Sue Hewitt, author of The Cunning Woman’s Cup is with us today for an interview. Welcome, Sue.
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.
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.
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!
A truly enchanting place to work. Thankyou for being with us today, Sue.
Sue’s book, The Cunning Woman’s Cup, is available here.