Author's Notes - East of the Sun

Being chosen as one of this year's Summer Reads by the Richard and Judy Book Club was a life-changing event for Monmouthshire author, Julia Gregson. Her book, East of the Sun, has already had 350,000 copies printed and risen to number two on the best-seller lists; the film and television rights have been sold, and it has since been chosen by the Independent Newspaper, and Country Life, and Prima Magazines in their best read of the summer lists.  Here she looks back on some other good fairies who have changed her life.

Mentor is too posh a word to describe the people I have met who have helped me become a writer. It implies an on going relationship, a deliberate attempt to get educated, whereas inspiration from other people seems to come in a flash, a sentence, an image of how we want to be.

My first good fairy was the anonymous reader who was part of the Welsh Academi's mentoring scheme where you paid, I think around £10, and an expert told you in effect whether your book stunk or had any merit at all.

In 2003, full of trepidation, I posted off my first book, 'The Water Horse', a fictionalized account of  Jane Evans who, in 1853, ran off with the Welsh cattle drovers  to nurse with Florence Nightingale in Scutari.

I'd worked as a journalist  and written short stories,  before writing this book, but still a novel felt like a terrifying leap  into the unknown.

Six weeks later, a long letter - my message in a bottle - came back. It left me in no doubt there was more work to be done.  It filled me with insane hope. It told me:  "You're on to something here. Keep going. Don't bin this."

My next good fairy wore scarlet boots, and smoked enthusiastically into a jam jar under a 'No Smoking' sign in a converted farmhouse in North Wales.  Her name was Beryl Bainbridge - my tutor on a writing course at Ty Newydd in North Wales.

I'd come on this course  because by now I was in despair again.

I'd finished 'The Water Horse,' the dream thing had happened:  my agent had submitted it to a big London publisher; 24 hours later they offered  a  generous two book deal.

My sister  raced down the road with a bottle of champagne, my mother and I shed tears of joy.  Eighteen months later, the company, having been taken over twice, dropped some of its books and I hit the cutting room floor.

Beryl, at the height of her fame at the time, and someone whose writing I revered, listened  carefully to my tale of woe.  She said bad news was an occupational hazard of a writer's life but  no excuse for giving up. (She read my stories, gave me two simple pieces of writerly advice I've never forgotten.  The first was that writing is not just opening a vein and using your own experiences, it must become something else.

The next was how you ground each chapter of your book into some sort of reality, which makes sense to you. It might be something seemingly small and incidental- your first kiss; eating an ice cream when you were five - but it was a way of keeping yourself true.) She was huge fun and a great teacher - when she told me that she was jealous of a short story I'd written, I nearly passed out with pleasure.

But my first teacher, the one to whom I owe so much was Mrs. Smith Pearse. I was five when we met. She was sixty.  She and her husband had recently returned to England after fifteen years in India. Our family, poor after the war, rented the top floor flat of her house in Hampshire.

(I loved everything about her: the battered tweeds, the honking laugh, her wonderful stories about India: the snakes under the bath, the tiger hunts with Maharajahs, the three day treks on ponies up to Simla. She’d gone to India, aged eighteen, as a member of 'The Fishing Fleet' - the slightly derogatory name given to the girls who went east in search of husbands.) Although none of the characters in my novel, EAST OF THE SUN, are based on her, it was her life that grounded my book in some sort of reality I understood.

I tried to imagine the terror and the thrill young girls would feel being sent to India to find a husband; to think about the humiliation of failing and being shipped back home a 'Returned Empty'.  I was determined not to make them the usual caricatures of the Memsahib - gin swilling, narrow-minded snobs. Some deserved our contempt; most didn't. Half way through the writing of the book, something wonderful happened.  I decided on a whim to get in touch with her nephew, Peter Waghorn. He gave me  a box of tapes she’d recorded a few years before she died.  Listening to her familiar voice and hearing her story as an adult filled me with sadness and pleasure.

On them she spoke of the agony of missing children sent home to be educated. "The biggest decision we all had to make: husband or child."  Passionately fond of nursing - she'd served in France in 1917 - in India working Memsahibs were frowned on. A sister had died of a tropical disease on the ship going home.

EAST OF THE SUN is my raised glass to these women: to their friendships, their naiveté, to the men they loved, to the work they did, and for the price they paid in loving India. How I wish I could share that glass with Mrs. Smith Pearse, with Beryl Bainbridge and with my anonymous reader - they’ve all been part of the journey.


 

 
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