Meet Shirley Mann – winner of the RNA’s 2021 Romantic Saga Award

 

Welcome Shirley!

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Huge congratulations on winning the RNA Romantic Saga Novel of the Year 2021!

Hello Valerie, thank you so much for asking me. In the last three years of my mum’s life, I suddenly thought I might like to see, after years of writing factual content, whether I could write a novel and my parents’ wartime romance was so fascinating, I couldn’t wait to get it down on paper. I never thought I could make a career out of it, but it probably came at the right time for me – I was making films for environmental organisations and was running out of enthusiasm for scrambling over stiles carrying heavy camera equipment but the transition has been gradual and completely unexpected. OK, the truth is, there was no conscious decision and there’s nobody more surprised than me about where this journey is taking me.

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Research is obviously something you are very used to doing and experienced in, but roughly how long do you spend researching and planning each novel?

Oh, the joy of writing your first novel when you have years to fiddle around with the words, visit endless museums and wander all over the country finding incredible women in order to get their personal stories to make sure the books are authentic. Now, novel #2 and so on, that’s a different story. I am basically doing one a year and that means I really have to get a move on. I start with a basic plot idea and then just get stuck in. Research can be overwhelming so I do the basics and then the rest takes place as I go through the book but I do get a tad obsessed. My background as a journalist means that I love the safety blanket of facts and I panic until I know that a scene I’m writing actually could have happened so I have to be careful that I don’t get completely side-tracked by research. I once spent two days finding out whether they had ginger spice in 1942 to make biscuits before it occurred to me that my character could make garibaldi ones instead. However, I am astounded how the story starts to unfold as soon as I begin to write. I once wrote the words: ‘She had to think fast’ without realising that ‘she’- my character- meant me. I had no idea where I was going next. So, a cup of tea and a strong talking to and eh voilà, it came to me- no idea where from.

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Bobby’s War was inspired by strong women such as Mary Ellis, ATA pilot. Can you share with us some of the inspiration behind this and your other novels?

I was so lucky to get to meet Mary Ellis about two months before she died at the age of 101. I couldn’t help but come away inspired, awe-stricken and to be honest, with a little bit of a girl crush! She was just fabulous. My mum was my inspiration for ‘Lily’s War’ and I now realise how lucky I was that she was a WAAF in Bomber Command doing a glamorous job. The fact that my dad was in the 8th Army meant I was able to use his war time experiences as inspiration as well to tell his side of the story. I like to learn something in books I read so I want to emulate that and love giving something in the books that is unexpected so I like to look at the war from the viewpoint of a Tommy in Africa and Europe for example, or explore the shadowy world of an enigmatic civil servant or maybe even ( plot spoiler) a German POW. However, when my parents died, in a panic, because I hadn’t asked them enough questions, I raced around the country to find other servicewomen including Land Army girls, explosive workers and plotters etc and every time, I just found myself completely overwhelmed by what they had achieved- and put up with- at an age when I was having fun in the Uni bar. I loved imagining walking down the street with them in the 1940s and finding out those little details that aren’t in the history books. It made me determined to help readers walk down those streets too and make sure the women’s legacy was recorded so it would inspire future generations.

Shirley Mann with ATA pilot, Mary Ellis

What tips would you give your younger self about becoming a novelist?

Don’t give up your day job! It’s such a slow burn to establish yourself, get people to know and hopefully, like your work at the same time as writing enough books to establish credibility. I’m in my 60s and I honestly don’t think I could have done this earlier when, of course, I needed to make a living and there are certainly no  financial guarantees with novel-writing. Working for the BBC and running my own media company on top of having a family didn’t leave me much head-room to be able to think a story through, write it and deal with the social media and publicity to make my books stand out amongst all those other millions of books out there. I naively thought you just wrote a book!  I think the one advantage I had at this age was that I wasn’t afraid to fail, I just wanted to see whether I could do it, so maybe the answer to this question is, certainly take the writing seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously and enjoy the ride.

What have been the highlights of your professional life: as a journalist and as a novelist?

I’ve been so lucky in my careers- I just didn’t mean to have this many of them. As a journalist, I’ve met a huge array of famous people and can out-bore any dinner party guest (when we’re allowed to have them again) with insider gossip but it was the real people who left me humbled, the ones who strove against adversity and triumphed quietly- like the woman who worked to help the mothers whose children had been snatched by estranged husbands or the family who moved to a remote hillside in India to try to save threatened tigers. I suppose the same applies with the novels. I still talk to my lovely servicewomen- now in their late 90s- who talk in matter-of-fact tones about how they were young women living every moment despite bombing raids, being constantly hungry and  being asked to do things that would terrify a super hero. On days when I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t been able to see friends or go on holiday, that common sense pulls me up sharply- these are the highlight moments of all of this for me.

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What has the RNA meant to you over the years?

I’m such a newbie at this, ‘Lily’s War’ was only published last year so I’m only just finding out what an amazing organisation the RNA is and how incredibly supportive it is of romantic fiction writers. I’m about to start a course with them to find out how to use social media to promote my books and my daughters, who are on a hotline Whatsapp group, are incredibly relieved that someone else is taking me in hand and teaching me what NOT to press. Added to that is the fact that the RNA has just amazingly given me an award for only my second novel, so hell, yeah, I think they’re incredible! 

 

What is next for Shirley?

I’m just finishing Book 3 which ‘Hannah’s War’ about a Land Army girl and I did struggle with this to begin with because both Lily and Bobby were such strong characters doing exciting jobs and I wanted to make Hannah a different sort of girl, one who was shyer and less confident of her potential. I soon realised that these LA girls were every bit as heroic as the ones like Lily and Bobby. They toiled in all weathers, in all circumstances and often, deprived accommodation to feed the country. Hannah’s journey is perhaps even more admirable because, without the war, she was one of those girls who would have remained tied to their mother’s apron strings and would, I suspect, never have discovered how strong they really were. Then it’s straight onto Book 4, which is set in the Isle of Man where they had internment camps, housing everyone they didn’t know what to do with- so Germans lived alongside Jews, Conscientious Objectors, gypsies and Italians. What a fantastic melting pot for a novel!  My parents lived their last years in the Isle of Man and are buried there. I love the island and as a next step, it seems a perfect way to complete the circle from ‘Lily’s War.’ I just need to be able to get over there to start the research.

Oh, and what else is next? ….I want to get my hair cut!

 

Meet bestselling author, journalist, interviewer, tutor, agony aunt and speaker, Jane Wenham Jones

Welcome, Jane!

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You grew up with quite a varied and strong literary heritage in your family. Were you encouraged to write and develop your own ideas from childhood, surrounded by books and such talent?

Yes, I was always encouraged to read and to write. My father wrote some textbooks (he was an English teacher), my mother writes poetry, my grandfather Frank Brookesmith had a memoir I Remember the Tall Ships published in his 80s (Foyles put on a window display!).  And his daughter, my aunt Shelagh Macdonald, won the Whitbread Prize (as it was then) for the Children’s Book of the Year back in 1977. Sadly,  she now has severe dementia and her decline was the inspiration for the mother in my last novel, Mum in the Middle. Uncles various have also been published in different ways and a couple of cousins are journalists. So writing was always seen as A Good Thing.

When did your first break as a published writer happen? Was it non-fiction or fiction first?

Short stories for women’s magazines. I started writing these when I was at home with a toddler and my brain had all but atrophied. When that toddler locked me in a cupboard and I had to talk him through phoning 999* to get me out, I realised how many stories there are all around us. And ended up publishing about a hundred of them. (For the full dramatic saga see my first non-fiction book Wannabe a Writer?)

Of all the impeccable research you have completed, is there one project or person that has intrigued, touched or surprised you more than you expected?

I often seem to include a storyline about some form of mental illness. That is in my family too.

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Picture by Encade

Many of the real issues such as dementia and cancer included are very serious and are given total understanding and respect for the impact they have on the character diagnosed and those supporting them. How do you balance this with the overall tone of your books which is humorous and optimistic?

It’s odd isn’t it, really? But humour has always been my way of getting through. There is a lot of black comedy in the worst things that happen to us, if you know where to look. And I think it is possible to still find humour and optimism in everyday life even when the chips are really down. So I suppose I don’t have any problem writing about bleak issues and amusing encounters side by side.  I recently found some parodies I wrote for my sisters after  our parents had split up in my late teens, and everyone was being even more bonkers than usual, and they made us all laugh hysterically all over again  – even though it was all quite appallingly  dysfunctional at the time.

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You capture the essence and conflicts within strong female friendship groups well. Have you been strongly influenced by female friends/peers in your own life?

Friends are everything. Both the male and female variety. But I have some wonderful women friends who have been amazingly supportive to me. Both in the publishing world – lovely pals in the RNA for example – and in my personal life.

Over the course of your novels have you noticed the social trends affecting women changing dramatically such as: the boomerang effect, empty nesters, and the sandwich effect between younger and older generations?

Absolutely! I was very aware of this when writing both Mum in the Middle and The Big Five OWomen in their forties and fifties can no longer be pigeonholed. I wrote recently that my earliest memory of my grandmother was of  a tiny, silver-haired old lady who wore a pinny, was keen on gardening and polished the teapot a lot. I calculate now that at the time, she was younger than I am! Her parents were long gone and all of her four children had their own homes. Today women of this age will still have ambitions for their careers, might have teenagers at home, or kids even younger, or be supporting adult offspring who can’t afford a place of their own. They’ll still expect to scrub up well for a hot night out, will probably go to the gym, or dance classes or be training for a marathon, and may well be online dating.  Just at the time when their elderly parents start kicking off! We are the stretched generation – in more ways than one!

I’ve also had reason  to revisit my third novel that was published in 2005 – One Glass is Never Enough. Re-reading the opening pages – which is a party scene –  for the first time in a decade, I was struck by how some of the sexual banter I had included would be considered  unacceptable in the current climate. The world has moved on a pace since I started writing – which rather dates me, doesn’t it? 🙂

Mum in the Middle

What has being a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association meant to you over the years?

A great deal. Prominent members like Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell and Judy Astley have been exceptionally kind and supportive to me and when I first pitched up to a conference knowing nobody, Catherine Jones made me laugh till  I cried.  So many, many lovely RNA members have become good friends  and are a constant source of inspiration and joy. I have especially loved acting as compere at the RNA awards for the last eight years. It is one of the  annual highspots.

What was the most important piece of advice that you were given that you would like to pass on to as yet unpublished writers?

 “Get the story down.”

But my own best piece of advice is: Marry someone rich!

Each author has their own favoured way of working. Do you have a strong work ethic: rise early, write late, or with such a hectic and varied schedule work as you move from event to event?

Oh it’s utter chaos. If I’m on a deadline, I get myself out of bed early and glue myself to the chair – out of sheer panic. But generally, on a day at home, I potter about, and tidy the airing cupboard, think I’ll make some bread, send emails and then suddenly – EEK – it’s 4pm and I’ve not even opened the manuscript. But I do do a lot of different things – so it is quite hard to stick to a rigid routine. I usually get there in the end.

How and when did you venture into interviewing and public speaking?

The speaking came about from being asked to talk to a local  “Ladies’ Dining Club” when my first novel was published.  I think they were a bit shocked – usually they had someone talking about flower-arranging or the history of the rubber stamp. But I had a really fun evening and then I got other bookings from word-of-mouth. The Rotary and Rotarians and such-like .

The interviewing started when I’d been on a panel at the Guildford Book Festival and the then director, the late Glenis Pycraft, invited me to chair a similar panel the following year. It grew from there and now I work at several different festivals each year and am a founder member of BroadstairsLit here where I live, which is huge fun.  I really love interviewing on stage. And I’ve been lucky enough to chat to a lot of top authors.

Do you embrace technology and social media with enthusiasm?

I would like to! But I’m not the best at it. I enjoy twitter (@JaneWenhamJones) but I’m a bit sporadic about it – so I’ve never really built that  up. And I’m hit and miss with facebook also – it’s all feast or famine.  I don’t fully understand how to best utilise my author page either (yes I know I should find out but it’s too easy to lose your life in this stuff.)  I’m envious of people who seem to just slide it in to their lives and have zillions hanging on their every word.  For example, I love Instagram –  which I came late to – but still haven’t properly grasped this “my story” business. I need a friendly seven-year old to instruct me…

What has been the highlight of your writing career to date?

I always think that the wonderful thing about this game is that every day there is the potential for something uplifting to happen. A foreign rights sale or a lovely review or a little surge in the amazon ratings. The are all highlights at the time.  It was exciting when Prime Time was shortlisted for the RNA awards some years ago and when Perfect Alibis was optioned by the BBC. Tho unfortunately that came to nothing in the end. Playing the chat show host for Peter James at Brighton’s Theatre Royal to an audience of over 700 was pretty fab…

What are your inspirations or ambitions now?

Oh the screen rights, my own TV show – you know the usual modest stuff… 🙂

 What project are you currently working on?

                             A 10th book and the 2020 programme for BroadstairsLit

 

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I love your hairstyle and wondered if there was a point when you decided that you were going to redefine your image, or if it was something that has just developed over time?

It started with my very first novel Raising the Roof.  I thought it would be a laugh to dye my hair the colour of the book jacket – which was turquoise and purple, as they all were then! You couldn’t get the fun colours you can now, so I had hair extensions put in, in the right shades and thus begun my love affair with multi-coloured locks. Everyone’s at it these days but I was a pioneer! People used to stop me in the street to comment on it.

What do you do to keep yourself fit away from the computer and to relax?

Yoga, walking, reading – of course. In the summer I play bad tennis if I can find anyone equally bad to join me. Two years ago I took custody of a tiny, flea-ridden, runt-of-the-litter black kitten and I have turned into a mad cat lady with bells on. Much time is spent admiring the now-huge-and-glossy creature that is Nugget (named by my son after a hop they make real ale with – spelled with two Ts – and not a deep-fried chicken snack) and attending to his every whim.  He totally rules the roost and has brought me huge pleasure. I definitely feel calmer and happier since he’s been around. Even when he wakes me at 3.am with a mouse in his jaws…

What is next for Jane Wenham-Jones?

A nice glass of Macon blanc villages I think…. possibly with some crisps….

Many thanks for taking the time to answer all of my questions and sharing some insight into your amazingly varied world.

I wish you every success in 2020 – Merry Christmas, Jane!

And to you – thanks for having me xxxx