I am pleased to have Alberta Ross visiting today. She’s come all the way from England, a land that I’m rather fond of, due to being the home of Tolkien, Lewis, Dickens, Sayers, Chesterton (oh, all right – I’ll stop the litany there), as well as my very first girlfriend (woops – didn’t mean to open that door). So, let’s pull up our chairs, freshen the pot of tea, and have a listen.
Hi, Alberta. Thanks for stopping in. Why don’t you tell us about yourself before we discuss books and writing and all that.
Well, a brief summary of my life would start back in the post second World War London suburbs. Middle class background, surrounded by books, hundreds of them. My parents and grandparents were great ‘bookaholics’. I have to say I wasn’t the brightest child around and the calibre of the teachers at my primary school was dismal (but so many good teachers and prospective teachers had been swept up by the War). The headmaster told my folks not to bother entering me for the 11+ because it would waste everyone’s time. However, I did manage, I don’t know how, to gain a small handful of certificates before I left full time education.
I must say, as an American, the English education system is a mystery to me. I have only vague notions of headmasters and O levels and getting six of the best. I like the idea, though, of making off with a handful of certificates. It sounds agreeably criminal. What did you do after surviving all that education?
All I had ever wanted to do since the first time I had read of foreign climes was to travel and so, as soon as I was able to, I did. Off and on for about twenty years, I managed to visit every continent for varying lengths of time, including five years in Australia.
I came back home eventually, in part, to be around for family members with varying needs. About then, with what I can only describe as a menopausal hiccup, I decided I was the proper candidate to study for a science degree! I only had English Lit at A level and that had been gained 20 years before and, apart from knowing about amoebae and rabbits, and – oh I did once dissect a sheep’s eye – I had no science or maths. I am not sure how I got accepted; maybe I ticked a box somewhere. I did so enjoy it. With a great deal of help from a friend of mine who struggled to get verbs into my sentences and keep my spelling within the range of acceptable English I gained an BSc Hons in Anthropology and Nutrition and a high enough pass to go on to do an MA. Was amazingly chuffed to say the least!
Then a combination of events such as broken bones and my family’s failing health led to me abandoning an idea of a PhD (I was one year in by then) and settled down to early retirement.
You’ve done precisely what I’m planning on doing one day, once the kids have fled the house for gainful employment. I’d love to go back to school at that point, either for a second career or merely for fun. Speaking of second careers, what got you into writing?
I scribbled stories out as a child and I think most children who enjoy storytelling will have a go. My friend would join me in lurid flights of fancies! Life seemed to get in the way then. However, I do think all my experiences and travels through life are what feed my writing now. While I was looking after my mother, a few years ago and just as I was coming up to collecting my pension, I saw an advert for a new writing class in the town. On a whim I joined and it was great; I have never stopped writing since then. Our teacher, Emily (who was impossibly young!), was very encouraging and inspirational.
I look at my adult life as three different aspects of the same thing: the travelling and discovering new countries and people; the studying, another way of exploring new avenues; and now the writing which is a combination of both. Now it’s me discovering (well, inventing) newness.
For what it’s worth, you have my stamp of approval for your method. Everyone can write a story, of course, but those who have lived a great deal and travelled a great deal tend to write from a richer and deeper well. The better the well, the better the crop. Sorry, I come from a farming background, so my mind tends to think in furrows and pipelines and seed stock. But, enough of that! Can you tell us about your books?
I am, it seems, writing a series of books: The Sefuty Chronicles. I didn’t intend to. Ellen’s Tale, the first of them, was intended originally to be a short story! The Storyteller’s Tale, the second of the chronicles, is published now as well and there are a whole load more Tales jumping in my head. The Sefuty Chronicles are dystopian novels and the world I have set them in is the 2100s post extreme climate change and after vicious wars over remaining resources have reduced the world’s population to dangerously low numbers. Despite the history behind the novels I hope they are, in fact, quite hopeful works. It’s been interesting trying to build a believable world and quite sobering. By taking our fossil fuels, reducing farmable land mass and the availability of water the world changes for ever and we lose everything we take for granted. For good measure I threw in a few million landmines! What I have been trying to figure out is in what way would how we think and behave change. How much of our ethical and cultural bedrock would or could remain.
Anyway, The Sefuty Chronicles are written in 2160 from archival resources; recordings, diaries, letters and the like about events 50 years back when a young sheltered girl, Ellen, from the City meets and travels with a genetically changed soldier to fulfil an old woman’s dying wish. They fall in love and then have to part as she cannot live outside and he cannot live inside walls. They have to overcome this very basic phobic problem. Ellen’s Tale is about that first meeting and the rest of the series will follow their lives over the next few years. Their meeting is to have great consequences for the country’s survival and maybe for the rest of the world, so watch this space.
It sounds like your story has the potential to be either very sad, or very heartening. I suppose most people are given the choice to love or not to love at least once in their lives. That common, shared experience makes such stories resonate powerfully. I’m not sure why I’m burbling on about this, but it’s raining and grey outside, and that, combined with your story, is rendering me melancholic. C’est la vie. What else are you working on?
Well, I am working on Jack’s Tale now, the third in the series, and all I will say is that I have had to read such books as The Art of War by Sunzi and The War of the Flea by Robert Taber for my research.
I always have to ask other writers about their literary influences, not just in terms of their own writing, but in terms of their own self. Were there any books that influenced your life?
That’s difficult; am I allowed more? Okay then, in no particular order: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Jungle Books, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Cruel Sea, and don’t tell me, I can’t count – I know it.
These are all stories about the development of the human spirit. Ordinary people (is a hobbit a person?) facing adversity in varying forms and making their way through to another side. They are about social cohesion, be it fey, wolf or human, and the need for others. They are all about compassion and bravery, small and great, about principles and ethics. I have had them in my mind since I was quite young and although to many they speak of a past that has gone, along, some would say, with outmoded codes of behaviour, I don’t believe that. I think the message for a life well-lived is contained in those books.
While a hobbit might not necessarily be a person according to some people’s definitions, I think we all have a great deal to learn from Frodo and Sam. At least, I know I still do. Speaking of learning, do you have any advice you’d like to share with other writers?
I am maybe too new an author to be offering advice but I think after the initial inspiration one needs perseverance in spades. To keep at the work, to trawl through the rewrites, formatting and editing. Then the whole indie route is a long hard slog to get the book out there and heard about. I also think it needs a great deal of self-belief, and if your friends and family are on board then that’s an amazing boost.
I did it all the wrong way around, published the book before I had any contacts on the web; I can see by listening to others on Twitter and Facebook it is better to construct a platform first. That way there is an enormous amount of support and help available for you.
You’re right. There is a tremendous amount of support out there for writers. And how we need it! I’ve often thought someone should start the equivalent of an AA group for writers. “Hi, my name’s Christopher, and I’m a writer.” Anyway, I better ask you another question before I go off the rails into non sequituring. Where do you get your inspiration?
Who knows the answer to that one? The Sefuty Chronicles are fed if not inspired by all my interests – like science, genetics, ethics, anthropology and, of course, climate change as well as by my interests in crafts and gardening. The original spark for writing? Haven’t a clue!
Forgive me, this is a quirk in me, but I always like asking about food. This partially stems from the fact that I spent a year dying while I was writing one of my books. Dying, partially, due to not being able to assimilate nutrition. It made me extremely hungry, and, even though I’m in good health now, I’m still always hungry. So, what is your favourite meal?
Anything to do with roast lamb. It has always been my favourite food. As a child it would have been mutton but any sheep will do. It figures quite a lot in Ellen’s Tale. Roast takes a lot of beating, slow-roasted with rosemary and served with redcurrant jelly. Or stuffed with apples and cloves and cooked with honey and cider (a Tudor recipe). I’m a great lover of slow-cooked meat; the juices mingle so well with other flavours such as dates, apricots or figs in the Middle Eastern way.
That sounds perfectly marvellous. There’s a Persian restaurant here on the coast that does amazing lamb. I wouldn’t dare try to recreate that sort of thing, but I’m happy enough to pay them for their skills. In addition to cooking, do you have any other talents or hobbies?
Reading and writing of course but also craft work. I enjoy embroidery, felting, art dolls as well as crazy patchwork and free form crochet. Gardening- I’m a bit of a lazy gardener I like to go with the flow as much as possible. It has been fun creating a garden from scratch on a pile of builder’s rubble and watch the wildlife come and make it their own.
What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
At my age it is not a career change I am looking for. Most of my life I have enjoyed the imaginary worlds of books and the fact that I have managed to create one myself has afforded me great pleasure; the fact that others have enjoyed it as well is a bonus. It is what I wanted when I finished that first book, I liked it and I wanted someone else to read it and enjoy it. So I want to carry on having enormous fun right into my old age.
I hope we can all maintain that perspective. It seems far too easy to get caught up in other motivations that, at the end of the day, really don’t mean too much. Before we draw things to a close, is there anything else you would like to add?
Just thank you for letting me ramble on. To tell others who are just thinking about whether to write, go for it, it’s hard but very rewarding. But be careful not to prefer your imagined worlds better than the real one!
Thank you, Alberta, for visiting. I wish you the best in your writing and all your other endeavors.
Alberta Ross maintains a website, her book website for The Sefuty Chronicles, as well as a blog called Did You Ever Kiss a Frog. She may be reached via her Twitter account or by email at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book, Ellen’s Tale, as well as her other books, may be purchased through her website.