Thursday, February 17, 2011

Meet Multi-Published Fay Sampson

Donna Fletcher Crow introduces one of her favorite authors Fay Sampson to ICFW readers in the hope that you will all enjoy Fay's books as much as she does.

1. Tell us about yourself, Fay. How did you get started writing?
I had my first payment for writing at the age of 8. Our class was taken to see a film about the founding of the Co-operative Society 100 years ago. We then had to write a story about “How the money got into the black box.” I won the Co-op competition and got a voucher for £1.
When I was at school, I enjoyed writing, but usually only did it when I was asked. I had the sort of grammar school education which gave the impression that writers were (a) famous, (b) dead. I was neither. It didn’t occur to me that this was something I could do professionally.
In my teens I wrote some bad poetry. But my father said I shouldn’t be writing about the beauties of nature, but about people who lived in homes where the rain came through the roof. I didn’t have the experience to do that, so I stopped writing poems.
But I did have a love of books. Both our parents read to us a great deal. My mother, my sister and I would sit sewing by the fire, while my father read to us from Dickens or Arthur Ransome.
As a student, I knew I could write well when required: letters, reports, prayers. But I never thought of taking it further.
I spent some of my early married life in a small bush town in Zambia, with little in the way of entertainment. I began to toy with writing: short stories, sample script for a TV film, though I am by nature a novelist. I got some encouraging replies, but no acceptances.
When I was back in England, and my younger child was about to start school, I realised I would have some spare time. It was my husband who encouraged me to start writing seriously. And Sid Robbins, a leading figure in children’s literature, steered me towards children’s novels.
I wasn’t an overnight success. It took me five years and five books before I had one accepted. But the very first reply I had from a publisher said that they would have published the book if it had not been similar to one they had recently published. I knew then that I was competing in the right league.
I’d been writing teenage novels for a while. It was when I came down the age-range to the 8-12s that I first made it to publication. F.67 has a near-future SF opening, when a runaway bug makes the developed world uninhabitable, and the children are sent to safety in an African country. It was inspired by my experience with Ugandan Asian refugees in this country. It’s really about the difficulties and frustrations of being a refugee.

2. I know you write children's fiction, adult fiction, non-fiction and work with aspiring writers. How do you handle it all?
To begin with, I was juggling writing with teaching. I’d do a spell of supply teaching, then spend a few months writing a book. Later I got a part-time teaching post, and split my week between the two. The shorter compass of children’s books fitted well with this. The Celtic fantasy series Pangur Ban was born.
But I was beginning to get interested in subjects which required a more adult approach and a longer treatment. Morgan le Fay was the trigger. I tried writing it for teenagers, but it needed a greater length, and a greater frankness about sex, than was suitable in those days. When a school merger meant that they were looking for teachers to take voluntary redundancy, I took the money and ran. I love both teaching and writing, but each was demanding more than half my week.
I used the luxury of writing full-time to complete the first of the five-part work, and got a contract for the series.
I have a low boredom threshold. It might have been better for my career if I had kept producing more of the same. As it was, I alternate between adult and children’s novels, and find the mix refreshing.
Many of my favourite books are set in the period of Celtic Christianity, following the Romans’ departure from Britain. I love doing research, and was fascinated by what I was discovering. There was a danger of trying to cram too much of this into the novels. So I wrote Visions and Voyages, a narrative history of the Celtic Churches, which uses individual stories of the saints to weave together the larger story. I followed this with Runes on the Cross, the story of the Anglo-Saxon Church.
Most writers need other work besides writing to make a sensible income. It’s ironic that you can sometimes make more from talking about writing than actually doing it. I did some school visits and talks to adult groups. But I was really pleased when my entry on the Society of Authors website was picked up by The Writers’ Workshop, a literary consultancy. They invited me to become an editor. This means reading scripts from aspiring novelists and helping to make them more publishable. It combines my two loves of writing and teaching. My experience in mathematics teaching means that I am good at identifying problems and pointing to solutions. It’s work I can do in my second-grade time, after I’ve finished the day’s creative writing stint. I enjoy it, and the clients seem appreciative.

3. Fay, I first met you through your novel DAUGHTER OF TINTAGEL when I was writing GLASTONBURY. It's a wonderful Celtic novel. Tell us more about your Morgan le Fay series.
Early on, I was intrigued by a line in Roger Lancelyn Green’s book, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. “She was sent to school in a nunnery; yet, by some means, she learnt much magic, which she used wickedly.”
I had been shown round Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur, by Raleigh Radford, the archaeologist who excavated the ruins. He believed it to be a monastery of the Celtic Church. I asked him, “Could it have been a nunnery?” He looked surprised, but answered, ‘Yes, I suppose so.”
More recent studies lean towards its being a high-status secular site.
I am fascinated by ambivalence. If I find two conflicting stories in the historical sources, I get most mileage, not from choosing one view, but asking, “Could they both be true?”
I had this tension between Church and paganism, religious and secular, vying for position on the same wonderfully evocative headland on the Cornish cliffs. This resulted in four first-person narrations, telling different stages in Morgan’s life, and her relationship to Arthur. Two of the narrators are male, two female, two Christian, two pagan, two sympathetic to her, two hostile, in differing combinations. There was originally a page at the end in which Morgan added a tart postscript to their tellings.
But when the contract came to be drawn up for four separate books, I realized Morgan deserved more than a single page at the end of the fourth. She needed a book to herself. My wonderful editor at Headline didn’t blink an eyelid. “If she says there are five books, there are five books.” And upped the advance accordingly.
All the time I was writing the other books, I knew I had a huge problem ahead. I didn’t know what was going to be in that fifth book.
I read everything I could get my hands on about the Morgan le Fay legend, even texts in Norman French. I began to view Morgan in a whole new way.
I had started out seeing her as a troubled teenager, drawn into evil against Arthur. Her mother had been duped into sexual intercourse, and her father killed, by Uther Pendragon, through the wiles of Merlin. Arthur was the result. How would she not hate him?
But my research took me back to earlier legends, in which Morgan is the wise and learned ruler of an island, to which she takes Arthur for healing. Over the centuries, she became demonised, until she became the wicked witch and failed seductress of so many versions. Recent re-tellings, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon have tried to re-instate her.
So I had enormous fun, with Morgan personally debunking all the men down the ages who have so distorted her story. Her commentary is interwoven with the moving tale of Arthur’s last hours. Herself is now the adult novel for which I receive the most feedback.
The Headline books are now out of print, but I am delighted that Wildside Press have made the series available in a stylish new edition with print-on-demand.

4. And now you're doing something quite different with your Suzie Fewings mystery series. I love Suzie. Tell us about her and her adventures.

Although these are modern crime stories, the Suzie Fewings series is not quite as different as you might think. It’s true that my first love is fantasy. The Pangur Ban children’s novels and the Morgan le Fay sequence were a delight both to research and to write. But along the way I picked up a whole lot of fascinating historical knowledge, which is woven into the background of the fantasy.
More recently, I, like so many others, have got hooked on family history. It’s been an intriguing journey, both for the human stories I have uncovered, and for the surprising and delightful experiences I have had while doing the research. Getting out and about to the parishes where my ancestors lived has added an extra dimension to the enjoyable detective work in libraries, record offices, and internet searches. It’s opened up periods of history I knew very little about before.
This was meant to be a relaxing hobby from writing novels. I should have known better. Soon, I was writing up the stories of all the people I discovered. And then came the cross-over point, when these colourful stories, and the research which led to them, triggered a novel.
It’s not another fictionalised story of people in the past. The central character is the present-day Suzie who is researching her family history. I started with the real-life story of a militiaman, after the English Civil War, who threw his Royalist parson down the stairs. I was aware of the tangle of sympathies this involved, when you knew the havoc wreaked in my home county of Devon by the Royalist Cavaliers. At the start, I didn’t see it as a modern crime story. Quite unbidden, Suzie’s son Tom became implicated in a murder which also involved a head injury.

With family history, you never know as much as you would like to. In the Blood follows Suzie’s swings of perception, where new evidence changes her view about what she thought happened. As with the past, so with the present. Is Tom guilty? She is thrown from fear to hope and back again.
The other books in this series, A Malignant House, Those in Peril, Father Unknown, follow a similar pattern. I have used colourful events, past and present, from my own experience, to weave a double mystery. Two detective stories for the price of one.


  1. Fay, thank you again for being my guest. I hope this is a good introduction to a lot of new readers for you.

  2. Wow. These books sound fantastic. I'll be on the lookout for them.

  3. you won't be disappointed, Caroline. If your local stores don't have them AmazonUK is always a good source.

  4. Yes, these do seem very interesting. I may see if can squeeze in time to read one or two in the midst of my own writing. I too am fascinated with King Arthur and Camelot and devote one chapter of my purposeful time travel novel to it. I love different areas of history and thus 6 different aras are included in my sci-fi work. My other novel concentrates on one time period, that of the Christ and the Roman empire.

  5. These definitely need to go on my too read list.