Suffolk: Meet acclaimed new author Katie Ward, a girl who loves Ipswich, The West Wing and Aldeburgh Bookshop
An established writer says Katie Ward’s first book is ‘A debut of rare individuality and distinction’. Heady stuff. Steven Russell meets Suffolk convert Katie and discovered where she got her ideas
CAFFE Basso is the location of choice for first-time author Katie Ward’s first-ever interview . . . and she’s a bit nervous about dipping a toe in unchartered waters. Happily, this sanctuary within walking distance of her Ipswich home is a familiar and fitting setting, for she has juggled, measured, approved and discarded many a word here, over the coffee spoons. “I used to write, generally, at that table,” she says, nodding at one tucked in the corner. There’s no-one behind you and you can watch the comings and goings. Katie would come in from time to time and tap at her laptop, a bit like a modern-day JK Rowling, as well as using the wi-fi for research. “Otherwise you’re just at home on your own. You need to get out.”
Naturally, she being a creative type, visits also demanded a fair amount of staring out of the window – in the name of essential mental deliberation. Of course, Katie points out, she’d linger only when it was quiet. “I wouldn’t go in on a busy Saturday and I did order quite a lot of coffee, though I’d try to string it out a little bit!”
The fruits of her labour, Girl Reading, is officially published on Thursday – a series of stories crafted mainly during career breaks. Clinching a deal with Virago has lent enough belief to allow Katie to leave her job at NHS Suffolk recently and concentrate full-time on fiction.
The first foreign contract – secured just before Christmas – was another milestone. The book was sold to a publisher in Russia, “which I found extraordinary. Something I did on my own at home took on a life of its own and went over to Russia, and someone read it and talked about it and decided they wanted it. It’s scary. It’s also wonderful,” she laughs.
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Her debut offering is inspired by seven portraits by seven different artists, created over 700-ish years and showing seven different girls or women reading. Among them is a young and nervous orphan who poses for an odd Renaissance master in Siena and an artist’s servant in 17th Century Amsterdam for whom life brings sadness and unexpected twists and turns.
There’s a contemporary episode, with a young woman reading in an East London bar and catching the eye of a man who takes her picture, and a story set in a not-so-inconceivable future where children spend time in a simulated, Wii-like world.
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The art that inspired the imagined stories – seven novellas, in essence, with subtle connections linking them together – is generally based on real paintings, including Simone Martini’s Annunciation from 1333 and Pieter Janssens Elinga’s 1668 work Woman Reading.
Katie can pinpoint when the seed was planted. It was on or just after Saturday, April 29, 2006, when she read a newspaper article prompted by Stefan Bollmann’s book Reading Women. The volume featured paintings, drawings, prints and photographs of females reading through the ages, and the newspaper asked a string of celebrities (such as writers PD James, Monica Ali and Joanna Trollope) to talk about their favourite image.
A long-time art lover, Katie got the book, read it, put it to one side . . . and kept thinking about it. Here, maybe, was the germ of a novel.
But before we talk more about that, we ought to fill in the blanks.
She was born in Somerset in 1979. Her mother and stepfather ran pubs and, an only child, Katie “pretty much” grew up in them. At one time the couple ran a big town centre hostelry in Taunton. Must have been lively. “You could say that. I can now sleep through anything!”
After A-levels she studied journalism and philosophy at London’s City University, but developed a strong interest in politics that set her later course.
Katie’s first job – she did it for a couple of years – was as a case worker for an MP. (She won’t name him – despite the offered inducement of a fresh pot of tea – but confirms it was a London-based backbencher, from one of the main parties, who is no longer in Parliament.)
She considers herself fortunate to have had such an interesting job, dealing with constituents’ queries about issues such as housing, pensions and asylum.
Katie met her boyfriend, who became her husband, and they looked to buy a home. “There’s so much I enjoy about London, but it is quite an intense lifestyle and you are working and travelling quite a lot just to make ends meet,” she says. So they came to Ipswich . . .
Katie’s mother and stepfather had moved to Stowmarket. Ipswich was thus close to mum, affordable and had good connections to the capital.
“It was kind of temporary – a kind of ‘We’ll stay here until we decide where we really want to live’, but some seven, eight years later we’re still here and we just like living here.”
They came as the waterfront was being reborn and new businesses were opening. The town and its outlying region have so much going for it, she reckons. “I don’t understand why more people don’t want to be here. They call Suffolk the country’s best-kept secret and I think that’s for a reason. You have urban centres, you have historic villages, you have the coast, beautiful countryside, and yet London is commutable. Also, I have a life here.”
Katie worked for a women’s refuge, then at Ipswich council, later with a community safety project based at the police station, and most recently for NHS Suffolk at Bramford.
In between were career breaks in which she concentrated on her fiction. After her spell in local government she wrote her first book – so far unpublished. The draft of Girl Reading, meanwhile, was completed following the safety project.
Katie had become interested in writing while at university, but it took quite a few years to complete her first full-lengther – the one that hasn’t yet seen the light of day. It was, she cheerfully admits, “The book where I made most of my mistakes! It was the way to learn what they call ‘building up the writing muscle’ and a good way of getting out of my bad habits as a writer.”
Such as? “Over-writing was one. I think the first draft was something ridiculous, like 180,000 words.”
That initial attempt might not have been published – “it’s not good enough!” – but it proved to her she did have potential.
Katie’s own reading habits were evolving, too. By the time she came to write Girl Reading, she was clear about the types of books she liked – the work of writers such as Sarah Waters, Salley Vickers and Virginia Woolf, and books about psychology and art. “Basically, beautiful, strong and tight work.”
It was her husband who pushed and encouraged. “I was of the mind that ‘Well, I’ve done a really good job of having a go at writing a book and trying to get it published. That’s done and now I should settle down into local government’ or whatever it was I was going to do. But he said ‘Oh no; why not try again?’”
Katie remembers him saying years earlier “– perhaps pillow talk in bed – ‘Oh, most people don’t get published until their second book, do they?’ And I kind of thought ‘No, that can’t be true . . .’ but, actually, he was bang on. He was the person who really encouraged me and said ‘We can do this again, if you’ve got an idea.’”
Another key figure is Hilary Mantel, whose novel Beyond Black was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 (and who took the Man Booker Prize in 2009 with Wolf Hall).
In 2007 Katie was sending tasters of her initial, unpublished, book to agents and collecting 20 or 30 rejection slips for her troubles. “I took it in quite good spirits, because it’s what I expected. I didn’t expect it to be easy at all.” One did ask to look at more . . . and then turned it down – which did pop the aspirant author’s bubble.
She went into work one day, mentioned how tough a nut to crack was this writing business, and a helpful colleague said “My sister-in-law will look at it and give you constructive criticism and feedback, because she’s a published author.” That author was Hilary Mantel.
“She wrote a lovely letter, giving very constructive feedback. We didn’t meet, but I said I had this other idea and thought it was a good one. Her advice was: If I had faith in this other idea for a second book, then I should work on that.”
And so the stories behind the paintings started to come into clearer focus.
Katie agrees that when one visits a gallery, and stares in contemplation, the paintings do tend to “speak” to you and get your sensibilities working overtime.
A couple of visits helped sharpen her insight further. One was to Amsterdam; another to Siena in Tuscany, where the former Santa Maria della Scala hospital – also, once, an orphanage for homeless children – lies next to the cathedral.
Today it’s a museum, but the author says receptive visitors can “feel” the past as they mount the steps and gaze at the ornate ceilings.
“It feeds the imagination and your senses start to work. You pick up things you couldn’t possibly pick up just by reading a book about it or watching a movie, or looking online.”
Katie and Hilary kept in touch via email and about two years later Hilary said she’d be happy to look at some draft chapters. They were duly despatched, read by the experienced writer, “and it was almost the next day that Hilary emailed back and said she really liked them, and would I be happy if she recommended the work to her agent?”
Need she have asked?
Within days, Katie was having a meeting with agent Bill Hamilton. At that stage Katie still hadn’t met her adviser and champion, though she would later.
“She’s a very supportive, caring person and I’m always going to be grateful,” she says of Hilary. “Writing is a very personal thing and I think everybody needs help at some point along the way. What I learned is there’s no way of knowing where that help will come from or what form it will take.”
Bill set her some work to do over the summer of 2009 to ratchet the manuscript up a couple of notches, and it was decided he’d show it to publishers during the autumn. This drew three offers in a fortnight and they plumped for Virago. Many of the writers Katie admires are part of the Virago stable. “I really felt I’d found my home, in a sense.”
And now here we are on the brink of publication: very exciting, she says, while admitting to a few butterflies.
It can’t help that Katie’s patently superstitious. “But only about my writing, not life. I’ll walk under a ladder and that kind of thing!”
Her husband is quite a private person – as is she – so she’s not letting out details about him (though I’d put money on him being called David, since that’s the person to whom the book is dedicated).
She doesn’t talk about her work even with her husband and her friends. “Oh no, no, no! For years it was a case of ‘Katie’s been writing a book’, and no-one’s known what it’s about.
“Part of it is superstition, thinking that if I say something about it something bad will happen to it, but also you go from working on something that’s just yours and then you have to share it with an agent and several publishers and you really feel it’s taken on a life of its own.”
Katie’s working on a second novel. It’s at the “research and tinkering stage” and of course she’s not going to give us a hint about the subject matter, lest she offends the gods of literature.
“I’m sorry; I must be the worst interviewee,” she laughs.
So what does writing do for her? What delivers the thrill?
“I think I wrote Girl Reading because it was such a strong idea for a novel, and that carried me through. There was such a rich range of paintings and historical context to look at.
“The reason I’m going to write the next novel is because I think it’s a really good idea. If the day ever came when I couldn’t think of anything good to write, then I think I would stop.
“The idea starts very small and grows and grows; and if you have belief in it, and enjoy it, then it’s worth doing. If you have to drag it out kicking and screaming, then maybe that’s not the right book to be writing!”
One of the best moments is when a character “says” or “does” something unexpected, or there’s an interesting turn of events she hadn‘t planned at the beginning.
“That’s very satisfying. Obviously, it’s your subconscious at work, but when you have that as a result it can be lovely; and if you feel characters are talking without you putting words into their mouths, you know you’ve got some strong characters.”
n Girl Reading is published by Virago, at �12.99
Sold on Suffolk
KATIE Ward says Suffolk “has proved such a welcoming place and conducive to writing. If we were still in London, we’d have to be working much more to pay the mortgage or the rent. I’ve got good friends here”.
We asked her to pick three local places she really likes:
• Sutton Hoo: “You look down to the river and feel people have always stood on this spot. The view will have changed a little bit, but it would still be this river. I think the mounds are very suggestive and the whole place very atmospheric.
“I think some places – and this goes back to what we were saying before, about going back to the hospital at Siena which is still there – are very suggestive with the feelings they evoke when you’re there; and that’s very good for any kind of artist: a photographer, painter, writer, musician, poet or whatever you are.”
• Aldeburgh Bookshop: “A proper bookshop, with those lovely restaurants nearby and the sea virtually on its doorstep.”
• “Certainly Caffe Basso. That’s one of my favourite places on Earth. They’re always friendly.
• Katie also likes: city breaks, bubble baths, Earl Grey tea, books, watching DVDs of The West Wing and Mad Men, theatre, pyjamas, dancing, art and her two cats.
GIVE us three words that describe you . . .
• Neurotic: “In every way! I do things very thoroughly and I do get anxious if something isn’t quite right. I think I’m quite suited to be a writer, in the sense I work and work and work on something. The editing part is quite important, though I’m not sure that’s an attractive quality!”
• Creative: “Creativity is maybe slightly different to being artistic, though obviously closely linked. I think creative people like to make things, and I like having something to show for the work I’ve done. I think some people can have an artistic sensibility – for example, in the way they decorate their house or the way they dress – but you can paint over your walls or change your clothes the next day. I think creative people like to make things and have a piece of work that lasts.”
• Sentimental: “I care about what I care about a lot, and I like stories and seeing what other people have done. That’s why I like art: I enjoy seeing it and experiencing it.
“It’s dialogue: the artist has produced a painting or a photograph, but then it’s about what the viewer ‘puts onto’ that when they see it. It’s about someone bringing their own experiences and emotions to a piece of artwork. It’s the same, I think, with readers bringing their own interpretation to a book. It’s magical.”