Author Interview: Beth Webb

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Beth Webb writes fantasy fiction for children and young adults. She is the author of The Fleabag Trilogy and The Star Dancer Quartet as well as a number of beautifully illustrated books featuring dragons, witches and cats.

I first met Beth at Kilve Court when my daughter attended one of the amazing Creative Writing courses that she runs there for gifted and talented youngsters. All three of my children have attended many courses at this fabulous residential centre, but Beth stood out amongst the leaders as truly inspirational. My daughter still keeps in touch with Beth and some of the other young writers she met while on these courses. This eclectic group provide creative encouragement and friendship in equal measure.

As well as her writing courses, Beth runs workshops at schools and libraries throughout the south west of England. She is a busy lady so I was delighted when she agreed to this interview.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Beth Webb.

Thanks for inviting me.

Where do you typically write?

Ideas can pop up any place, any time, but when I sit down to do my work properly, I am at home in my study, on my faithful Mac.

Tell us about your writing process.

The courses I run at Kilve are terribly important to me. I love the kids I work with – they inspire me, and keep my mind fresh and alive. The students help me as much as I help them. They challenge and criticise me. They keep my writing fresh and relevant. I value what my students think of my work more than any highly paid editor in London!

As to how a book actually gets born: I very rarely have an ‘Athena’ moment when an idea pops out of my head fully grown and ready for action, but it has been known. Mostly I have ‘thunks’. These are friendly ideas that come to play and muck around in my head for a year or two – I make notes and talk to them, decide whether they have potential either as full novels – or just as short stories. I extend the idea in a large notebook, then one day I just start writing – often when I least expect it.

From a twinkle in my eye to beginning to write properly can take years, then although I can physically write a 50,000 word book in 2-3 months, the editing process to publication can take up to another two years.

A good story is like a vintage wine or an excellent cheese – it takes time to mature.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

Long, varied, and rather boring. I prefer small publishers to the bigger multinationals, but I’m afraid it’s all very political and a bit nasty out there.

In what ways do you promote your work?

In theory, my publishers set up talks, festivals and speaking engagements for me. In practice I have to organise most of that sort of stuff for myself, although I do have a friendly freelance publicist who helps too.

Luckily I love going to literary events, and I can talk for England, so that’s all great fun. Now I’ve learned to do Powerpoint, I can show my illustrations and photos of places and things that have inspired me. This means I can involve my audience a lot more, which I think is really important.

I do Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t have time to blog, although I’m always happy to write for someone else’s (Thanks Jackie!)

Best of all I like talking to and running workshops for the people I write for, introducing them to my worlds and my characters – all of whom I love dearly.

These days authors have to be performers to get our work noticed, but there are quite a few of us out there, all jostling to be noticed. We are a nice bunch of people, and it’s not easy to use your elbows when you’re with people you like!

What are some of your current projects?

I’m currently re-vamping my Fleabag trilogy and adding in illustrations, but that is a slow process. I have a couple of novels and some collections of short stories I’m cooking slowly.

I also illustrate and write books for adults with learning disabilities (Books Beyond Words). I have two of those on the go at the moment, so not much time to breath or do the housework or cut the lawn… (Any excuse!)

Where can my readers find you?

I’m on Facebook: Beth Webb

Twitter: Beth Webb (@bethwebbauthor)

Amazon: Beth Webb

Goodreads: Beth Webb

and have a personal website: About Beth | Beth Webb.

 

Beth wanted to write since she was about 3, scribbling on paper and folding the ‘pages’ between bits of cardboard. She studied Sociology and Psychology at university then became a hippy in a houseboat in Amsterdam, with a spell in a Bavarian castle. Since then she’s been a journalist (which she wasn’t good at), a radio broadcaster (which she loved), a cook, a cleaner and a mum to four amazing kids.

Beth wrote her first children’s book, ‘The Magic in the Pool of Making‘, to encourage her eldest son to want to read. The next thirteen titles followed slowly but surely, bringing dragons, talking cats and fire-wielding druid girls to the page.

She studied for her MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, and subsequently has taught writing for the Open College of the Arts and the University of Lancaster ‘Crossing Borders’ project in Africa.

Beth lives near Taunton in Somerset (UK) with two disreputable moggies who rule her life. She teaches writing to children and young adults at Kilve Court Residential Education Centre in Somerset.

As well as writing, Beth is also a performance storyteller, working from Orkney to Cameroon, and has even braved Glastonbury to tell stories in the mud! Beth also illustrates for Books Beyond Words – innovative publishing for adults with learning disabilities.

firemaiden

‘Firemaiden’ by Beth Webb

Teachers?

This week’s blog hop is about teachers. Remember the time you had that awesome teacher? Sorry guys, but no. I mean, I did have lots of different teachers with varying personalities teaching me over the course of my fourteen years at school. Some of them were good and some, well, not so good. I just didn’t experience any that I remember clearly and think of as inspiring, or incredibly amusing, or even, you know, a little bit special.

I considered writing about my very first teacher, Miss Holt, who I made very angry by telling her a dirty joke when I was five years old. I did not understand the reaction and was utterly mortified. At the time I had no idea that it was rude; when I had heard a big kid tell it, as I did, everyone had laughed hysterically.

My third year teacher at primary school, Mrs Dodds, kept cards in slots under her blackboard with Maths problems on them. Each slot held several different cards and each card had about ten sums to solve. From left to right under the board the problems on the cards got harder. I loved doing sums and relished the opportunity to work on problems that the other children found hard. I can’t remember how far along I got, but I don’t believe I made it all the way to the right before I gave up. At seven years old I learnt that I wasn’t as impressive as I had thought.

Then there was Mr Kerr who taught me in my last year at primary school. He kept an old trainer that he called Willy under his desk and beat the boys on their behinds with it when they misbehaved. Even though I was only eleven years old I was annoyed at how sexist this was. Determined not to let such a situation pass without protest I misbehaved until I became the only girl he ever beat. Looking back, I must have been considered a weird kid.

My all girls grammar school was full of characterful teachers. Miss Kloss and Miss Jackson used to march around the school grounds together every lunchtime. I think one, other or perhaps both of them had a dog. What I remember is the marching, Miss Kloss with her hands behind her back, both of them deep in conversation. They seemed so old to me at the time, but were probably younger than I am now.

We had a student teacher for Geography one term who wore high heels and called female sheep ‘Yow’s’. The heel on one of her shoes snapped in class one day and we thought this was very funny. School kids can be so cruel.

I had an English teacher who was very thin and had red hands that turned blue where the skin touched the bone at joints. I found it difficult not to stare at those hands as she clasped and unclasped them, trying to engage with us and share her love of literature. My most abiding memory of her lessons was when we were studying Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’. We were required to dress up as the characters in the book and hold a tea party. I hated, hated, hated role play. I could never put together a convincing outfit and felt foolish pretending to be someone I was not. It was only when the BBC produced a television series of this book that I reread it and found that I actually enjoyed it. Teachers must despair of truculent pupils, refusing to endorse their ideas when they are trying so hard to share their enthusiasm for a subject.

Throughout my time at grammar school I took extra curricular music and was taught to play the oboe by Mr Osborne. I took all of the ABRSM exams up to Grade Eight, and then spoke to him about studying for my diploma. He had a fairly direct manner and informed me bluntly that I was technically competent but was not a musician as I could not feel the music. I gave up the instrument forthwith.

I did not enjoy school but managed to come away with enough exam qualifications to get me into university and on to a job that I enjoyed. Whatever I may have thought of the various teachers through whose tutelage I passed, they must have been doing something right. There may have been none that I loved but neither were there any that I hated. I did not disrupt the class and always did my homework, but would still guess that a few considered me troublesome. I believe that I was the only regular member of the school Scripture Union not to be made a prefect.

Both my brother and my sister made teaching their career. It is a job that I could never do, at least not in a formal setting; I would find the students much too intimidating. I did home school my younger son for a little over a year (Why I became an amateur teacher). I wonder how he would rate me.

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You can read the other great posts written by others taking part in this blog hop by clicking to view on the link below

Why I became an amateur teacher

My three children all attended the local primary school in the village where we live. The school gets impressive reports from Ofsted inspections and holds up well in the government’s school performance league tables. Most of the pupils come from relatively affluent homes and have intelligent parents who care about their children’s education and well being. Interested and supportive parents can be a double edged sword for teachers who need space and freedom to be allowed to teach, but compared to many other establishments, teaching in this school should not have been too much of a challenge.

It is unfortunate that the school has a culture of bullying. Not the violent, frightening, obvious bullying but the insidious, misery inducing, mental bullying of the powerful, popular protagonist. It starts in the early years with minor threats such as to exclude a child from a party that everyone else is invited to if they do not do as they are asked. This continues through the complex iterations of development as the bully realises that he can get away with his cruelty and thrive. The staff at the school were either unaware or disinterested. Perhaps they thought it was just something that the kids needed to learn to put up with. Thankfully, not all schools are so accepting of this type of behaviour.

To say that none of my children enjoyed their time at primary school would be to seriously understate their feelings on the matter. I was not aware until well after the older two had left just how much they had disliked the place. Much of this was down to boredom and the helplessness felt when they observed innocents being blamed and bullies rewarded. As their parent I tried to talk to staff at the school about particular issues when they directly affected my children but things rarely improved. This situation finally came to a head when my youngest son was nearing the end of his penultimate year. Whilst trying to have a discussion with the Headteacher she went red in the face (a sure sign that she was angry) and told me that I was a bad parent.

I would never hold myself up as a shining example of good parenting but I know for sure that I am not and never have been a bad parent. I considered carefully this breakdown of trust between the school and myself, looked at how particularly unhappy my child was, and decided that I needed to remove him from the cause of his misery. I believed that he needed nurturing, to have his confidence in himself rebuilt, and to catch up academically after  years of neglect. I took the decision to home school him.

It surprises me that not many parents are aware of the rules surrounding a child’s education.  In the UK, education is compulsory between the ages of five and seventeen, but attending school is not. There are a plethora of resources available on the internet which provide all that is needed to plan interesting and challenging lessons for all ages and abilities. Although state schools must follow a national curriculum this is not a requirement for those being educated outside of the system.

When I first discussed with my son my idea of becoming his teacher he asked a few pertinent questions and then, showing great excitement, wanted it to happen immediately. So it did. The next day I delivered the required letter to the school, he went to say goodbye to his teacher and friends and we left. Rarely have I seen him happier. I ensured that he was aware that if he did not work hard at his lessons for me then he would be sent back to school (a different one), but this was never an issue. He was focused, diligent and cheerful in his work. We had a lot of fun.

During this time, my older two children were attending a secondary school in one of our nearby towns. They had taken a little while to settle in after their experiences at primary school but seemed to have found friends and were doing well academically. I was not convinced that I would be able to teach my youngest son much beyond primary level so he was aware that he would only be home schooled until he was old enough to join his siblings. The only request he made was that he would be put in a class away from any of the pupils he had known at primary school. The secondary school acquiesced to this request and in due course he made the transition as smoothly as I could hope.

My son thrived being home schooled. We went out and about a great deal, studying local history and geography in situ. These field studies formed the basis for many of our other lessons. With one to one teaching concentrating on the areas he did not understand so well he would whizz through my lesson plans. It was incredibly hard work for me. As I had never taught before I would spend hours preparing the lessons, teach the lessons, and then revert to being mum at the end of the day. I had to ensure that the rest of my family still got my time and attention. It was challenging and exhausting but so rewarding.

One of the things that has surprised and somewhat saddened me since I took the decision to home school is the response I have had from other parents. Local parents have all said they understand why I did it – and several have commented that they wish they had the courage and confidence to do the same. Other parents have approached me for advice as they are seriously considering removing their children from school. How sad that the system is failing so many. I was always aware that other parents had issues as each year there would be a trickle of local families moving their children to another school, not because of family circumstances but because long standing problems were not being dealt with. I guess there must have been some satisfied parents but I have yet to talk to them.

Home schooling will not suit everyone. It requires time, effort and infinite patience from the teacher and a willingness to learn from the pupil. As a result of our experience I have met a number of other home schooled kids and they appear so confident, articulate and pleasant compared to their peers. Perhaps it is the type of child who suits home schooling as much as the method of education. Taking my child out of the emotionally toxic environment of that school was certainly right for him.

Homeschooling schedules