Category Archives: About Me

A year on…

One year and one day ago, I woke early and looked at Twitter – horrified by the news from Manchester Arena. I spent the day with friends, counting my blessings.

It was a gloriously sunny day and, as more news emerged about the victims, I reflected on how I’d feel if someone I loved had been involved. How would you feel if you’d had an argument then never got the chance to make up? Or, perhaps worse in some respects, you’d parted on perfectly fine terms but never got to tell them how much you loved or respected them?

That was when I decided to start writing to friends for no other reason than to tell them how much I loved them. My friend Emily, who moved home to the US, and I had been corresponding the old-fashioned way for a little while but that attack in Manchester made me realise that although I spend lots of time with my friends, I don’t tell them how much I appreciate them – because it’s implied. Well, I decided to make it explicit.

All we seem to get in the post these days (oh, how I’m showing my age) is bills and junk but when someone receives a heartfelt message in the post, it makes them feel valued. Ever since then, I’ve sent card and postcards and letters in the post and the feedback I’ve had has been lovely. People have reciprocated, of course, which was never the plan – I but it is a glorious feeling, knowing someone has taken the time to think about you then put pen to paper.

To me, a letter (or postcard or even an email) shows that the writer has thought about this. They have not just hugged you because you were standing in front of them, they are writing to you because they were thinking of you when you weren’t even with them. They have taken time out of their day to write to you.

I am not a tactile person – quite the opposite, in fact – but I am able to express myself with words far better than I ever could face-to-face. On the odd occasion that I found myself on the wrong side of my parents when I was a child, I would write a letter to apologise. Weird, I know.

I know some people wouldn’t feel able to express themselves fully through writing. To this I say: choose whatever works for you and do it.

Emma Whitehall once said to me that Elementary Sisterhood was partly borne out out of the support she had felt from receiving messages of support and encouragement through the post.

Yesterday, I had a massive wobble. Something inconsequential happened but it really threw me for a loop. However, when I messaged the sisterhood to tell them, the words of love and understanding I received heartened me. The people – in the sisterhood and beyond – who rushed to tell me what they felt for me and how I’d helped them really made me see the positive impact I’ve had on others.

So, in short, the message of this post is: if you feel something, say something.

Vic x

Advertisements

A Love Letter to The Garsdale Retreat

When my friend Stephanie encouraged me to attend her writing retreat at the Garsdale Retreat, I decided it was a good time to concentrate on my own writing and that this would give me the ideal opportunity – away from distractions and the pressures of every day life. 

As the time grew nearer, I began to get cold feet. I’ve always suffered from homesickness to varying degrees and I was concerned at being away from home for four nights. It must sound silly but it’s the truth. 

My journey there was particularly dramatic but that’s a story for another time. Once I arrived at the retreat – thanks to the help of the wonderful Rebecca and Hamish from the retreat, a resident of Garsdale called Paul and Mr Middleton, a farmer – I was greeted like an old friend, even by the women I’d never met before. 

One of my concerns about the retreat was the menu. It’s a fully catered place with all of the meals being vegetarian with some fish and I am a fussy eater (although I am way better than I used to be). However, Rebecca’s home cooking was a total delight. We were treated to home-baked biscuits and cakes every morning and afternoon. The meals themselves were amazing – the variation and flavours never ceased to amaze me. We had all sorts from soup to pasta, Indonesian stews to salads. I even brought a couple of recipes home! 

Another concern I had was whether I could actually write. One of the first exercises Stephanie asked me to do was highlight the things I was good at, where I wanted to be and what I needed to do to get there – that was so challenging and I had to ask for advice on what to put as achievements. OnceStephanie reminded me about the awards I’d won, the MA I have and the support I provide others, I was able to see the value in what I do.

Each day was structured perfectly, with two workshops in the morning then in the afternoon independent writing, one-to-one tutorials and the opportunity to drop in for some advice and guidance if required. We came together every evening for a pre-dinner drink and chat in front of the log fire. I tumbled into bed each evening full of delicious food and exhausted from thought-provoking discussions with like-minded people. 

I woke every morning to a beautiful view and enjoyed being able to go for a short walk in the fresh air at least once a day. 

On the day where we had a brief field trip to the train station up the road, Rebecca drove those of us who couldn’t manage the hill – yet another example of what incredible hosts she and Hamish were. When our cars were covered with snow on the morning that we were due to leave, Hamish was out there sweeping the snow away so that we could drive home safely. 

Stephanie was an incredible facilitator and, despite having participants at different stages in their writing, every exercise challenged and encouraged us in equal measure. The amount of resources and stationery were mind-boggling. From the ‘washing line of wisdom’, filled with quotes about writing, to the envelopes we were encouraged to leave messages for one another in, Stephanie had every base covered. 

On our final evening, we were encouraged to create our writing manifestoes. Here’s mine: 

I think it shows how much of an impact the time I spent at the Garsdale Retreat on my writing – and my self-esteem. 

Stephanie encouraged us to take a quote from the washing line of wisdom which resonated with us, then we shared them after dinner on our final evening. She then gave us another one that, to me, seemed hand picked for each of us. As each person read their quotes, I found my eyes filling up. But that was nothing compared with my reaction when I opened my envelope on returning home. I only spent four days with these women but the messages they had left for me filled me with joy and love. 

So, inspired by the retreat – and mainly Rebecca’s baking – I baked a cake while adopting the Agatha Christie method of plotting (allowing the mind to roam while occupying yourself with a completely unrelated task). 

I missed my husband, and wished he was there with me, but I didn’t feel homesick because Garsdale felt like home. 

Garsdale Retreat inspired me in so many ways: it reminded me of the innate kindness of people, the healing power of food and how, even when you don’t believe in yourself, there is always someone who does.

Vic x

Sjogren’s Syndrome: a misunderstood condition.

This is not a post about books or writing. Bear with me, normal service will resume soon (I hope).

It’s been a while since I wrote about Sjogren’s Sydrome (pronounced show-grins although there is nothing funny about it). Over the past several weeks, I have experienced what medics and people with autoimmune diseases call ‘a flare’.

Many autoimmune conditions – like Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Sjogren’s to name a few – can be compared to waves on a beach. They crest and fall, making the condition totally unpredictable. It’s a constant guessing game. Will I sleep tonight? Will I be in too much pain? Will I walk with a limp tomorrow? Will I walk at all? 

During good times, you can almost forget you have it. Almost. Autoimmune conditions can go into remission but they’re always lurking. In all honesty, most of the people I know who live with autoimmune disease still suffer every day but when things are good, the pain is manageable and they can function. Whether good or bad, I take a lot of medication every day. Even during the good times, I have to pace myself and not over-commit. I find this one of the most frustrating things about Sjogren’s.

Actually, I find hundreds of things annoying about the condition.

Although Sjogren’s is becoming more widely recognised, thanks in no small part to Venus Williams for being so honest about her experiences, Sjogren’s is often represented as a condition where patients have ‘dry eyes and a dry mouth’. I’ve had doctors say to me “Oh, so do you get a dry mouth with that and gritty eyes?” Yes, I do and I wish they were the only symptoms. They’re not pleasant – the dry mouth makes eating certain things difficult and sometimes I get food lodged at the back of my throat – but I would far rather contend with them than what I do actually live with.

In addition to the dryness in my mouth (caused by the fact that Sjogren’s has destroyed many of my salivary glands) and the dry eyes (I produce barely any tears so even when I cry, my eyes are pretty much tear-free), I suffer daily pain all over my body, issues with my lungs and kidneys, brain fog and fatigue. I was told in 2013 by the lung specialist that I may need chemotherapy to dampen down the immune response. Thankfully, that hasn’t been required.

In 2012, when I was going through my last major flare, I was told by a Rheumatologist that I should prepare myself for the fact that I would (not if, would) “end up in a wheelchair”. Every time I wake up with more pain than usual, I panic and wonder if this will be it. I’ve spent time this year working towards acceptance of this. That’s not to say I’m going to hang up my shoes and give up, I will keep walking for as long as I can, however acceptance means I can concentrate on recuperating instead of putting my immune system under further pressure by worrying.

When I saw the emergency Rheumatologist a couple of weeks ago after begging my GP for a steroid injection (which has helped me pick up previously), she commented on how hypermobile I was. People have mentioned this to me before but I never realised that what I could do with my joints was unusual until a nurse went a bit funny during an assessment. The other week, the Rheumatologist warned me to be mindful of dislocation which is common in people with hypermobility but thankfully something I’ve avoided thus far (apart from that one time…). She also congratulated me on not having a steroid injection since 2012, as thought it was something I had achieved which, I suppose, it was in a way.

Over the past few weeks, I have wildly vacillated between sleeping sixteen hours a day and constantly tossing and turning, trying to minimise the pain. It’s the fatigue that has always got me down the most. The feeling that, no matter how long or how well you have slept, you are still exhausted in the most indescribable way when you wake up.

I know I am improving because walking around my house no longer feels like wading through treacle however going to the supermarket is still guaranteed to require a rest before and after.

For those of you who know me, you’ll know I am a motivated person. I hate that this condition makes me appear what some may term as ‘lazy’. I hate that it limits me in more ways than most people can imagine. I feel held to ransom by my own body every day (“if you do x then y, I am going to punish you. So choose one”).

Although I am more accepting of my body and the condition than I ever have been before, I still struggle. I struggle because I want to do more, be more. I don’t want to have to choose to do one thing or another – I want to do both and not suffer for it.

I guess I have a way to go yet. But, you know what? I’m tenacious. I’ll keep on at it. You might see me struggle but you’ll never see me quit.

Vic x

PS – I wrote a poem about Sjogren’s a few years ago, you can read it here.

Mid-Year Review Book Tag nominated by @LoveBooksGroup

Massive thanks to Kelly Lacey of Love Books Group for nominating me to do this mid-year book tag. 2017 is whipping by and it’s interesting to reflect on which books I’ve enjoyed this year so far.

So, here goes…

  1. Best book you’ve read in 2017 so farYear of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. Shonda, writer of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, challenged herself to say yes to every opportunity she was offered for a year. As an introvert who lacks self-confidence, I enjoyed this book immensely. I loved reading about Shonda’s writing process, her family life and her challenge. Oh, ok then, I loved it all. I’d love to hang out with this fierce woman.
  2. Best sequel you’ve read in 2017 so far: The Twenty-Three by Linwood Barclay. I read the three books from the Promise Falls trilogy this year. Linwood Barclay is my favourite crime writer and I was impressed with the way the final instalment tied things up.
  3. New release not yet read: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
  4. Most anticipated release of the second half of 2017: A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena. 
  5. Biggest disappointment of 2017: Thankfully I haven’t had one yet!
  6. Biggest surprise of 2017: Exquisite by Sarah Stovell. I first heard Sarah talk at Newcastle Noir this year and I was so taken in with the themes she talked about that I just had to read ExquisiteIt was a surprise because I hadn’t heard anything about it prior to Newcastle Noir. It’s a story that keeps you second guessing until the very end – very cleverly done. 

  7. Favourite new author: Bizarrely, I’d never read Stephen King until 2017 but I read Bazaar of Bad Dreams which is a collection of short stories. I think I bought it because it was on offer and I liked the look of the cover – yes, I did judge a book by its cover – but when I read it, I really enjoyed the stories.
    In fairness, though, Matt Wesolowski is my favourite new author. I want to tweet him every day and ask when we can expect his next novel.
  8. Newest fictional crush: Haven’t got one as I’m pretty taken with my husband – we got married in March this year. 
  9. Newest favourite character: Archie from Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland. Everyone should have an Archie in their life.
  10. Book that made you cry: Year of Yes and Lost for Words.
  11. Book that made you happy: Year of Yes.
  12. Best book to movie adaptation of 2017: I haven’t seen any film adaptations although I’m looking forward to seeing My Cousin Rachel. I am loving The Handmaid’s Tale which is currently being shown on Channel 4.
  13. Favourite review you’ve written in 2017 so far: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski. The book just really captured my imagination and I loved writing about it. 
  14. The most beautiful book you bought / received in 2017: The Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards. I bought it for myself last weekend at Barter Books. I just love the colours and shading on it. As previously mentioned, Bazaar of Bad Dreams is also a very colourful book. I think this has established how vacuous I am.
  15. Books to read by the end of 2017: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe Girls by Emma ClineIt Devours: A Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout… The list goes on. I’d also like to read more Agatha Christie. 

I’m passing the Mid-Year Review Book tag onto Emma Welton @damppebbles, Juliet @bookliterat and Sheila Howes @thequietgeordie. I look forward to finding out what you choose!

Vic x

 

Another proud day

For my birthday this year, one of my best friends bought me a scrapbook and told me to fill it with fabulous things that happened. At the time, a house purchase had just fallen through (costing us rather a lot of money) and I’d recently been made redundant. I knew my friend’s gift came from a wonderful, encouraging place but I did wonder at the time what the I’d put in this bloody scrapbook, now I’m worried I’m going to run out of pages!

No doubt you’ll read about all of my happy moments in my review of 2016 (it’ll be here before we know it) but I just had to blog about one thing in particular while it’s fresh in the memory. Last year, I wrote about how proud I was at being nominated for Woman of the Year in my Slimming World group. Well, last night, I won it.

Woman of the year

It’s funny how things turn out.

Vic x

Harrogate 2016.

I’m so overwhelmed by this weekend’s activities that I can’t even think of a witty title for this post.

Up until three or four weeks ago, I wasn’t planning on going to Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival this year. And then the stars aligned. My partners in crime (ahem) Jay Stringer and Graham Smith – organisers of Noir at the Bar Glasgow and Carlisle respectively – decided to throw a wee bash at Harrogate. How could I say no? For several days before the big event, I wished I had said no to the invitation to read from my novel Fix Me Up at Hales Bar alongside some impressive writers. However, I am so glad I did it. I got to be on the bill with Helen FitzGerald and Brooke Magnanti as well as my very good friend, Lucy Cameron.

Noir at the Bar Harrogate

My old pal Luca Veste hosted and thought up some brilliant intros. It was fantastic to be introduced by a man who gave me opportunities when I was just starting out. The readings at Noir at the Bar weren’t just dark, there was plenty of humour too. I loved Russel D. McLean’s reading and I thought Helen FitzGerald was bloody brilliant, her book Viral is the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year, managing to combine a really serious issue with plenty of biting wit.

It really was something to see Hales bar packed out at the beginning of the festival – thank you to everyone who came.

My friend Luca introduces me

Over the course of my time in Harrogate this year, I got a lot of great feedback following my reading at Noir at the Bar from people I really respect and admire . It made my weekend to have Steve Mosby and Helen FitzGerald (among others) tell me that they liked my reading. Several people compared my work to the great Irvine Welsh – I’m still speechless.

Noir at the Bar crew

Meanwhile, back at the Swan…

Congratulations to Clare Mackintosh on her win for I Let You Go which won Crime Novel of the Year at the opening ceremony on Thursday evening. Her follow-up, I See Youwas available at the festival on an exclusive pre-release and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

On Friday morning, I was up with the larks to see the man who inspired me to write crime fiction: Linwood Barclay. He was interviewed by Mark Bilingham – who later sang The Kinks’ Victoria to me in the signing tent – and, despite the early hour, the audience was thoroughly entertained. Although, I have to admit, I was too shy to ask Linwood for a picture which is something I shall always regret! The rest of the panels I saw were intriguing and left me brimming with ideas.

Due to work commitments, I left Harrogate on Saturday morning after a whirlwind of panels, familiar faces and new friends. On my drive home, I felt incredibly guilty for missing lots of people or not getting to chat as much as I would have liked but I know there’s always next year…

Vic x

Never give up…

As I took a trip through Newcastle today, I noticed that it was graduation day. I watched students in their caps and gowns, taking selfies and celebrating the end of an era.

Strolling through the beautiful campus of my alma mater, Newcastle University, I thought back to my own graduation day eight years ago. It was I day I never thought I’d see.

I was twenty-one when I finally went to uni. I’d had three years in ‘the real world’, earning some money and doing another A-Level, and during that time I’d decided I wanted to train to be a teacher.

Despite a hand injury which left me unable to write, I quite enjoyed the first terms. Uni was so different to anything I’d experienced before and I met two wonderful girls who, to this day, remain my best friends.

By March of my first year, though,  I was ready to quit. I’d failed a History assessment and was wracked with self-doubt. I remember vividly those fraught days as I struggled to make a decision on what to do. I was terrified of failure. I felt that staying on at uni could equal complete failure. What if I flunked the first year completely? What if they kicked me out? It didn’t occur to me at the time that all my other marks were really rather good. Another thought that occurred to me, though, was that quitting would be a definite failure in my eyes.

I don’t remember how I came to a decision. I don’t remember how I overcame those wicked gremlins. But I did. Staying might mean failure, quitting definitely would.

With the support of my parents and some of the academic staff, I decided to streamline my degree from Combined Studies to Media, Communication and Cultural Studies. I never looked back.

As my undergraduate days drew to a close, I began to consider what to do next. That summer, I read more books than I had done in years (apart from academic books, of course). Some were inspiring in the traditional sense. Others made me think: ‘I could do that’. Around the same time, I was given a place on the Chronicle’s Young Reviewer of the Year scheme. Not only was this a fantastic outlet – giving me ‘a reason’ to write and deadlines to meet – but it also gave me the confidence I needed to look into Masters degrees in Creative Writing.

As we queued outside the ceremonial hall on graduation day, a course-mate asked what my plans were, I answered: ‘I’m going to be a writer’. That moment is crystallised in my memory and every year, when I see loved ones in all their finery and graduates with their capes blowing in the wind, I’m reminded of that conversation. And when I think back on that conversation, I stand a little taller and remind myself that I made it happen. I am a writer, just as I said I would be.

I graduated in 2010 with a Masters in Creative Writing. And again in 2014 with a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education. I hope to get a doctorate one day. And all this from a girl who almost dropped out six months in because of the voices in her head telling her she wasn’t clever enough.

Don’t ever give up.

Vic x