Friday 23 March 2018

A Conversation with Bridget Blankley

Bridget Blankley spent most of her early life in Nigeria. She has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and has been an engineer, educator and fulltime carer. Bridget came late to writing and had her first piece of fiction published in her early fifties. Her work swiftly won prizes, including the Winchester Writer's Competition, 'Writing Can Be Murder' 2013, and the Commonword Diversity Writing for Children Prize, 2016. In the same year she was runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing. Her latest award is the Hammond House Short Story Prize. Bridget lives in Southampton, UK.

The Ghosts & Jamal is an intriguing story, touching on religion, terrorism and Nigeria’s internal conflicts, following a young orphan who is negotiating an unforgiving society.

Waking up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, 14-year-old Jamal tries to piece together what has happened whilst simultaneously trying to evade capture by the attackers. It soon becomes clear that he has been living in a separate outhouse from his family on account of the “bad spirits” that plague him. As he wanders around his family’s compound, he comes across red canisters leaking yellow gas, which he works out were the weapon that killed his family, and he begins calling the gas “ghosts”. With his family dead, he begins to search for his grandfather who he hardly knows; when his grandfather turns him away he keeps walking. On his journey he passes out and is picked up by a patrolling soldier. He is taken to a hospital where he is treated for the “spirits”, or rather, his epilepsy. Jamal escapes and on doing so, he wanders bewildered around the city. On the way he meets prejudice, exploitation and friendship, before finally discovering that it is people, not ghosts, that have killed his family, and they have plans to keep on killing.

'Jamal is a compelling and a resourceful hero in a world that tells him he doesn't belong. A beautifully written tale of survival and bravery.' Patrice Lawrence

'Pacy and moving. I couldn't stop reading.' Rebecca Smith

'This is a clever story that releases its secrets slowly. With big ideas and lots of heart, it pulls you in and then - whack! What a great ending!’ Melvin Burgess

Greenacre Writers are delighted to feature The Ghosts and Jamal, and wish Bridget many congratulations on the publication of her first novel.

Tell us about your journey as a writer

I haven’t been writing for that long. I come from a family of story tellers, and story readers, but there has never been a reason to write anything down. My mother would make up stories for us at bedtime. Am ashamed to say that my siblings and I didn’t like her to read to us as she didn’t ‘do the voices’ like my father did. But she could make up stories and we enjoyed them. So, when I had children, I would sometimes read to them and sometimes make up stories.

Once the children grew up I didn’t think much about stories until I left work to become a carer. Then, when I was looking around for something to do while I was at home, I saw an evening class in Creative Writing and signed up. I enjoyed it. I wasn’t convinced that I was very good, I wasn’t interested in many of the topics that we were asked to write about, but it was relaxing. I began to think that maybe I could write stories for my grandsons as I didn’t see them often enough to read to them. Unfortunately, it turns out that I’m better at adult and young adult fiction, but I guess they’ll grow into it.

I’ve enjoyed making up stories and I’ve been lucky enough to win a few awards for my writing, so I guess I have an excuse to keep doing it, at least for a while.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think I’ll reverse this question and answer the easy part first. What do I like most about being a writer? That’s easy, it gives me the excuse to say ‘go away I’m reading’ to anyone who wants me to do almost anything. What other job has a requirement that you buy, and read lots of good books?

There is also the fact that there is very little pressure. If you start a story and find you’ve hit a brick wall, then you can just stop and write something else. No one is looking over your shoulder insisting that you get a report finished or an audit completed.

Although there are disadvantages, but not many, so I think that I’ll stick to saying how lucky I am to be able to write.

As to the other part of your question, I’m not sure. Do writers really have a role in society? Maybe if I wrote serious analysis of current affairs, or if my books had an important political message or a warning about possible dystopian futures then maybe I could claim to be usefully employed. But I don’t my work is entertainment and adventure. Stories of people doing their best in difficult situations and, sometimes, finding their way out the other side. Thought I guess as reading is never a waste of time, then someone has to do the writing and I feel lucky to be able to fill that role.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike, but find yourself empathising with them?

I wrote a short piece of writing for a competition a couple of years ago, 'Eyes in the Park'. It was narrated by an unnamed murderer. Quite different to the sort of thing I normally write. I can’t say that I empathised with the character. They were thoroughly unpleasant, but it was very enjoyable to write. I found I wrote it piece very quickly, following the protagonist’s thoughts, often speaking them aloud as a wrote – not something I usually do when I’m writing. Looking back, I wonder if saying, rather than thinking, what the character said helped me to keep my distance. I was almost as if I was listening to what someone else was saying rather than saying it myself. Maybe I’m reading to much into this I don’t know. But in general, I think you have to be able to connect with the characters you are creating. Even if you are creating a character that you want your readers to despise. Perhaps I should try writing about a few more murderers to see if the same thing happens.

What is your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I cannot say that I look to specifically write about diverse characters. I just try to write about the characters that particular stories need. That sounds a bit pretentious, let me try to explain myself a little better. I wrote a short story recently. It was about two sisters. I wrote it after I was shown a newspaper article about a pair of slippers that had been found in the charity shop. They were trying to find the owner – I can’t remember why. I remember thinking that I would know if it was my sister’s shoes, because her feet were different sizes, then I thought about the other people who we met when my sister was in hospital. One thing led to another and the story just developed. It became a about Osteogenesis Imperfecta, not deliberately, but because that fitted in with the narrative. Similarly, when I wrote The Ghosts and Jamal, I didn’t set out to write a story about a child with Epilepsy, but I needed a reason for Jamal to be isolated from his family, and I needed an explanation for the way he saw the world. I spoke to a family friend who had been a nurse in West Africa and Epilepsy fitted with the needs of the story. I was once lucky enough to have tea with Mary Hoffman, author of Amazing Grace, she put it very well when she said, just write the stories you need to and the right characters will present themselves to you.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Again, this is a tricky question to answer. Firstly, because I have had most success writing in the living room of my mother’s flat in Southampton, so maybe I should stick to what I know, but also because it depends on what I am writing. I have a fondness for the north Norfolk coast. I love the big skies and wide horizons. I like the way the pines curl up against the wind and the enormous shorelines when the tide is out. So I guess if I could only have one place to write it would be in Norfolk, preferably in the winter. However, have been discussing a book that will be set in the Egyptian desert so it would be good to set my writing tent in Siwa for a while to get the feel for my heroine’s home. But I’m not sure I would want to stay there for too long, I tend to overheat these days.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

I’m afraid I’m going to hedge a little here. Because Anthony Marra wrote a book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which is beautifully written and juxtapositions absolute horror with observations of the beautiful. I would love to be able to write like that, and I would recommend it to any aspiring novelists. But I would hate to have lived though the violence that inspired the novel. So maybe I’ll settle for The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by T E Carhart. It was Carhart’s first book and it is a beautifully written work. Gentle and evocative, and the result of getting slightly lost in Paris on a summer afternoon. So, on balance, and largely because of the life you must lead to write your book, I would love to have written Carhart’s book.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Well so many people have said this but it’s true; ‘if you want to be a writer you’ve got to sit down and write.’

You need to set yourself a target, 100 words a week or 1000 words a day, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you stick to it so that you develop the habit of writing.

The other piece of advice is to have more than one piece of writing on the go at the same time. I know that this doesn’t work for everyone, but I find that if I get stuck writing one story, you can ‘give your brain a rest’ and look at the other piece. The second piece doesn’t have to be another novel, it doesn’t even have to be very good, it just has to be something different so that you start to thing about words in a different way.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

At the moment I am working on a book about a rebellious Egyptian woman, being pulled between duty and freedom. The working title is Nesma Means Breath of Wind, I hope to have, at least the first draft of this ready for the Autumn. I’m also researching the next novel, which will be set in Ghana in the mid twentieth century. I have the idea set in my mind, but I need to spend more time talking to people who remember that time. It is another thing that I am really enjoying. I think that there might be a danger of spending too much time researching and not enough writing, but, for the time being at least, I’m OK. I haven’t overrun the time I’ve allowed for research yet.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I think this would have to be Tove Jonsson’s Moomin Troll. Or any of the Moomin family for that matter. They had their heads screwed on right, as my gran would say. One of my favourite quotes is, I think, from Moominpappa at sea, ‘Isn’t life exciting, everything can change all of a sudden, and for no reason at all.’

I like to remind myself to thing of the world as exciting rather than chaotic, when things are getting on top of me.

The Ghosts and Jamal is published by Hope Road

Follow Bridget on Twitter: @BridgetBlankley

Bridget has Asperger’s syndrome and is proud to support the work of The National Autistic Society.

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