A few weeks back I sent a couple of questions to Shell Shocked Britain author, Suzie Grogan, for Warfare Magazine Online.
Her answers left me with prickly skin up my arms, making my blonde monkey-hair stand on end. She is an incredibly busy woman, and I honestly think she is like Dr Who…she does so much in so little time it makes the mind boggle.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, she pushed all her work to one side, lucky me!, and answered my questions.
By the looks of your website; suziegrogan.co.uk, you’re an unbelievably busy woman, with an array of interests from law to poetry, mental health to history, and more… But let’s start at the beginning. What did you want to be when you were younger, before you started on the road to becoming a fascinating author?
I have always wanted to write, even at Primary school, but before I could give myself permission to pursue that ambition I tried lots of other things – nursing, but I was terrible, too over-sensitive at times when a cool head was needed; law, which was just as bad! If I felt an injustice was being done I would want to cry and shout ‘It’s not fair m’lud!!’; working in local government and finally for a mental health charity. It was only when that charity made me redundant that I decided to really go for it.
Law was a fabulous grounding in research methods and has helped me so much when writing books, but it was not the career for me. Dandelions and Bad Hair Dayscame about after I shared my experience of depression and anxiety on the blog I set up, No Wriggling Out of Writing, to get myself to putting words on paper again. I had so many positive responses,and heard so many other moving stories that I though it was an opportunity to raise some money for charity and get the message out there – mental ill health can happen to anybody.
How do you juggle writing fiction, non-fiction, features, web copy and the occasional poem? That’s quite a list!
I don’t do them all at the same time! I have to earn a living, so the website work and blogs for other people pay a few bills and the articles I write also support the time I have set aside to write the non-fiction books. The fiction and poems are a luxury and I don’t write nearly enough for pure pleasure, there just isn’t time, although I do have two unpublished novels (one based on the story that inspired Shell Shocked Britain) at an editing stage. One day!
Phew! You also find the time to host a fortnightly talk show on Somerset’s local radio 10Radio! While on the air you chat to other authors about their work. Who has been your favourite to interview?
I couldn’t possibly say! There have been so many in the three years I have been doing the show. I do love to talk to poets though, and hear them read their work. I can talk about poetry all day, and also write for The Wordsworth Trust blog about my favourite poet, John Keats, who features in my next book for P&S.
And as well as all that, you still find some time to manage community projects, like the Wiveliscombe Children of the Great War Project that continues to run until 2016. Could you tell us a little bit about this project?
The Children of the Great War Project is fantastic. I wrote the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and we got the highest amount available – £10,000. I have co-ordinated it for the past two years, and it ends in September this year with a community event, including the unveiling of a fabulous mosaic memorial, made by children of the town with help of local artists, and is to be used as a focus for future commemoration. There is also the publication of a book to accompany it, including poems and quotes from the children of the local school, and illustrations designed by them. It is very much a team effort though and as a freelancer it is lovely to have something that enables you to get out and work with other people.
How do you relax after all of this?
I am trying to walk more to keep fit and get me away from my desk and love to visit the Lake District a couple of times a year – it is the only place where I can put things in perspective, and of course I read as much as I can.
So, we’re here to talk about your book Shell Shocked Britain. How did you come to write the book?
I pitched the idea for Shell Shocked Britain to P&S when I found out more about how mental health had affected my family down the generations, and discovered that my Great Uncle had killed his girlfriend and then himself after being traumatised in the First World War. I researched more widely and discovered that he was far from alone in finding it hard to cope with life in a changed post-war Britain, and with the commemorative period coming up I thought it was a story that had to be told.
The research must have been tough for the book considering the topic. How did you gather your information?
The research side was fascinating. I found out who might be the best experts to consult, read their books and checked through their bibliographies and sources before contacting those that might be willing to talk about my ideas for the book. People were lovely, and pointed me to other sources and archives that offered new information, previously unpublished. I read lots of articles, visited libraries and ended up with far more information than I could possibly use. It is a difficult subject, and many of the stories are deeply moving, but nevertheless it was fascinating work.
29th Battalion Canadian Division going into action at The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917, under heavy shell fire. Courtesy of Paul Reed at http://www.greatwarphotos.com
British dead from the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks at The Battle of Arras. Courtesy of Paul Reed at http://www.greatwarphotos.com
One fo the shocking sights troops faced on the Verdun battlefields of 1916, this one from the ‘Ravin de la Mort’ – The Ravine of Death. Courtesy of Paul Reed at http://www.greatwarphotos.com
Was there a part of the writing process that you thoroughly enjoyed?
I visited the wonderful Liddle Collection in Leeds and found some letters written from Hull, by a woman visiting her mother, to her husband working in London during the First Blitz. Her initial excitement at seeing the Zeppelins fly over quickly changed as she witnessed the devastation of Hull, and heard reports that parts of London close to her husband’s office had been attacked. She wrote with compassion about the hundreds of people made homeless and was terrified that her husband would be injured or killed. Those ‘ordinary’ stories were vital to making the book appealing to a wider audience and were a great find.
Can you sum up Shell Shocked Britain in just 5 words?
That is tough, but I would hope it is moving, informative and compassionate. It has also been universally described as well-researched and engaging, which is a relief!
Could you give us some sneaky peekies about your next Pen & Sword instalments?
From the Womb to the Tomb takes the reader back to the early 19th century and looks at medical care, and how it differs from today. Focusing on the surgeon-apothecary, many of whom were the GPs of their time (treating people from the womb to the tomb!), it gives some wonderful characters the chance to shine (and well-known medical trainees like John Keats) and also goes into the rather gothically-horrible training doctors undertook and treatments that people endured in the days before anaesthesia and antibiotics.
Shell Shocked Britain is available from Pen and Sword Books.
The images used above have been extracted from Shell Shocked Britain and courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.com