My ‘date’ this week is with a woman who lives a stone’s throw from the ‘Dreaming Spires’ of Oxford.
“I moved to Oxford about thirty years ago, having flirted with the idea of living here for at least five years before that. I was born in London and lived there until my early twenties. I’d never want to go back there for more than a visit now.
I’ve found Oxford is an ideal place for writers, eccentrics, and artists. It’s a place that celebrates diversity, and where you can be anonymous if you wish, and yet experience the feel of a village if you want to find your tribe. I love the way history is embedded in its streets and secret alleyways.
My own personal history is embedded there too, now. The only thing I would change seems like wishing for the tide not to turn – I’m not keen on the vast new shopping centre that screams commercialism, and the mad traffic congestion. But I suppose those hazards are inevitable in our modern society.”
Lesley worked full-time as a writer from the age of 17 and, afterwards, had short stories published and/or read on radio over a period of several years before deciding to switch careers and become a psychotherapist. I wondered if that was a difficult decision to make.
“Not at all. It seemed an organic progression, just as turning again to my writing twenty years later felt the right time. My writing had always focused on the psychological motivations and quirks of human nature, and I was trying to work out my own salvation through it, without realising it at the time.
As I reached the end of my thirties I had survived a great deal of trauma and my move to Oxford had begun a process of profound healing. I trained as a psychotherapist to help me understand more of that trauma and what had enabled my survival, and having learned how to go beyond my own suffering, I wanted to pass that on. It’s something of a cliché that therapists are wounded healers, but it’s true.
My work in therapy and in writing fiction has not been so different.
For me, it’s always been about reaching for the truth, and communicating on a deep level with other human beings.
I recognise that like many introverts I also have a driving need for meaningful connection. It’s what keeps us all afloat.”
Her childhood was lived in a part of London that followers of the BBC soap opera ‘Eastenders’ would recognise. However, whilst the fictional ‘Walford’ has changed hardly at all in the 40 years since its arrival on our screens, the part Lesley knew has changed beyond recognition.
“It’s now very different – the little I’ve seen of it in recent years. I’ve looked up the street where I lived for much of my childhood on Google Maps, and it’s weird to see that it’s all part of Docklands now. The interesting thing, however, is that I only have to call on my memory to see it exactly as it was. I have strong images in my mind of the house where I grew up. I didn’t realise it was a slum, and took for granted the outside lavatory and the huge bomb site at the end of the road. Those early experiences in my working class family are vividly imprinted on me.”
Mention of bomb sites reminds me that Lesley recently turned 70. What do the advancing years mean to her in her life and her writing?
“In spite of the additional physical challenges that ageing brings, I don’t think I’ll ever feel old. The generations of women in my maternal family have been strong and feisty, and youthful in our outlook. I loved my grandmother, who in her late eighties still had a wicked sense of humour.
My mother died only two years ago, also in her late eighties, and she remained politically astute right to the very end – and made sure her vote got cast in the referendum, even though by then she was bed-ridden.
I’m anticipating clocking up quite a few more years than either of them. But I’m also prepared to give in gracefully at whatever age my number comes up. My friends range in age from their early forties to their mid-eighties, and
where like-mindedness and a lively, creative intelligence are present I don’t think age really matters.
As a writer I feel I am at my peak (though I’d probably have said that at whatever age I’d reached when doing this interview!) In writing my current novel I am aware that I am bringing a lifetime of experience and understanding to it. I write with increasingly more compassion and empathy for my characters – which is a reflection of one of the blessings of getting older.
As I see the end of my life no longer as a mere dot on the horizon, I am poignantly aware of my connection not just with other humans but with all creatures, all life. We are all part of ‘it’, and although I’m still no wiser about what ‘it’ is (a lifetime’s inner and outer journeying have been devoted to finding the answer to that) I feel more strongly aware that it is all-encompassing and beautiful.”
How did her past experience as a published writer influence her decision to self-publish when she returned to writing in later life?
“Initially I did put some effort into finding another agent, as the one I’d had for all those years before had retired from Laurence Pollinger. But I soon discovered that in those twenty odd years since I’d last been published the whole world of publishing had changed. It was a salutary lesson in humility to be reminded that for all intents and purposes, and whatever my previous history, I was now a new girl on the block.
I was reluctant to self-publish at first, but it was my son who persuaded me. I hadn’t even heard of kindle, never mind discovering the joys of having one. As it has been with most projects in my life, once I seized the nettle I began vigorously waving the flag for nettles everywhere.
It gets easier with each book I publish to learn the ropes of what’s required. The hardest part has been managing to generate the publicity, as I’m not comfortable with blowing my own trumpet. But I love the process of creating the ads for my books, and the covers. And the one huge advantage of self-publishing for me has been editing my own books (which I always did in the past anyway) and not having a publisher trying to convince me to put in more of this or less of that. I do like having complete creative control.”
Her training and work as a psychotherapist feed into her more recent writing:
“I’m sure the richness of those years of deeper exploration into the psyche, and more importantly the human heart, have influenced me more than I realise. I have always been fascinated in hearing people’s stories (sitting at the feet of my mother and grandmother as a child, listening to them gossip and relate anecdotes about their history, was a rich source of material for my imagination!) I brought that genuine deep interest to my work as a therapist, and I learned to look for patterns and layers in the stories people told about themselves and their families. I think that honed whatever skills I already had, so that I now embed those patterns and layers in the novels I write. I’m not sure I could write in any other way – because I have to be fascinated in what I’m writing and the characters who introduce themselves to me as I bring them into life.”
She is reluctant to start listing author she admires
“because I’d have a hard job choosing which were more important or influential. The writer who has impressed me most recently has been Philip Pullman. I watched a documentary about him and felt such a rapport with him and how he described the way he works. I admire the way he delves so deeply into his characters and the invented landscape he creates in his books. He has such an incredible imagination, and he brings philosophy and spirituality into his books in a way that encourages the reader to question and perhaps even begin thinking in a way they hadn’t before. I love a book and a writer who is able to do that. I don’t know that I could learn anything as a writer from spending time with him, because we all have our unique style. But I would so enjoy hanging out with him and just talking about the process of writing, and life, and what it means to us.”
Like me, Lesley is full of admiration for the way in which other self-published and independently published writers support each other through organisations like IASD. Some say that such support is less forthcoming from traditionally published writers. Some of the people Lesley worked with in the 1970s went on to become household names. Did she consider approaching them when considering re-entering the world of publishing?
“No, I haven’t done that. I did get in touch with a local writer who has had some success (and ironically, all those years ago, just before I gave up writing for psychotherapy, I gave him the name of my agent, which started the ball rolling for him!) I contacted him a few years ago, just before I started writing my last novel, when I was considering trying to get back into mainstream publishing. He wrote back and said he’d had a look at my profile on Amazon and all the reviews I had, and his advice was to stick to self-publishing. Although he had continued to be published by one of the ‘big’ publishers he was making very little money, and being messed around by them. As for those who worked with me on the magazine, it honestly hasn’t occurred to me to get in touch with them. I tend not to look back once I’ve moved on.”
I am envious of her disciplined approach to writing:
“I’m quite disciplined, which I think is essential. I’ve always had to have a ‘writing room’, wherever I’ve lived, although it’s also an internal space. The one thing I’ve always required is non-interrupted silence – which is probably why I’m much happier living alone, and have a cat who doesn’t even purr. I work in the mornings. My preferred routine is between breakfast and lunch, although because I also have a healthy routine of meeting friends in the mornings, that can be reduced. If I’m burning to get on with a particular chapter I’ll return to it later in the afternoon, but never past 6.30 pm. Every day I go back over the previous day’s writing and edit before starting anew. It helps to keep the thread active, and I’ll sometimes see where I need to insert a couple of paragraphs that link to something that has gone before or is about to be written.”
There is nothing not already exposed here or on her website that she would wish to reveal about herself:
“As you’ve pointed out, I reveal a great deal. Possibly too much. When I was writing the material for it (her website) I lost sight of the fact that complete strangers would one day be reading it. On the other hand, anyone who reads my novels can guess certain things about my own life (although the tease is – which bits are fictional?) I’m an odd combination of being both open and private. I’m honest about who I am, and the truth has always been important to me. The details I wouldn’t want to reveal are those that cause me pain to talk about or would in some way impact on someone else.
I’ve always been good at keeping other people’s secrets… and a few of my own.”