Helen Harris is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. We caught up with Helen to discuss her inspiration for the novel and her experiences as a writer.
Helen’s sixth novel, The Brondesbury Tapestry, is the heart-warming and entertaining story of a quirky group of people who begin attending a life writing class at a neglected community centre in Brondesbury, North-West London. The teacher, Dorothy, is reluctantly running the group having lost her job at the library following its closure. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing and most of her students are unenthusiastic life writers. Still, they keep coming back week after week and the class develops each of their lives in unexpected ways.
Your latest novel, The Brondesbury Tapestry, is long listed for the People’s Book Prize. Congratulations! How important do you think it is for novelists to be recognised by readers in this way?
Thank you! I think recognition can make a really defining difference for a young writer, less so as you go on. I always like to tell my students how my first novel Playing Fields in Winter (originally published in 1986, still available as an e-book) was rejected by nine publishers. Then it was shortlisted (as an unpublished manuscript) for the Betty Trask prize and the next day two publishers were bidding for it. This taught me an early lesson about not being too affected either by recognition or rejection.
The plot focuses on a small life writing class in a community centre. Given that you run a life writing class of your own, was there a breakthrough moment where you found yourself thinking that this would make a great premise for a novel? What inspired you in creating these particular characters?
There was no breakthrough moment. It was a cumulative realisation over time that in each and every life writing class there is also great fiction. Sometimes the distinction between life writing and fiction is also blurred of course. The characters in The Brondesbury Tapestry grew from my wish to have a collection of older London voices. I wanted to create a group in which there were people who considered themselves “posh” but also working-class characters. I also wanted a random mix of origins because that is what you find in an adult education setting in London.
The novel deals with issues such as class divide, disconnected communities and the isolation that many older people can experience. Do you think that learning and creativity is often overlooked as a way to empower individuals and bring them together?
I think the two settings in which a great mix of different types of people are brought together are the NHS and adult education. Within the NHS, this is mainly involuntary. But in adult education, especially in community centres, people choose to learn and create together which should hopefully make them more respectful of difference and more open to exchange. Of course that isn’t always the case. But learning to bake, sew, make pottery or write together is a very bonding experience.
What made you decide to set the novel in Brondesbury? Can you tell us what the title means to you.
I chose Brondesbury as the setting for the novel because it is one of those pockets of London whose location no one can exactly identify. Where does it begin and end? Where is it in fact not Brondesbury but Willesden or Kilburn or Queen’s Park? There are other such neighbourhoods all across London which have a slightly elusive quality. They are not mainstream, well known places – like Notting Hill or Hampstead.
I called the book The Brondesbury Tapestry because I wanted to convey that it was a collective effort, like the much more famous Bayeux tapestry. I like to call my characters “skilled embroiderers of the truth”.
You include a very fitting quote from Mark Twain at beginning of the novel; “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” Through your teaching, have you found that people underestimate the value of their own life experiences as they first begin to write?
Yes, yes and yes again. People almost invariably underestimate the significance of their own life experiences (especially women) and tend to begin with what I call the “traditional apology” for the small scale of their own life story. But their stories often turn out to be extraordinary.
Most of the group is more eager to hear from their fellow life writers than they are to share their own stories. Do you think people intrinsically find the lives of others more fascinating than their own?
Yes, undoubtedly. The lure of narrative, the pull of suspense from not knowing what will happen next is inevitably more powerful when listening to the stories of others. Sometimes there is also the consolation of comparison: I thought my story was pretty awful but now I’ve heard hers…
Some of these characters are considerably more likeable than others. I particularly looked forward to hearing from Iris! Do you find characters with antagonistic personality traits enjoyable to write?
Yes, I do. I think it is inherently easier to write a character with a distinct and eccentric personality than a mousey one. Having said that, Dorothy, the life writing teacher with little or no life experience, was an enjoyable challenge to write for me. Although her life had been dull, she mustn’t be.
Part of the reason that The Brondesbury Tapestry works well as a novel is that you’ve balanced the multiple perspectives of the protagonists so successfully, with each character having their own distinct voice. This can be notoriously tricky to achieve. What is your advice for writers who are considering telling their story this way?
It comes down to sound and thorough character development I think. If you are well inside your character and can hear their voice, their speech, it comes more easily to write from their perspective.
You’ve now published five novels. How has your process changed since writing your first novel, Playing Fields in Winter, if at all? Are you very structured in your approach or do you find that aspects of the plot and characters change as you develop the novel?
When I wrote Playing Fields in Winter, I was in my twenties. I am now in my sixties so everything has changed. I have a whole life to look back on and, technically, I have learnt how to write. At the beginning, I had no idea how to write, I just did it. Usually it worked but sometimes it didn’t – and I don’t think I knew why. Now I know. I think my youthful spontaneity is lost but I know better what I’m doing. I never have a very structured approach; things evolve as I write. It’s more fun that way, I find.
There are many writers who advise that you should write every day, for the sake of writing. Do you agree with this? How do you schedule your time when you’re working on a novel?
It is so long since I have had the luxury of writing every day: there have always been the demands of work and family. Now I could write every day, I often feel a strong desire to live instead. Life is so finite; I don’t want to spend it all at a desk. But if I’m writing a novel, yes, I am disciplined – or maybe the right word is selfish.
Between novel writing and teaching, it must be difficult to find time to read! Nevertheless, have you recently read a novel you couldn’t put down or discovered a new writing talent?
I have recently enjoyed and admired the French Rwandan author Gael Faye’s Small Country. He writes from a child’s eye point of view observing the origins of the genocide from tiny beginnings in a way which is both astute and very moving.
You can register your vote for The Brondesbury Tapestry at peoplesbookprize.com.
Be sure to vote before 15 March!