Welcome to the first of May’s Q and A author features, today I’m excited to have friend and author Judith Barrow over to share some of herself, her writing and her powerful new book, which I can’t wait to sink my eyes into – The Memory. Judith writes historical fiction and family sagas, like her Howarth family books series, and has taken a different approach with her newest book. As a writer who delves into family – and particularly ‘mother’ issues, I have no doubts I will love this book.
Judith Barrow, originally from Saddleworth, a group of villages on the edge of the Pennines in Yorkshire, has lived in Pembrokeshire, Wales, for forty years. She has an MA in Creative Writing with the University of Wales Trinity St David’s College, Carmarthen. BA (Hons) in Literature with the Open University, a Diploma in Drama from Swansea University and has had short stories, plays, reviews and articles, published throughout the British Isles and has won several poetry competitions.. She is a Creative Writing tutor for Pembrokeshire County Council and holds private one to one workshops on all genres.
If you’d like to learn more about the writer in Judith, I invite you read this beautiful article Judith wrote – Something of Ourselves.
Mother and daughter tied together by shame and secrecy, love and hate.
I wait by the bed. I move into her line of vision and it’s as though we’re watching one another, my mother and me; two women – trapped.
Today has been a long time coming. Irene sits at her mother’s side waiting for the right moment, for the point at which she will know she is doing the right thing by Rose.
Rose was Irene’s little sister, an unwanted embarrassment to their mother Lilian but a treasure to Irene. Rose died thirty years ago, when she was eight, and nobody has talked about the circumstances of her death since. But Irene knows what she saw. Over the course of 24 hours their moving and tragic story is revealed – a story of love and duty, betrayal and loss – as Irene rediscovers the past and finds hope for the future.
“…A book that is both powerful and moving, exquisitely penetrating. I am drawn in, empathising so intensely with Irene that I feel every twinge of her frustration, resentment, utter weariness and abiding love.” Thorne Moore
“Judith Barrow’s greatest strength is her understanding of her characters and the times in which they live; The Memory is a poignant tale of love and hate in which you will feel every emotion experienced by Irene.” Terry Tyler
Latest review for The Memory:
Gripping. Moving. Powerful.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 24, 2020
I read Judith Barrow’s Howarth saga and loved it. When I heard that she’d written something else, something different, I was afraid I might be disappointed. I needn’t have worried. The Memory is a powerful book that holds you in its grip until the final, perfect page.
It has two timelines. The current one exposes the physical and emotional exhaustion that often accompanies the care of a family member. Irene and her mother are locked in a claustrophobic battle that is vivid, real and frighteningly credible. The other timeline follows Irene’s life from just before the birth of her sister Rose who has Down’s Syndrome. The portrayal of Rose is beautiful and moving. Irene’s selfless care for her sister underpins so much of the novel.
There are hardships, hatred and poverty running parallel with selfless love and sacrifice. I loved Sam for his strength and support of Irene and there were times when I loathed her mother. These aren’t two-dimensional characters, though, and the author brings them to life with an understanding of what drives the decisions that they make.
The writing is what I’ve come to expect from Judith Barrow. The effortless prose brings a fresh quality to the mundane and familiar. There’s also a building menace to the book and a sense of foreboding that drives you on right to the surprising end.
This is a remarkable book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Now, let us dig a little deeper into Judith and her writing,
If you had the chance to re-do your childhood or teen years to enhance your future in writing, what would you have done differently?
This question intrigued me; it suggests that I would have had some control over those years. It would be too easy to say I would have needed to have been born into a different family. That the writing I did, even as a young child, was something I could have shared. It wasn’t. Because what I wrote about was happening in the family and how I felt about it. I knew I couldn’t share it. It would have hurt my mother and angered my father. And, because it was my father who controlled everything, both emotionally and physically, I learned from an early age not to show how I felt. I knew how to hide, keep secrets. Keep out of the way. And watch.
We lived together and yet, in a way, we lived separately.
I was fascinated in how places were changed by the emotions that filled them. The rooms of our house, the shops in the village, the Methodist chapel I went to every Sunday afternoon, the moors where I wandered for miles on the moors with my dog. School. It’s the feelings of the people who are there at the time and it’s something I am still aware of. Maybe that’s a throwback to my childhood; from being aware. Being wary.
I kept my school life private from my parents and was lucky that neither was interested in my education. Anyway, there were few things I enjoyed about school; I never felt as though I fitted in, especially in my teens. I loved the history lessons, but my true passion was obviously English. And from that evolved my plans for the future; I wanted to work as a journalist.
Every year, with each new English teacher, I strived for approval with my writing. There was one teacher I will never forget. His name was Leslie Ellinore and, as I grew to trust him, I showed him some of the less personal stories and poems I’d written at home. He often entered them into the school magazine and, once, into a competition in the local newspaper. I won with that story. I was devastated when he emigrated to New Zealand but will never forget what he once said to me: “One day, Judith, I know I will read a book that you have written”.
Encouraged by that, and as soon as I passed my exams, I applied in secret for a junior post at that local newspaper. The week before I was due to start there my father discovered how much (or rather how little) I would be paid, and forbid me to go. My wages were needed, so the more I could earn the better. There were many arguments. In the end I gave in and joined the Civil Service.
So, I suppose, and being honest, the answer to what I would have done differently then to enhance my future in writing would have been to have more confidence, to have left home, to be determined enough to begin a career in journalism.
D.G. – Powerful stuff Judith. Just from this response, it gives me so much more insight as to how similar we were in our dreams and thinking and observations as children, and how our aspirations got left to the wayside. Look at us now! ❤
How has writing changed your life?
I wonder if, for me, it’s the life I’ve had that actually underlines my writing. As I said earlier, I’ve always written, so I don’t know how else my life would be different. The one big change was from the day I was married; my writing no longer had to be secret. My husband had known before then how important it was to me and has always been a great support, even in the years when I didn’t send anything out into the world. He realises I need to write. It’s the way I get through situations, the way I work out what I’m going to do, how I’m going to tackle something I’m confronted with. And, ultimately the way any of my protagonists face up to anything I put them through.
D.G. – And once again, we were ultimately blessed with good husbands. ❤
What prompted you to write in your chosen genre?
I think it was, inevitable that I write family sagas of some form or another. My stories evolved from the diaries I kept in my childhood and reflected situations I lived through; what I saw. And the dynamics of people and how they interact with one another in a set of circumstances fascinates me. And, you know, family sagas can cross genres, so I get the best of all worlds; secrets and mysteries, criminal actions, romance. And family sagas can be written in any era – so can cross over into historical novels. I love researching for my books; giving a good sense of place. Making a world for my characters, being able to see where they walk, what they wear, the homes they live in, is as important as the lives they lead.
D.G. – I love how you insert your slices of your life in your books Judith. Like the old saying goes – there is so much truth in fiction.
How do you promote your work? Do you find marketing and social media overwhelming?
I would much rather go out and talk to people about my work. I work part time as a creative writing tutor under a lifelong learning scheme for the local Council. As well as that I also run private workshops where I’m inevitably asked about the way I write and about my books. I also interview other authors about their work for a brilliant online TV company, ShowboatTV; I suppose the promotion of my own books rides on the back of that.
I have to admit that most social media does overwhelm me sometimes. When I first started I was on so many platforms; the stress of keeping up with everything finally became too much and I almost walked away from it all. So now I mostly stick to Twitter and Facebook; although I am being told I should really be on Instagram as well. Sigh! I admire anyone who manages the balance of social media with their writing. As for anyone who can produce an interesting blog or a long and insightful review of another author’s book every day, I am in awe. In the early days of my foray into this strange world, I was told that one should follow, promote and discuss only those who write in the same genre, but I can’t see how that is possible. Because I am helped by a disparate array of people I’m very conscious of trying to promote other authors, whatever they write. And a friend once told me not to forget that important word “social”, so, if someone mentions my books, I try to do the same. Then, before I realise it – I’ve lost a couple of hours.
As you may be able to tell, I’m getting stressed out just trying to explain why social media stresses me out! Ha-ha! Perhaps, one day, I’ll stop myself for “scatter gunning” online and work out the best way to promote my books.
D.G. – Your social media dilemma is one many of us writers contend with Judith. I too believe spreading ourselves everywhere becomes too thin and spend most of my social media time on FB and Twitter too. There are only so many hours in a day right?
Would you like to share with us what upcoming projects and/or ideas for books you’re working on?
Well, I hope that once this strange situation that we’re living through at present is over, I will be able to go out to all of the events which have been postponed and I’ll promote my latest book, The Memory. It’s had some wonderful reviews online and, although in a way, I was quite apprehensive about it because it’s so different from my previous books, I’m thrilled by the way it’s been received.
As for future plans, I do have another book coming out with my publishers, Honno, in February 2021. It’s called The Heart Stone, and is a return to my usual genre, historical family saga. It’s based around WW1, the aftermath of a world war, and the struggles of the nineteen twenties.
As for writing, I am at the moment working on two projects. I’m around 40,000 words into a book which centres around three women who work in a cotton factory in the nineteen fifties; a decade when the trade was declining
in the UK. It’s as much about the individual lives of the women as what is happening in the industry. But, of course, as with any character, they don’t live in a vacuum, so world events also affect the relationships within their families and circle of friends.
But that book has been interrupted by a memory that came back to me during one of my sleepless nights. Remembering an event from a long time ago has led on to a story of two sisters and something they were involved in when they were in their early teens. One of them takes the blame for an incident and it’s a secret that lasts for years and has consequences.
The other project which has been put on hold is an anthology that one of my adult classes is producing. I’m very proud of all the hard work the students have put into their writing over the last year so I’m eager for it to be published and to show what they can do. I think it proves that it’s never too late to start writing.
D.G. – Well, that’s one full plate Judith! And the book about sisters and secrets is already intriguing me! I look forward to that book too!
Judith shares an Excerpt of: The Memory
I was eight when Rose was born. All that summer I’d watched as my mother’s stomach grew larger and rounder. As she moved ever slower, each foot ponderously placed on the ground beneath her. As her face grew tighter with rage and bitterness.
‘She’s tired, Irene,’ Dad said when I asked him what was wrong. We were in the park. It was the week before the autumn term started. The long summer days were behind us, there was a slight chill in the air, but we were making the most of the time that was left.
Thinking about what Dad said, I slowly pushed my foot against the ground. I knew it was more than that; Mum was angry about something.
Normally in summer we went for a week to the seaside. Usually Southport or Morecambe but we hadn’t been anywhere for a holiday that year. Or even for one of our picnics at Bramble Clough, a dip in the hill where a tiny stream gurgled through rocks and crannies, bordered by wimberry bushes and dried heather. Where we’d sit on Dad’s tartan blanket and eat beef paste butties and drink lemonade.
Bending and stretching out my legs to make the swing move, I looked around. It was that time of day when mums had already taken the younger children home for their teas. Over by the river on the far side of the large grassed area, some boys were messing about. They were hanging upside down on two tyres fastened to ropes slung over branches on the trees on the bank. After a hot summer, little water flowed over the grey boulders and shale on the riverbed. At least they wouldn’t get wet if they fell in. I recognised Sam Hargreaves. He’d been my friend since our first year at Hopfield Primary School. And he helped his father deliver newspapers to our house, in holiday time.
I was so high on the swing that the chains slackened and jerked as I passed the bar they were fastened to. Arms straightened, I leant backwards so I had an upside down picture of Dad sitting on the bench, legs straightened, ankles crossed. He’d taken off his jacket and tie and pushed his trilby to the back of his head. He was cradling his pipe in his cupped hand.
‘Looks like the smoke from your pipe is falling down instead of up,’ I said, ‘looks funny.’ I saw him smile. It made me feel good. So I decided it would be all right to say what was bothering me. ‘Why is Mum tired?’ I asked, ‘She doesn’t do much.’ She’d even stopped our Sunday afternoon baking cakes and biscuits times, which was something we’d done for as long as I could remember.
He’d frowned at that but only said, ‘Now, now, love.’
I swung in silence, my hair sweeping the ground at the lowest point. The bit of the park we were in: the concrete area that held the swings, slide and the iron spider’s web roundabout, was deserted.
‘She is doing something, you know,’ Dad said eventually, ‘she’s growing your little brother or sister.’ He rubbed his knuckles on his neck, looked uncomfortable; or maybe it was the upside down image I had of his smiling mouth.
I thought it was a silly thing to say. ‘Isn’t she happy doing that?’ I sat up, scraping the soles of my shoes on the ground to slow the swing.
‘Of course she is.’ But he wouldn’t look at me. Instead he concentrated on his pipe and flicked the lighter into the tobacco which already glowed red. ‘She’s looking forward to us having an addition to our family.’ He sounded odd, saying those words and I could tell he was embarrassed about something because his ears were red.
‘Your ears have gone red,’ I told him. ‘And your nose is growing – so I know you’re fibbing. Nanna said Mum has a face like a smacked backside these days; I heard her say that to her friend last week.’ She’d actually said “arse” but I didn’t dare repeat that, I’d never heard Dad swear, not even “damn”, which I’d heard Mum say a lot over the last few months. And if I did say it, he might not let me go on my own again to Nanna’s flat on the Barraclough estate.
‘Enough.’ His tone was sharp, sharper than he ever used on me.
My eyes stung and I twisted the swing’s chains round, pushing on the ground with the toes of my shoes until I almost couldn’t reach any more and I was higher than him. I didn’t want him to see I was crying. I lifted my feet and was flung around and around. I was dizzy when it stopped. ‘That made my eyes water,’ I said, defiantly, pushing a finger under the frames of my glasses to brush away the tears.
‘Time we went home,’ he said. And then to show he wasn’t cross, ‘we’ll get an ice cream.’ He pointed with the stem of his pipe towards the entrance of the park where the tinny sound of ‘Greensleeves’ emerged from inside the white van decorated with cartoons. ‘I’ll race you.’ He stood, took off his hat and folded his jacket over his arm. ‘Go on, I’ll give you a head start.’
I didn’t need telling twice. I was off. He let me win, of course.
I loved my Dad.
Thank you for being here today Judith. You know I’m a big fan of your books and writing. I look forward to reading your newest coming up soon and no doubts, I’m sure some of my readers here will be just as eager to read.
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Judith Barrow Author MA BA (Hons) Dip Drama https://judithbarrowblog.com/