This is the second interview in the “Conversations with Authors” podcast series. You can find more interviews here.
Madalyn Morgan grew up in Lutterworth in Leicestershire and had a long career as an actor before turning her creative hand to writing. Her books Foxden Acres and Applause are part of a series of books following the lives of four sisters during WWII and they’ve been a huge success. During our conversation, Madalyn talks about what inspired her to write the books and what the future holds for the Dudley Sisters, and she also has some good advice for anyone interested in self publishing.
Hi Madalyn. I know that you have published two books so far – Foxden Acres in 2013 and Applause this year . What inspired you to start writing?
A combination of things. I had my heart broken (not for the first time) in the nineties and I really couldn’t get over it, it was quite an unpleasant time, and a friend of mine who was sick of me going on about it said, Why don’t you write it down – exorcise it? And I did, and as I was writing, it contextualised it and I began to enjoy it. A little later I was out of work as an actor – I’ve been an actor for 35 years, but when you get to about 50 you start getting less work as an actor unless you’ve already made it – and I was doing a temping job that had become full time. I needed something artistic to do, so I started a writing course, a correspondence course, and I really loved it. I couldn’t believe that I could actually do certain things!
At the same time my mum wanted to give a brass airplane back to a Polish pilot who had made it for her during the second world war. He’d stayed with her family when he’d crash landed – my grandad was in the ARP and when the local RAF base said, “Could you take these Polish pilots in?” my grandparents said they would. Well, the pilot was sweet on my mother and he made her this brass plane. It had sat on the hearth by our fireplace for as long as I could remember and my mother wanted to give it back. The pilot had died but I found his son and arranged to meet him. His father had divorced his mother and remarried and the second family got all his medals, so the son was delighted to have this plane. At this time I got as far in the writing course as biography and my mother had had a pretty interesting life so I wrote her biography. They said it was really good, they really enjoyed it; however, nobody knew me or my mother so why didn’t I turn it into a work of fiction? I didn’t actually turn her biography into a fiction but I used to tape her and talk about the war with her and I ended up with the plots for four novels!
So are your novels rooted in reality to an extent?
No. Pure fiction. However, every single thing that happens in them is true, it has happened. I originally started out with my mum and her three sisters but that was only to give myself names to work with, so it’s nothing to do with my mum at all. The books all have individual plot lines but they are all rooted in truth and fact from the time of the second world war. I’m fictionalising what happened, though it’s all based on truths. We all know what happened in 1939, we all know when D-Day was, we all know the timeline of the second world war, so what I’ve done is create characters that were doing what they were doing in those days. So the first book, Foxden Acres, is set on the land. When the Ministry of Agriculture said to the lords and ladies that they had to turn their land into arable land, that’s what Bess [the main character in Foxden Acres] is doing in the book. She comes back from London where she was a school teacher because the children are evacuated – and that part is fact, those dates and times all tie up. She was born in the country and brought up on the estate as a groom’s daughter, lived in an estate cottage. She comes back, runs the estate, turns it into arable land, gets together an army of Land Girls and … I won’t tell you the end but it’s a love story!
No, don’t give away the plot! It’s a lovely love story and if people listening haven’t heard it yet then they should go and buy it now! So that’s Foxden Acres. Would you like to summarise what Applause is about – that’s the second book in the series.
A lot of people enjoyed Foxden Acres and were asking me when the second one would be out, and I decided to just do it. However, that’s the wrong reason to write because you get very stressed and work long hours. I was an actor for 35 years in London so I know the West End very well. Applause is about blind ambition. The second sister, Margaret (who later changes her name to Margot) moves to London, where her husband is working for the MOD. She gets a job as an usherette and climbs her way to the Talk of the Town. Everywhere in the book is based on real theatres in the West End – the Haymarket, the Theatre Royal etc. It’s all authentic. The events in the second novel have to timeline with the real events of WWII and with events in Foxden Acres, but both books stand alone.
I was telling a friend last week that while the books are part of a series they are also standalone novels and you can read them in any order.
I did my best to do that and funnily enough they are selling in equal numbers! People have said perhaps they should read Foxden Acres first … They’re not expensive to download on Kindle … they’re doing really well and I’m ever so chuffed!
So what did you learn during the writing process? I know that Applause took you less than a year to write.
I learned a lot, masses. Never be flattered into saying you’re going to do another novel and it will come out on the anniversary of the first! The truth is I had plotted and written part of Applause in the six months before. I had already written Foxden Acres and sent the first three chapters to a literary agent. I went to the Carleon Writing Summer School and came back having written the bare bones of Applause, about 15,000 words. I got back to a phone call saying “I want Foxden Acres … Love it, want it, fast track it!” Can you imagine a literary agent saying that to you? Not in my dreams! But wow!! Send it send it send it! So I finished it and sent her the rest of the book. Six months later she had forgotten me! I had a hard time in that six months. I held Foxden Acres back but I couldn’t get it together to write any more of Applause, I was too wound up. So I sat back and waited, and then managed to get on with Applause. I was writing it for about 18 months in total. I guess I learnt never to think anything is a done deal in the world of writing because it’s not. Even if someone does love something and says to fast track it ….
The writing process is the same as acting for me. When I was an actress I was a method actress and being the character would be how I learned the lines. I would get to know the character and wear her shoes – shoes are great things – and my characters had to be believable. People go to the theatre and don’t like certain characters because they don’t believe in them. That’s the same with my writing process. They have to be believable, my characters. I walk in their shoes. I am all of them – and if I find a character that I can’t be then it’s not working. I was Molly, the young girl in Foxden Acres, I was Bess, I was Margot – and at the moment I am Claire in China Blue [the third book] and I feel their feelings. I’ve had myself tied up! I’ve never been raped, thank goodness, and I hope I never am, but in the rape scene in Foxden Acres I literally wouldn’t let go of my hands; I pressed my hands behind my back and wouldn’t let go of them and I worked out how the scene could happen. It was the only way I could do it. It was awful, very traumatic and I cried a lot after it but … Honestly, people will think I’m mad but that’s how I do it. I walk in their shoes as much as I can.
That really comes across in the books. The books that touch me are the ones where I feel I know the characters, and to be able to write a character that people will know you have to know the character inside out yourself.
Well if I don’t believe in them, how can I expect you to believe in them?
Exactly, and that really does come across, I think you succeed in that. So how did you get your books published?
Well when I phoned up this literary agent about Foxden Acres, the book she’d said she loved, she decided there was a problem and she wasn’t convinced by Bess, and she asked me to rewrite the first three chapters and send them again! I said, “Thank you very much, goodbye,” and I self-published. If it was good enough for her six months previous ….. But before I self-published I was very wise. I had a professional proofreader proofread it – am I allowed to say that was you, The Proof Fairy? My advice to anyone is if you are going to self-publish you have to get a professional proofreader and if you cannot format it yourself get that done professionally too.
I agree completely, and also it’s important to get a proper cover designed and not knock something together in Word!
I maintain that my book is as well produced as any book on WH Smith’s or Waterstone’s shelves. Without a literary agent or editor or publisher that cost me money but if I am going to put my work out there and my name behind it why am I going to have people not wanting to read it because it’s rubbish? I want it to look and sound professional when people read it. Having it proofread, having it specially formatted [was important]. I designed both covers, but I sent them to a pro to have them finished properly. I sent the covers that I’d made and asked them to make them look professional. For Applause, there are three photographs on the front. I bought one from Getty, which was very expensive, but to me it’s of the three girls when they do ENSA. The photograph of the little girl – Margot as a child – is of my best friend back in London, Jane Munns, when she was about eight, and the photograph of Margot, perhaps after she’s finished in the West End, is me in The Mouse Trap in the 1990s. I love the picture of the Blitz behind and the red curtains. I knew exactly what I wanted. I went to see Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics, who was brilliant. She said it was so much better to have an author who knew what they wanted! We worked so well together and what she came up with in the end was mind blowing.
That’s good news for anyone writing a book at the moment – don’t be afraid of having your own ideas about the cover, don’t feel you have to hand it over to someone else. And if you have an idea in your head go with it, because you know your book better than anyone else.
Yes. I sent her a brief outline of the book. Finding Cathy Helms at Avalon Graphics was a godsend, and she was brilliant. As was the chap who did the Foxden Acres cover.
You said you self-published the books. How did you go about doing that, because there are different platforms available?
As I said, before I self-published I had them professionally proofread and laid out and a cover designed so anyone buying the books wouldn’t be disappointed. The first time I self-published I’d been to a talk on Lulu so I had the book uploaded to Lulu. In my opinion that was a mistake – Lulu is fantastic, the quality is fantastic but they are expensive. I’ve had 2000 Kindle downloads – and gosh I’m lucky – but I’ve only sold about 100 paperbacks and I’ve lost money on those because for me to buy them they’re about £8 and with postage I sell them for £8.99, which is competitive. [Both FA and Applause are now published by CreateSpace.] If there are two books and you don’t know which one to have and one is a Lulu one at £10.99 and the other is a CreateSpace book at £8.99, and you don’t know either author, you’re going to go for the cheaper one, aren’t you?
How do the CreateSpace books compare with the Lulu ones?
Fabulously. The other mistake I made with Lulu was I had a larger book. With CreateSpace I published at the 8×5 size and it sits nicely on the bookshelf with all the other books. I didn’t know when I first published Foxden Acres, which is now out as a CreateSpace book. I chose 8×5, cream paper and black print and I’m very happy with it.
So you would recommend that other people looking to get their books printed go with CreateSpace?
Personally I would. I only know Lulu and CreateSpace – the quality of both is good, but the price of CreateSpace is cheaper, and in this world we all want something that’s good, and if it’s less money that’s a bonus.
Since publishing the two books have any exciting things happened as a result?
Yes. Lots and lots of wonderful things. Firstly self-publishing is very satisfying, it gives you confidence because you can actually watch the sales, you know people are reading your books, you can see the reviews and see people are enjoying it. It’s very empowering to self-publish. With Applause I didn’t even try for anything else. I had two literary agents interested and I didn’t even give them it, I wanted to do it myself. I’ve done book signings, and the local garden centre have invited me along to do a signing at a charity event they are holding for NOROS???? They thought they’d have to pay me to come along, but that’s not the case, and I will be giving them £1 from every book I sell. The WI asked me to go and talk too.
When you self-publish a lot of time is spent every day on Twitter, Facebook and so on. Everyone is marvellous – they tweet about your books, you tweet about their books and your friendships grow, though it does take a lot of time. I’ve also used a site called Look For Books by Gary Walker. He has made me a couple of posters. One of them shows Shaftesbury Avenue in 1939, and one theatre wall has the Applause cover and on another is the Foxden Acres cover. It’s all about sharing, tweeting other people’s books, attending other authors’ virtual book launches, giving away books – it’s all about getting your name out there when you’re a new author, and I now have a huge following of people interested in my books. It’s fantastic.
I know the two books that are out are part of a series of four, so you already have a huge audience waiting for the next books to come out.
Yes! I’m working on the next book at the moment. It’s called China Blue and it’s a love story set in France, involving the French Resistance, the Gestapo, the RAF and the SOE (Special Operations Executive). In Foxden Acres the Polish pilot taught Claire some German and some Polish and when she joined the WRENS they looked into this and asked her to learn French, as she has an ear for languages. Eventually she joins the SOE and is parachuted into France. It’s fascinating stuff, but it’s involved a lot of research – and it doesn’t matter how many people ask me when the next book is out, I’m not setting a deadline till I’ve got the book in my hand. You’ll be reading it first, as the proofreader!
Excellent – perks of the job, definitely! So that’s the third book. Do you have any plans for the fourth one?
Bletchley Secret … The fourth sister is called Irina, after my mother. My mother wasn’t at Bletchley, and the book is pure fiction, but this book will have some of my mother’s stories in it. Mum was in a factory in Lutterworth (Lowarth in the books) and she used to make tiny spot-welding things for machinery; she never knew where it went. She also used to degrease Magnetos as well – men didn’t want to do that because it was a nasty acid job, poisonous!
There is going to be a fifth book – a tie-up book which will bring all four sisters together along with the lovely Goldmans from the London theatre, and a couple of the girls who worked with Margot, and perhaps one or two Land Girls who stayed behind, perhaps got married to a local farmer. I’m not sure yet. Everyone is brought together on New Year’s Eve 1948, which is ten years after the opening of Foxden Acres. What’s going to happen is the Foxden Acres land has been sold off, the Foxdens have moved and Bess has put back the gardens, the parkland and the lovely lake and it’s all as it was before the second world war. On the night of the opening, New Year’s Eve, everybody is there but there’s going to be somebody there who will get his comeuppance ….!
That sounds fantastic, I can’t wait to read it! That sounds like the perfect way to end the series.
I thought it needed something to end on … Actually I had no choice. One of the characters keeps coming into my head, waking me up in the night, and once I get the plot written down I won’t be woken up any more!
Before we finish, what tips or advice would you like to pass on to other aspiring authors – about writing, publishing, the job of being an author?
The job of being an author – people think it’s easy but it’s not. We might be able to speak 5,000 words in a conversation but there will only be about 1,500 words that will be interesting enough to put on paper and read. You do need to have a smattering of grammar, which I really didn’t have; my grammar is very old fashioned. Before anyone sets about writing, if they really want to do it they should take a writing course, perhaps at a local college. Because everyone can write but not everyone can write interestingly enough for someone to want to read. I would also say read, read and read!!! When people said that to me I’d think, Oh no, I don’t want to read, I want to write! But you must read, and you must read better writers than yourself. When you start, that’s not difficult, but what I mean is don’t read your mates’ books. Read books you’re going to learn from – style, language and so on – because the more you read the better a writer you will be. It sounds odd, doesn’t it, because you’re not nicking stuff, it’s not plagiarism, it isn’t stealing anything. It’s basically getting into the mindset of being able to write in such a way that people want to read you. The thing about reading writers that aren’t good – and there are some out there – is that you pick up bad habits. I didn’t know the difference between good and bad writing when I started writing.
The other thing is if you’re going to self-publish, make sure you have a professional proofreader and a professional formatter if you can’t do that yourself. I thought I’d proofread Applause brilliantly but then someone pointed out that I had written Margaret two different ways. When I looked through it again there were so many errors that I sent it off to The Proof Fairy. I thought I might not have needed you, to be honest. Rubbish! Get a professional proofreader every time, and get a professional formatter, because there’s nothing worse than a badly edited or formatted book. Make sure your book is as good as any book on the shelves of WH Smith. Get yourself a fabulous book cover. You also need a catchy title – one or two words works well; long titles don’t do it for me personally. Somebody said the best thing about self-publishing is anyone can do it, and the worst thing about self-publishing is …
Anybody can do it!
Yes. You have to look at it in a professional way. You won’t make any money as you’re paying for services, but do it in a professional way. Don’t forget that your book represents years of your life. Foxden Acres was about 6 years of my life, and Applause was about 18 months. It ain’t a baby – get it out there and get people reading it. Let it go – but get it out there and make it the best you can.
That is fantastic advice. I think that’s a great place to stop – get it out there and make it look the best you can. Madalyn Morgan, thank you so much for your time today.