My father taught me how to fight and a lot of other ‘boy things’ too
- Credit: Archant
‘I’ve always thought we walk a tightrope unwittingly. With a safe, normal life on one side and howling chaos on the other’
After writing the true story about being held captive by Iranian forces, and a book about the threat of catastrophic storms, Suffolk author Linda Davies has penned a new children’s adventure. Steven Russell discovers it’s not quite your classic Enid Blyton...
“I’ve always thought we walk a tightrope unwittingly. With a safe, normal life on one side and howling chaos on the other.” That fuels the writing of Linda Davies, the investment banker-turned-author who swapped Dubai for Suffolk.
It certainly did Hostage: Kidnapped on the High Seas (about the time she and husband Rupert were held by the Iranian authorities for two weeks). And it certainly did Ark Storm (about a massive weather event threatening to engulf California). It also underpins her new title Longbow Girl. It’s a novel for young adults, but has edge – one girl given a preview called it “a must-read for all Hunger Games fans”.
More about that soon. First, a quick resumé.
Linda is the daughter of a “wonderfully unconventional” father – an economics professor – and a Danish mother.
She grew up in Wales, read politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, and from the mid 1980s spent seven years as an investment banker.
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She’d tried to write a novel, but hadn’t got far. Then, one afternoon in 1991, had a thought about the damage that could be done to a bank by insider trading.
After six months of striving to combine work with writing she quit her job. Nest of Vipers, published in 1994, has sold two million copies and had its film rights optioned by Hollywood.
Linda and Rupert married in 1995. A fluent Arabic speaker, he’d been in the army before joining an investment bank.
In the autumn of 2005 – less than a year after the couple and their three young children moved to Dubai – their idyllic existence became a nightmare.
Linda, Rupert and a friend were sailing a catamaran in the Persian Gulf, near a military island, when they were intercepted by two gunboats and taken to Iran for the first of 40-odd interrogations in locations ranging from a dilapidated building to a five-star hotel.
Then came a flight to Tehran – Linda sure they were being taken to their execution. After three days of detention, she was allowed to phone the children – then aged seven, four and one. It was “unspeakably painful”.
Their nanny realised something was very wrong and contacted the British embassy. The couple were freed after nearly a fortnight, following pressure from London.
After eight and a half years in the United Arab Emirates the family moved to coastal Suffolk in 2012. They’d been coming for holidays since the children were small, and loved the county.
Hostage: Kidnapped on the High Seas came out last summer, at about the same time as Ark Storm. Now, for readers aged 10 upwards (give or take), comes Longbow Girl.
Merry Owen – a skilled archer, and at her happiest when riding – is desperate for her family to stay on their struggling farm in Wales. She finds an overturned tree, and a buried chest containing an ancient Welsh text, and travels back in time to the kingdom of Henry VIII to save her ancestors.
It’s fraught with danger, of course. The tale explores the themes of who we are and who we can become when fighting for those we love.
Not surprisingly, it draws on Linda’s own experiences. It’s set in the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains – “the mountains of my childhood. Every year I go back.
“When I was eight years old, my father gave me a longbow for Christmas. I would shoot it for hours, perfecting my aim – practising until my hands were covered in calluses.
“When I was nine my parents gave me a Welsh pony, jet black and beautiful, called Jacintha. I would roam the Welsh mountains for days on end, riding her and daydreaming.”
The trigger for the story came only a few years ago, however, when Linda came across a “shocking but fascinating” fact. In 1541, Henry ordered that all Welsh ponies below the size of 15 hands, more or less, be destroyed.
“I imagined the terrible scenes where smaller ponies were hunted down… Since I would be playing with history in Longbow Girl, I wanted to draw on the incredibly rich, vivid and magical history that still lives in these parts of Wales.”
Is there much of her in Merry?
“Oh yes. That’s the joy of being an author: living out a multitude of other lives! There’s a lot of me in Merry – or maybe wish fulfilment of things I would have liked to have done that Merry gets to do, like travel back in time.
“But, like Merry, I did spend much of my childhood roaming the wild Welsh hills on my Welsh Section B pony, Jacintha, and shooting arrows with my older brother, Kenneth, who also had a longbow.
“We would shoot cans off walls and also, somewhat unfortunately, we would aim for the high wires on the electricity pylons. Happily, we missed!”
Archery is still a passion. For Christmas, 2013, Rupert bought his wife a longbow, built by an expert in Herefordshire. It’s called Huntress.
“I practise every few weeks. I wish I could say I can consistently hit an empty can on a wall 50m away… but I’d be lying!
“I can consistently hit my standard archery target from 50m away and if I sneak a bit closer I can periodically get a bull’s-eye or what archers insist on calling the ‘gold’ at the centre of the target.
“I have loved shooting a bow and arrow since I was a little girl. I had three older brothers and my father very much brought me up as a boy.
“My mother did the usual girly (and wonderful) things with me but my father taught me how to fight and a lot of other boy things, and also for my eighth birthday gave me my first longbow.
“There’s something very satisfying about using a long, slender piece of wood, and a shorter pointed piece of wood with feathers, and a bit of skill and strength, to hit a target.
“Longbows were and still are lethal weapons. They changed the course of history; they won unwinnable wars. In a weird way you feel like just by picking one up you are stepping back in time.”
What’s next, writing-wise?
“I am plotting and planning my next book for children. My publisher has encouraged me to write another book set in Wales. I am researching actively at the moment and will go on a research trip to Pembrokeshire in the autumn.”
Speaking of places and geography, isn’t she ever tempted to put Suffolk on hold and flee once more for the sun of Dubai? Our weather is not consistently warm, is it? Or even consistent.
“I loved living in Dubai, but I love living in Suffolk even more. And I say this with the rain teeming down and a fleece jacket on! I love the greenery, I love the peace, I love the sea and the dazzling light here. The people aren’t bad either.”
What kind of reaction has she had to Hostage and Ark Storm over the past year?
Has the latter woken us up to the possibilities of something bad happening – an extreme weather catastrophe combined with an act of terrorism – or do we just coast along, head in the sand?
“I have wonderful reactions to both books. I think Hostage struck a chord with many people who were appalled and fascinated by the ease with which your life can switch from normal, happy, safe to being in extreme peril.
“We all wonder how we would cope in extreme circumstances and I think I took many readers on a journey with me.
“I think Ark Storm has opened people’s eyes to a new vulnerability to extreme climatic conditions. It is based on real science: check out www.Arkstorm.com to read about the atmospheric rivers and biblical floods which are forecast to hit California in the near future.”
When we met last year and talked about global terrorism, I described Linda as a happy optimist. She spoke about de-radicalisation programmes and other things that might bear fruit. Since then, we’ve seen even more terrible atrocities. What does she think?
“I’m a bit more pessimistic, I’m afraid, after the rise of IS...”
Longbow Girl is published by Chicken House Books, at £6.99.