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.”