Interviews with award winning Hampshire authors Angela Chadwick and Claire Gradidge
PUBLISHED: 10:18 09 January 2020 | UPDATED: 10:18 09 January 2020
Two Hampshire authors have won national prizes for their debut novels, but they tell us overnight success is a myth
It took three "very bad" unpublished novels and five years of hard writing for Petersfield's Angela Chadwick to be awarded the Polari First Book Prize in October. The 38-year-old was shocked to even be longlisted for the national prize for LGBT writing. "The book came out last October," she says on the same morning she has sent her second novel to her agent. "I thought it had its run. I was so grateful."
XX is about the consequences of a revolutionary new process to create a baby girl from two women, told from the point of view of one of the first mothers, Jules, as she wrestles with her own doubts, voracious press attention and attacks from a careerist politician.
Angela came up with the idea of ovum-to-ovum fertilisation at 17 in an A Level biology class, but the impetus to write XX came much later - after she saw prominent women were being trolled on social media. "It made me quite angry," says Angela. "It just connected with the idea of ovum-to-ovum fertilisation and how it might be received in today's society. The plot and characters stemmed from those big ideas."
Having seen three previous novels rejected by agents and publishers she noticed a difference with XX. "I still got rejections for the finished novel, but they were near-miss rejections," she says. One of the major sticking points was Jules' working class background. "I grew up in Petersfield which is an affluent and middle class town," says Angela. "But my dad worked in a factory, my mum was a dinner lady and we lived in a damp and grotty council house. That sense of belonging to a small town but not quite fitting in was something I wanted to explore."
Since its publication XX has been receiving enthusiastic support from LGBT readers. But Angela, who describes herself as bisexual but in a monogamous relationship with a man for 18 years, was keen to make the story universal in the relationship between Jules and partner Rosie. "A lot of novels are about the first flush of attraction," she says. "I wanted to embed what a long term relationship felt like - something I could draw on from my own experience."
Angela also used her time as a reporter on The News in Portsmouth for Jules' day job - she now works as a communications manager within higher education. As she was making her final edits she fell pregnant - giving birth to a baby boy having just handed in her final draft. "I started writing the novel in my early 30s," she says. "When most women reach that age even if children aren't something you imagine in your immediate future you can't ignore the question. I started the novel with some uncertainty about whether I wanted to go down that route and become a mother. I didn't want to be shy about exploring those feelings."
Previously she admits she wrote with a market in mind, and hadn't realised quite how long the editing process could be. "I thought I like writing, so I will knock out a book, give up my day job and make lots of money from it," she laughs. "XX went through 12 drafts. You need the meticulous process of going over and over to get to the quality. It's a huge personal commitment - with no guarantee of success."
Her second book draws on her life growing up in Petersfield and her student job as a barmaid at a gritty drinking club Traders. "It's about how coming from a poor family can limit your aspirations, and how you might go about overcoming them," she says. "I have a fantasy about sitting in the British Library, researching an historical period, but I don't have the time or resources to do that. Instead I'm mining my own life - it's the most time efficient!"
XX by Angela Chadwick is available in paperback from Dialogue Books, priced £8.99.
For Romsey-born writer Claire Gradidge, stories have been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. Penning poetry, prose, even trying her hand at writing for Mills and Boon, Claire always dreamed of becoming a published author.
"I've been writing all my life," Claire says. "I was an only child and we lived on a farm. I didn't have a lot of companions, so I used to tell stories. My mum got really worried because she thought I was becoming such a little liar!"
Having had a long career in nursing - the latter part working on breast cancer trials - it wasn't until her boys had flown the nest and she retired that Claire enrolled on a BA course in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester.
"Writing had always had to take a back seat. I was working a 42-hour week and when you've got a job, a family to look after, there's always something else," she says. Gaining a first class honours not only reignited her love for the written word but led to further study for Claire, culminating in a PhD. Being invited to become an associate lecturer at the University of Winchester, a job she has relished for the last few years, was the icing on the cake. "I discovered I really loved teaching," she says. "It really energises me."
Having spent 30 years entering competitions and trying to get her work published, she finally got her wish. The novel she completed as the creative element of her PhD study turned out to be the winning entry of Richard and Judy's Search for a Bestseller 2018, a competition for unpublished writers run in association with WH Smith and publishing house, Bonnier Zaffre.
"I sent it out at the 11th hour and that was that," remembers Claire. "I didn't expect to hear anything."
An early version of the opening 3,000 words of the novel had been highly commended in a Good Housekeeping Magazine competition in 2012, but Claire never expected that it would make it to the top of the pile. "It was so surreal. They told me that I'd won but I couldn't tell anyone until they released the news. They also asked if they could change the title of the novel. At that point, I'd have let them write the title in my blood,' she laughs.
Claire's debut novel The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox offers the reader a return to the joys of Golden Age crime writing and classic murder mysteries. While there are echoes of Agatha Christie and Foyle's War, Claire brings a "compelling new voice" to historical crime fiction as judge Judy Finnegan said when announcing Claire as the winner.
In April 1941 Josephine Fox returns to Romsey to uncover the secrets shrouding her parentage, having left 20 years ago. She arrives the day after the Luftwaffe have bombed the local pub. Rescue teams, searching for the remains of the seven people known to have been in the pub, find eight bodies - with the last being that of a teenage girl. Jo helps coroner and childhood friend Bram to establish the girl's identity and more importantly, that of her killer. In doing so she unravels the mystery she has returned to Romsey to solve.
Writing the novel allowed Claire to revisit the memories and places of her childhood and recapture their stories. "As you get older, you start to get a bit nostalgic," she says. "I was revisiting my childhood in many ways. Now that my parents are dead, there's nobody left to tell those stories except me. Jo and Bram have been in my head for a long time."
The whole process from learning she had won to holding a book in her hands was such a whirlwind that Claire found herself getting the giggles when meeting her agent and editor. "Seeing it on shelves has just been amazing. It's a proper book. When I'm doing talks or signing books, I still can't believe that I'm doing my favourite thing," she smiles.
Claire has become a great source of inspiration to aspiring students as well as the many writers and alumni of the Chandlers Ford Writers, a group she helped to establish in 1989 as one of its founding members. So, what's her secret?
"It's a question of doing it. If you've got a story that wants to tell itself, you'll tell it. If you're a storyteller, no one can stop you. I'm often asked what advice I'd give. That's easy. Don't worry about the washing up, just write. It's the writing that counts."
The Unexpected Return of Josephine Fox is available from Bonnier Zaffre at £7.99.