Meet Sophie Duffy!

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When did you discover your love of books?

I could read before I started school so as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Mum or Dad read to me every night and once they’d tucked me up, I would hide under the bedclothes with a torch, up late (a notoriously bad sleeper all my life), with a heap of books, looking at the pictures and making up stories until I could make out the text. I loved Ladybird books (which I still have on my bookshelves), Enid Blyton, especially Mr Pink-Whistle and Amelia Jane, and ‘Twinkle’, the comic I got every week as we lived above the newsagent’s run by my parents in Torquay.

When did you decide that you wanted to write your own?

I wrote a lot of stories when I was a child but that fizzled out by the time I reached secondary school when I was more concerned with Wham! and boys. At university I studied English and wrote bad poetry. It wasn’t until my children were small that I went to a creative writing class at the adult education college. By the end of that first lesson I was hooked, and knew I wanted to be a writer. I was 33. It was another ten years before I had my debut novel published.

What can a reader expect from a Sophie Duffy novel? 

The reader can expect a nostalgia-fest with a few tears and laughs along the way. They will get a blended, dysfunctional family or group of friends, and a main character trying to negotiate their hazardous journey through the world with all its ups and downs.

Change and facing the difficulties that this presents is a strong theme in your novels. How much of an influence has change in your own life experience driven the empathy you create for your own protagonists?

 The one certainty in life is that we will face change. It’s how we adapt to change that marks us as individuals. Sometimes we resist change, sometimes we embrace it. We might make bad decisions. We probably will. And it’s the repercussions of these decisions that echo down the years that I am interested in as a writer.

 

The award winning The Generation Game (The Yeovil Literary Prize 2006 and Luke Bitmead Bursary 2010) confronts many issues including childhood abandonment and buried secrets. Where did the idea for this acclaimed novel come from?

The idea for ‘The Generation Game’ came from a short story wot I wrote. The idea for the story came from my early childhood when we lived above the newsagent’s (also a sweetshop/tobacconist’s) in the early 70s. Sadly, my father took his own life when I was ten which I suppose counts as abandonment of sorts, so maybe that is why I am drawn to this as a theme. Love and loss go hand in hand but I truly believe that love – often from unexpected places – conquers all. I have bitter sweet memories (if you’ll pardon the pun) from this era, as do most of Generation X who grew up in the golden years of Saturday night television. We have seen several of our childhood icons fall by the wayside in the wake of Operation Yewtree. Thank goodness for Sir Brucie is all I can say.

This Holey Life (runner up of The Harry Bowling Prize 2008) is another successful novel that looks at change and faith with humour, yet balanced reality. What was the greatest challenge this project posed?

I was worried that readers might be put off by a vicar’s wife as a main character but felt encouraged when I saw ‘Rev’ on the television, a sitcom which looks at life in the church and all the eccentric characters that make up a spiritual community. It’s not a ‘Christian’ book as such but a story that embraces life with all its flaws and imperfections.

 

You are part of the Creative Writing Matters team. How much do you enjoy sharing what you have learned with new writers?

It’s brilliant! I know how much I have learned and continue to learn from other writers. I know that being a writer is a life long process and that I receive more from my students than they get from me. Administering the Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize has also been a revelation. Having read hundreds of thousands of words over the years, I understand more about what makes good writing and good storytelling. I hope this feeds into my own work!

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What key piece of advice would you give to an, as yet, unpublished author?

If it’s what you really want, then keep trying. Don’t give up. Enter competitions where your writing will be both read and considered. Keep writing. Read a lot. Listen to feedback, sit on it, and when it rings true, rewrite, edit, submit.

 

What is next for Sophie?

I have just signed a contract for the next book. All I can say for now is the novel involves two ninety year old ladies, one of whom is the queen. Watch this space…

Flat bottoms and Yorkshire Cobles

One of my fondest memories of growing up in the coastal town of Redcar was walking along the promenade with my father and seeing the flat-bottomed fishing boats being pulled up onto the beach after they crashed through the breakers on the shore-line.

People went down to meet them on the fine sand of the beach to see what they had to sell of their catch. I would eagerly peer inside. Fresh fish meant just that: mackerel, cod or crab to name but a few, depending on the season.

Sadly, this scene is no longer common. The boats that once lined the promenade are few. All along the bay towns of the northeast coast, the fishing industry has diminished.

In Phoebe’s Challenge, she instantly looks upon the distant boats and the sweeping bay as a scene of beauty when she sees the bay open up before her for the very first time. This story is based on a village I call Ebton, which has striking resemblances to Saltburn.

In my previous blog post on Cobles and Contraband, I talked about the versatility of the cobles (often called cobbles locally) and their use in smuggling at the turn of the nineteenth century. When the sea wall was being built at the end of the eighteenth century many men were housed in the small towns of Coatham and Redcar. They supplemented their income, like the local people, by working in gangs to bring contraband ashore from the colliers and luggers that would hover illegally off the coast. They would then distribute it before the beleaguered customs service could catch them. They would have been vastly outnumbered anyway.

One historic boat, which does still have pride of place in its own museum, is the Zetland Lifeboat.

In October 1802 this oldest surviving lifeboat in the world arrived at the small coastal town of Redcar in North Yorkshire. In its time it has been used to save over 500 lives and the service that began with it has continued to work in the exceptionally dangerous conditions of rescues in the North Sea. Grace Darling was an exceptionally brave lady who risked her own life to save others. The RNLI continues to save lives. These days their boats do not need pulling down to the edge of the water, but they face the same dangerous, treacherous seas as their forefathers.

Yorkshire Parkin


My earliest memories from my young life in the small coastal town in North Yorkshire include running into my Aunty Mary’s house and smelling the fresh baking coming from her kitchen. She was a lovely lady who would bake a cake for anyone in need, simply as a gift to share, or to have something in to offer a visitor with a cup of tea.

She was not wealthy, her home was ordinary, but the feel of homeliness within it was something money cannot buy. Among her many recipes was my favourite chocolate cake with lovely icing that seemed to dissolve on your tongue as the cake melted away. The next memorable taste sensation, which I always associated with November, was her sumptuous ginger cake – Parkin.

This warming winter treat was rich in spices, sugar, ginger, oats and treacle. It was not for a calorie controlled diet, but for a comfort food that when warmed would leave you full for hours.

In my stories, cooks occasionally share their treats with the young miss of the households – like Hannah and Abigail. Parkin is often linked to Guy Fawkes night and bonfires, but to me it is a trip into nostalgia and many lovely visits to a lady who taught me the meaning of giving and a loving home.

Here is a simple recipe to follow from the BBC Good Food website.