WHO IS VIVIEN? WHAT IS SHE?

Vivien Hampshire reveals the inside story of the woman behind the pen

When it was suggested that, for the theme of this blog during November, we all write a few interesting snippets about ourselves, for some reason I found myself singing the opening lines of Shakespeare’s song from The Two Gentlemen of Verona!

Who is Silvia? What is she,

That all our swains commend her?

Holy, fair and wise is she.

Nose in a book as ever!

Nose in a book as ever!

It’s easy to hide behind our writing. In our stories, given the right research, we can visit places we have never been and act out thrilling, romantic or even sexy scenes we have never experienced in real life – and hopefully make our readers believe every word. Many of us may take on a pen name, maybe going so far as to change gender in the process, so our readers, and maybe even our nearest and dearest, don’t have to know who we are if we choose not to tell them. Writing is a wonderful smoke screen behind which we can happily hide our true selves and revel in make-believe.

So, who is Vivien? What is she? What can I tell you about me that you are not able to guess from looking at my Amazon author page or from reading my fiction? Well… holy, fair and wise I cannot claim to be, but (in case you’re curious) here’s a potted history of me – the me when I am not wearing my writer’s hat – and leaving out most of the boring bits!

I left school earlier than planned because my dad was ill, but that didn’t stop me from finishing my exams. I managed the second year of my A level studies while holding down a full-time job in a bank, thanks to a couple of close friends who brought me their lesson notes and passed on homework details, and teachers who continued to mark it even though I was no longer a pupil. I took time off and joined my former classmates on exam days, and passed three subjects with flying colours. And I’m pretty sure the experience has been an enormous help to me in managing my time and juggling the conflicting demands of work, children and writing in the years since.

After around ten years in banking I went to work for a London council in their accountancy department and stayed there for a further eight, before leaving to bring up my children. I was always surprisingly good with money, figures, balance sheets and budgets, even though, had anyone asked, I would have said (and still do) that I am a words girl, not a numbers one! Give me a crossword over a Sudoku any day. But somehow I had fallen into a career path that I would never have consciously chosen. Again, handy in later life though. I never have trouble balancing my bank account, sending out invoices or filling in my tax returns, and apart from a mortgage (now repaid) and a not-to-be-missed interest free deal on my new car, I have never had to take out a loan for anything either.

From the age of sixteen, although I worked with numbers, I really just wanted to write. Poems at first, then stories, and eventually a novel – the opening to which won a national competition and brought two literary agents knocking at my door without me having to seek them out at all. Oh, dear. The book didn’t sell, despite some very near misses, but I went on to write another two, both unpublished but great practice for later on. And while all that was going on… I gave birth to twins! After an ectopic pregnancy, years of infertility and five rounds of IVF, the miracle happened and life changed – more hectic, different priorities, and less time. I registered as a childminder and, for the next ten years (still writing as a hobby when I could), I looked after other people’s kids as well as my own, followed by my best job ever, helping very young children to gain a love of books and reading in a children’s centre and running storytelling and rhyme sessions in libraries. All this daily contact with toddlers turned out very useful for helping me create the character of Lydia, a childminder who ‘loses’ a baby in her care, in my first (self-)published novel, Losing Lucy  – and in writing my newest book about a child left alone at home. This novel, the one I have enjoyed writing the most, is still trying to find itself an agent and ultimately a publishing deal.

I just love crosswords!

I just love crosswords!

But, always, whatever job I was doing, bubbling underneath were words! The constant urge to read (here I am in the photo above, reading the fantastic charity short stories anthology Diamonds and Pearls ), to dip into dictionaries, to play around with words and learn their meanings, to complete ever harder cryptic crosswords, and to write. It never went away. And now I’m sixty, the kids are grown and gone, and I have a new husband who follows his own hobbies and leaves me plenty of time to pursue my own. Life feels right. And the time feels right too. I have written well over a hundred published woman’s magazine stories and a book about my crossword passion, How to Crack Cryptic Crosswords – and now I’m back writing novels again, with a vengeance!

If I could go back, I doubt I would do anything very differently. I don’t feel I’ve missed out on much. Marriage, children, good health, enough money to get by – I’ve been lucky enough to have had all those. I have never dreamed of setting off on major foreign travel trips, of doing a parachute jump or learning to play the piano, or even of winning the lottery. No, my dream is much more modest, but sometimes feels just as unattainable. I want that bestseller, and I want it NOW!

 

 

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Francesca Capaldi Burgess: It’s All Going in the Book…

Francesca finds fiction fodder in her own life

I can’t say my life has been remarkable, but many elements of it have served as starting points for my short stories and novels, even if the stories themselves have taken a different path.

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Outside the cafe in Worthing

So, what of my life? I was born above a café in Worthing in nineteen hundred and frozen to death (otherwise known as 1957), to an Italian father and Welsh mother. One of my first memories is standing on the tiny bedroom balcony, looking out to sea. When I was three we moved to Littlehampton, where my dad had a café facing the river. We lived in a house a mile away.

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How I wish I could grow my hair this long again.

My childhood was complicated as my mother, haunted by several demons in her life, descended into alcoholism. She regularly left me outside pubs for hours. To occupy myself, I used to make up stories. I guess it was the start of my writing life. For all her problems my mum, like many from the Celtic races, was a brilliant story teller, weaving tales that she sometimes taped for me on an old tape recorder.

Me and Mum

Me and Mum

When I was twelve, she got Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a kind of long term alcohol poisoning caused by the lack of vitamin B1. Ironically it saved her – and me, I think. She died at fifty of a heart attack when I was twenty-six. My father followed six weeks later, broken hearted.

Cafe in Littlehampton c1968. Great Gran is the little lady.

Cafe in Littlehampton c1968. Great Gran is the little lady.

Some of my happiest memories were spent in my Welsh great gran’s house. She was a no nonsense type of lady, but kind. I was twenty-nine when she died at the age of 97, so she filled much of my young adult life. I still miss her.

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Maxis the first time round.

Having an Italian name left me open to a fair amount of bullying at school, thanks to Mussolini’s antics twenty years earlier. It wasn’t only the pupils who were guilty. Despite that, I made good friends and did well at school. As a teen, I worked the summer holidays in the café. In winter, I’d get up at some godforsaken hour, catch the minibus in the damp pre-dawn and spend the morning in windowless sheds picking mushrooms. I left school at eighteen to attend Froebel College in Roehampton, where I did a degree in history and education, followed by a PGCE.

Young love at the disco.

Young love at the disco.

I met Andrew while we were still at uni. Froebel was 90% women, Imperial College, where he went, 90% men. It was a no-brainer that we should frequent each other’s discos. Quite a few of our friends married too. When we graduated, I became a primary school teacher in London. I did consider doing archive studies, but teaching won out. After we moved to Kent we started a family. Our four children are now 31, 29, 25 and 23, which I find totally shocking to think about!

Was I ever this thin?

Was I ever this thin?

While I was bringing them up, I found plenty of voluntary work to do. I was the supplies officer for the local nursery school. I joined the National Childbirth Trust and was a post natal support coordinator and chairman of the local branch. I also ran their toddler group in the village for several years. At the parish church, I was the magazine editor (and wrote many of the articles!), helped run the buggy service and was a junior church leader for ten years. In the local school I did an afternoon a week teaching library skills.

My interests, apart from writing, are Italian and family research. I attended an Italian class for over twenty years, gaining an A level and good friends. I’ve investigated much of my mother’s family. Despite being humble mining/farming folk, their lives, intrigues and tragedies make fascinating reading. I was amazed at how many shot gun weddings there were! Delving into my father’s Italian family is more difficult, though I’m lucky to have a lot of first hand information. My father’s story is begging to be adapted into a novel. One day I will learn Welsh (maybe!).

When the children were young.

Before my children had their own children

I decided to take my writing further in 2006, thanks to an Adult Education creative writing class run by Elaine Everest. Soon after, I also accepted a part time job as a lead exam invigilator at a nearby secondary school. If I wrote down those tales, nobody would believe them! I gave that up three years ago, the same time, coincidentally, as I became a ‘nonna’. I now have three gorgeous grandchildren and a blog about them I update occasionally called Nonna Blog.

Littlehampton today

Littlehampton today

I have never got used to living inland and would love to reside by the sea again. Having lived on the south coast, I find the Kentish north coast weird – the sun rises and sets in the wrong places! I dream of opening my curtains of a morning and spying the beach, much as I would have done as a toddler. It would be like coming full circle.

Aged 16

Aged 16

If I could time shift back to 1974 to talk to my teenage self, what would I say? Firstof all I’d tell her she’s tired all the time because she has an underactive thyroid and to get the doctor post haste!

I’d also tell her that it is possible to get published and not to put it on the back boiler for another thirty-two years.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Two of my stories based on incidents from my life or that of a family member can be found in these anthologies:

Diamonds and Pearls: A Sparkling Collection of Short Story Gems

7 Food Stories from Rome

Other true stories from my life published in The Guardian:

Dad’s lucky escape in the war

Dining room dancing with mum

A song for my daughter, Carmela

 

 

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?

Francesca Burgess explores the value and pitfalls of research

Write what you know. That’s good advice for someone just setting out as a writer and something most writers do, to some extent, their whole writing life. I’ve certainly rummaged through the events of my life for plots. For instance, one of the first short stories I ever had published called New Beginnings (which consequently ended up in the charity anthology Diamonds and Pearls) had a plot based on my experience of the family Easter.

I’m sure I’ll go on using things I’m familiar with in my fiction, but as endlessly fascinating as my life is (cough cough), there comes a time as a writer when you need to break out, delve into something a little different, something you don’t have experience of.

The first two novels I wrote were Young Adult, which brought its own problems. Yes, I was a teenager once and I remember it quite vividly. However, if I had one of my characters dressed in loons exclaiming, “Groovy!” I might find myself accused of being a tad out of date. Some of the research for this was first hand, watching and listening to my own teen children and their friends. Then there was ‘Yoof’ TV and other YA novels.

I know some writers find research tedious but I am both lucky, and unfortunate, in that I love it. I discovered my penchant for research thirty-six years ago during a module for my history degree. It involved studying an area of Kingston-upon-Thames. Wading through microfiche files full of census data and tithe maps turned out to be really quite thrilling as the history of the streets I’d walked emerged.

Microfiche files! Those were the days. Thank goodness for computers. Much of what I write now is contemporary, but it’s amazing how much research I still have to do. The time of a train journey somewhere, the geography of a town I can’t get to visit (I so love walking the streets on Google View!), it’s all there on the internet for the viewing public.

For my novels I’ve had to research things like tide tables, the effects of cannabis, prison sentences for GBH, the laws for divorce and tenancy agreements. When adapting short stories for abroad, among the areas I’ve checked are Christmas traditions, the climate at certain times of year and the school system. Three of my four novels have required research into hospital procedure for certain conditions (I seem to enjoy heaping medical emergencies on my characters!).

As I hinted earlier, loving the research is also a problem. It’s very, very easy to get carried away and forget to do the writing. And that’s the danger of it: you’ve got to know when to stop, not to research beyond what you need. Maybe the answer is to set the timer, give myself only so long to do it? I’ll have to try it and see if it works.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going for a walk around Whitstable on Street View…

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