Helen Watts is a writer, editor and publisher. She has written a selection of short stories, non-fiction texts and poems for children and a wide range of teachers' resources. Helen is also the Schools Coordinator for the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival.
She is married with two children, Jack (14) and Georgia (11), and lives on a hill near Stratford upon Avon, where she enjoys walking her golden retriever, Dexter, and looks after a range of other family pets including Humbug the hamster and an expanding colony of stick insects.
Your first novel One Day In Oradour which was published last May has been selected for a number of awards. Did you ever think it would be as popular as it is?
Quite frankly, no. When I started writing the novel I had no real expectation of it being published. I wasn’t even sure that I could write something of that length. (I had written lots of different kinds of texts in the past – short stories, non-fiction, news, features, poems – but had never written anything with a word count anywhere near that of a novel.) So that in itself was a personal challenge. I was proud of myself just for completing a first draft, so getting a publishing deal was the icing on the cake. Having said all that, I so believed in the power of the true story behind the novel that I guess, deep down, I knew that it could have as powerful an impact on other people as it did on me.
Your second and latest novel No Stone Unturned will be published this September, what inspired you to starting writing it?
This might sound surprising, but my inspiration came from a dog walk. I have a ten-year-old golden retriever called Dexter. He and I walk every day, but the walk which we love most takes us around the edge of a disused quarry, now very much overgrown. Every time we passed that quarry, I would try to imagine how different it looked in the nineteenth century when it was in its heyday. Then one day, while browsing through a local history book, I spotted an old photo of the quarry. The accompanying text said that limestone from the quarry was used for the flooring of the Houses of Parliament when it was rebuilt after it was destroyed by a massive fire in 1834. I was amazed that what was now a relatively innocuous hole in the ground on the edge of a small rural village could have such impressive connections. I was determined to find out more, so I starting doing some digging of my own - into the archives - and the story of No Stone Unturned was unearthed.
Your books mostly have a history theme to them, was this one of your favourite lessons at school?
Yes it was – and I particularly loved ancient Greek and Roman history. I had a really cool Classical Studies teacher at school called Mr Williams. He was different from all the other teachers in that he treated us like his equals, and we respected him for it. He was far more laid back, and looked slightly scruffy: he often wore a black leather jacket and kept his hair long. He made his lessons so interesting that I grew to love that period in history. I went on to study Classical Civilisation at Sixth Form, and then at University. I love trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in the past and writing historical fiction allows me to do that.
For ten years you were the editor of Literacy Time magazine which supported the teaching of children at primary school age. What made you leave and become a full time author?
Sadly, school budgets were being squeezed which meant that sales in non-essential items like magazines were dropping. Scholastic (the company that owned the magazines) decided to stop publishing Literacy Time. It was all very sad as I loved the job and those who subscribed to the magazine loved it. Soon after, I decided to launch my own magazines and ran them for a couple of years. But it was really hard work with just me and a single business partner so in the end I decided to call it a day. Rather than leap into the next full-time job, I decided to set aside a couple of months to work on the first draft of One Day In Oradour. I’d been researching the book for 10 years, but never had the time to write it. So this was my chance – proving that every cloud has a silver lining.
Is being an author everything you thought it would be?
Absolutely. I love it! It’s hard work, mind you. I am having to learn to be patient; each story takes months of research and even once the writing starts to flow, there are lots of facts to check along the way, which can be frustrating. But it’s worth it in the end. There’s nothing like seeing a brand new book landing on your desk.
Has your dream job always been to be a published author? If not what was it?
Actually, when I was very young I wanted to be a police woman! But then, when I was about 10 or 11, I switched to wanting to be a journalist. I dreamed of travelling the world and writing feature articles for National Geographic, which I read regularly. I didn’t quite make National Geographic, but I did work on magazines for teachers and that was what gave me the writing and editing skills I needed to move into other forms of publishing. It’s all been a really good background for what I am doing now.
Are you reading anything at the moment? If so what?
I have just finished reading The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. I had seen all the recent controversy about it in the media. Some people have claimed that it’s too dark and depressing and have even criticised the Carnegie Medal judges for choosing it. So I thought I would read it and see for myself. And I am glad it did. I thought it was an amazing book. Yes, it’s dark but it’s so different, so intriguing and so well written. Definitely worthy of the Medal.
Could you give us your personal top three tips for a budding young author?
1. Read as much as you can.
2. Write something every day, whatever that may be – a diary, a blog, a story, a poem – because the more you write the more natural the process becomes.
3. Don’t sit at home all the time in front of the TV or your computer. Go out and experience the world. Live life as fully as you can then you will have plenty to write about.
For further information about Helen and her work please visit www.helenwattsauthor.com.
Helen's latest book, No Stone Unturned, is published by A&C Black in September 2014 - check it out in our Recommended Reads!