Louise Beech: I always write physically at my desk; in my head I write everywhere

My novel was inspired by sharing an incredible true story with my then 10-year-old daughter when she refused her life-saving injections. She taught me about voice

Louise Beech has always been haunted by the sea, and regularly writes travel pieces for the Hull Daily Mail, where she was a columnist for10 years. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice. Shelives with her husband and children in Hull and works as a front of house usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012.

How to Be Brave (Orenda Books), her first novel, is about how stories bring magic to our lives. Natalie struggles when nine-year-old daughter Rose is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and refuses her life-saving injections and blood tests. When they begin dreaming about and seeing a man in a brown suit who feels hauntingly familiar they realise he has something for them – his diary. Only by using her imagination, newspaper clippings, letters and this diary will Natalie share the true story of Grandad Colin’s survival at sea, and help her daughter cope with her illness and, indeed, survive.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Heidi by Johanna Spyri. When I was nine I lived with my grandma for a year while my mum was seriously ill in hospital. I read Heidi, and this little girl – staying with her grandfather in similar circumstances – spoke directly to me. The description of the mountains on fire at sunset has stayed with me ever since.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I loved the Narnia books by CS Lewis. I still look inside the wardrobe for magic.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

There are so many – different books for different moods. The ones I’ve kept rather than given away to charity shops for someone else to enjoy are: The World According to Garp by John Irving; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam; Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; Tampa by Alissa Nutting, The Collected Stories by Paul Theroux; and New World Fairy Tales by Cassandra Parkin.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Don’t only practise your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise you to the divine” – Beethoven.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

It has to be Scarlett O’Hara. So passionate and headstrong.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

One of my favourite Irish authors is John Boyne. But underrated? Perhaps I’d say CS Lewis, if only because the Narnia books are often viewed as being “for children”, as though this is a bad thing. If you can speak directly and honestly to children, you can speak to anyone. As Lewis once said, “Nothing seems to me more fatal, for this art, than an idea that whatever we share with children is, in the privative sense, ‘childish’ and that whatever is childish is somehow comic.”

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

I’m definitely an old-fashioned girl. I love the feel and look and smell of an actual physical book. Something about the soft sound of a turning page. Magic.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

I have a book called My Sister Marilyn, written by her only sister Berniece. I wrote to Berniece years ago and she signed it for me in gorgeous looped writing. It’s very special to me.

Where and how do you write?

I always write physically at my desk. But in my head, I write everywhere. The bus, the bath, in bed, in Morrisons, at work. I always have a notepad handy.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

With regards taking risks as a writer, definitely David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion. His dense style and page-long sentences are exhausting, but utterly inspiring. He taught me a lot about voice. Voice is everything.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I did an immense amount of research for How To Be Brave. I read old newspapers and articles, a variety of books, and family letters and documents. I spoke with relatives, both my own and those of the men on the lifeboat. I watched documentaries and listened to recordings. But the rest came naturally. My grandfather’s memories are in my DNA. The best research, I think, is to live, travel, and take note of everything.

What book influenced you the most?

The book that influenced me most was a biography. The stunningly-written Goddess by Anthony Summers. I fell in love with Marilyn Monroe when I read it. Was inspired by her warmth, bravery and intelligence. What she achieved with no education, no money and the absence of both parents.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Why, my own, of course. Signed. I might even draw a lovely picture in it.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

I wish I’d read Jane Eyre. I rejected it completely when I was 14 because we studied it in English literature at school, and I clashed with the teacher. Now it’s one of my favourites. Jane is one of the most powerful women in literature – independent, courageous and one of a kind.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I would tell an aspiring author that you have to write for love. Love alone. If you’re doing it for money you’d be better off becoming a high-class escort. Loving your art is the only way you’ll keep going after the many, many, many inevitable rejections. I would write even if no one were to ever read my work or pay for it. Purely for love.

What weight do you give reviews?

Reviews hold much weight. A rave review by a highly regarded critic can obviously increase interest in a work. However, in the long term, no great review can help a lousy book, and vice versa. I enjoy actual readers’ reviews the most. Those are the ones I check out.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Wherever the publishing industry goes, I hope it opens its eyes to all books, whatever genre, whoever wrote them.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

I try and avoid trends. I hate when a review says that a writer is the new *insert popular writer’s name here*. Why would I want imitation? Give me fresh, novel, never-seen-before. Give me strong, daring voice. I read simply what takes my fancy, I don’t care what genre, type or label it has. I just want a great story.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I’ve learnt that storytelling is quite literally transformative. My current novel was inspired by my sharing an incredible true story with my then 10-year-old daughter when she refused her life-saving injections. She taught me more about voice, about audience. She told me off when I wasn’t “good enough” and when I made the sorry mistake of “talking down to her”. Reading – both to yourself and aloud with a child – can lift the spirit, unite, teach and inspire.

What has being a writer taught you?

Being a writer has taught me discipline, patience and given me confidence. It’s been therapy. I’ve also learnt a little bit of magic.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Definitely Arthur Miller – I’d quiz him on living with Marilyn Monroe. Also I’d ask Professor Stephen Hawking. His book, The Brief History of Time, was one of the most magnifcent things I’ve ever read. Truly made me feel small.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

I don’t read many comedic books, but I love reading scripts. The Office scripts are priceless.

What is your favourite word?

I receive a word every day via email from Oxford Dictionaries Online. I collect them. I have a notepad and record my favourites in there. A current beauty is leitmotif, which means a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea or situation.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

After writing How to be Brave, which is partly set on the South Atlantic Sea during 1943, I discovered how much I loved writing about the ocean, particularly that era. There is so much poetry in the sea. Water has much symbolism.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

I really enjoyed writing this extract from How to be Brave.

“I remember when Bamford passed away, God rest his soul. I remember it only because it was so forgettable. I do not say that with rude disregard or disrespect for the man – Bamford was an amiable young chap. I say it because by then we were immune to death. He was the sixth to die and we had quite literally run out of care. The shock when Scown died, and then Young Fowler, and Arnold, meant we had so little feeling left as time went on. It was the twenty-ninth day when Bamford passed and we hardly prayed when we put his body to sea. Now I am shocked by it. I think of him on the SS Lulworth Hill, once when we sat on a tea break and he told me about a girl he liked in his village and how he was too shy to tell her he liked her. I was coarse with him and told him to seize life by the shoulders. So I had a drink for him one night in our local when I’d been home a while. One beer. For Bamford. To say, we did care. We were just young and tired and thirsty and hungry, and we wanted to go home.”

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini made me cry. I really have a soft spot for stories about friendship. The love between friends is something very special. The book explores the mistakes we often make that haunt us all our lives. It’s about forgiveness and sacrifice. Beautiful.

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

Reading with my children was one of my favourite things to do with them. My son Conor always wanted The Tiger Who Came To Tea over and over. My daughter Katy loved all the Hundred Acre Wood stories by AA Milne.

Louise Beech’s debut novel How To Be Brave is published by Orenda Books