JUDITH BARROW: The Heart Stone

I was fortunate, recently, to be able to interview Judith Barrow on Zoom and thanks to Showboat TV‘s assistance, we recorded it. In case you missed it, here is the transcript.

Thorne
I am chatting with my friend and fellow author Judith Barrow, who has published five books so far: the Howarth family trilogy with the prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, and a more contemporary one, The Memory, which came out last year. Now she has a new novel, The Heart Stone.
So, Judith, tell us about the new book.

Judith
It’s an historical family saga, set between 1914 and 1922. It’s a love story, a life story, a bit gritty I’m told, and it’s the story of a young couple who have to grow up very fast in a time of great turmoil. They are Jessie and Arthur, and they are both sixteen when the story starts, at the outbreak of World War I.

Thorne
That’s the second book you’ve written set in that era. What’s the fascination with it that grabs you?

Judith
It’s two things, really. One goes back to school days. We were read the poem, The General, by Siegfried SassoonGood-morning, good-morning!” the General said, When we met him last week on our way to the line. The last line is But he did for them both by his plan of attack, and it made me realise, having researched later for my degree, what horrible times they were. The First World War both fascinated and repulsed me. I had an English teacher at the time who explained to me how these young men were feeling, and I think that’s something that has always stuck with me.

The other thing is my granddad on my father’s side, who was in the First World War and was gassed. I never remember him as being other than in bed, but he never talked about the war. He died when I was quite young. Later, before my Mum died, six or seven years ago, I found a letter from him, written in pencil. It was the laborious way he wrote his love on this paper. It was an uneducated man, and it just reminded me so much of so many of the young men, because he volunteered to go into the local Oldham Pals battalion with two of his mates. They were far too young and they just got accepted. And that was the rest of his life. It’s a period I feel I need to write about. I cry when I see some of the documentaries, like millions of other people. It just resonates with me.

Thorne
We’re going through quite a traumatic time at the moment, but nothing compared to the trauma of the First World War for the whole country. Everything changed with that, didn’t it?

Judith
Yes. I remember one of my relatives saying to me, that the terraced streets where she lived were emptied of young men. She never got married. It was dreadful. It’s a horrible time at the moment, and I think it’s come as a great shock for all of us, especially for our generation who, I feel, have had a blessed life. But I do feel sorry for the younger generation.

Thorne
It will be interesting to what emerges from it for the younger generation, how they will view life thereafter.
So, The Heart Stone is set in a mill town, although it is based in a bakery, to start with. You were born up on the Pennines, in cotton mill country. You’ve lived in Pembrokeshire for forty-one years, yet all your books are set back up north. Why? Is this something deep in your psyche or do you think it lends itself more to the sort of drama you write?

Judith
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. In the Howarth trilogy, the family finishes up in Wales, and in my mind, and in my body, I feel that coming to Wales changed everything. Wales is my place of peace. In my life, so in my books: when my characters come to Wales, they come to a place of peace.
I always feel that my life has taken place in two parts. We come from a working-class family, and both my parents worked in the mills, long hours. During my childhood and growing up, I spent a lot of time on my own. I read a lot. I wrote a lot, even though they were childish things. My father was very volatile and I spent a lot of time watching and weighing up the atmosphere of the house, of a room, of a place. When I wrote, I had to write in secret; my father thought it was a waste of time. He thought reading was a waste of time. I had to be doing something to help, even at six or seven, right up to getting married.

It was very strange when I got married, because I asked my husband did he mind if I wrote sometimes, and he couldn’t believe I’d asked. I couldn’t believe how free I was, once I’d got married, and I think the same feeling comes from being in Wales. So I can distance myself from up north, although I love the moors and the stone and I loved a lot of the people. I hated school.

Thorne
The north was where you learned to read people?

Judith
Yes. I knew I always felt an outsider. I probably wasn’t. I had friends, but I wasn’t allowed to mix with them other than at school. I sound like a poor child, don’t I, but I was happy in my head. I was all right as long as I was on my own. So I do love the ways of the north and I have an awful lot of books on Lancashire and Yorkshire in the past, the poetry and the stories, so probably, deep down, my love of the north is why I put my characters there. At the moment Jessie hasn’t escaped into Wales, so whether there’ll be another book I don’t know.

Thorne
Do you think there might be?

Judith
I don’t know. I’ve got a work in progress, The Sisters, which is more contemporary, like The Memory. I’ve got to try and finish that this year, and then I’ve got another one, which is three women back in the 1950s, back in the cotton mills, so I’ve got to get that out of my head. Then, perhaps, Jessie might move on as well.

Thorne
She does do a bit of moving on in the books.

Judith
She moves in strength of character. She goes from a very vulnerable sixteen-year-old to a strong woman. And I was really pleased about that. It’s the sixth book I’ve had published by Honno and I’m really pleased that they have accepted all of them.

Thorne
They have been very supportive?

Judith
Yes, they have been supportive, because the first book was in 2010, and that’s six books since then. The longest standing independent press, I think?’

Thorne
They don’t mind that you’re writing about oop north?

Judith
No, apparently not. They just take it and we work through edits, and they’ve never changed the basis of my books. Never asked to, never wanted to. I once had an agent who tried to do that and she got sacked very quickly. From being a child who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, as my husband would say, – where has that timid young woman gone? – I think I grew in strength, so I don’t take a lot, do I, Thorne?

Thorne
No, no…. Yes you do, actually. Yes you do. You’re a girl who will not say no to anyone asking for a favour.

Judith
Well, no. But that’s different. If any of mine were hurt… I just feel a stronger person now. If I’m not a stronger person at this age then I might as well give up.

Thorne
So with the book, presumably you had to do a lot of research, not just the war but the industries and so on.

Judith
I did. David, my husband, grew up in a bakery. His parents kept a baker’s shop. His father was the bread-maker and his mother decorated beautiful cakes, so I mined David’s mind. I sat him down one time and wrote down everything that he could remember as a child, the way his parents worked, so I had that as a basis, for a long time before I wrote the Heart Stone.

But I wanted to get away from cotton mills in this one, and I found a chap called Alex Askaroff, who has to be the world’s expert on sewing machines. I exchanged a couple of emails with him and he was so, so helpful, and he took me by video around his workshop and store room, and he has the most fantastic array of sewing machines, a couple of hundred years of them, that he has brilliantly restored and polished and I asked him how sewing machines were first made, when they started becoming popular, and he took me through the whole thing.

That was the research I did, because in The Heart Stone, that’s where the characters finish up, and that becomes a happy place. I am trying not to give too much away.

But then of course I went back to the research of the First World War and how the telegrams and letters were sent to the bereaved families, to the mothers and wives. It was quite heart-breaking, and because there was a shortage of young men, they had telegram girls. I had to bring that in. With the men away, the women at home were in the shops, baking bread, they were on the farms… In A Hundred Tiny Threads I wrote a lot about the suffragettes, so I had researched that. When the war started in 1914, Mrs Pankhurst said they’d stop fighting for the vote for the time being and help the country. So, of course, there is a character in The Heart Stone who was a suffragette and who then goes to do her bit for the country.

There’s all my research, files and files, that I have been doing over the last ten years – the houses, the hairstyles, the clothes, the toys, the politics, international and domestic, the furniture, the utensils in the kitchen, how they washed clothes … And I have files on each book, so I can delve into that. I get lost in research. It’s a waste of time – no it isn’t a waste of time, is it, Thorne?

Thorne
No, it’s all in the background

Judith
What do they say? 10% of the 100%. So I mined all my research. My stories never get plotted out properly. I sort of know how I want to do them, and a lot of the time it doesn’t happen, so I just go with it.

Thorne
You know what the ending is, presumably, and you head towards it? Hopefully? With fingers crossed?

Judith
Not always. I always want there to be hope at the end. The Memory is the story of a woman in her 60s, looking after her elderly mother, and it runs on two time lines, the past and the present. It’s a memory she’s carried with her from childhood, while over 24 hours she’s looking after her mother, who has dementia, so it sounds as if it could be a bit miserable, but it’s not. It’s got a lot of humour in it, and I wanted there to be a good ending.

Thorne
It’s a lovely book and I’d recommend it to everyone.

Judith
Thank you. So, I didn’t have to do a lot of research for that one, but I did for all the others. I love researching. I tend to go off at a tangent and find that 3 hours have passed and what I was looking for in the first place is way down the line; I’ve already made notes about it, so I should get on with writing.

Thorne
When does the Heart Stone come out?

Judith
It comes out on the 18th February, so this is the second book that will have come out in a lock-down, because The Memory came out in the first week of the lockdown last year. It has gone out to some people and has had some brilliant reviews. I am so excited, although very nervous. I think you are always nervous with a new book.

Thorne
Always! Hopefully the lockdown will be over soon and hopefully everyone is filling time in the meantime by buying books and reading them, especially new ones!

Judith
You can buy direct from Honno, and it’s available as Kindle and paperback on Amazon.

Thorne
And from bookshops when they reopen.

Judith
Yes, wouldn’t that be nice. But they are selling some on-line, and if readers can support independent bookshops, it means we’ll have them on the High Street still, afterwards. Oh to browse in a bookshop again.

And so say all of us.

Judith’s website

If you want to watch the Zoom interview, find it HERE

13 thoughts on “JUDITH BARROW: The Heart Stone

  1. I’m always fascinated by the background to a book and its author. Thanks, Thorne, for taking the time to write this transcript for those of us who missed the original interview. And thanks, of course, to Judith on another powerful, gripping book. x

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi

    Your book The Heart Stone as well as the other books that you have written sound very engaging and like they are great stories to read.

    I have book The Heart Stone on my TBR and received a free sample from Amazon so that I don’t forget it.
    Wishing you all the best.

    Shalom aleichem

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My mother’s father didn’t believe in educating girls, Judith. He was also strict with all his children, but particularly the girls. No makeup, nail polish or even face cream. I enjoyed learning so much about your background and the inspiration and research for this book. Thank you, Thorne, for hosting Judith. It is lovely to meet you.

    Liked by 1 person

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