This week I am featuring one of the distinguished Authors of the Facebook Page – Books Go Social Authors Group. Her name is Ann Richardson and she lives in London, England. She is the Leader of the Facebook Group – Real Lives which is a part of BGS.
I asked Ann a few questions and she provided some very interesting answers.
She has lived an exemplary life and is proud to be a grandmother to her two grandsons.
Tell us a little about yourself?
I have lived in London, England, most of my life, but I am American by birth. I met my English husband when I was only 19, married him two years later and 54 years later, we are happier than ever. (This story, I presume, would not make a good novel!) We have two children, both of whom live in London and two young grandsons. Somewhat unusually for my generation – but not subsequent ones – I have worked throughout my life, although only part-time when the children were young. I was a social researcher, initially employed by an independent research organisation but then working freelance for most of my life. About 25 years ago, I wrote my first book for the general reading public and have written two others since. I am now at the age where you are supposed to be ‘retired’. I am a very involved grandmother, but am also still active in writing – and promoting – my books.
When and why did you begin writing?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Even as a small child, I wrote stories. At my school, writing skills were taken seriously and I clearly honed my abilities there. In my first year at university, I shared first prize in a university-wide writing competition. By that time, I knew that writing was important to me.
But I did not consider writing as a career. Few people did, of course. My interests lay primarily in social problems. I completed a PhD in political ideas and, as noted above, became a social researcher. I gained great satisfaction in writing numerous reports for the agencies commissioning my work, as well as a number of books and articles for a wider audience. I loved learning new things and never stayed on one subject. In the course of a long career, I wrote about the experiences of people with a wide range of medical conditions (cancer, COPD, heart disease, mental health problems and others), patient support groups, public participation and other disparate subjects.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
You can see that I became a writer without quite intending to. A great deal of my time was spent writing about the results of research – mostly my own but sometimes those of others. As an independent consultant, I was hired to write reports from three Committees of Inquiry, for example on the needs of people with learning disabilities, as well as conference reports. I was also hired to edit other people’s writing. In the course of all this work, I was sowing the seeds for the kind of writing I most love now – writing what I call narrative non-fiction about important aspects of people’s lives.
Being a writer means being a communicator. You need to communicate ideas from one set of people (or one person) to other people in ways that they will understand. This means knowing what the readers think beforehand and then judging how best they will absorb new information or thoughts. I found this a fascinating exercise, which had to be constantly addressed in new ways.
At some point, someone I didn’t know asked me what I did and I said, without much hesitation, that I was a writer. And I realised I was.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I have written many books intended for different audiences, including people working in the caring professions, university students and other researchers. These were all written in an easy journalistic style, because of my concern to communicate well. I am not discussing these here, as I think they are of less interest to your readers.
Over time, I developed a very distinct writing style in my books, which I call ‘narrative non-fiction’. This is writing based almost entirely on the exact words of other people, with only minor interjections from myself to maintain the flow. The best way to explain this is that it is like a television documentary with interviews but in writing. I feel that it is an excellent way of communicating the thoughts and experiences of people, without losing something in translation. I also find it both challenging and very fulfilling.
I came on this writing technique from two directions. First, after many years of writing up the results of interviews, I concluded that ordinary people are much better at expressing themselves clearly and with originality than the researchers studying them. While my colleagues tended to summarise the results of interviews, with the occasional quote, as an illustration, I turned this on its head – using people’s original words as much as possible. As interviews were always transcribed verbatim, I had a full transcription of what anyone had to say.
Second, I realised that if you want a reader to really understand another person’s point of view, there is no better way than to enable the latter to speak directly and from the heart – person to person. I was used to working with deep interviews, where people talk openly but confidentially about some aspect of their lives. If I could put passages from these together in a way that flowed easily for the reader, I felt they would come to ‘hear’ the people talking and understand their perspectives. Views would be fresh and very powerful.
I have now written three books in this way and am about to embark on my fourth. The first
was published in 1992 about people with HIV and AIDS, when few people survived a diagnosis and those with the condition were often treated as pariahs.
The stories in the book were extremely moving, being about young people with a fatal disease coming to terms with their situation. Called Wise Before their Time, it had a Foreword by Sir Ian McKellen and despite only limited reviews, sold roughly 7000 copies worldwide. McKellen said that the book was ‘as powerful as any classic of fiction’, which pleased me enormously.
Having worked as a hospice volunteer, I became fascinated with what it was like to work every day with dying people. In 2007, I published Life in a Hospice about the lives and thoughts of people who work in end-of-life care – nurses, doctors, managers, chaplains and even a very reflective cook. It had a Foreword by the late Tony Benn, MP, was very well reviewed and even Highly Commended by the British Medical Association.
This book was seen to be very uplifting, showing humanity at its very best with complex stories of how some people helped others to come to terms with themselves at their most vulnerable time. But because the publishers priced this too high (around £20) and did not publicize it, relatively few copies were sold after its first year or so. I am now re-issuing this book with a small amount of updating and the same title. It will initially be an e-book only, but I will produce a print version if there is sufficient demand.
And, finally, in 2014, having become a grandmother and finding that there are many fascinating aspects in that role, I decided to write a third book in this genre, called Celebrating Grandmothers
My main concern here, before undertaking the interviews, was that it would prove to be a sentimental book, but I had not counted on the many ways in which difficult family relationships intrude on our lives. It is about both the joys and the challenges of being a grandmother. This was the first of my books to be self-published. It has received many good reviews from readers.
I might add that after I had developed my narrative non-fiction style, I discovered that there was an American journalist – Studs Turkel – who won the Pulitzer Prize for a book written in the same way. His books spanned larger subjects and were viewed as part of oral history. He died nine years ago.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My first book in this genre had a very clear moment of inspiration, which I remember well. I had a close friend with AIDS, who was the principal organizer of an international conference of people with HIV and AIDS in London. We were having lunch one day and he told me that he had asked each invitee to the conference to write their personal story as part of their application – and he wanted to turn the contributions into a book. He thought he could just hand these over to a publisher and it would be done. I told him no, any publisher would send them right back, but I could help him to write the book. I then applied for a small amount of money from the Department of Health (who funded research projects) to pay for some interviews at the conference, and to my amazement received this within two weeks, and the project was off and running.
I proposed that my friend should be a joint author of the book. He lived long enough to comment on the draft manuscript but died before its publication. He was only 32 years old. All royalties went to AIDs charities.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
The most challenging aspect of my writing is actually editing. When you are working with the words of other people, you want to be true to them, but you also want to ensure that their thoughts are clear to other people. This may sound simple, but it isn’t. When people want to stop to think, they often interject meaningless phrases which give them time, such as ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, but these are not part of their message. In addition, people often start a sentence, then pause, and start it in another way. Listen to yourself sometime, and you will see that we all do this more frequently than we think.
I also have to think about whether to keep ungrammatical sentences, which would embarrass the speaker (as if their clothing was not adjusted appropriately), or poor English when foreigners are talking.
I never add words – ever – but I feel it is appropriate to remove some, such as these interjections or half-formed sentences. To give an example, I once interviewed a really thoughtful man with HIV who frequently added ‘and stuff like that’ to his explanations. Once I removed these interjections, his thoughts emerged so clearly, it was if clouds had been lifted. I tend to correct grammar, on the grounds that the speaker would want me to, and only partially correct the English of non-English speakers.
You are always trying to balance the dignity of the speaker with the understanding of the reader. It is a challenge, but a rather enjoyable one, at least to me.
What are your current projects?
Following my book about being a grandmother, I am keen to write another book about the experiences of older women. We are a group who are often overlooked in our youth-oriented society – indeed, some argue that we are ‘invisible’, not really noticed by anyone. But being an older woman is fascinating in so many ways that I would like to provide an opportunity for some women to talk about it and others to read their reflections.
I have also discovered the joys of blogging; very few people read my own blog, but I have been invited to be a guest blogger on several sites. The most notable is SixtyandMe (www.sixtyandme.com), an online magazine, that asked me to write a series of 12 posts. I not only enjoy the process but like the fact that I am able to reach – and interact with – large readership.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I am a very fussy reader. Not only do I need to be drawn into a narrative fairly quickly, but I tend to edit as I read – not on purpose, but I can’t help it – which makes reading annoying.
I often read non-fiction of various sorts, but I do like a good novel. My real discovery in the way of novelists is an English writer called Jim Crace. He has the ability to create an incredibly powerful atmosphere, drawing you into a situation often taking place somewhere out of the ordinary. One of my favourites is about people living in the Stone Age (The Gift of Stones), but he has also written about Christ’s 40 days in the desert (Quarantine), a dystopic book about the US (the Pesthouse) and one about village life sometime in the past (Harvest). I highly recommend any of these for their excellent writing and ability to take you far away from your own day-to-day life.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I find it hard to offer advice to others, because everyone comes from a different background, has different skills and different interests. Nonetheless, I would say if you feel a burning desire to write, then do so. Do not expect to make your fame or fortune – very few writers do – but do it because you love the process and will feel good about yourself when you have done so.
If you were not a writer what else would you like to do?
I once wanted to be a ballet dancer and had a good grounding, having started lessons at the age of four. I have never regretted the loss of that career!
This interview was posted on the website of Brenda Mohammed, a fellow writer.