‘The compulsion to write is almost like breathing. It keeps you sane.’ If you’ve got your own dream, just go for it, urges Tasha
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How many of us cherish ambitions that fade to dust? Tasha O’Neill tells Steven Russell how she gave herself a kick up the behind to pursue her love of writing… even though it meant the flamenco dancing had to stop
Tasha O’Neill had been writing for decades – since the time she went on a family caravan holiday to London, in fact, at the age of five and wrote a poem about the moon. She’s had a clutch of jobs – including running a newsagent’s, with its 5am starts, and is now a 999 call-handler – but it was always words that fired her imagination and filled her free time. Many stories were dreamed up and begun, but the pile of unfinished, unpolished and undeveloped work grew and grew.
Is that where it would remain – read by precious few, bar some online friends who’d give helpful constructive criticism of work in progress? Supporters such as “beta readers” Kevin and Sally, for instance.
There came a moment of truth. Two potential turnings… which one to take?
“It was about three years ago that I sat myself down and gave myself a stern talking to: ‘Pick one, finish that, and only then move on to other projects. You’re never going to get anything out there unless you finish something.’ And, obviously, I’m nearly 40 now, so I’ve been writing for decades!” laughs Tasha.
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So she chose one fledgling story and devoted her non-work energy to it until she’d finished the tale to her satisfaction. She also made a financial commitment to self-publish it, seeking high production values so it looked the part.
The result is Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet – a fantasy novel for young adults born of her love of mythology and sacred landscapes, particularly of trees and woodland.
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Charlotte, 13, has life falling apart around her and is forced to exchange her exciting, nomadic life for one that seems to be going nowhere in the moribund East Anglian village of Brackenheath-on-Sea.
Her dreams are haunted by a lonely old oak on the hill. An ancient evil is awakening – and the tree weavers of Syluria fear their only hope of survival rests with a half-whispered legend of a flame-haired girl from beyond the Dreamtime.
Charlotte is precocious and intelligent, and influenced by the niece of a friend of the author. The roots of that influence go back 11 years, when Tasha was living in Lancashire. “I remember we were watching Countdown one evening and she (the friend’s niece) was playing me at chess. There was Countdown in the background. She came up with a nine-letter word... The killer was when she said afterwards ‘That’s so easy. Anyone should have got that!’ Me and my friend were sitting there, thinking ‘OK... not going to say anything here...!’ She must have been about 10!”
Tasha hopes Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet proves the first title in The Nymet Chronicles – four or five books. With luck, it will help her build a track record of success that catches the eye of a mainstream publisher. If it doesn’t… well, she’ll at least have got some stories out there. There won’t be any of those “if only I’d…” regrets pricking at her conscience in years to come.
We meet in a coffee shop where, in true JK Rowling style, Tasha often does a fair bit of writing. She’s snatched a few hours of sleep after finishing a night shift. “Suspect I’m gonna need a lot of coffee,” she’s tweeted earlier. In the event, Earl Grey tea sustains her through the interview.
Her mum is from Northern Ireland and came to Ipswich to train as a nurse. She met her husband to be – a Suffolk man – here. The family moved around Suffolk, ending up in the Lowestoft area. “That whole East Anglian coast is very much an influence on the book,” says Tasha.
She was a daydreamer. “When I was younger, I used to walk along the edge of the bath and pretend I was flying. I used to have lots of dreams of flying.
“I’m not sure I was any different than any other child. I’d make mud potions. In those days you didn’t have the PlayStations. You were out and you used your imagination. I remember childhood holidays in Cromer and Sheringham. There’s a place called Beeston Bump. We’d go walking along there and make up stories about being a Spanish princess. It’s quite normal for a child. But I haven’t lost that.
“It’s very difficult, I think, to get over being an adult and the day-job and real life! I think most sensible people don’t!”
Tasha worked as a trainee travel agent and then spent three years as a mature student (English language and literature) at The University of Central Lancashire in the early 2000s.
It was about 2006 or ’07 when she returned to East Anglia. She had a series of jobs, including managing a newsagent’s shop in Halesworth Thoroughfare for a couple of years. (The chance to read a wide variety of newspapers and magazines at quiet moments made up for those 5am starts. “I’m not a morning person, generally speaking.”)
She joined the emergency services about six and a half years ago, taking that decision three years ago to concentrate on the job and writing, rather than job, writing and other interests. Like many of us, she recognised the danger of spreading herself too thinly.
So did those other interests go on the back-burner? “Very much so. They’re not even on the burner! But this is always what I wanted to do, so it’s important I’m taking it seriously and doing it properly.”
Even flamenco dancing? (A long-time passion.) “I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference between bulerias and tangos now!” laughs Tasha, who lives in the Woodbridge area.
It was a visit to The London Book Fair that nudged her into action three years ago. “It’s very inspirational. Lots of talks, workshops and discussions designed to help authors. It was me saying ‘I can do this. I want to be part of this world. Yes, let’s get on with this!’”
Not always easy, though, is it?
“You do need to make a lot of sacrifices. If I had any advice for newbie writers it would be to have confidence in yourself and your own voice, and don’t compare yourself to everyone else.
“You do need to get on with it and get it out there. You need to have a thick skin. I think that’s what’s held me back at times. I wouldn’t say I’ve tried and failed – I’ve not had 12 rejection letters or anything – but if you don’t put anything out there, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
Tasha calls herself “decidedly unambitious in the conventional sense”.
“I’m quite a perfectionist as well. I was comparing myself with other people. With some, I was thinking ‘Yeah, I could do a lot better than that...’ I thought! With other people it’s ‘I’m never going to be that good. I’m never going to be able to write that.’ It does make you ‘freeze’, I suppose.”
Self-publishing meant she could at last put a story out for public consumption, instead of dreaming idly about it, while having a great deal of control over the finished product.
She argues that self-publishing has moved on from the days when it had a poor reputation as an exercise in vanity, with the books themselves often looking decidedly amateurish.
“The key... is not so much about what you pay out for it but to play an active part in the production of your book and take ownership. Spending vast amounts of money is not a guarantee that you will end up with a good-looking ? or well-written ? product.
“The great thing about self-publishing is that you don’t have to wait for anyone else’s permission ? but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
“Self-doubt, I would argue, is the biggest hurdle a would-be author has to overcome, whichever path you take, but with self-publishing you really do have to be your own best cheer-leader.
“In a world where many publishing houses are expecting more and more from their authors when it comes to PR and marketing, it is becoming vital to develop the ability to sell yourself anyway. It is also worth noting that many of the greats self-published their work – Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter and William Blake to name a few.”
Tasha has long been interested in fairy-tales and mythology, and is convinced there’s a market for fantasy. “I guess I like the idea of real fairy-tales – not the kind of sanitised versions we have now. The dark fairy-tales.
“I suppose the other thing is that they’re often set in forests, and I have a real fascination for trees and forests. There’s such an evocative atmosphere in a wood or forest that you don’t get anywhere else. What I was trying to do with this book was explore the importance of trees and the fact they’re record-keepers of local history. When you go into a forest you can ‘feel’ the history of that place.
“I’ve always felt like that. I have a real affinity with nature, ever since I can remember. A lot of my books were written on the seashore. When I was in Lowestoft, walking along Kessingland beach and Benacre just fired the imagination. If I ever had writer’s block, I would go down there and that would sort it out!”
A pagan for many years, she’s been a Druid for about four. “For me, my creativity is an expression of (among other things) my spiritual world view and I feel connected to something very special and undefinable when I am in nature – especially by the sea or in woodland. It is these qualities, that existed already within me, that drew me to Druidry, rather than the other way round, and to have a belief system that validates and celebrates the creative is a wonderfully positive thing.”
She has been known to stand in forests and chant or speak to trees ? “all that kind of weird stuff!” she smiles. “But very low key.”
On writing, she says: “I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I love playing with language. I still write poetry, though not to the same degree as the other things. I love making pretty sounds and pretty lines.
“The compulsion to write is almost like breathing. It keeps you sane. Without it, you get very tense. It’s something you do because you have to.”
Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet is £8.99. www.tashaoneill.com
In the book, ‘Nymet’ refers to the single oak in Brackenheath-on-Sea Park. This is the last remaining tree in an ancient and powerful circle of trees that once protected the East Anglian coast. This tree holds the memory of the great Sylurian forest, and, should it fall, the forest will die with it.
The Tree Weavers are able to make trees and plants grow and can shape them any way they like. They do this by listening to and modifying the sounds each plant makes. The skill is usually used for mundane purposes such as building living treehouses and growing crops.
• Has a couple of black rescue cats, aged about 13: Mabinogion and Meritamon. The cats in the book are based on them • Tasha has a younger sister who lives in the Republic of Ireland and is a scientist specialising in patent law
• She says of her parents: ‘I think I’m a bit of an enigma to them. They’re not quite sure where I’ve come from!’