As I start this interview, it’s raining, the fire is roaring in the grate, and winter is already starting to wear me down. Let’s try to lighten the mood with a cosy chat with my latest guest, the fabulously witty, Carolyn Steele.
KJD: Afternoon, Carolyn, how are you?
CS: Not bad Kerry. Thanks for this lovely cup of coffee and the lemon drizzle cake is to die for. How are you?
KJD: Much better now that you’re here. So to get started, you’ve had a really wide and varied career, and we’ll touch on some of that later, but I’ll start with my usual gentle opener to get things moving. Can you tell me a little about your current hometown?
CS: Love to. Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario is fantastic. I’m one of the lucky people who chose my hometown based on niceness rather than necessity and I love this region. It’s where the Mennonites decided to stop in their Conestoga wagons, heading north from Pennsylvania in search of fertile farmland. So, we have horses and buggies on the roads, marvellous farmers’ markets and honesty boxes for fresh produce at the farm gates.
KJD: A rural paradise eh? Sounds similar to my place here in Brittany. Aren’t we the lucky ones? I hated living in the middle of Northampton (1986-2007); this place couldn’t be more different. Green fields, rolling hills, wooded valleys—lovely. So what can you see out of your office window?
CS: Trees! This is Canada after all. I grew up in central London, where the view out of most windows was usually a neighbour cleaning his teeth.
KJD: Oh gee, that sounds horrible.
CS: Exactly, but the trees remind me how far I have come. There are also chipmunks and chickadees, Cardinals and Blue Jays, woodpeckers, and humming birds, in the summer that is. Just now, there’s mostly snow.
KJD: That sounds like Canada, all right. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of snow. Oh, it looks pretty and white and cute, but it’s really cold and wet and horrible. Never been skiing, never felt the need, but I digress. Let’s learn more about Carolyn the person. I understand you were once a psychologist. I dropped Psych as an elective in University. Tell me, Sigmund Freud: ground-breaking scientist or drugged-out charlatan. Discuss. Teehee. 🙂
CS: Oh, a curve ball. Hmm, I think I’m going to go for astute businessman. Nobody was listening to those women until he created a science out of it. Whether his theories were right or wrong, they paid for treatment. Actually, Freud got a bad press back in the 70s when I was an undergrad, but to be fair to him, talking as a thing that people need (even if his theories were dodgy) was pretty ground-breaking at the time. It’s a pukka thing now and I think we’re mostly the better for it.
KJD: Psychology a pukka thing now? I’ll take your word for it. I prefer the hard sciences, but love your defence of the field that used to pay your bills. 🙂
In another iteration, you were a paramedic—you have to tell me about that, please. Sounds fascinating and at times, gory. Do your paramedic experiences colour your writing in any way?
CS: I hated being an academic. I’d gone to University because bright kids did but I had no interest in any of it. One day I was touting my crappy, pointless questionnaires around a shopping centre when an old lady tripped over and cut her head. There was blood everywhere and nobody knew what to do. Someone called 999 and an ambulance duly turned up. As it pulled to a stop and the crew jumped out, everyone went, ‘Ahhh, it’s ok now’. I decided that was what I wanted to do; make people feel better by just getting out of a vehicle. So, I applied to the London Ambulance Service.
The job suited me perfectly for 20 years. I still miss it. Life is less exciting now. Gory, yes, but you become a storyteller by default. It’s one reason I write non-fiction, real life is definitely weirder than anything anyone can dream up.
KJD: I can agree with you on that one, but moving on, what genres do you read and do they differ from the ones you write?
CS: To date I’ve only written narrative non-fiction, although I read a lot of literary fiction, crime and mysteries, humour and political world building. I love to read about the sort of characters we’ve all been annoyed by getting their come-uppance. My favourite authors range from Anthony Trollope to Terry Pratchett.
I always maintained that I didn’t have the imagination for fiction, but after having hung out over the last few years with writers, quite accidentally really, I’ve been inspired to have a dabble. There is therefore a political satire in the works.
KJD: Excellent. We’ll discuss that in a moment, but what’s the first thing you do when starting a new novel?
CS: First thing I do? Panic. I wrote my first two books the easy way. (For easy, read cheat’s.) I was sending articles home to London for a small magazine for the first one, they were edited together… hey presto, book! By the time ‘Trucking’ came along I was blogging and podcasting my little adventures from the cab as they happened… hey presto, book!
Now I am floundering about trying to work out how proper writers do it. I began with a title, two characters, and a denouement in my head. I currently have an opening couple of paragraphs and sticky notes all over the office. Plotter or pantser? I’ll let you know.
KJD: So, what excites you about writing and the writing process?
CS: Storytelling is my survival tactic. I suppose that began back in the paramedic days; whatever happened during the shift became a hilarious story in the pub that night. It was the only way to keep going when things got grim. Now, I’m addicted to making people laugh… and fascinated by the whole idea that putting words together in some sort of order can elicit emotion, create an experience. Oops, got a bit serious there for a moment.
KJD: I’ll forgive you, just don’t do it again. 🙂 Looking at your bio, I love the sound of your novel, Trucking in English, and understand it started as a blog. Can you tell me a little more about the book?
CS: Happy to. Back in the olden days when we all wanted agents for our books, I touted my first book around and received several responses along the lines of, ‘we like your writing but we need a sexier subject’. I thought of myself as a travel writer at the time and the consensus among the gatekeepers seemed to be that I needed to write about the US, because nobody wanted to read about Canada.
I hit on the idea of investigating the trucking life as a woman. Popular culture doesn’t have much to say about truckers beyond ‘Convoy’, ‘Duel’, and the most likely suspect in endless CSI shows, so why not nose about in the subculture a bit?
Of course, by the time I got out there, the world had changed and we didn’t need the gatekeepers any more. I blogged and podcasted individual tales of woe as they happened and it was the fans who asked for the book. Fortunately for the storytelling, it turned out to be a difficult, tiring, frustrating, and annoying life where more things go wrong than go right. Especially in reverse.
KJD: Superb! The book is now on my Wish List. Can’t wait to read it. Here’s a technical question, as a proof-reader, can you catch your own typos?
CS: Nope, I don’t think any of us really can, Your brain reads what it knows you wrote. Fortunately my partner is a proof-reader too, and my son is a writer, so the family edits and proofreads around in circles.
KJD: Great, I think I’ll be talking to you offline about proofreading, so moving on. Tell me a little more about your WIP. Where did you find the inspiration? What’s it about? When can we expect to see it on the bookshelves?
CS: I have regular debates with my partner about the self-service checkouts in supermarkets. He loves them because he doesn’t have to talk to anyone, but I refuse to use them because I feel like I’m contributing to putting someone out of work. We were in the queue at a checkout one day last year and I was listening to the chatter.
The woman at the till, well into her 60s or early 70s, had a laugh and a joke for everyone and as I listened to her brightening people’s days, I started to wonder what would happen to her when her job no longer existed. What can you do when your only skill is small talk?
The political satire Queenie’s Teapot was born. In a Britain not so different to now—except that politicians have been outlawed and democracy is seen as stone-age thinking—people are chosen to run the nation by random selection. Queenie the redundant checkout lady naturally becomes Head of State, small-talk is all you need, right? I hope to complete it this year. Here’s a sneak preview:
THE BALL OF KINGFISHER blue mohair dropped from Queenie’s lap and rolled across the parquet, coming to a stop at the feet of the Chief Secretary to the Cabinet. All eyes in the room followed it. He sighed, fully aware that his words would have to be repeated, his wisdom no match for the yarn, which was now reflecting so fetchingly in the high shine on his business shoes.
Caroline observed, not for the first time, that Gerald was the only man she knew who could look down his nose without moving his head. Ostensibly, she was taking notes on the day’s proceedings but her main task consisted of committing to memory as many quirks and character flaws as were immediately obvious in the new intake.
The knitting would be an issue. She jotted knitting rapidly at the back of her notebook and considered the conundrum. Gerald would not alter his stance; he would rely on military bearing to re-establish lines of communication when the novelty wore off. The room was, however, full of people who hadn’t any reason to comprehend the significance of Gerald’s posture. Yet. They were all still transfixed, some were even stifling giggles.
She slipped from her chair, executed a parabolic trajectory towards Queenie which took in Gerald’s temporarily blue-reflecting toes, scooped up the ball of yarn and deposited it back in Queenie’s little tote bag. Knitted, she noticed. This would be hard to stop.
‘Thank you dearie,’ Queenie broke the silence with a toothy grin and the hint of a glottal stop. ‘I’m always doing that, drives hubby mad it does, the wool starts bouncin’ around all over the floor when he’s trying to watch the football, he reckons I do it on purpose every time there’s goin’ ta be a goal…’ She guffawed hoarsely. The silence in the rest of the room managed to deepen.
‘You’re very welcome.’ Caroline modelled the hushed tone she hoped would prevail around the House once the intake had received the rest of their orientation. She resumed her seat, and turned her attention back to Gerald. ‘You were saying, Chief Secretary?’
Gerald offered her an almost imperceptible sniff by way of acknowledgement and readdressed the room.
‘Your skills have been assessed on the basis of the information provided to us on your personal profile. You will shortly be assigned to a ministerial department and apprised of your duties by that department’s senior executive. At that point you should inform your ‘senior’ of any reason why you might not be able to fulfil our expectations, as outlined in your summons, of a Representative of the People for the full term of three years.
‘Are there any questions?’ For the first time since this session’s new motley shower had shuffled their way into the largest committee room of the House of Commons, and made a mess with their newspapers and smartphones and cups of coffee and bottles of water and ungainly coats, Gerald scanned the faces.
He wasn’t really rude, Caroline mused, although she’d been shocked at the apparent attitude back with her first intake. The theatricality wasn’t so much about intimidation, more to do with sorting pegs into the right-shaped holes. As Gerald allowed his gaze to waft over the assembly, Caroline watched. And added to her notes. The ones who met his gaze, the ones who looked away, the fidgeters, the sniffers, the paper shufflers, all would require slightly different handling.
It was always an eye-contact-maker who asked the first question, determined not to be browbeaten by a mere civil servant. ‘What happens if you’ve assessed our skills wrong?’ The big guy at the back with the Lancashire accent and the drinker’s nose. Caroline wrote, Predictable mind, bit of an arse, Treasury? as she tried not to mouth along to the same reply this question generated every time.
‘If you’ve been unable to express yourself adequately on your profile, we’ll find you something less significant to do.’
‘Where’s the bar?’ Small chap at the back. Whimsical tie. A couple of people near him tittered. Caroline wrote, Comedian, popular, Foreign Office?
Queenie’s hands were still now. The knitting in her lap, what is that, some sort of teacosy? and her face a picture of misery. ‘Can I ask a question?’
She received a courtly bow. ‘Please do, Ma’am.’
‘I can’t do anyfing. I got no skills, I dunno why I’m here. I mean hubby said we all got to do it and all but the thing said, the bit of paper said that if you wasn’t good at stuff you’d you know, go be one of the ordinary reps, just sit in a office and pass messages and such…’ Caroline added address waffle to the line that had begun knitting.
‘I mean I don’t mind doing my bit, I said to hubby, I said it’s nice and excitin’ to go and be the thing, especially after Tescos closed the tills and all but you talkin’ about skills, well it ain’t really right…’
Gerald raised his hand, as though stopping the traffic.
‘Fear not, dear lady, we have considered your case most carefully. Now, just before I send each group off to meet your senior, I should probably introduce Caroline Lambert. She is your babysitter. And please know that all of you,’ he nodded to the eye-contact-makers in particular, ‘are currently babies. It’s her job to hold your hands while you learn, God help us, to run this country.’
KJD: Thanks for that. I really, really love your writing style. One point I’d make is that having no skills doesn’t seem to stop today’s politicians being voted in. 🙂
Now for my usual wrap-up. If there were a single thing you’d like to change about yourself, what would it be? (Cosmetic surgery is out of bounds).
CS: Are you sure about the cosmetic surgery?
KJD: Absolutely certain.
CS: In that case: I wish I believed my own bullshit. Can I say that on a nicely brought up blog?
KJD: Probably not, but this isn’t a ‘nicely brought up blog’ so you’re fine and dandy—teehee. What’s next in your life?
CS: I have no idea. I’ve given up trying to make plans because however sensibly I view the future, something always comes along that looks like fun. Then I just have to try it, on the grounds that I’d not want to die wondering if I could have made a go of it. And, well, you never know, there might be a book in it too. I’d not actually recommend ‘ooh, shiny’ as a career plan to anyone I cared about but I’m a lost cause.
KJD: Actually, that’s pretty much the way I’ve run my life so far. I wonder whether it’s a general trait in all writers. Finally, tell me something about yourself you wouldn’t want you partner/parents to know. Don’t worry; it’ll be our little secret. 🙂
CS: Hmm, I’m not sure if I trust you; after all, we’ve only just met.
KJD: Quite right too. I wouldn’t trust me as fast as I could lob a Chieftain tank, and I’ve known me for quite some time. Go on give me something.
CS: Okay, I really want to get a tattoo of a gargoyle on my shoulder blade. Kinda looking out behind me deflecting all the bad luck and backstabbing. Despite my bravado, I’m really quite insecure.
KJD: Okay, I’m not a tat fan, but that one sounds interesting, quirky even. And finally, finally – is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask that you’re desperately, desperately keen my readers should know?
CS: Yes! I’m starting a food blog soon. It’s going to be fab, people are going to love it. My partner and I bicker about food all the time and apparently, that’s amusing. So we will bicker officially in the new year on a website of food fights and recipes. Watch this space. Well, not this space, obviously. Watch one of the below-mentioned spaces…
KJD: Wonderful, when it’s live, please give me the link and I’ll publish it right here.
Well that, I’m afraid, is all we have time for at Chez Donovan. It’s been a real blast chatting with you, Carolyn. Thanks for spending so much of your valuable time.
CS: Not at all, I’ve had a ball. Oh, next thing could be a poetry book! Hmmmm.
KJD: Oh dear, I’ve created a monster.