Interview by writer and publisher, Philip Bell, with author Anna Southwell in November 2020 on the eve of the publication of the first book in her Oliver Gruffle – Secrets of Harmony Haven series, called The Runaways all set on the Isle of Wight. The book is published on Beachy Books Partner Publishing imprint and out 4th December 2020.
Bold text (Philip), plain text (Anna)…
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been concentrating on the Oliver Gruffle – Harmony Haven books and updating them for years. I first came up with the idea 24 years ago. It was before the Harry Potter books. I never actually read any of those as I didn’t want them to influence my stories.
I’ve been evolving the books all along, adding different ones. I’m up to twelve so far. I just can’t stop inventing stories. I’m obsessed with it now! *laughs* To tell you the truth, with this coronavirus, I was kept busy and I didn’t go into depression or anything like that from being alone, because I was in my magical world, typing away and thinking of new stories.
What was the inspiration for the Oliver Gruffle series?
I lived in the Far East for two and a half years, and outside the flats, where we lived, I would see animals and wild dogs running around with tin cans on their heads, because they were scavenging for food. An awful thing happened: we had a ginger cat that we found under a palm tree and took him in. He was beautiful and got on well, but he decided he preferred eating out and he started going around the villages, raiding the chicken coops, and often he would come home with a chicken! And then one day there was a group of people outside with machetes. They asked me who the ginger cat belongs to and I knew they would get him eventually and they hurt him really badly.
I am a bit sensitive where animals are concerned. When I see them on TV, if they are being cruelly treated I feel sadness. And, of course, I had my lovely Border collie dog called Kim, and she was very wise, and she seemed to know every emotion you felt. As I mention in the book’s introduction, I was never allowed any animals as a child. I was always wanting a pet. I remember riding a bike on the Island and discovering some wild feral kittens and it was a hard lesson to learn that I could not keep them. My last cat I owned as an adult was from a rescue home. So that was how the animal stories all evolved.
And I wanted to write a story for the grandkids!
Did you have a writing background in your day job?
No. I used to work for an Island builders’ merchants in Ryde. I was just an office girl, a typist, that sort of thing.
How did you write the book?
On a typewriter! *laughs* I got through so many typewriters because I just bash away at them, but to be quite honest, because I’m visually impaired now, I know exactly where the keys are now – from my touch-typing days – so it’s been a lifeline for me to be able to continue to write new stories and correct ones I’ve written in the past and bring them up to date.
How did your sight impairment affect the writing of the books?
My eye trouble started with me developing macular in my left eye, like a hole in the eye. One day my eyesight suddenly got very bad, but I could drive because I passed all the driving examinations and doctors said yes, you can still drive. I woke up one morning and I had completely lost sight apart from vision in my right eye that was good. Then I woke up one morning with blurred vision, so I had to go straight up the hospital, and they diagnosed macular vision in the right eye and there’s something else wrong with it as well now, but I have still got a small amount of vision in the right eye.
Now, I’ve got this wonderful light and magnifier from the hospital that’s very good for me so I can hold that over the typing and put it on. It’s been a godsend!
How have you adapted to write and edit your stories now?
I use a very bright LED light to shine it on the paper, so I get by. I don’t feel as if it’s deteriorated too much over the last couple of months. I think it’s stationary at the moment so I’m working hard! I’m working like mad to get all the Oliver Gruffle books written and published.
What support have you got on the Isle of Wight with your sight impairment?
Sight for Wight has been a club that has been an inspiration to me, because I joined the club and when I first went there I thought everybody was going be so morbid and I didn’t think it would be for me. Well, I had the shock my life when I went there – it was hilarious! It was a wonderful, wonderful group! I was so inspired by all the people; there was one chap who had written a story, you know, and there was another lady who could write poetry, someone knitting, and a lady crocheting. And I thought, hello, how can they do all this! And then there were two ladies in their 90s who actually both still lived alone and looked after themselves. And there’s a lady in Shanklin who rings me up, because we all keep in touch, and she’s been an inspiration to me. If she can cope, then I can cope! It’s a wonderful group. We used to go out for lunch and coffee breaks, but at the moment all this has closed down, but everybody is still all keeping in touch, so that’s lovely. They have wonderful volunteers that come in to look after us and help us walk without crashing into lampposts – which is my nightmare of a thing I keep doing! *laughs*
Are you born ‘n’ bred Isle of Wight?
I’ve lived on the Isle of Wight all my life. The one thing I’ve always loved is the Island and that’s why I wanted to base the stories in Oliver Gruffle on the Island.
What do you love about the Isle of Wight?
Everything! *laughs* I just love everything about the Island. I find it quite amazing we have people coming over here, then, all of a sudden, they are creating things themselves, putting their input into the island and I think it’s wonderful. What I’m saying is, the Island is magical. It seems to affect people. People seem to be kinder.
When I was young, I mean really young, I was given a bike and I used to cycle round the island, 50-odd miles, in a day, taking my picnic. That was how I came across the colony of wild cats, which I couldn’t catch! *laughs*
What was the inspiration for the animal characters in the book?
I haven’t ever owned a pig *laughs* but I have a pig statue that I call Pickle. And when I look around my room there are so many animal statues. Anybody would think I’m a bit animal mad! *laughs* I’ve got three new stories that I’ve thought of this week, writing them down best I can. I lay in bed, super active at night, trying to think up stories. It’s a great joy to me to be able to do this. I just love it! I love writing. I hope when children read these books, they can come to my little world and enjoy them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.
That really comes across when I first read the story. Your stories are very imaginative, there’s lots of kindness in them, and also mischief and a nice warmth about them, which is different I think. Where does that come from?
It’s not all sweetness you know! *laughs* We go through different stages in different books, but nothing really, really horrible happens that would frighten a child.
So, what are your favourite books or books that inspired you as a child?
I used to love Victorian era; I’m absolutely besotted with them. Life around the 18th and 19th century, how the way of life was, and the hardships people had to endure, because I had it hard when I was young, coming from a poor family. To tell you the truth I wanted to be a vet. But now it’s a different matter because I can’t read so well and I’m concentrating on writing the Oliver Gruffle series so that my grandkids have something to remember me by!
What part of the writing of the Oliver Gruffle stories do you enjoy the most?
I quite like the conversations between the animals. I do admit I did find the first chapter very hard to do though. I went over and over it until I got it how I wanted it. I find it quite hard to have two animals speaking together, so I used to put a toy in front of me and pretend that was the animal in the book and talk to it, and imagine how he would look, what he would say back, and gradually it just began to develop. I think I am a bit crazy! *laughs*
Yes, I know what you mean. As a writer I know what it’s like to have your own invented characters speaking to you in your head. So, what other techniques do you use in writing and editing?
I always read my books out loud as if I’m speaking to a child. Now, I’ll tell you another little interesting story: My husband had dementia and it was quite a hard time for me, you know, looking after him, but luckily he did still know me, but he didn’t know the family. We always used to sing together. But the one thing he loved in the afternoon, when he came waddling in, was to listen to me read my books. I would read to him and do all the voices and he would sit there, thrilled to bits. And he said to me, ‘The one thing I want you to do, Anna, is try and get this into print for children to enjoy!’ That’s his words, so you have helped me keep my promise to my late husband and publish my book, and I’m thrilled!
Have you enjoyed the publishing process?
What you’ve done and all the editing, I think it’s really, really turned out a lovely book.
You know what’s show nice for me though, I was getting all these phone calls last night from my family, saying things like ‘Nan, we’re so-so proud of you!’ you know, and you wouldn’t normally say that to somebody, you know, you might be taken for granted normally, so it was so nice to just actually hear them say those words, because we haven’t got anybody in the family who does this sort of thing, it’s quite different, to actually get published.
Have you got any inspiring thoughts for anybody who wants to write their own stories?
I would say, if you’ve got a dream, follow it.
Philip Bell would like to thank Anna Southwell for her time in the interview. If you like the sound of Anna’s Oliver Gruffle series and want to read the first one then find out more here: Oliver Gruffle – Secrets of Harmony Haven – Book 1: The Runaways.