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Welcome, Phyllida Scrivens…

Can I offer you a drink? Tea? Wine?

Thanks Suzan.  I’ll take a Rooibos tea with a drop of milk please. However, by the end of this interview I wouldn’t be adverse to a small chilled pinot grigo!

*Hands Phyllida a Rooibos tea*

Can you tell me a little about yourself? (inc if you use a pen name and why)

Certainly.  I live with my husband Victor in Norwich, Norfolk.  I am not a native of Norfolk; in fact I was born in the North-East, but moving here from Surrey in 2005. Although I have always loved to write, including some newspaper columns, short stories and one act plays, it was not until I started working for the Head of Literature at the UEA, that I began to dream of taking the MA in Creative Non-Fiction. This dream became a reality in 2012, leading directly to my first book contract with Pen and Sword Books.

What is the title and genre of your latest book?

This will be my third book and is called The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874: Heroes, Victims, Survivors. It will be published in September. All three books are biographical and based on local figures. The first is the full life story of Joe Stirling, a Kindertransport boy who made an amazing life for himself in Norwich (Escaping Hitler), and the second (The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich 1924-2017) is a group biography, exploring the lives of the seventeen women who have been the Lord Mayor of Norwich. I am proud that this book won the Best Biography prize at the East Anglian Book Awards 2018.  My latest title is a hybrid of historical fact and potted biographies of the 28 people who died in Thorpe St Andrew in a famous Victorian railway collision, individuals who have until now simply appeared in lists of names.

Do you write in first or third person?

Both.  I do enjoy writing fiction, albeit occasionally, latterly achieving some success in competitions organised by the Norwich Writers’ Circle, of which I am a long time member and former Chairman.  These short stories are invariably in the first person, as I love to immerse myself in the main character, really getting inside his or her head.  I also like to read fiction written in the first person. However, with researched non-fiction, and particularly biographies, I write in the third person and usually present the chapters chronologically.  I think it is much easier to follow a person’s life journey if you start at the beginning, although in recent years there seems to be more scope for experimentation in that genre. 

How did you come up with the story?

I firmly believe that factual stories are often more engaging and fascinating than anything that is made up! I am that person on the bus who will wheedle your entire life story from you by the time we reach the terminus!  I love to interview people about their life experiences, also seeking out others who have known the subject, family members, friends, colleagues and the like. And the number of times following a talk to W.I.s, history groups, Probus Clubs etc, that someone will approach me asking if I’ll produce their life story! I explain that a biography can take 3-5 years to research and write up, I would need to be Methuselah to fit them all in!  Stories are everywhere.  As for fiction, again I will start with something or someone I know and take it from there. Sometimes I think it’s my computer that writes the denouements as I rarely have an idea where a fictional story will end!

Are you a planner or pantser?

With non-fiction it really has to be about the planning. I love the research stage, normally falling into the trap of becoming obsessed by the smallest detail and using up far too time and energy on it. Then, much later, having gathered the enormous pile of typed notes, I then have to assemble the enormous jigsaw that is before me.  My well-honed structural plans often fall at the first hurdle though, as I go off in a direction that is only marginally associated with the topic!  

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Don’t stress about finding inspiration, it will find you.  Be observant. Talk to people.  Don’t be afraid to tell them that you are exploring creative writing. Give and you will receive. People love talking about themselves and often it is just one little detail that will spark your imagination. Write everything down in a notebook.  Some of my best paragraphs come to me at 3 am. Unfortunately, I am usually too tired to lift a pen, or too fearful of waking my husband, so invariably the ideas are not recorded immediately. About 50% of them live in my memory until the morning, but I do sometimes wonder how many gems I have lost inside my head over the years! Start with small paragraphs, add more, join them up, and presto, you have a story. Consider your proposed audience and make sure there is something for them to engage with. Above all enjoy the experience… you are creating something unique.

What is your writing routine?

There isn’t one. I am certainly not a morning person, working better after lunch once the chores are complete, often forgoing the evening TV to catch up. When working on a major project I try and complete a certain number of words in a session, but with non-fiction that is very difficult, as I am constantly referring to books, websites and other reference material as I go along. I try and save some time for ‘normal everyday life’, but sometimes my husband does feel somewhat neglected, especially as I approach the dreaded deadline.

Do you have an editing process?

There is a lot of cutting and pasting involved.  During the actual writing I work on a split screen, with the narrative on one side and my specific research notes on the other. Then comes the edits and they say you should ideally take more time over the edit than when writing. I hate losing precious paragraphs, or even chapters, but it has to be done to achieve clarity and fit in with word counts. My husband reads everything I write and has become quite a proficient editor! I have been lucky to have a publisher who assigns a professional editor to me once I have submitted the so called “final draft”. This has been a fascinating experience each of my three editors working differently. It took about 12 drafts and two months to finalise The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster, but there is no doubt it was a better book by the end of the process.  

What do you enjoy the most/least about writing?

As I said before, the research is always revelatory and absorbing. Writing early drafts can be painful, but when a paragraph reads well, I can experience a real buzz. I love it when my head is at its most creative and certainly for this new book, I took the opportunity to experiment with novel techniques to add dialogue and dramatise some of the real-life events. Ultimately it is always brilliant when readers tell me they have enjoyed one of my books or been fascinated by one of my illustrated talks. I will admit to being a bit of an egotist and having my name on the spine of a book has always pushed my buttons!

Where can people find you on the internet?

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/phyllida.scrivens (where you will find links to Facebook pages for all 3 books)

Twitter: @escapinghitler

Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?

I have been fortunate to be offered two public events during September when I can share stories from The Great Thorpe Railway Disaster 1874. Firstly, I will speaking as part of the the Heritage Open Days in NorwichDetails and tickets can be found at https://www.heritageopendays.org.uk/visiting/event/the-great-thorpe-railway-disaster-of-1874-heroes-victims-survivors

Secondly, the official launch will be at Jarrold, in Norwich, on the early evening of 30th September. Again, information and tickets from https://www.jarrold.co.uk/events-diary/events-list/the-great-thorpe-railway-disaster-1874

All three of my book launches have been at Jarrold, and I can honestly say they count amongst the best days of my life. After all the hard work, hours spent online, in Record Offices, in libraries, and at my desk, it is an amazing feeling to walk to the stage accompanied by warm applause from family, friends and fellow book lovers.  I am not sure if there will be another book (I am 66 now), but maybe the latest book launch experience will change my mind! 

Thanks so much Suzan for inviting me onto your blog.  It was a pleasure talking to you.

You’re welcome and thank you for taking time out to tell us about your fabulous new book.

Your pinot grigio is waiting for you.

If you would like to read about these books and/or purchase a copy …

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Phyllida-Scrivens/e/B07BWN8VWF%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share

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