20 Jun 2016 / Lumb Bank
One evening in March, I found myself sitting in the guest reader’s chair at Lumb Bank, facing a group of teenage writers, with butterflies in my stomach. I was about to read from my debut novel Eden Summer. I was about to read a scene set at Lumb Bank: about my teenage character’s experience of reading in that very spot. It couldn’t get more cyclical if a novelist had made it up. You see, Arvon has been there, all through my writing life…
The story begins in September 1990. Just starting an English A-Level, I went to Lumb Bank, along with my friend Helen. Two students from each school in the area were offered the chance of an Arvon course, and by some lovely stroke of luck, we were both chosen. It was a wonderful week, taught by Berlie Doherty and John Latham. The weather was golden and perfect. In retrospect, I see how that has crept into Eden Summer – also set in September, with scenes at Lumb Bank… I remember the delight of writing all morning. I remember the thrill of hearing Berlie’s not-yet-published young adult novel Dear Nobody, which later won the Carnegie medal.
Then I seemed to forget about Arvon for a while – I wish I hadn’t! I lost writing confidence in my twenties, working as an editor and tending other people’s words. I want to go back and whisper in my ear, ‘You can write, too. Remember Arvon?’
I started writing again in my thirties, when I was on maternity leave. I wrote stories for my daughters. Now working as a freelance editor, I was commissioned to write texts for picture books and non-fiction books. Slowly, my confidence and my writing skills developed. In 2007, I went to Totleigh Barton to spend a week working on my first novel. It never got published, but I was inspired to keep going.
Then, in 2008, I went to work at Lumb Bank as Centre Director. I can honestly say I loved that job like no other. I loved opening that massive front door and welcoming a new group of writers every Monday. I loved meeting my favourite writers, and dreaming up courses and combinations that would appeal to Arvon’s writers at all stages of their careers. I loved listening to all that creative talk, breathing it in, and witnessing the transformations that happened for people there. I loved the building itself, and that green valley, constantly changing through the seasons. I even loved the astonishing variety of the work: how any given day might involve cooking a meal for twenty, fitting three fresh lightbulbs, finding lost memory sticks, and hosting a Q&A with the poet laureate…
And the Arvon courses I attended in that time! Magical weeks at all the other Arvon centres – writing poetry at Totleigh Barton with Jen Hadfield; working on a second novel at The Hurst with Maggie Gee and Jonathan Lee. There were setbacks too: novels rejected, false starts and misguided directions. But I simply would not have continued writing without the support and encouragement of Arvon tutors.
I left Lumb Bank in 2013 and focused on my writing full-time for a while. I had some children’s folktale retellings published with Barefoot Books, and I started a Creative Writing PhD at Leeds Trinity University, working on my third novel Eden Summer.
I’m very grateful to Natasha Carlish, Centre Director at The Hurst, for taking a chance on me and inviting me there as guest speaker last year for a Children’s Fiction week taught by Elen Caldecott and Jonny Zucker. By lovely coincidence, I’d just heard that Eden Summer would be published by David Fickling Books. That evening, I described all the stepping stones on my writing journey, very pleased to end the story with this good news!
And then, coming full circle, I went back to Lumb Bank this March, to meet a group of Year 9 students from Northgate High in Suffolk. I walked up through the woods, re-treading what had once been my daily commute. I sat in the tutors’ cottage, very warmly welcomed by Stephen May and Rebecca Goss. I looked at the students round that huge dining table, through layers and layers of memory, remembering how I’d sat there with my friend back in 1990, remembering all the nights when I’d hosted the dinner and researched the guest speaker, ready to introduce them.
This time, it was my turn to read. I was nervous because it was the first time I’d read my book to the teenagers who are my audience. But the students’ reactions were fantastic. Their questions were insightful. I was more moved than I could say. This is why I write, I realised – for those readers, for that response. And the really exciting question is, what will they go on to write?
After the reading, I waited under a crisp starry sky for my taxi to take me down the hill, listening to the sounds of the valley at night: the river and the tawny owls. I savoured the moment, feeling extraordinarily grateful. Arvon has been there all my writing life, and I will look forward to the next chapter…
Eden Summer will be released on July 7th and is available for pre-order here.
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