Greenham and author of the invaluable ‘Walking to Greenham’, and she was kind enough to read it through and offer comments.
There’s a lot about motherhood in your book in Tessa’s present day relationship with Pippa. How would you feel if your daughter was up for Miss Student Body?
That chapter was fun to write, but the reality would be something of a nightmare. Thankfully my daughters are too little to worry about the politics of appearance yet, (although I try to steer my three-year-old away from the candy pink clothing that seems to be on sale everywhere). Of course women have always been judged by how they look, but personally I’m glad to see there’s a new wave of younger women who are challenging the old stereotypes.
And what’s next? Having written one wonderful novel, are you going to try another?
Well, I’d love to, but with two small children, one of whom was born this summer, it doesn’t leave much space for writing. However, I do have an idea for another book…it may have to wait until the time is right.
Catherine O’Flynn endorses your book on the cover – and your writing really reminded me of her style. Who are your writing heroes and models?
That’s a big compliment, I love Catherine’s books and it was a thrill when she enjoyed my novel enough to endorse it. I like all sorts of writers, people I’ll never have a chance of emulating, so they remain heroes rather than models:  Austen, Scott Fitzgerald, Muriel Spark, Flannery O’Connor, lots of poets like Larkin, Bishop, Frank O’Hara. I enjoy and admire many contemporary novelists too, particularly Anne Tyler.
And as a writer, I’m sure you’re a reader too. What have you read recently that you’ve enjoyed and would recommend?
I’d heartily recommend Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr Lynch’s Holiday – not because she gave my book a thumbs up! – but because it’s so well judged and I loved the central relationship between father and adult son. Dermot, the capable and gentle father is a wonderful character. (I loved it too – you’ll find my review here…) 
I enjoyed Maria Semple’s Where D’you Go Bernadette? which also has a parent/child relationship at its heart, only this time it’s the little girl who ends up fixing her gifted but slightly bonkers mother. As you might tell, I like books with light and shade, and I’ve never understood why a ‘serious’ book can’t be funny. 
I came across Kevin Barry’s short story collection Dark Lies the Island after reading his National Short Story winner ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ which is both comic and heartbreaking.  His stories are full of outsiders and bleak landscapes and they’re beautifully crafted.
I also read quite a lot of poetry and Lorraine Mariner’s There Will be No More Nonsense is a splendid follow up to her first collection, Furniture. Every time I use social media I think of her twitter poem which ends, ‘so then I tweeted every thought/ that came into my head,/ and my life became a strutting peacock/ pecking at my heels.’  
My thanks to Kathryn for the interview, and for giving me the opportunity to read and review such a lovely book.  Love and Fallout was published by Seren Books on 9 June, and is available in paperback and for Kindle.  It has now attracted a number of five star reviews on Amazon, and I’d recommend it most highly.