How Did You Start Writing?
I was born in St Budeaux, Plymouth, and baptised in the church where Sir Francis Drake was married. My father was a Royal Marine bandsman and when World War II broke out he was posted to the Marine camp at Lympstone. I grew up in this fishing and farming village on the estuary of the Exe.
During the blitz on Plymouth, I and my evacuee cousins caught chicken-pox. We couldn’t go out to the shelter in the garden during air-raids. So we crowded into the cupboard under the stairs and my mother read to us. The first book I can remember is The Water Babies.
I earned my first money for writing at the age of nine, with a prize-winning story about the birth of the Co-operative movement. But the grammar school I went to gave me the impression that all writers were famous and dead. Since I was neither, it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer too. Instead, I took a degree in mathematics at the University College of the South-West, now Exeter University, and became a teacher. Mathematics, like imaginative fiction, is a game of asking ‘What if?’ and working out the consequences.
I married another teacher, Jack Priestley, and went to Northern Rhodesia, running the college library, having babies and celebrating the country’s independence as Zambia. Back in Devon, I wondered what to do when my children started school. Jack said ‘Write’. It took five years and five books before I broke into print with F.67, a children’s novel in which British children become refugees in an African country.
Since then, I have had over fifty books published, for children, adults and non-fiction books, as well as short stories. The children’s books range from historical fantasy to near-future science fiction, with funny contemporary stories on the way. Best known are the Pangur Ban fantasy series. Many of the novels for adults are based on history or myths and legends. More recently, I have discovered a new career in crime fiction. I started out to write a novel about a woman researching her family history, but then dark deeds in the past became interwoven with a modern crime. There are now six Suzie Fewings books, and three more Celtic-themed crime novels in the Aidan Mysteries.
I live with my husband in a sixteenth-century cottage on a hill outside Tedburn St Mary in mid-Devon. From my study window I look out to Dartmoor. Place is very important to me. I often write with a map spread out beside me. I use my maiden name, Sampson, for writing because it’s a strongly West Country name. It is also the name of a Celtic saint, which is just right for someone who loves writing about Celtic Christianity.
When Diana Golledge was asked to paint this, the great thing was that she knew my books as well as me. Diana often painted jazz musicians in performance. But how do you show a writer at work? At first she thought of posing me at my computer. But an author’s most important work takes place long before she is ready for the keyboard – in the imagination. So this is what she did.
She has filled the painting with images from my books or things which have inspired me. Can you find the white cat Pangur Ban riding the dolphin Arthmael? Or Edie and her father, from A Free Man on Sunday? Or Taliesin searching through the forest, from the Tintagel novels? In the corners you will see the symbols of the Gospel writers from ancient books: the eagle of St John, the lion of St Mark and the bull of St Luke from the Celtic Book of Kells, and St Matthew writing his gospel from the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels. But for the moment, I am not writing about any of these. My hand is poised over the page as I do the writer’s most important work – day-dreaming.
Advice to Writers
I was a teacher before I became a professional writer. I love both activities. For many years, I divided my time between them. I have enjoyed teaching creative writing classes.
It has been a particular pleasure to help other writers achieve publication, especially one who won the Kathleen Fidler Award for an unpublished first children’s novel.
I am now an editor for The Writers’ Workshop/Jericho Writers, a writing consultancy which advises would-be novelists on how to improve their books and, if they reach publishable standard, recommends them to agents. A distinguishing feature is the offer of follow-up after the initial report, so that the client can discuss possible revision with the editor. I enjoy working in this way with new authors aged from 15 to 75. Some come back for a second assessment when they have rewritten their book.
I also critique novels for the Association of Christian Writers.
Have Any of Your Books Won Prizes?
The Hunted Hare, first of the Aidan Mysteries won the Christian Resources Together award for Fiction Book of the Year.
The Watch on Patterick Fell won the Barco de Vapor Award, with sale world-wide of over 100,000 copies in Spanish. It’s a near future thriller for children, about a nuclear waste plant.
I am particularly fond of three which were all short-listed for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.
Pangur Ban, and the five books which follow it, are fantasies set in Celtic times. I love both fantasy and Celtic culture, so I had great fun writing these.
Chris and the Dragon is a funny book about a school nativity play where everything goes wrong.
A Free Man on Sunday takes two imaginary children on the real-life Kinder Scout Trespass, when people were determined to climb to the top of a Derbyshire Peak, even though walking there was forbidden. I went on the 50th anniversary reconstruction of that walk and met people who had actually done it, including Benny Rothman who went to prison for it.
Several have won South West Arts Literary Awards, and many have been listed in Children’s Books of the Year.
What Is Your Favourite Book?
I was a bloodthirsty child and liked anything to do with pirates. We heard Swallows and Amazons on the radio and my father went out and bought it to read aloud to us. I loved that whole series of Arthur Ransome books. Titty, the imaginative younger sister, was very like me, but I secretly longed to be like Nancy, the ruthless pirate captain.
A lot of brilliant children’s books were written after I grew up. They still make as good reading as many novels on the adult list. I particularly enjoy fantasy, like those of Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’Engle and Alan Garner. One book that meant a lot to me was Mollie Hunter’s A Sound of Chariots, because it is so like my own growing-up.
Because there were far fewer children’s books around, I moved on early to other novels. First there were rip-roaring adventures, like The Three Musketeers. Then Dickens. I had a taste for tragedy, relishing the death of little Paul in Dombey and Son. My favourite for a long time was Les Miserables.
As you can see, I didn’t have much early acquaintance with modern literature. More recent delights have been Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, and Robin Hobb’s marvellous fantasies about Fitz and the Fool.
What Are Your Hobbies?
I am lucky to live in the glorious county of Devon. Jack and I go rambling over the moors, along the valleys of rushing rivers, or on the coast. We don’t walk as far or as fast as we used to, but we still enjoy it.
I’m addicted to family history. I’ve found a huge amount about my and Jack’s ancestors, going back in some cases to the Normans. It’s not just a list of dates – baptisms, marriages and burials. There is information about even the humblest people in the accounts of the Overseers of the Poor or the Churchwardens.
What particularly interests me is setting their lives in the context of the social, political and religious history of their times. I love visiting the places where they lived, often out-of-the-way gems I would not otherwise find. I’m publishing these discoveries on my website and adding new generations all the time.
I also belong to the lively Mint Methodist Church in Exeter. We have a great time, not only worshipping on Sundays, but with activities throughout the week.
I belong to the Society of Authors, the Devon Writers Group and the Association of Christian Writers. I enjoy working alone, making my own timetable and deciding writing projects for myself. But I also need to share the joys and frustrations of this solitary occupation with others.
Do You Give Talks?
A Cautionary Tale
My first book was F.67, in which a scientific disaster makes everyone in the rich countries become refugees. So imagine how excited I was when I got a letter from the TV studios inviting me to appear on a Christmas books programme.
They had offered some children a pile of new books and asked each of them to choose one to talk about. One girl had chosen mine and since I lived locally, I was asked to appear as the guest author.
I arrived at the studio to find the foyer full of excited children and their parents. I put on my best smile and advanced to meet them, trying to look like a famous author. To my surprise, the producer grabbed my arm and hurried me away down a dark corridor.
She showed me into the studio. It had been made to look like the library in an old house – wood-panelled walls, comfortable armchairs, a log fire and a Christmas tree. Then she explained what was going to happen.
I was to be hidden behind a secret door in the panelling. The children would talk about their books. Finally the presenter would turn to the girl who had chosen F.67 and ask her a question. This was my cue. The secret door would spring open and I would step out into the room.
When I heard what this question was, I could see what was about to happen. Too late. The children were already coming down the corridor. Time for me to hide.
From behind the panelling, I heard the children reviewing their books. F.67 came last. Fortunately the girl who had chosen it liked it. Then the presenter put his vital question: “And would you like to meet the person who wrote your book?”
To which, as I half expected, she replied: “Not particularly.”
The panelling flew open and I stepped forward before millions of viewers.