Debbie Taylor interview: Never too busy to help

Debbie Taylor’s new novel is just the latest of her many, many projects

Debbie Taylor is living proof of the saying: if you want something done, ask a busy woman. This is a woman who once jacked in a fascinating career as a research psychologist to go and write novels in a mud hut on the edge of the Kalahari, only to find herself reporting on women’s lives for New Internationalist magazine while she was at it.

After returning to Britain, she found that as a working mother she still struggled to find time to write; her answer was to found a magazine as well. Instead of going on a package holiday to relax, she restored a ruined house in Crete, which inspired her 2006 novel, Hungry Ghosts. Her non-fiction includes Women: A World Report (Methuen) and My Children, My Gold (Virago), for which she spent seven days with seven women in seven countries. She now lives in an old lighthouse at the mouth of the Tyne. Which she did up herself ... while writing Herring Girl.

This latest novel is a sort of historical/time-slip/romantic/crime-thriller which takes in past-life regression therapy, free-diving, the politics of over-fishing, and transgender rights, and of course she researched every thread personally, including learning to dive and being regressed under hypnosis. (She says that the diving was the more scary.)

The novel is hard to precis. The herring girl of the title is Annie, a young woman in a late 19th-century, north-eastern fishing town who is falling in love with a handsome fisherman. But we learn about Annie mostly through Ben, a young boy living in the same town in 2007. Ben lives with his dad, a trawlerman, who refuses to understand that really Ben wants to live as a girl. Then, Ben meets Mary, a chain-smoking psychotherapist with an academic interest in past life experiences and psychotherapy. Through hypnosis she helps him to remember his unresolved past life as Annie – and explore the hypothesis that groups of souls are often reincarnated together.

Sounds far-fetched? The extent to which it succeeds is a tribute to Taylor’s skill and also to the amount of research she put in. She did remove one plot strand and several characters in a later draft because “it was just getting out of hand”, but retained the group souls element after going back to the research to reassure herself that the stories are out there – many of them. She also wrote a cameo role for the woman she encountered when she was herself regressed under hypnosis – a maid who worked in a big house and helped to raise children. “It was very detailed,” she says, recalling sitting on some cellar stairs and “just sobbing”. But, who knows? “Maybe it was because I’m a fiction writer, I just made it all up.”

Taylor’s interest in the ideas behind the novel has been with her for many years. She called herself by a boy’s name at the age of seven and refused to answer to her own. Not because she was transgender, but “being a tomboy was my way of being a feminist …. Thinking, ‘I don’t want to be like those women I can see, that’s not the life I want’.”

Her interest in the paranormal came later. “In our society, it’s assumed that is simply nonsense,” she says. “Whereas when I lived in Botswana, people used to be buried in the houses, under the floor. So you keep your ancestors with you, and people are routinely inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors, that’s what they believe. Which isn’t to say that I believe. It’s just that you do have very strange experiences if you open your own mind and you’re surrounded by people whose minds are open. I’ve always been interested in that boundary between where normal and paranormal interpose.”

Keeping an open mind seems to have served her well in her career. With a PhD in neuropsychology, she started work diagnosing patients at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. “I could have written some things like Oliver Sachs did,” she muses .... “But then, you only need one Oliver Sachs.” When her then boyfriend was offered a job in Botswana she saw it as her “now or never” moment as a writer, and went with him. Her first commissioned piece for a newspaper was about being initiated into the local tribal group, leading to writing for international publications and researching for the World Health Organisation and Oxfam, the BBC and Channel 4.

She moved to Newcastle with her husband and stayed, she says, because people are so lovely there. With a tiny baby, she joined a local writing group, two of whose members were involved with a literary magazine and invited her to get involved. “At the same time,” she recalls, “I’d had my daughter. I wasn’t able to travel any more. I had no time for writing ... I suddenly thought, this is ridiculous, no wonder so few women win literary prizes, no wonder we find it so difficult to advance in this area, we simply don’t have time!” And so, she founded Mslexia: “the magazine for women who write”.

With interviews and practical advice from published writers and experts, the magazine is gold dust to its 11,000 subscribers. And also to its founder. “I used to have the Beryl Bainbridge method,” she says. “Which is, don’t go on to the second paragraph until the first paragraph is perfect. Don’t start the book until you know exactly what the title is ....” She now follows Pat Barker’s advice: “She just goes like this, tap tap tap tap tap. She talks about it as Serbo Croat crap, just really dismissive of her first drafts.” She also follows Sarah Waters’ advice on writing dialogue and Margaret Atwood’s technique of plotting intricate timelines for all her characters. (She ought to frame the one she created for Herring Girl.)

She is astonished, though, when I ask why she would support a magazine that helps rival writers get published. “Rival? What a weird idea!” she shrieks. She sits back, laughs, and thinks. “I don’t think you can be a feminist and … that just goes against everything I’ve ever believed. That’s so weird! I just think that we, as women writers, need all the help we can get,” she says eventually. “And that we need to be helping each other. And hopefully we do.”

I ask: so what are you working on next? She laughs again. “Ah,” she says, “No … I haven’t had time ….” The tiny baby she took to Newcastle is about to leave home for university, she also tells me. It sounds like it’s time for Taylor to take on another project, to keep her busy enough to write the next novel.

Extract: Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor Oneworld, £16.99

“I’m on the high bank, staring out to the Tyne’s mouth, where the slow brown river meets the hickety sea – for it’s canny breezy today, with white spume blowing off the tops of the waves. And from every direction, here come the luggers racing home, red sails bellying with the gold of the sun and their holds brimming with silver fish. And that’s how I feel: full of gold and silver and racingness.”

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before