Sunday, 30 July 2017

Guest Interview with Sara Gethin
You may remember my blog post back in June when I attended the launch of Not Thomas, an exciting debut adult novel by Wendy White, writing as Sara Gethin. At the time, I promised you an interview with Wendy. It's been a very busy few weeks as readers have taken her book and little Tomos to their hearts so I am especially delighted to be chatting to her today.

Wendy, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing.
Thank you for inviting me to chat about my writing, Jan – it’s a real pleasure to be here.

I live in Kidwelly, in West Wales, and moved there 23 years ago with my husband, Simon, and my two children, Rebecca and Jonathan. I grew up in nearby Llanelli and studied Theology & Philosophy at Lampeter University – a strange choice of course for someone so interested in English!

Since college, all my jobs have been child related – I worked in Mothercare, I’ve been a childminder and also an assistant in Llanelli’s children’s library. I loved that place when I was growing up, and working there was a dream-come-true. I left the library to train as a primary school teacher and I absolutely adored teaching. Sadly, I had to give it up ten years ago due to a heart problem and now I write full time. I’ve written three children’s books and a novel for adults.
Your children’s books are very well received in schools and with your child readers. In fact, I understand your first book Welsh Cakes and Custard won the Tir-nan-Og Award in 2014. What made you begin writing for adults?

I suppose it’s fair to say that writing for children was my first love. I studied creative writing with DACE (the Department of Continuing Education) at Swansea University back in 2001. It was a ‘Writing for Children’ course, and while I was studying there I wrote what would become the basis of some of my children’s books.

But I was also writing other stories, too, about a little boy called Tomos who was being badly neglected by his mum. I’d first started writing them in response to a ‘homework’ request from our tutor and they were meant to be for children, but these stories didn’t fit the brief, they were too dark. I’d had a particular story about a neglected child at the back of my mind for years, and the ‘Writing for Children’ course helped me to unlock it.

I'm fascinated to know how you manage to write for children and for adults? Do you write separately or do you have WiPs for both genres? 
I compartmentalise! I was writing my novel for adults, Not Thomas, in dribs and drabs for years while I was writing my children’s books. I would set aside a few days from writing for children to allow myself to read through parts of my adult novel and get back into the mind-set of little Tomos.

When I decided to start working seriously on Not Thomas, I set aside time purely for that. I did find myself editing St David’s Day is Cancelled, my latest children’s book, one day and editing Not Thomas the next, but editing is a different process to being creative. I couldn’t have switched between them so easily if I’d been using my imagination.

Why did you use a pseudonym for your adult book?
My children’s books are light-hearted and fun and suit the alliterative qualities of the name Wendy White, but my novel for adults is quite dark, so I decided to use a pen name I’d had in mind for years. In that way, I keep my two styles of writing very separate – and I always wanted an excuse to adopt a nom de plume!

Can you tell us what was the inspiration for Not Thomas?
I began with an image. It had been in my mind since my very first teaching post back in the late 80s. A fellow teacher told me about a little boy who always got himself ready for school while his mum stayed in bed. He was five and couldn’t tell the time, so he’d stand in the window for hours waiting for older children to pass on their way to school, and then he knew it was his time to leave too.

That image of the child in the window became my starting point for Not Thomas and the character of Tomos just grew from there.   

I know you’ve worked as a primary school teacher, Wendy, and you've just said about the image of the little boy in the window. But is the character of Tomos and the detail of his desperate situation based on a real pupil?

He’s not based on any one child in particular – not even that child who waited in the window. He’s a mixture of children I taught and heard about when I was a teacher. My first teaching post was in a very deprived area and sadly there were many families living in poverty, and there were cases of child neglect too. I’ve pooled the problems of children I knew and heard about and I’ve created a character that embodies them all. Poor Tomos!
In spite of what Tomos sees and experiences, the stability of school and the care and kindness of his teacher shine through. How important was it for you to balance the harrowing story-line with the compassion and hope illustrated in the relationship between Tomos and Lowri?
I’m so glad you found compassion and hope in Tomos and Lowri’s relationship, Jan. With hindsight, it seems extremely important to balance out all the despair of what was happening at home with what happened to Tomos in school, but I’m not sure I set out to do that. I did want to portray how important school is, and also to flag the other teacher who wasn’t so sympathetic to Tomos, but it somehow happened naturally in the story.

I know school is often the only place of solace for neglected children, and school holidays can be a living nightmare for them. My own teaching experiences taught me that we sometimes expect the impossible of children like Tomos. We expect them to sit quietly in class, to behave like every other well-cared-for child and to be able to learn. What real chance do they have of achieving any of that? 

That's such a good point, Wendy. 
Can you say which came first the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
It was totally character driven. I started with the child and then the story fell into place.
How do you view the character of Tomos’s mother, Rhiannon, and the possibilities of the reader’s conflicting reactions to her?
Oh, how I’ve struggled with Rhiannon! At the start I didn’t want to think about her at all. I wrote Tomos’s story first and foremost. Of course, Ree was always there in the background, but she was simply someone who made Tomos’s life so much worse. I knew she had a story too, and I had it all ready in my head, but I didn’t thread it into the novel until the very end.
I knew if I gave her too much lee-way, the novel could shift towards being about Ree and I wanted it to be about Tomos. Ree has had a terrible childhood and she’s damaged. A child who has a child. Tomos still loves her despite everything. I hope my readers don’t blame her too much.

I certainly felt conflicting emotions towards her because of her damaged past. 
Perhaps, you’d like to tell us how you got the book published.
I so enjoy telling this part of my story. A friend from my wonderful writers’ group in Llanelli suggested I approach Caroline Oakley of Honno PressNot Thomas had been turned down by one publisher at this point, and I know one rejection shouldn’t have been too off-putting, but since the novel is written in such an unusual style and I already believed it was unpublishable, I was despondent.

The day after our circle’s meeting, I received the Honno Press newsletter email which said there were places left on their ‘Meet the Editor’ scheme with Caroline Oakley. It seemed like a fortunate coincidence, so I rang immediately, before I could chicken out, and booked a place.

I met with Caroline in Aberystwyth. She’d read the first 30 pages of my manuscript and when she asked to see the whole of it, I was pretty shocked as I was certain she wasn’t going to be interested. From there the process was very quick, and Not Thomas was published more or less one year after that meeting. So I would always say: if you’re a woman, are Welsh or live in Wales, do try Honno with your manuscript – you may be very pleasantly surprised too.

I'm so glad Caroline did publish Tomos's story, Wendy. Telling the story through the eyes of a five-year-old little boy is quite different, or as you say'unusual', for an adult novel. How important was it for you that the publishers kept that feature?
It was very important to me that the story was told in the voice of Tomos. It would be a totally different novel if it was told from another character’s point of view. I had written the very first story about Tomos, back in 2001, in the third person, but I instantly realised that it didn’t have the effect I was looking for. Making it a first person viewpoint turned it into a more powerful story. 

Anyone who has had dealings with young children would relate to the authentic language and the intonation in the dialogue used by Tomos. Were you able to do this by direct observation in the form of research or by remembering your time with young children as a classroom teacher ?
I didn’t research the language I used, but Tomos’s voice was always very clear in my head.
How much planning did you do for the novel?
I planned the whole book before I started writing it – that’s to say, I had it all in my head as a complete story before I began. I wrote it in a random order, as the mood took me, and the very last line was one of the first I wrote.
On a more general note, do you have a particular routine when writing and where do you write?
I write at the kitchen table, unless I have a pressing deadline and then I have a little upstairs office I use with no windows or other distractions. I don’t have a particular writing routine, although I often wish I did. I’m not creative in the mornings and find afternoons and evenings best for writing something brand new, but I can edit at any time.

Do you have plans for more adult novels as Sara Gethin?
I have another adult novel complete in my head at the moment. I just need the opportunity to begin writing it down.

I'm sure there'll be many other readers like me hoping that opportunity comes very soon!  
You must be very excited about the response to Not Thomas.
I am – thank you, Jan. It’s so odd to send a book out into the world without knowing what reaction it will have, especially when it’s in the voice of a child. I had many sleepless nights over it. But I’ve been delighted with the reviews Not Thomas has had so far, and people seem to have taken little Tomos to their hearts, which is particularly rewarding.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat to me, Wendy. I wish you good luck with your debut adult book.
Thank you, Jan – it’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you.
Not Thomas is published by Honno Press 
Links as Wendy White
Twitter: @Wendy_J_White
Links as Sara Gethin
Twitter: @SGethinWriter

My thoughts on Not Thomas: 5 stars *****
Wow! This book is one that pulls on your heart strings. Told in the voice of five-year-old Tomos, the story takes the reader on a roller-coaster emotional journey ranging from absolute despair, anger at the shocking human depravity to delight in the naΓ―ve innocence of a five-year-old and hope in the form of his teacher’s love and compassion. We are taken right into the world of Tomos where he is neglected by his young mother. He observes things no child should ever have to witness and has to fend for himself. Sara Gethin has created very believable characters and I was particularly impressed by the multi-layered character of his teacher, Lowri. My attitude to Ree, his mother, Rhiannon, ranged from intense outrage at her actions to sympathy for her background and plight at various stages in the book. I kept asking myself, ‘how can Tomos’s situation be allowed to happen?’ but sadly, we know that it does happen all too often. Beautifully crafted, this book is a must read and should be dedicated to all children like Tomos. I was pleased that there was a satisfying conclusion to the story in the form of hope for him. That little boy stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the book. I can’t wait to read more by this author and cannot recommend Not Thomas highly enough.

I do hope you've enjoyed hearing about Sara (Wendy)'s unique book. Has the plight of a book's main character ever affected you so much that you can't stop thinking about him or her after you've finished reading?

Thank you for reading. You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.


  1. Your well thought out questions make for an insightful interview, Jan. Thank you for another slice of 'Tomos.' (I love this book & think it ought to win prizes.) And thank you for a peek into the writing world of the lovely & talented Wendy! xXx

    1. Thank you, Carol. I agree with you about 'Not Thomas'. I think it is a book to look out for. Thank you to Wendy, too, for her full and detailed answers. πŸ™‚πŸ“š

  2. Thank you so much for asking to interview me, Jan - and for your wonderful review of Not Thomas. I'm delighted you enjoyed it so much.
    All the very best for your WiP,
    Sara / Wendy xx

    1. It was a pleasure, Wendy, and the comments in the review are sincerely meant. Thanks for your good wishes. There's a lot to sort out in the WiP but I just need to get the story written, now. I can remember novel number 1 being like that and now I'm happy enough to be submitting it. I'll get there...she says. πŸ‘ ...I hope. πŸ™‚

  3. Great interview Jan & Wendy (Sara). I am just about to start reading about Tomos' journey so will give you feedback later. It's been a real test of self-discipline to finish what I've been working on before starting it!

    1. Thanks, Angela. I know what you mean. I went on holiday the day after the launch and left 'Not Thomas' at home, not wanting to spoil my lovely signed copy with suncream or risk it getting my lovely signed copy squashed in the case! I was itching to start reading it. You won't be disappointed I promise you. πŸ™‚πŸ“š

  4. A wonderful intuitive interview, ladies. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Judith. That's kind. πŸ™‚ More good news for 'Not Thomas' today with the announcement that it's made the 'Not the Booker' longlist. Congratulations, Sara!

  5. Such an interesting interview, Jan and Wendy (Sara). What a brave and intriguing idea for a novel. I find it fascinating that Wendy wrote the book in a random order. I'm sure I couldn't manage that. Even having the whole story inside your head, and planned out, this sounds pretty challenging to me. Your lovely book review, Jan, makes Not Tomos even more enticing.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Sue. Yes, the fact that Wendy writes random scenes - although I know of other published writers who do that , too - and has the whole story planned out in her head struck me as impressive. Do read 'Not Thomas'. πŸ“š