Please share with us the amazing route that you took to becoming a published author when you had your first book accepted back in 1993, winning the Catherine Cookson Prize.
1993 seems like a lifetime ago and yet only yesterday. When my first novel THE HUNGRY TIDE was published I was totally shell shocked and astonished that I had won such a prestigious prize as the Catherine Cookson Award. My husband Peter had persuaded me to enter the manuscript, for I didn’t have the faith in myself to consider that it would be good enough, particularly as the competition was open to published as well as unpublished authors. When I was presented with the award by Joanna Trollope on a launch on the River Thames, I had no idea that this was only the beginning.
You have your own prize now, was this inspired by a desire to also give back to upcoming talent?
I had had great encouragement whilst learning my craft of writing through many years of writers’ workshops, university lectures and discussion groups with other writers. The most pleasing aspect of all, was that most of my fellow writers wanted to write, not with the prospect of being published with a book to show, but to put meaningful words on the page that came from the heart and would interest anyone who might read it. Not forgetting the art of story-telling, which is probably one of the oldest crafts in the world. Most of us, and not only professional writers, have at some time in our lives enjoyed being read to, or have told an impromptu story from our imagination.
Ten years on and being totally committed to my work and with more books under my belt as I became established as a professional author, I began to consider that with the luck and encouragement that I’d had before and during my career, it was beholden of me to inspire others who were as keen to write as I was, and so with the help of an incredible team who organised the detail and with the assistance of the Hull Central Library, in 2013 we set up the annual Val Wood Creative Writing Competition, free to enter and with a prize. We have had many hundreds of entries over the years, we have a good system with skilled readers and I choose the final winners.
Because of the pandemic the competition has taken longer to organize during this year’s library closures; the winners are about to be announced and we are already planning next year’s competition.
You live and write about a beautiful part of the country but is it the place or a character or a piece of historical detail that triggers the first ideas for your novels?
For me, when beginning a novel, the theme or subject matter is always of paramount importance and because the Victorian period was a symbol of change in industry, science and the women’s movement, I set my novels during this time, often with the background of poverty, injustice, women’s rights or lack of them as in No Place for a Woman, and how they set about righting the wrongs against them. From my imagination I have created women who didn’t want to sit and wait for a husband to claim them and who set out to find their own role in their lives as in Far from Home, and others who found they had made the wrong choice as in my latest novel The Lonely Wife.
Do you let your characters grow organically on the page or do you plan ahead?
I don’t know my characters until I name them and then I watch them grow into the life I create for them. There are times when I don’t know which direction they will take, or sometimes I know the ending before I am halfway through. It is very important that the characters behave as real people of the nineteenth century would have done and don’t fall into the trap of twenty-first century manners or speech such as OK or getting sorted, level playing field or even the latest phrase of roadmap! This would totally confuse a nineteenth century character.
I always give the men in the novels a strong part; my males are considerate on the whole, though some are not and get their cum-uppance! And of course, there is always a romantic element, and I generally fall completely in love with the male protagonist!
Having written so many books based in the region, was it your inspiration to create the Val Wood’s Trails?
Alongside the theme and the characters, I think of the place or setting. I have done this from the very first novel because I need to know where my characters live; I drive out or walk to look at locations in East Yorkshire and I might well have terrified bystanders at some time in the past by standing on the edge of the crumbling cliffs of Holderness; confused others as I stare into space to imagine where a building or street in the heart of Hull might have been before it was blitzed, or clutching a cup of coffee in a café in an East Yorkshire market town that has retained some Victorian element. I place my characters there; this then inspired the idea of bringing those characters to life and allowing readers to follow their trail either physically or online as I did with The Kitchen Maid and The Harbour Girl.
Pre Covid the libraries were a place that you have supported and being actively involved with so in what ways have you missed this side of your writing life and tried to compensate for it?
During this pandemic, I feel that many people including authors have felt the strain of uncertainty and doubt. Beginning the present work in progress was difficult; I felt slowed down, uncertain where to begin; this was the first time ever that I have felt this way; I wanted to write a ‘feel good’ story, something to make readers happy and uplifted, but it just wouldn’t come.
I was sorry to read of your personal loss due to Dementia and understand that you are actively involved in work with the Friends of the Hull Memory Clinic to spread greater awareness and understanding. Have you post-lockdown plans to continue with this?
Since my husband died from dementia in 2009 I have lived alone but haven’t felt lonely; my writing and a loving family saved me from that, but I have missed not being able to meet friends, not feeling safe enough to shop in a store or being unable to visit a favourite historical building. Simple things that we took for granted but won’t ever again.
I told myself to take it easy, to be kind to myself. I have written a book a year since 1993 even through my sad and difficult times, plus several short stories for magazines, essays and lectures and published one ‘long’ short story of 50 pages for a local charity in order to raise funds for a memorial to the people of Hull who died in the Second World War.
So I took a short time out and walked on the green and lovely common land of Westwood here in Beverley and I regained my equilibrium and after a time was able to begin again, deciding that I would continue from The Lonely Wife and write a sequel.
In the past I have been a ‘hands on’ volunteer, being with one charity for almost thirty years; but now in my later years I have changed roles to give support by becoming patron and vice president with charities that I have long supported. I consider that I do very little now but most of us can do some small thing and it is appreciated.
I contemplate that I have been very fortunate in my life, and the schoolgirl who struggled with maths and dates in history, but loved writing stories would not have believed how life could change because of a fertile imagination.
Which historic figures stand out as inspiring of the women you have researched?
I have learned so much during my writing life and read about some incredible women through my research; Marie Curie who was honoured with the Nobel Prize and under intense pressure from her male peers, went on to invent the first mobile X ray machines and took it herself to the Front during the First World War thus saving thousands of lives.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her daughter Louise Garrett Anderson, both suffragettes and campaigners for women’s equal rights as men had, and Caroline Norton who petitioned Parliament to change the laws regarding Custody of Children, and so many more.
What have been the highlights of your career to date: the Honorary Doctorate, being a Times Bestseller, winning the Catherine Cookson Award – all or something else?
Winning the Catherine Cookson Award opened up a host of other opportunities from becoming a Sunday Times best- selling author to being honoured in 2017 by the University of Hull with an Honorary Doctorate for the contribution to literature, my greatest achievement; and in 2019 an invitation to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace that brought tears to my eyes as I walked through the hallowed portal. All for the love of writing.
What is next for Val Wood?
What comes next? First of all finish the sequel to The Lonely Wife which is running head to head in popularity with The Doorstep Girls. My working title is Children of Fortune and features not only the children from the Lonely Wife as they grow into adulthood but also another child from a different family with a question mark over her parentage. I don’t yet know the ending.
Charities I support.
Home-Start (Hull) the children’s charity
Sight-Support – Hull and East Riding for people with sight loss
Butterflies – The Hull Memory Loss Support group.