I’m delighted to welcome Sue Barnard to my blog today. Sue and I first met about two years ago at an online workshop run by Sally Quilford. Since then we have met twice face-to-face and helped each other with our writing.
Sue’s recently published debut novel was not one of those I saw in the draft stage, and so I was able to read it simply for enjoyment, and enjoyment describes my reading experience very well. The appealing idea of changing the most famous of love stories is very cleverly handled in The Ghostly Father. Sue doesn’t say that Shakespeare’s version was wrong. She makes both versions right, depending on who is telling the story. And she writes it all so well.
But that’s enough from me. I’ll let Sue take over now.
I love books. My house is full of them, my Kindle is full of them, and I’m irresistibly drawn to places which sell them. So much so, in fact, that I spent more than twenty years of my adult life working in a bookshop. The sheer diversity of subjects, genres and content of books still never fails to amaze me.
Those who claim to know about such things reckon that everyone has at least one book in them. Be that as it may, until a few years ago I never imagined that I had a book in me, much less that this book, if it even existed, would ever get any further than the concept stage. The point at which that situation changed was when, a few years ago, I came across one of those lists of Things You Must Do Before You Die. The one which leapt off the page and grabbed me by the throat was Write the book you want to read.
Fast-rewind thirty-odd years, to when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s wonderful film of Romeo & Juliet. At the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and I came away from the cinema thinking: “Why does the world’s greatest love story have to end in such appalling tragedy?” Ever since then, that question has lurked, dozing, at the back of my mind. The exhortation to Write the book you want to read woke up that question, kicked it out of bed, opened the shutters and forced it out into the blinding light of day. This was when it finally dawned on me that the book I’ve always wanted to read was the version of Romeo & Juliet which has a satisfactory outcome. If, at any time during those decades of browsing in bookshops, I had ever come across such a book, I would have snapped it up, rushed home and read it in one sitting.
Why, I asked myself, shouldn’t there be such a book?
And the answer came straight back: Why not indeed? And if that book doesn’t exist, you need to write it yourself.
Even then, it took me a while to get going. Although I’d dabbled with Creative Writing in the past, and had taken a few courses on the subject, I’d never attempted anything longer than poems or short stories. The thought of tackling a full-length novel, even one on a subject about which I felt so strongly, was, to say the least of it, a daunting prospect. I’d been mulling over the idea for a while, but without any concrete results, when fate took a hand. Back in 2010, whilst on holiday in France, I was (yes, you’ve guessed) browsing in a bookshop, when I chanced upon a novel in the style of the lost diary of a woman who had been the secret lover of Count Dracula. This, I realised, was the format I needed: a lost manuscript which tells a previously-unknown story.
Back at home, I powered up the laptop and started writing. Because this was the book I’ve always wanted to read, I was, at that point, writing it mainly for myself. I wanted to be able to read this version of the story in private, and think, “Well, perhaps this, rather than the ‘lamentable tragedy’ as told by Shakespeare, is what might have happened.” At this stage, going public with it couldn’t have been further from my thoughts.
After I’d finished the first draft (which took about six months), I mentioned it to a couple of close friends who are both avid readers. They both asked to see it. On handing it back, one of them said, “I know what I like, and I like this.” The other said, “You really ought to take it further. I think it could even be a best-seller.”
Even so, despite these votes of confidence, it was another year or two (during which time the manuscript underwent several revisions) before I plucked up the courage to send the manuscript to Crooked Cat Publishing, an independent publisher whom I’d found on Facebook, and for whom I’d recently started doing editing work. I wasn’t very hopeful, so when I received the email from them telling me they wanted to publish it, I had to print it out and re-read it four times before I was able to convince myself that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.
The book’s title, The Ghostly Father, is based on a quotation from the play (it’s how Romeo addresses the character of Friar Lawrence), and the story (which is a sort of part-prequel, part-sequel to the original tale) is told from the Friar’s point of view. I’ve often wondered why, in the play, he behaved as he did – and by giving him what I hope is an interesting and thought-provoking backstory, I’ve tried to offer some possible answers. Plus, of course, I wanted to reduce the overall body-count, and give the lovers themselves a rather less tragic ending. I hope I’ve succeeded.
The book which re-tells the world’s most famous love story was officially released, very appropriately, on St Valentine’s Day 2014. If the early sales figures are anything to go by, it looks as though I’m not by any means the only person who wants to read it. And for that, I am very grateful.
Sue Barnard, February 2014
Thank you, Sue, for visiting me and for writing about this interesting topic.
The novel I’m working on now hasn’t been evolving for quite that long, but it’s one I wish I’d read a long time ago, and one I’ve wanted to write it for several years. Only now have I found a way to do it that I believe works.
I know, I promised a different post this time. Maybe next time… no promises….