Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Writing the spirit of character and place: Ann Kelley guests at Fictionfire by the Sea

Ann Kelley
I’m delighted that award winning novelist Ann Kelley is going to join us during my Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat in less than two weeks. I first met Ann a few years ago, during one of my visits to St Ives and she kindly invited me to her gorgeous clifftop home overlooking Porthkidney sands and the Hayle estuary. It’s a stunning location, though not without its hazards – up there Ann has survived floods, a landslide, a lightning strike and part of their roof blowing away!

Ann is the sort of person who’s naturally gifted both with empathy and with an incredible sensitivity to location. Her house was full of quirky, unusual and beautifully presented objects and artworks. She’s a photographer and poet as well as a novelist, and this can be seen in her eye for composition and selection, for lyrical celebration, for economy, for precise and lovely images.

‘If you lie down and put your ear to the beach, you can hear the surf booming through the sand.’ (The Burying Beetle)

A view like this is worth a landslide or a lightning strike!
She has written three books of poetry and runs poetry workshops. She gave me a copy of The Poetry Remedy and I found it both moving and helpful in a recent period of stress and grief. She’s also written YA fiction – her latest novel, Last Days in Eden, was published in July and her previous teen books are Runners, Koh Tabu and Lost Girls.

However, for me, it’s all about the Gussie books: the series of stories tracing the experiences of a young girl suffering from incipient heart failure – this was inspired by Ann’s own son Nathan, who sadly died after a heart-lung transplant but who seems to have been a most extraordinary person. Gussie is an equally striking character. Her situation is grievous but her spirit is never bowed. She is a creature, quite simply, of joy. She’s cheeky, rebellious, imaginative, often solitary, eccentric. She celebrates life – and this is where Ann’s talent comes into play for she shows us what I suppose we would call ‘mindfulness’ in action. Gussie, aware that her illness may limit her lifespan, doesn’t intend to waste a second. She notices everything from the tiniest insects through to the undercurrents in the adult relationships around her. She’s endlessly curious, not always tactful, but always lovable. You root for her from start to finish. When she gets the chance of an operation with the potential to save her life, you’re willing it all to go smoothly.

When I read the Gussie books, I found her character compelling of course – but I was also seduced by the mesmerising descriptions of location and the fine detail of the natural history in them. In an interview, Ann described the books as ‘a hymn of praise to this place’ – to St Ives and its environs. And I tell you this, these novels get better every time you go back to them!

I hope you’ll join us at Fictionfire by the Sea, from 17th to 19th October, for our workshops, for quiet time to write and to hear Ann give a reading and answer our questions about her aims and practices as a writer.

Ann’s website is www.annkelley.co.uk

The Gussie series of novels: The Burying Beetle, shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award; The Bower Bird, winner of the Costa Children’s Book of the Year 2007; Inchworm and A Snail’s Broken Shell.

‘It’s exciting to be here when there’s a strong wind blowing. The rooks look like broken umbrellas or black tattered cloaks, thrown away and tumbled by the gusts. The gale shaves the tops off the waves and sends the spray flying back into the sea.’ (The Burying Beetle)

Come and hear Ann – join us at Fictionfire by the Sea Writers’ Workshop and Retreat 17th to 19th October, in a beautiful artists’ studio by the sea in St Ives. Workshops will focus on how to stay true to your writing dreams and how to evoke the spirit of place – but there will be lots of time as well for you to simply write! Full details and how to book are at www.fictionfire.co.uk/page28.htm

Don’t forget my October to December programme of Focus Workshops in Oxford starts this Saturday (11th October)! Details at www.fictionfire.co.uk/page26.htm

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