I first met Honno writer, Judith Barrow, at a local library event about eight or more years ago and we have been in touch ever since. I hadn't started writing novels back then and was just dabbling in a few short stories. I fell in love with her first saga that was being promoted at the event, Patterns of Shadows, set during WWII. Since then, she has written many more novels so you may wonder what is a 'first' for her. I'll hand you over to the author herself to tell you more.
Judith, I'm delighted to welcome back to the blog! Your recent book ‘The Memory’ is very different from the sagas we’ve come to expect from you. Can you please tell us a little about the novel and how this is a ‘first’ for you?
The Memory is the story of Irene Hargreaves who lives with her husband, Sam, and her mother, Lilian, who has dementia. For a long time, the relationship between the two women has been a difficult one. And, over the last few years, this has been exacerbated by Irene's mother's illness. Irene is trapped by the love and compassion she has for Lillian which vies with the hatred she feels because of something she saw many years ago.
The book runs on two timelines: in past tense, Irene's life from the age of eight, after her sister, Rose, a Downs Syndrome child, is born and when her grandmother comes to live with the family, with flashbacks to happier times with Sam, and, in present tense, over the last twenty-four hours when Irene knows she needs to make a decision.
Although, in a way, The Memory is still a family saga, it’s the first contemporary book I’ve written. And it had been on the back burner for a long time. To be honest I wasn’t sure whether I would ever submit it to Honno, my publishers, for consideration, because it is so different from my previous books.
What was the inspiration for The Memory?
There were quite a few reasons that instigated the story, I suppose, but the main inspiration came from memories. I think most, if not all, authors have something of themselves in their books; we can’t help it; the words emerge from who and what we are, where we come from.
The idea of portraying a character who suffers from dementia did develop from personal experience; of my being a carer for a relative with the illness. Although I must hasten to add, that’s where the similarity ends. The relationship between Irene and her mother bears no resemblance, thankfully, to the one I had with my aunt, who lived with us, after we were married, for many years. Eventually, my aunt succumbed to dementia and I became her carer. A social worker suggested I keep a journal to monitor my aunt’s needs and the things we were able to do together. I used some of the notes I’d kept as the background to this dreadful disease. But it also reminded me of the fun times we’d had, even though an hour later she wouldn’t remember.
Other parts of the story were equally difficult to write. The character of Rose grew from remembering a childhood friend who died at the age of eight. She was a Downs Syndrome child. I knew she was different than me, but I didn’t understand in what way. And I knew she was often ill in some way. But it was frightening that one day we were sitting on her doorstep laughing and chattering, the next she was gone. The incomprehension, the blankness I felt at the time, resurrected itself in The Memory.
The two characters, the protagonist, Irene and her mother, Lil, had simmered in my mind for a long time, even as I was researching and writing my other books. It was many years before they came to the surface. With Irene there is one memory, one moment in her life that has prevailed and controlled the way she sees her mother. But her mother also has her own memories that, in her mind, forced her onto the path in life that she took, and formed the relationships she has with those around her.
When my aunt died, I found some letters between her and my mother that brought back a memory for me that I’d rather hoped I’d forgotten. I knew then why these characters had been nagging at me and what the story was I needed to write.
|the type of terraced house where |
Irene and Sam may have lived
The same. I found it an extremely emotional story to write. I think this is why it took me so long to finish the book; there were times when months passed before I could pick it up again.
Told over two timelines, the present day one takes place over twenty-four hours. What was your thinking behind such a structure? Also why did you choose to write the novel in the first person and the present tense? Was this a ‘first’ for you?
Yes, it is a first for me. It just felt right to tell the timeline that follows Irene over the twenty-four hours preceding each chapter in present tense. And that it should be written in first person point of view. As I was writing and living right alongside Irene during that day, feeling all those emotions, I also wanted the reader to experience how she thinks and deals with what happens between her and her mother.
But, by changing to past tense in the main body of each chapter, yet staying with Irene’s point of view, I’ve tried to show the same kind of distancing we all feel when recalling memories. We judge ourselves, our decisions; sometimes we relive those times, wonder whether they were right or wrong. Inevitably those recollections engender a variety of emotions. And so it is with Irene. I’ve left it to the reader to decide if she could have made different choices.
|Irene and Sam went on honeymoon|
|A view Irene and Sam may have seen|
The reviews for The Memory have been amazing and very well deserved. As this book was so different from your Haworth sagas, how did you feel on publication day before you knew how it would be received?
I was extremely nervous, Jan. As you said at the beginning, The Memory is so different from the sagas that many of my readers expect from me. I had no idea how it would be received.
I know The Memory has been a chosen text for reading groups. What do you think would be a good question for readers to discuss and get to the heart of what the novel is about?
Perhaps – “Who or what has been the biggest influence in Irene’s life? And what have been the consequence of that influence?”
You are a creative writing tutor and a reviewer as well as an author so what is a typical writing day for you?
I’m usually up early in the morning because that’s when my brain works. I try to resist looking at any social media until I’ve put 1000 words on the page or when two hours have passed. If I have classes on that day, I’ll make notes in the hope it’ll help me to pick up where I’ve left off when I get back home. If no classes, I’ll carry on writing until I run out of steam or the domestic trivia of the day forces me away from my desk.
All this goes out of the window if I have a review to write; it’ll play on my mind until I get it done. It can take hours for me to put together a fair and honest review from the notes I’ve made on the book as I’ve been reading it.
And then there are the nights when I can’t sleep, and a typical day’s writing is just wishful thinking. I’ve learned, over the years, when plagued with insomnia I give in and get up to write. And, surprisingly, when I look over what I’ve done during those hours, it’s not always complete rubbish.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on two books at the moment - which may be three any week now because I’m waiting for the edits to come back on my next book, The Heart Stone. It’s due to be published by Honno in February 2021 and reverts to my usual genre, historical family saga, set in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s strange; I now feel nervous about this one, probably because The Memory has been so well received. But I suppose most writers feel the same; always wondering if the next book might disappoint readers. I’ve gone right off topic, haven’t I! Sorry, Jan.
Right, the WIP I’m currently writing is a story set in the 1950s and is the story of three women who work in a cotton factory during the declining years of the industry. It’s told from the three points of view; they each have disparate and difficult home lives. As friends, they come together in their place of work to share the troubles within their families. Problems that will be worsened by the crisis within the cotton trade and their inevitable unemployment.
My other WIP is a more contemporary book again and is the story of two sisters who grow up sharing a lie, and the subsequent consequences that brings.
What has been your proudest writing moment to date?
I’ve loved so many moments in my writing life. And I’m always thrilled when the manuscript I’ve been toiling over for months (or years!) is accepted by Honno. But, probably, my proudest moment was when I was able to hand my first book, Pattern of Shadows, to my mother. I’d written short stories and poems and had them published; even won competitions and small prizes. I’d had a play performed. And I’d written five books (well-hidden and destined never to see the light of day again). So I think she didn’t quite believe I would ever get one accepted by a publisher. Mind you, I was soon brought down to earth when, turning over the book in her hand, she said, “Well, it took you long enough”. I agreed, mind; I hadn’t had the courage to send out any of the other books. I was so glad I was able to let her see I finally managed publication by a “proper” publisher. She was more impressed when I gave her the second of the trilogy, Changing Patterns; “Not a fluke, then, the first.”, was her reply to that book. She didn’t get to read the last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows; by then she had dementia.
Perhaps I’ve made her sound a little harsh here, but I was brought up at a time when it was believed too much praise spoiled the child and she stuck to that premise ( even though I’d been a grown-up for a very long time by the time Pattern of Shadows was published). And she did always say these things with a smile.
Thank you, Judith. It's been fascinating to hear more about the story behind The Memory and how you felt compelled to write it. I look forward to reading your new books when they're published.
One a dark evening in 2001 Irene stands by the side of her mother's bed and knows it is time. For more than fifty years she has carried a secret around with her; a haunting memory she hasn't even confided to her husband, Sam, a man she has loved and trusted all her life. But now she must act before he arrives home…
About the author:
Judith Barrow, originally from Saddleworth, a group of villages on the edge of the Pennines, has lived in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for over forty years.
She has an MA in Creative Writing with the University of Wales Trinity St David's College, a BA (Hons) in Literature with the Open University, and a Diploma in Drama from Swansea University. She has had short stories, plays, reviews and articles, published throughout the British Isles and has won several poetry competitions.
She is a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council and holds private one to one workshops on all genres.
Links to her book on:
Blog and website: https://judithbarrowblog.com/
FB Author page: https://www.facebook.com/Judith-Barrow-327003387381656/
Thank you for reading. I hope you found Judith's interview as interesting as I did. How do you cope when reading or writing extremely emotional scenes? Do you have to stop for a time as Judith did? Do you have to be in the right mood in order to read them? We'd love it if you commented. Thank you.
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