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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Helen Aitchison shares the inspiration behind her latest novel, The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook, and her creative writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Helen Aitchison about her life and career, what inspired the characters in her new book, The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook, and her advice for other authors.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a writer from Newcastle, in the north east of England. Born and bred here, I’ve spent my career working in social care including several roles in support and senior management. All of my work has been with vulnerable groups and developing services for marginalised people with unmet needs. This has included adults experiencing domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, and modern day slavery. As well as homeless adults, homeless care leavers, and veterans in need.
I live near the North Tyneside coastline, with my partner, Paul and our rescue cat, Eric.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
My writing career began after a sequence of events in 2019, which was sparked by my engagement with books again, after years of ‘not having time’ to read. Before this, I had never thought about writing and the only thing I wrote was many, many emails each day at work!
Reading became an escapism and I discovered authors who inspired me. Mitch Albom, Matt Haig, and more recently, Fredrik Backman. I fell in love with the simplicity of words that could be knitted together to make a sentence that feels like it speaks to the reader and that reader alone. The poignancy of a sentiment, the comfort of a statement, the relatability of a character. I was inspired and wanted to write something that would make even one reader feel how I did reading the books by these brilliant writers.
When did you take a step to start writing?
After reading the book that made me want to try writing (The Five People you Meet in Heaven), I saw a competition to win a place on a local playwriting course. The competition involved submitting a short piece. I had nothing to lose, so I submitted a piece and I was offered a place! Along with around 30 other people, I attended an eight-week course. I was probably the least experienced person there, writing wise, but I’ve always felt I have a breadth of narrative from my career and personal life.
I became excited to try writing and I began experimenting with style and genre. Writing proved to be a much needed stress release and something that was for me, my own escapism. Small pieces began to get published, so I assumed that perhaps my writing was ok. It gave me the confidence to think bigger and I began writing The Dinner Club, my first published novel with Cahill Davis Publishing, in November 2019.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
The Dinner Club took me around six months to write. I had no experience or idea about structure. I did no research and instead, I just did my own thing and found my own way of working. It was strange, scary, emotional, and something I felt I needed on many levels.
As I was writing The Dinner Club, my grandmother died suddenly. A character in the book was based on her and my grandmother was a massive part of my life. I wrote through my grief, it broke me and healed me many times.
Getting published was her final gift to me. The Dinner Club was published with Cahill Davis Publishing, in March 2022. Prior to this, I had left the manuscript for a while, not knowing what to do with it. I then submitted it to some competitions, before sending the manuscript to three publishers, of which I received offers from two.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
My upcoming novel, The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook, took two months to write and around two months to edit. It is inspired by my own struggle to find Mr Right, so felt naturally easier to write, with limited research needed. The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook will be released with Cahill Davis Publishing in March 2023.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook?
My former dating life was somewhat of a source of entertainment for my friends and family. At times it was a comedy sketch, sometimes an absolute drama, and often borderline horror! I had around forty first dates, many of which felt like they were indeed a joke! I wanted to share a story, inspired by my catalogue of dating disasters that people who had or are currently dating, could perhaps relate to in a humorous but hopeful way.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook?
With regards to the writing process, it was the pressure I placed upon myself. At the time, I was working full-time in senior management for a national charity (I have since resigned and set up my own community interest company, Write on the Tyne).
When I’m writing a manuscript, it can become all-consuming to me. I struggle to switch off from it and will push myself unnecessarily. I’ve always been great at dishing out well-being advice to other people, but need to absorb more of it myself!
On a content level, my biggest challenge was trying to make an important issue of the search for love, realistic, funny, serious, and with hope.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
Much of my writing is inspired by real-life; people I have met or situations I or others have been in.
Kitty Cook is inspired by myself and the characters in there are inspired heavily or are based on real people. I write about what I know and the experiences of people I know in the hope that the voice of the characters feels more relatable and genuine.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Again, the inspiration was real-life experiences and characteristics of people I have encountered.
What is the inciting incident of The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook?
The inciting incident of the Live and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook is a relationship breakdown.
For The Dinner Club, there are five main characters, with stories from each perspective. One of the inciting incidents is a marriage breakdown, but others include domestic abuse, loss, illness and homelessness.
What is the main conflict of The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook?
The search for love and happiness through a turbulent journey of lies, bad luck, and choices that pose life-changing dilemmas.
Did you plot The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I do a little plotting, usually scribbling on notes that become a little bit more detailed for consistency and accuracy. I have an outline in my head but I’m not rigid. If something pops into my head, I will try it. If something doesn’t seem to work, I will delete it. I’m flexible and find I enjoy writing most when I allow the story-writing process to be fluid.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook need?
I’m not editor trained, although I have learnt a lot through the brilliant editing team at Cahill Davis Publishing. My partner always reads my manuscript first. It’s important to me that he clicks with it, and that he has emotions about the characters. The plot, although essential, is always less important to me than character. Humour is also essential to me as a writer, even though my writing covers social issues and experiences we all face. My sister also supports me with reading manuscripts if I ask.
When I write, I can see each character and scene in my head. Sometimes I forget that readers aren’t in my head, so it’s important for me to get other people’s input.
The editing team at Cahill Davis have been excellent and we have always been a partnership, with no imbalance of creative control (something that people wrongly think writers lose in traditional publishing).
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
To give it a go. To appreciate we all have a narrative, a voice, an experience. The only failing is never trying.
Also, connect to a writing network on social media or local to you, but don’t compare your own progress to anyone else’s. Find your own writing voice.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have a few further manuscripts completed, one being a series that I am having a break from (as I have so many other ideas!).
Another is a stand alone novel, which was an idea that came to me one evening.
I am trying to diversify my genres but still have a style which I feel my readers can connect with and relate to.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m proud for many different reasons. I’m proud that my later grandmother lives on in my first publication, The Dinner Club. I’m proud that I’m from a working-class town in the North of England and that I didn’t start writing until my late 30’s – if I can do it, I believe anyone can.
I’m proud of my family and friends (old and new) who have championed me and shared what still feels a surreal, new part of my life with me.
Lastly, I’m proud that the characters, scenarios and words that made up what I still call ‘my little book,’ has reached people across the globe and those people have fallen in love with my characters. The characters have felt like friends, family, and themselves even. The comments about those characters speaking to the reader and feeling like they were written for them, are priceless. All I wanted was to make one person feel comforted, accepted, and have hope from my writing. That one person has turned into so many, that’s the best feeling in the world, and I hope it continues with my upcoming release and any future books published.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
The Dinner Club
The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook
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