Interview with Author Sue Hewitt

Sue Hewitt, author of The Cunning Woman’s Cup is with us today for an interview. Welcome, Sue.

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Pleased to have you with us, Sue. Could you tell us a bit about your writing career? When did you start writing? Or have you always done so?

I have written sporadically since childhood. My early years were in the days just before Women’s Liberation really got going, and to be honest, apart from my mother, as a child my scribbles were rarely encouraged and barely ever praised. Add to that a working class background with low expectations; writing was never more than a hobby or pastime.

I was fortunate to grow up influenced by the writings of Germaine Greer et al, the Peace and Love of the tail end of the Hippy era, the music of Bob Marley, and Miner’s Strikes. I suppose I began to think more seriously about my writing in my 40’s.

Have you written other novels/works that have not been published?

The Cunning Woman’s Cup is my only published novel so far. But I have also had a couple of short stories published, one called Exodus From Eden won third prize in a Writer’s News competition, another was published in a local arts magazine, The Eildon Tree, that story is called In Baltistan – Little Tibet, and was the result of a writing exercise I did at Kelso Writer’s Workshop.

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The ponds in the grounds of Sue’s workplace

What inspired you to write The Cunning Woman’s Cup?

The Cunning Woman’s Cup began life quite a few years back as another short story. Two women meet, become friends … However, these two women, Alice, a widow in her 60’s and Margaret, a retired Professor of Anthropology in her 70’s simply refused to go away. They became a mingling of all the older women I had ever met, all the women who had told me they felt ‘invisible’, all the women who had led fascinating, varied, vivid lives, and who were still the same extraordinary people they had always been, just a little older, that’s all.

Alice, is the embodiment of all the mothers I have ever had, my own wonderful, patient mother, and all those women who have mothered me in some way when I have been in need. Margaret represents all the strong women who have inspired me, the ones who have cared enough to tell me what I did not want to hear – but needed to – the trail blazers, the ones who defy convention.

Have you put yourself into the story? Do you identify with one of the characters?

I do not think I am ‘inside’ the story. I spent many years writing ‘inside’ stories – very cathartic, but not for sharing. There is no one character I identify with. Avian Tyler, who drifts in and out of the story with her gifts and her charms would be the one I would like to be.

The character of Mordwand, the Cunning Woman of the title, is, to me, the most important character. The novel was finished, as far as I was concerned, before she came along. I submitted to publishers, agents and entered competitions with the manuscript, but got the inevitable rejections and the novel just sat for a year, maybe two. Then, unexpectedly, Mordwand appeared, almost yelling at me that she was the last person to hold the gold cup before it was put into the earth, the other artefacts were hers too. I wrote her story in one long mad rush, and then polished it up for facts to reinforce her story by reading Tacitus.

Did you intend your novel to be a social commentary on the way senior citizens are treated in the community, and indeed presented in the media?

I did not start off with that intention, but when writing as or about each character it became almost inevitable. For a while, some years ago, I worked as a temporary carer for elderly people who wished to remain in their own homes, or to give permanent family or carers a break. The clients tended to be very elderly (the oldest was 103), and often frail, hence the need for care. But the bulk of the work, once the shopping and cooking was done, was to sit, listen and reminisce – this was when I learned what it’s like to be old. Where were these wonderful people? Mostly in rest homes or virtual prisoners in their own homes – hidden away in these times where beauty, youth and wealth are the only goals worth aspiring to. Then I realized that a whole section of the population was either ‘invisible’ or ‘stereotyped’ in so much of media – written, film or TV.

Your novel is written in many voices – with first person accounts at the start of each chapter giving way to the third person and also letters to tell the tale. Were you concerned that this might confuse the reader?

To be brutally honest, I never thought about the many voices. I just sort of wrote it, no planning, no outlines – just organic writing. As I explained above, Mordwand’s first person account was initially written separately, then chopped up into sections to head each chapter. Also, as I never actually expected to publish at all, I did not think about ‘the reader’ as I was writing.

Serendipity happens a lot to me, and in my novel. A great friend, asked to read the manuscript. She put me in touch with my editor Chris Foster, (who actually lives in the house my husband and I rented when we first moved to Scotland). She had just finished studying to do editing/proof reading and was looking for a first project. Great, I knew her quite well, and she is amazing – then, I find that Chris’s son Kit, (who used to come and play with my sons in the garden when they were at primary school), is now an award winning cover designer. With their help and guidance, I was able to self publish.

What is the overall impression you hope readers will take from your book?

I hope that older readers will be pleased to find main characters who are just like them, or just like someone they know. I hope younger readers, and there have been a lot, surprisingly, will look at old ladies with different eyes. But, mostly, I hope that readers take away the adage “It is never too late to change – or too early.”

What’s next? Are you planning another one?

A second novel is with my editor at this moment. It is not a sequel – but, due to popular demand, while the second is with Chris Foster – I have made a start on novel three, the sequel, working title The Singing Stones.

What about you as a person? What do you do apart from your writing work?

My day job, part time, is as housekeeper and gardener for the artist Sue Ryder. The estate gardens here in the Scottish Borders are large, and I am responsible for keeping the formal borders and for the greenhouse.

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It’s a beautiful place. This is the lower woodland walk, now called Dingly Dell

My husband Chris, also works on the estate as groundsman/gamekeeper.  It is a varied and interesting job, and I get to meet all sorts of people who come to visit, to shoot pheasants, come for dinner parties or to have their portraits painted.  We have worked for the family for almost 24 years!

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The stone seat in the walled garden

A truly enchanting place to work. Thankyou for being with us today, Sue.

Sue’s book, The Cunning Woman’s Cup, is available here.

A Poem for Summer’s End

 

The Dancers

The rain falls lightly onto the soft sand,
Little waves lap the peaceful shore.
White foam splashes and plays along the coast,
Almost abandoned, the beach is bathed in moonlight,
And there are but two figures remaining,
Dancing together in the silver light of the stars.
At first the dance is slow, their steps careful,
Then they move together, the music coming from within.
Entwined, they twist and turn on the sand.
Faster they dance, movements more intricate,
As the rain continues unnoticed, falling around them.
Now they embrace and dance as one,
The drumbeat of their hearts ringing loudly.
They tumble to the sand, their descent graceful,
And their eyes bright and shining.
The dance is over, the night passes.
And yet there the dancers stay,
Dreaming…

On the Origins of the word ‘Book’

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These days, we may more frequently be found reading e-books, rather than using traditional paper means. But one thing which I rather like is that, although there is no paper and no leaves to be turned over, it is lovely to still be calling it a book, still using this word. This is especially heart-warming when you consider the origins of the word ‘book’.

Those who speak other Germanic languages, such as German or Swedish, may have already surmised the origins of the word. Today’s pronunciation may be fairly recent, but the word itself has a long and proud history. Let’s go back to Middle English to see how it was then.

Here we find a plethora of spellings: bok, buk, bak, boc, bowk among others.

Let’s take a look at this example, from 1380, from Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Prologue.

An old man..

That hadde a book with lettres of gold in honde.

The spelling here might seem very familiar, but it was just one among many. Another Middle English example, this one from slightly earlier, uses a different form:

Of þe firste spekeð þe holi boc

[the holy book speaks of the first]

The fragment in this second example is taken from the Homilies in Trinity College, and dates to around 1225. Here the form used is boc.

This brings us nicely to the next step back in our journey through time, to the Old English form boc. We can see an example here, from The Homilies of Ælfric, written in about 990:

Seó bóc is on Englisc awend

[the book is rendered into English]

In this particular case, the usage might seem very familiar. But we must not make the mistake of retrospectively applying modern understanding and meaning: at that time, a book did not mean a nicely bound object of neatly cut paper in the sense in does today. It would have referred to any piece of writing, any written document. But not only that. It is identical to the word used in Old English for ‘beech tree’, and indeed ‘beech’ derives from this same root.

The theory is that bóc came from Proto-Germanic *bokiz or perhaps *boks, (both roots unattested, back formations from the words that came from them, such as in English, German and Swedish), a root meaning ‘beech tree’. This suggests that the early Germanic peoples often used beechwood for their writing; their runes may have been inscribed on beechwood tablets.

The Proto-Germanic word *boks is thought to have come from an earlier source – Proto-Indo-European word *bhagos; “beech tree”. Why beech and not some other tree? Perhaps because beech bark is thin and can be easily marked, and the bark has the propensity to retain the marks. Some scholars speculate that the beech tree may have held spiritual significance for these people, thus it made sense for it to be used for sacred texts. Or perhaps simply this era of early literacy came about because of the abundancy of beech trees!

Dark Moon

I thought it would be fun to make a book-spine poem. If you haven’t seen these before, then take a look: the concept is simple, yet brilliant. This can be a nice, creative way of using your books to give you some inspiration, and you can even encourage your children to have a go too! I hope you enjoy mine.

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Dark Moon

Wildfire at midnight,

This green land across the flame,

The shadow of the lynx,

Burned alive.

Dead heat.

The unquiet bones.

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With thanks to authors David Gemmell, Mary Stewart, John Fullerton, Jonathan Wylie, Victoria Holt, Souad, Dick Francis, Melvyn Starr