I’ve mentioned that aside from crafting, writing and being a full-time mum, I’m also a Commissioning Editor for Fennec Books, an imprint of Fox Spirit Books. Last year we did an open door and after reading multiple submissions, I selected a novel by Tracy Fahey called ‘The Girl in the Fort’ to commission. It’s been a steep learning curve, going from writer to editor and Tracy has been very kind, graceful and VERY patient as I work with her on her (in my opinion) fantastic manuscript. Anyway, publication day is looming, and we’re all very excited to show you Tracy’s beautiful novel (seriously, check out the cover by Jacob Stack,). Over on the Fennec blog, Tracy chats to me about writing Girl in the Fort and more. Check it out here.
I met Louise during my first ever ‘real’ job and we’ve stayed in contact ever since,first via email then Facebook and I was overjoyed when she announced her pregnancy in 2011. Her daughter, Jessica, was diagnosed with a Congenital Heart Defect during their 20-week scan leaving Louise and her husband, Michael, facing the difficult decision about her care, with medical advice suggesting that Jessica would not survive birth. Battling the odds, Louise and Jessica underwent in-vitro surgery which enabled Jessica to be born, then Jessica has had numerous surgeries since, with more planned for the near-future. I catch up with warrior Jessica and her true Wonder Woman mum, Louise.
GCH: Motherhood has given me a wealth of embarrassing moments (frankly, to add to an already impressive collection!). Can you tell us one of your embarrassing motherhood mishaps?
LG: Tiredness makes us do daft things as mums. I recently found myself tipping the contents of a potty into the kitchen bin instead of down the loo.
GCH: What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
LG: I sometimes shut myself in the kitchen and eat chocolate. I usually have some squirreled away somewhere!
GCH: I frequently joke about needing a LOT of tea to get me through some days with a cheeky toddler and crazy pup (or is that crazy toddler and cheeky pup?). So what’s your drink of choice – tea, coffee, wine, beer or something else?
LG: I tend to be a coffee drinker. That first cup in the morning is blissful. It’s amazing how it can transform me from a harpy to a human being. The transformation has not gone unnoticed by my girls though. Jessica will often ask me “Do you need coffee Mummy?” if I am a bit grumpy in the mornings!
GCH: You’re a trained midwife. What would you tell any expectant mum is a must have in her maternity bag (mine is face spritz, if nothing else it gave hubby something to do!).
LG: Face spritz was amazing! It was one of my must-haves both times.
My midwifery days are quite some way behind me now. But other than the usual essentials, I would say cereal bars and Lucozade were another must-have. They were great for giving me energy during labour and keeping hubby going too. Keeping birth partners fed is also important. Hubby almost passed out during my labour with Jessica and we realised that he hadn’t eaten anything for hours at that point. He felt much better when he was given some toast and jam!
GCH: Also, what was one of the best aspects to your job as a midwife? And one of the worst?
LG: That first cry of a new baby and the pure joy on new parents’ faces was the most magical thing. No matter how many times I saw it, it never lost any of that magic. I felt like I got to see a little miracle happen on a regular basis.
The worst is when a baby dies. It is the most heartbreaking thing. I have never forgotten that awful feeling of discovering that a baby had died in the womb and I still remember every single family I looked after whose baby was born sleeping.
GCH: Do you think you’ll return to midwifery?
LG: I don’t know at the moment. My registration lapsed a few years ago and I would need to retrain if I was to return. I have no plans to return in the foreseeable future. Hubby works in the events industry which has very irregular hours. If I went back to shift patterns or being on-call 24-7 as I was as an independent midwife, it would make childcare difficult to arrange. I now work part-time and mostly from home as an HR Manager which fits well with family life and means I can be there for the children when they need me. Any plans to go back to midwifery would be unlikely to happen before the children are old enough to be able to look after themselves.
GCH: Jessica was diagnosed with CHD at 20 weeks. Can you briefly explain what CHD is and what treatment she had?
LG: CHD stands for congenital heart defect (or congenital heart disease which I think is a less accurate term). There are lots of different types of CHD – most people have heard of babies being born with “a hole in the heart” which covers some CHDs. Jessica has quite a complex CHD – she has hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) and a couple of other abnormalities. In children with HLHS, the left side of the heart is very underdeveloped. Basically this means she only has half a working heart.
With Jessica, there was also an added complication which limited the blood flow into the left side of her heart even further. This meant that her prognosis was particularly poor and we were told at 22 weeks’ pregnant that she wouldn’t be suitable for post-birth surgery. Thankfully the doctor also briefly mentioned an in-utero procedure which was being performed in Boston, USA. We considered going to the USA but were very lucky to be offered the procedure in the UK. This was carried out when I was 28 weeks’ pregnant.
Jessica had her first open-heart surgery when she was eight hours old. She had a second procedure a week later. Since then she has had two further open-heart surgeries (at 3 months and 7 months old) and several cardiac catheter procedures. She is due to have her last planned heart surgery in the next month or so.
This post explains a little more about the surgeries and how Jessica’s heart works compared to a normal heart: https://littleheartsbiglove.co.uk/jessicas-handmade-heart/
GCH: You’re a prolific writer and you’ve enjoyed musical theatre. How has being creative helped you cope with Jessica’s diagnosis?
LG: Writing has always been my way of processing my thoughts, especially if I find it difficult to talk about them. I find writing incredibly cathartic. I also enjoy drawing which is another way of processing my thoughts and I sing regularly too. Singing is something that makes me feel happy so is good for relieving stress.
GCH: Many people have described you as a Super Mummy, a title you politely declined in this blog post. However, you’ve coped with Jessica’s diagnosis with extreme grace and positivity. How do you manage to do that?
LG: My faith has helped hugely with this. My belief that God is walking this journey with us and helping carry us along the way when needed has helped give me the strength I need to get through each day and try to focus on the positives. We’ve also had so much support, love and prayers from friends and family which I am very thankful for. Knowing that we are held in so much love helps to keep me going.
I’m not always positive though! There are many times when I shut myself away and fall apart. I think it’s important too to feel able to let it all out every now and then. I don’t think I could focus on the positives if I didn’t give myself space to let go of some of the fear and worry too.
GCH: You set up your blog Little Hearts Big Love to document Jessica’s condition. Has it helped you connect with other ‘heart parents’?
LG: I’ve connected with a few heart parents through my personal blog and Jessica’s blog. Knowing that we are not alone on this journey makes a big difference. I am in contact with other parents who are further on in this journey who help to give me hope for the future. In the same way, our story helps to give hope to those who are setting out on their heart family journey.
GCH: Jessica was the first baby to undergo in utero surgery in the UK. Since Jessica was born, have you seen an improvement in the care, diagnosis and treatment of other babies with similar conditions?
LG: There are quite a lot of different in utero procedures for various conditions, some of which have been around for some time. Jessica had a procedure to open up a hole between the top two chambers of her heart which was done by inserting a balloon on a wire into her heart and inflating it. As far as we know she was the first (and possibly still the only) baby to have this done in the UK. I’ve only ever met one other heart mum online whose child has had a similar in-utero procedure and she lives in Australia.
With regards to improvements, I’ve been involved with raising awareness the heart charity Tiny Tickers for a couple of years. They do a lot of work to improve the early detection of heart conditions to help improve outcomes for heart babies. I am sure that surgical techniques also continue to improve.
As for Jessica’s in-utero surgery, I think it was very much a case of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. I am not sure that if I was pregnant with her today that we would have had this option without having to travel abroad. Our consultants back then had previously been involved in in-utero procedures (although not the one Jessica had). Their colleague, Dr Wilson, who performed the procedure, was on sabbatical in the States when I was pregnant. He happened to be back in Oxford the weekend after I first asked our consultants about the possibility of travelling to Boston for in-utero surgery and then was back again when I was 28 weeks’ pregnant – which is the ideal time for this surgery to take place. He’s now permanently based in the US.
Our main consultant retired a couple of years ago and the other one we saw regularly focuses on fetal cardiology so is no longer involved in our care. Since our main consultant retired, our care in Oxford has felt more disjointed. Our experiences with Southampton have always been very positive though and we are able to phone the ward there if we have any concerns about her health heart-wise. Our local hospital has also been very good and we have open-access to the children’s ward so can take Jessica straight there if she needs urgent medical attention.
GCH: You’ve written about your husband Michael and his journey dealing with Jessica’s condition. How have you supported him through it all?
LG: We very much support each other through this journey. The most important thing for us is making sure that we talk about our worries and concerns rather than bottling them up. Michael is better at taking in the information at appointments than I am – I am much more emotional in my initial responses whereas he tends to process it more rationally and then gets emotional later on. We balance each other out very well in this respect.
For me, being able to work from home and be flexible has helped. Michael works in the event industry which can be unpredictable and often means long hours when working on an event. He tries to be at as many appointments as he can, but I can work around hospital stays and appointments much more easily.
GCH: You’re thinking of turning Little Hearts Big Love into a book. Can you tell us more about this project?
LG: I’ve written a draft of our journey so far but I’ve not done any more with it at present! That particular project is on hold at least until after Jessica’s next operation.
I have written and illustrated a book for Jessica to help prepare her for having heart surgery. I’m looking into perhaps making this more widely available to help other heart families.
GCH: What are your hopes for your girls?
LG: To grow into young women who are loving, kind and unafraid to follow their dreams. I hope that they will grow up knowing that they are unique and wonderful just as they are; that a little love and kindness goes a long way and to see obstacles on their way as challenges to be met. I hope that they will learn that there is beauty in the journey, even when it means taking a different path to the one that you had hoped for.
GCH: Tell us a secret.
LG: I had an imaginary friend as a teenager. I still had occasional chats with him up until my early twenties.
Many thanks to Louise for thanking the time to chat and I’m sure we’re all sending positive vibes to little Jessica as she moves towards her next surgery. I’ll keep you all updated as to how this loving, inspirational family gets on.
It’s funny and ironic but some of the loveliest Brits I’ve met have been one my travels and this is true of Lois. We both worked in Spain and would celebrate the end of a working week each Thursday (Feliz Jueves!) as we worked our way along Calle Laurel, tasting pinchos and wine as we went. Happy days!
Lois recently undertook the ‘plastic challenge’ from the Marine Conservation Society where she gave up using single-use plastic for a month and spoke to me about how it went. Lots of hints and tips which I’ll be using for my Earth Day Pledges.
GCH: Can you briefly tell us about your no plastic challenge?
LK: Promoted by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) for the month of June 2017, I didn’t use any food, cosmetics, toiletries or cleaning products contained within single use* packaging http://www.mcsuk.org/plasticchallenge/
Together with the MCS I tried to raise awareness of the reality which is that many single use plastic items end up in our seas and on our beaches, where they persist and impact our marine life and that nearly of these items we really didn’t need in the first place.
*a single use plastic is anything which has a very short lifespan in terms of its usage. Think of a plastic bag containing rice which rarely would get re-used, pots of ready prepared sliced fruit with a plastic film over the top – not resuable at all.
GCH: What motivated you to take part in a ‘no plastic’ challenge?
LK: I wanted to see whether it was possible, to see what positive changes I might be able to bring about amongst friends and colleagues. I love snorkeling and swimming in the sea, and it makes me so sad to see such a beautiful natural environment often damaged by humans wastefulness.
LK: Yes a lot!
I generally cook with fresh ingredients so that was just making the change from convenience shopping where the fruit and veg is in packaged in punnets to buying loose and visiting local fruit&veg shops – which I really enjoyed, and wish I had done more of before.
But then I realised that food really wasn’t the main problem – my toiletries, cosmetics and cleaning products are all in plastic packaging. So…I made a lot of things from scratch, didn’t wear make-up for the month aside from my homemade mascara (burn almonds until charcoal, and mix with vaseline), and have now switched permanently to Lush shampoo and conditioner bars. I also invested in a metal safety razor to replace disposable plastic ones.
GCH: What’s been the most challenging aspect of the challenge so far?
LK: Snacks. Everything in the shop bar fruit is wrapped in plastic! There’s only so much fruit you can eat! Once I found cashews, pistachios and almonds loose in a local Asian shop together with dates it got a bit better, and I have made quite a few cakes, biscuits, and my mum did make a batch of homemade crisps for my birthday party!
I didn’t manage to find pasta or noodles not in plastic anywhere so went without one of my favourite meals – pad thai in June!
GCH: Do you think it will be easy to continue once the 30 days are over?
LK: A lot of things now seem so easy. The first few weeks giving up Singe Use Plastics were really hard trying to find alternatives to my normal shop but now I have figured out a lot of it, I am going to continue with switching away from plastics as far as possible.
GCH: Any hints or tips for people looking to do the same challenge, or to even simply reduce the amount of single-use plastic they use?
LK: The four big nasties ending up in the oceans are Plastic Bags, Plastic Bottles, Plastics Straws, and Plastic Coffee Cups. I ask everyone to really try and unless an emergency, find alternatives or just do-without.
- Make it fun and not a chore, spend a Sunday exploring your local shops and see what plastic free products you can find. Find a how-to online and make your own soap or lipbalm.
- Stock up on glass jars and containers for all your lovely homemade products.
- Talk to people about what you’re doing, You will feel empowered, people can be inquisitive and perhaps defensive about their habits to begin with but once you sow the seed in their minds, you will get a lot of respect and more
GCH: What other things have you done/will you do to minimise your carbon footprint?
LK: Cycle as much as possible and not just for recreation. Since I bought a second hand bike with a pannier rack (I am a big fan of bungee cords now!) I can go on adventures around Greater Manchester and do my shopping. You can travel through parks and along canal towpaths – something which you definitely can’t do in a car.
GCH: You’ve travelled extensively. Has seeing how different countries approach recycling and refuse disposal influenced you?
LK: It was sad to see the state of some of the laybys and waterways in Cambodia and Phillipines filled with rubbish but they are some of the loveliest people I have ever met and also some of the poorest. If they had access to the same infrastructure and education we have here in the UK, they and their environment would benefit in so many ways.
In the flip side, I don’t know how England is so far behind some of our European neighbours who pay a deposit for plastic bottles and on their return, the bottles are re-used. Knowledge and awareness around packaging and recycling, and the benefits of the basics of reducing and reusing could be so much better here!
GCH: We’re constantly asked if we have a favourite country and it’s always so difficult to choose because everywhere we’ve visited has been special. Do you have a favourite country or place?
• Cambodia for beaches and rivers
• Barcelona for its architecture
• Bangkok for its amazing buzz
• Manchester – my home
• Greece – for the food and friendly people
GCH: You’ve lived abroad. Any hints for people planning to move to a foreign country? How do you integrate yourself with the locals?
• Speak the native language at every opportunity
• A smile will help overcome what may seem like many barriers in communication and will make you so many friends along the way
• Admit when you need help or even just a hug.
GCH: Where would you like to visit again?
LK: Budapest in summer! I visited in December, and the -8 temperature made sightseeing a little tricky. I’v also heard in summer they have amazing roof terrace bars. That said, one of my most memorable travel experiences was sitting in the dark in an outdoor 30 degree pool in Budapest whilst snow fell around me.
Way back in 2012 I was working with an amazing bunch of girls on a project called ‘The Girls Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse’. It was a funny, insane website which you can access here. My first article ‘Running in Heels From Zombies‘ was a very tongue-in-cheek look at apocalypse footwear and I wrote assorted other silliness, some of which has been incorporated into other things.
Cat Connor is one of the Apocalypse Girls and she interviewed me for her website on 9 April 2012. To read the original interview click here.
Way back in 2012 I was still starting out as a writer. I was involved with the Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse, a fun group of online women discussing all things apocalyptic with tongue firmly in cheek. One of the women involved was Cat Connor, a New Zealand based writer who runs ‘Interrogations’ on her blog. On 9 April 2012 I was taken into her Interrogation Room to answer some very challenging questions about my writing. You can read the original interview here.
It’s funny re-reading this interview. I remember doing it and all the assorted work I was doing at the time (as well as some of the crumby temp jobs I was working!). I discuss the short stories what would eventually become ‘Weird Wild‘ and mention The Vampire’s Bodyguard. The dystopian sci fi I mention is still gestating if I’m honest. I wrote a few chapters but the characters weren’t ‘meshing’, their story wasn’t coming through clearly so I’ve set that on the back burner until I have a clearer idea of where I want that tale to go. What struck me re-reading this is the sheer length of time it takes me to write some of my projects and the various stages they go through. It’s been five years and I’ve hardly worked on the dystopian sci fi as other voices started shouting more loudly, toddlers and dogs came along and life moved on, but those stories are still there, untold. I think it’s high time I dug them out and let them be free!
A re-run of my interview with Carol Rifka Brunt, author of ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’.
GCH: I heard this novel started as a short story but then the voices (sorry characters) kept talking to you. How did you develop a short story into a full novel?
CRB: I started out with just a tiny snippet of an idea. I had the image of a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece as a way of leaving a last connection behind in the world. That turned into a 700-word short story, which was very similar to the first chapter as it stands now. In fact, the first paragraph remains virtually the same to this day, which is quite unusual.
The characters continued to interest me, so I followed them. As I wrote I discovered that the disease the uncle was dying from was AIDS. That led me to create Toby, his partner, and it led me to the setting of New York in the late 80s. And on and on. It was a very organic process. It was only after writing about 100 pages that I really started asking myself questions about the bigger story and focusing the book to tell that story. Having only written short stories up to that point, I was very concerned with making sure the reader had a reason to turn 400 pages. I really had to up the narrative drive and keep in mind the sense of telling a larger story.
GCH: And what will be your next project?
CRB: The process that I just described–the organic, feeling my way along way of doing things–is how I tend to work. So, I’m working on several short stories at the moment, with one or two starting to grow into bigger things. A novel-length project really needs to hold my interest on a pretty deep level to warrant the years it will take to bring it to fruition. By working on a few shorter pieces I’m able to find the ones that strike that deeper chord.
GCH: What’s your favourite writing music?
CRB: I don’t like to listen to anything while I’m actually writing. I am so very easily distracted and I love music, so if I have music playing I find all I’m doing is listening or singing along and no writing is getting done at all. I do use music to get in the right mood and frame of mind to write. For this novel there was a lot of quite beautiful melancholy stuff. I just did a Book Notes piece for Largehearted Boy.
GCH: Tell me about your writing process. Do you plan out your novel or let the characters loose?
CRB: I talked about the organic side of the process above and I think this is critical. There has to be a playful period when you just let your subconscious fall onto the page. For me, this usually isn’t a big spilling out of pages. My first drafts tend to be very spare. I’m feeling for the bones of the story. Who the players are and why they’re there. I’m feeling for morally complex situations. There’s a quote by somebody (I wish I knew who) that says ‘the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. The second draft is the writer telling the reader the story.’ This is so true for me. The editing process is where so much of the best stuff comes out. I’ve started to really understand the story I want to tell, both thematically and plot-wise, which means I write scenes and work with the material to make the whole piece sing the same song.
GCH: You’re originally from the US. What do you think about the food in the UK and do the Brits talk about the weather as much as they are portrayed?
CRB: I think the food here has gotten so good. There’s still a bit more individuality in restaurants in the US, but I have no complaints over quality and availability of the very best ingredients here.
GCH: If you could be a character in any movie or TV show, who would it be and why?
CRB: I just wrote a piece for Electric Sheep magazine on this very topic:
GCH: Favourite food?
CRB: Depends on the day. Very dense moist chocolate cake would always be up there, though.
GCH: Who’s the most important person in your life and why?
CRB: My family
GCH: I’ve heard writers are a funny bunch. Do you have any superstitions or rituals to help you write?
CRB: Not really. I do find it easiest to write at home. The less distractions, the better. And deadlines. They always help!
GCH: If you could edit your past, what would you change?
CRB: I suppose I might have chosen to become a doctor or a chef or something that would have given me a specific useful skill.
GCH: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
CRB: ‘just’ and ‘basically’
GCH: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
CRB: A box set of some fabulous slow-evolving HBO series
GCH: I’ve heard your a member of four different writers groups. What do you think makes a good writers group?
CRB: That makes me sound like a bit of a writing group whore! Let me explain. I’m only really in three at the moment and they’re each very different and fill a different role. One is a women’s salon type group, which is more discussion than actual writing. One is an intense online critique group with three American writers. We met via an online short story writing workshop and admired each others’ work and wanted to stay in touch., They are excellent readers and I always pass my work by them. The third is Resident Writers, which is great for getting words down on the page during the group session. Unfortunately, due to timing I can only attend occasionally.
I think writing can be such an isolating thing and getting together with other writers is one way to alleviate that a bit. Plus, who else but other writers will understand the joys of scribbled encouragement at the bottom of a rejection letter!
GCH: Tell us a secret.