You grew up in Exeter, what was your early life like?
Growing up in Exeter was a privilege that only became apparent when I moved away, although I continue to be a frequent visitor as many of my relatives still live in Devon. We grew up and lived in the University area of Exeter, and I remember playing in the University grounds as a child. School was St Nicholas and Mount St Mary’s, so it won’t surprise you the Catholic upbringing does influence my work, although I consider myself agnostic.
I have written previously about the time when I worked as a Saturday girl at the University Bookshop as a teenager. It was the manager who encouraged me to read the classics and look beyond the normal teenage reading material. I don’t think I would be doing what I do if it were not for that experience.
At what point did you discover the joy of writing?
It isn’t so much the ‘joy of writing’, more it was existed within me, but I resisted it for many, many years. For over a decade, my husband would ask when I intended writing a book, and for over a decade I told him, quite vociferously, that I lacked the requisite elements;
1. A story
2. The time – mum to two children
3. The skill.
This changed in rather spectacular fashion, with a tweet back in 2017. Allen Leech, of Downton Abbey fame, tweeted to say he was appearing in a play – Constellations by Nick Payne. It was happening in Los Angeles, so no chance of attending, however my interest was piqued. I bought a copy of the play. For those who don’t know it, Constellations is a short two hander play about String Theory and the Multiverse. Allen Leech was to play Roland, a bee-keeper, and Ginnifer Goodwin would take the role of physicist, Marianne. I loved it. If you ever get the chance, go and see it. (In 2018 a local amateur theatre group performed the play in my local town – it is so good,) It took no time to read the play before bed. When I woke the following morning, my head was full of conversations between a husband and a wife. At that point, I already knew there was conflict between them but also great love. As I noted down their conversations on my phone, so their story developed.
Why do you write? And what made you choose a dystopian setting?
2017 was a year of uncertainty. Plans for Brexit were underway, in the US, a far-right President was in the White House. Political debate was adversarial, with extreme politics becoming prevalent, not just in the US and the UK, but across many countries. To some it felt like we were entering dystopia, and yet, when I looked out of our cottage, I saw beauty. A garden taking shape, children laughing having fun, friends meeting for coffee and families celebrating. There were not malignant robots, or constant dark gloomy skies. That is when I decided that my book would be dystopian in theme, but set against a world that is recognisable, no matter where you live.
Tell me more about the Third Magpie.
The Third Magpie is primarily about love - love for a spouse, love within our families, and love of country. The main characters are the married couple who jumped out at me after reading Constellations – Finn Sheehan and Sophie Smith. The fact they do not share a surname is significant. They are happily married, and have been for 16 years, but life is not easy for this couple. Finn is foreign born, and lives under restrictions imposed on the immigrant population of this fictional country of New Albany. Sophie is the daughter of the foreign minister, and as such, Finn is offered more protection than most. He works as an English teacher, but when he is given the opportunity to teach the teenage daughter of a local dignitary, life becomes very difficult for this shy and mild-mannered man.
The Third Magpie deals with themes such as isolation, the need for self-actualisation and mental health issues, including suicide.
What benefits does writing have for you?
It is interesting that Magpie has the theme of self-actualisation, because, despite my earlier protestations, it has been through writing that I have seen myself in a new light. I am someone who has ideas, and not everyone thinks them silly. I am more than someone else’s daughter, wife or mother. I am creative, and I enjoy being creative.
How has the past 18 months been for you in relation to the pandemic? The Third Magpie was released in March 2020 just as covid restrictions were set, how has that impacted on your publishing experience?
It was a bit of a coincidence to be honest. In The Third Magpie, there is a mysterious disease with flu-like symptoms, which requires New Albany to start a mass vaccination programme. There are onerous restrictions for some, but not others, although not even I could envisage the optical benefits of driving to Barnard Castle! However, it did mean I was unable to promote my book in local libraries and bookshops. I relied on friends to spread the word. I have been very lucky with some very kind and generous reviews. Some have made me cry for all the right reasons.
The e-book and paperback are self-published, and there are certain limitations when it comes to self-publishing literary novels. You need marketing and a presence. One costs a lot of money and requires a whole heap of connections, and the other, well, COVID made sure that presence would be on hold for the foreseeable.
What future ambitions do you have? Is there another instalment?
I am writing another novel set in New Albany, with many of the same characters. However these events take place forty years before and span twenty-five years. It is from the view point of Tim Smith, Sophie’s father, and his quest to become a politician and the compromises he makes, both in politics and in his personal life. I hope to have the first draft complete before the end of the year.
Do you have any advice for those reading who might like to start writing?
The main thing I’d say is – FIND YOUR TRIBE – a group of like minded writing friends who’ll listen when you need to talk and understand when you need to disappear for a while. I am very lucky indeed. My tribe - #VWG – was started back in 2018 after a Twitter competition which led to a group of us having fun with gifs over the course of the week. We realised we were all very similar and we just gelled. Some of us have met up in real life, although we are spread out across the country, with a handful of #VWGIANS living as far away as Australia and India. We talk pretty much every day, and we are there for each other, not just when there is a plot hole crises, but when our own lives are going through difficult times. That said, our little group has had much to celebrate, with friends signing up with agents, publishing deals and books launches. I am looking forward to when the next book launches, hopefully that one can be in person at last.
Beyond your tribe, read. Read outside your genre, read books recommended even though you might think it isn’t for you. Read books with a writer’s eye, thinking about structure and language, and above all, read books for the sheer pleasure of curling up somewhere and disappearing into another world.
Lastly, how might my readers keep in touch with you?
As you might expect, given the prominence of Twitter in my writing life, I can be found @msclementsbook. The #amwriting community is generally a happy and supportive environment. It is where I joined the @DevonBookClub and through the #DevonBookHour I connected with Sophy Layzell. I am always happy to say hello and chat about the writing life on Twitter.
Thank you so much for having me, Sophy. It has been fun talking about writing, and telling your readers about The Third Magpie.