Today my guest writer is Sophie Parkes. She and I met on an Arvon Novel Editing course in Clun a year ago and, glad to say, all of us from the course have remained in touch.
Take it away, Sophie… I’m Sophie Parkes, a writer inspired by folklore, ritual and living traditions. I live in Greater Manchester where I lead a writing group that’s currently working on a project to explore the Peterloo Massacre. I’m also in the final throes of a Creative Writing MA and work at a creative agency.
What first inspired you to write? What a simple but fascinating question! I must admit that I have no idea, as I’ve written for as long as I can remember.
I suppose ‘who first inspired me to write’ is easier to answer: I had a friend who lived a few doors down from me who was three years older. Obviously, when you’re young, those three years can make all the difference and she was miles ahead of me, academically and intellectually. Anyway, she had an enormous imagination and we would write together, personifying the animals that lived in the farm our houses bordered onto. When I couldn’t keep up, she challenged me: that’s dull, that’s not what would really happen, etc, and I owe so much to her: I can honestly say she effectively trained my brain into creativity. Sadly, we haven’t been touch for years and years and I’d love to know if she still writes.
What was your first piece of creative writing? How old were you? Again, I can’t remember a first; creative writing was always part of our play. We made ‘books’ from sandwiched scrap paper, stapled down the side.
But I do remember my first piece of ‘properly published’ creative writing. I was one of those pony mad girls whose childhood was spent reading horse-related adventures and dreaming of owning my own. It was not to be – there was absolutely no way my family could ever afford one – so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wrote a lengthy piece – I suppose it’d be a sort of creative non-fiction – called ‘The horse lover’s guide to life without a horse’ which saw my protagonist set out all the ways in which the ordinary horse lover, i.e. those without buckets of money, could indulge in their passion for horses. And believe me, it is some passion. I had posters of horses on my walls rather than pop stars.
I was delighted when the piece was serialised by Absolute Horse magazine, with accompanying illustration from a professional illustrator (who must have wondered what on earth they had been commissioned to do…)
Which writers do you particularly admire? This answer changes on a pretty-much-monthly basis, but I currently adore Benjamin Myers, Hannah Kent, Zadie Smith, Clare Fisher, Lucy Wood.
What do you love about writing? Writing things down, writing about things, helps me understand those ‘things’ better. It helps me rationalise my feelings and interrogate the subject. I also feel that I can be awkward or inarticulate in person, but in writing, I can communicate more effectively – it’s a closer representation of who I truly am. When I’m writing, and I’m excited by something and things are going well, there’s no other feeling like it. I feel consumed and overwhelmed and set to burst. It takes over my days and my dreams.
What do you hate about writing? The flip-flopping. Some days, I’m really chuffed with what I’ve done; then another day, I’ll read the same section and realise it’s total rubbish. And related to that, the fact that it’s hard to know when something is actually good. And related to that, the fact that it’s also so difficult to know when something is actually finished… or whether I should scrap it and start it again. Wait, why do we do this again?
Describe your ‘portfolio’ of writing
I’ve published two non-fiction books, one a biography of my ultimate hero, Eliza Carthy – MY WAYWARD DAUGHTER –
– and the other a ghostwritten autobiography of a blind endurance athlete FROM LIGHT TO DARK: THE STORY OF BLIND DAVE HEELEY. Quite varied!
In terms of my fiction, I have a collection short stories, a YA and a ‘middle grade’ novel in the drawer; I’m currently working on a historical novel. I certainly feel more comfortable and confident with longer form as brevity is not my strong point!
All my work to date – and I strongly suspect this will continue into my future work, too – explores folklore, ritual, ceremony, and living traditions: how these things give humankind shape, milestones and purpose, and how they can connect us to our ancestors, our communities, and other cultures.
What is your proudest achievement? I won a Northern Writers’ Award in 2017 for my short story collection, SOVAY, which is a compendium of stories based on or influenced by English folk song. I couldn’t believe I’d won it – I’m not a winner of competitions, least of all writing competitions! – and it gave me the opportunity to attend an Arvon course, meet agents, attend a pitching workshop and, best of all, meet lots of other incredible writers. If you’ve got a strong connection to the North, enter, enter, enter!
What is your current project? I’m writing a historical novel, currently entitled Bill O’Jack’s, which is set in Saddleworth in 1832. I’m currently in re-write mode, after I completed my first full draft towards the end of last year, but I’ve already spotted things I need to go back and tackle. Oh, and more research. Always more research. If you’ve any tips on where to find out about working class Methodist weddings and burials in the 1830s, I’m all ears!
But I also know the next two – maybe even three – projects I want to work on. How do writers stop themselves from being distracted by other ideas? It’s maddening!
Anything you’d like to add? Thanks for the opportunity to do this – it’s really heartening to step back for a moment, consider what you do and realise you are doing something. It’s so encouraging to receive support and generosity from other writers. Thank you.
A great pleasure, Sophie. All the very best with BILL O’JACK’S – and hope to catch up with you in person again before too long.
Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy
From Light to Dark: The Story of Blind Dave Heeley