Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women or nonbinary. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Gail Aldwin (she/her). Aldwin is a Dorset-based writer working in a variety of genres. She notes she is a British writer who has lived and worked in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Uganda and Spain. Learn more about Aldwin and her work on her website. You can also follow Aldwin on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, depending on your particular flavor of social media.
Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?
Gail Aldwin: In terms of novels, I write contemporary fiction. I often include child characters because I’m interested in intergenerational friendships. It takes such a long time to publish a novel, so I also write short fiction and poetry. There’s satisfaction in completing a writing task and skills to be gained from making every word earn its place.
For several years I’ve written comedy sketches and short plays collaboratively with two other local writers. Shows we’ve written have been staged at theatres and arts centres across Dorset. I’ve learnt so much about developing humour from my co-writers; I wish we could do more but it’s difficult to carve out the time when we all have family commitments and our own independent writing projects.
GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?
GA: I write in different genres, so it’s hard to identify a single group. My priority is novel writing, but I have good connections with the flash fiction community, and locally I enjoy the support of writing groups for fiction and poetry. Since lockdown, I’ve joined Writers’ Hour each weekday morning at eight o’clock. It’s a Zoom call offered by the London Writers’ Salon that welcomes all writers from anywhere in the world and at any stage of their writing career. At the beginning of the session, we’re asked to set our expectations for the fifty minutes of writing time (working on our own projects) and at the end there’s a debrief. I love this community because it accepts any type of writer. Amongst the group are people completing pitches, job applications, essays, novels, poetry and, on one occasion, a man was writing a letter to his son. It’s all writing — and it’s all valued.
GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?
GA: I’ve never had a strong sense of self-belief in my writing and feel a piece is only good once it’s been accepted for publication or has come somewhere in a competition. I try to get my work up to the best possible standard and then launch it into the world. A story I had published in 2010 was the very first time I received payment for my writing, and it earnt me £25. “My Name is Odd” is a story about a middle child who gets buried on a beach by her siblings and can’t escape. It was published by Broadsheet Stories, who printed fiction on A3 pages and distributed the sheets as free reading material to cafés in Dorset. It was quite a while until I next earnt money from writing, and that came as cash from a competition win.
GTL: What inspired you to write your first book?
GA: I lost my three-year-old son on a beach in France — he was found safe and well after forty minutes, but it was a most terrifying time. As many parents go through similar experiences, I thought a missing child might be a good hook for The String Games. Rather than retell my own story, the novel is written from the viewpoint of an older sibling whose little brother vanishes. It’s a three-part novel and we meet the protagonist at ten years of age when young Josh gets lost, again at fifteen when she’s turned into a vulnerable young person due to this experience, and lastly at twenty-three when she’s able to address issues of unresolved grief. Although the catalyst is a missing child, the story is about fresh starts and new beginnings.
GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?
GA: The String Games was submitted as part of PhD studies in creative writing. The novel went through many drafts as I experimented with writing strategies and techniques discovered through research. I considered the role of power and silence in my thesis and the relationship between authors and their protagonists. I enjoyed excellent supervision that fed into The String Games, but it’s difficult to say how academia has shaped my ongoing writing. It’s true to say I found the studies enjoyable and I learnt a lot from the process of research and experimentation.
Some approaches are now embedded and that’s speeded up my writing practice. For example, I establish consistent voices for characters before starting a writing project. This was especially important when I began writing This Much Huxley Knows, which uses the viewpoint of a seven-year-old narrator. To get into the mind of a child, I drew upon my own childhood memories and experiences from when my children were young. I remembered how I used to spend time sitting in the airing cupboard at my parents’ home. Alone in the warmth and the darkness, all sorts of thoughts would drift through my mind. I recreated this experience by clearing out the cupboard under the stairs where I sat and hugged my knees like I used to do. This was a key to connecting with the joys, worries, interests and curiosity of a child and gave me access to Huxley’s heart and head.
GTL: How have you developed creatively since you started writing?
GA: I’ve found that running and writing are a good combination although I’m stretching the point as I’m not sure most people would regard running as creative. I make a point of clearing my mind while running and I try not to think of anything besides one foot landing in front of the other. This offers respite from the rubbish going on in my head and gives the space to start afresh when I sit in front of my computer. I’ve completed two half marathons since I began writing and I enjoy cross training. Rather like walking and swimming exercises different muscles and helps to build the stamina needed to complete an endurance run, so writing short fiction and poetry exercises different creative muscles and helps to bring a long project like a novel to fruition.