Remembering with Pam Nixon

Back in June, Candice and I visited Worcester Litfest for an event called “Authors of a Certain Era“.  I came away with Pam Nixon’s book “But I’ll remember this.”

The book tells the story of Dilly, a rather naive eighteen year old who is a boarder at the Girls’ High School and her meeting with glamorous couple, Mike and Alithea Davis. The text immerses the reader in a 1950s world that seems very alien today. My mother, in her 70s, raced through it and tells me that it brought back a lot of memories and the atmosphere is absolutely spot on. 

As a co-published author, we thought it would be interesting to have a chat with Pam.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

When I retired from a career teaching English I imagined years of leisure ahead during which I’d read long novels like pamnixonheasdshotUlysses and Moby Dick as well as having time to write my novel.

It didn’t turn out quite like that. My daughters started producing children and wanting me to go and help, sometimes locally but also in France and Australia.

We sold the family house and renovated a wreck of a flat in Oxford, where there proved to be many distractions. I took GCSE French and Italian, did art and literature classes as well as joining writers’ groups -and then there was the local arts cinema, the theatre, art exhibitions and friends to keep up with.

Somehow the novel did get written, but it took a great deal longer than I’d envisaged.

How did you start writing?

My mother wrote poems and stories for my sister and me when we were children. Before she was married she’d had poems published in a magazine called ‘The People’s Friend’ so I always thought writing was quite a normal thing to do.

I wrote poems that rhymed and had lots of thous and thees, Later I wrote more sophisticated ones, officially published in school magazines and unkind rhymes about teachers, unofficially passed round amongst my contemporaries.

I started stories but never finished them. I wrote plays for my sister and friends to perform But then I went to Oxford to read English and felt so intimidated by people who seemed so much cleverer and cooler than me that I more or less gave up writing anything original for years.

I never quite gave up the idea of being a writer however and eventually got up the courage to go on an Arvon course. Other courses followed and I joined a poetry group. I had a few poems published, got commended in competitions – even won one but I still wanted to write a novel.

What’s a typical writing day? Do you set yourself a word count?

I really don’t have a typical writing day. Life is fairly unpredictable and I write when I can.

With my first novel I had a break of about two years when I got totally stuck and started to write a family memoir. It was a life-writing class that started me going again.

Then I found a mentor and had to produce something every fortnight. That’s how the first draft was finished.

After that I became obsessed and wrote whenever I could sometimes for hours at a time, completely oblivious to anything else that was going on.

Now , with my second novel, I’m stuck again and this time am distracting myself by writing a play – I’ve just finished a ten week playwriting course – but the novel is going on in my head and I’m making notes.

Favourite place to write?

We live in a second floor flat and don’t have many rooms but, as it’s part of a Victorian house, they are quite big. I write in a corner of our bedroom under a velux window so it’s nice and light. I’m very happy there surrounded by books and files with a big table for my laptop and printer. The only disadvantage is I can’t work late at night if my husband wants to go to sleep

My children clubbed together to put up a summerhouse at the end of the garden that they hoped I’d use as a writing room but it’s a long way down to the garden; so I only work there when the weather is lovely and it seems a pity to stay indoors

Could you tell us a little about your novel “But I’ll remember this”

pamnixonI like to base my writing on real life and memory but when I was younger I thought my life was so ordinary it was of little interest. As I grew older ,however I began to realise that my time as a boarder at a girls’ high school in a provincial cathedral city in the mid-fifties was part of a vanished world. I wanted to recapture that world through fiction but I couldn’t think of a plot. Then I remembered that during my last year at school I’d longed for some interesting people to arrive and I thought, ‘What if they had ? As soon as I’d created charming Mike, his exotic wife Alithea and the pompous Hugh the plot almost wrote itself .

The story is written from the point of view of a young girl. Is it autobiographical?

Well it is and it isn’t. I did quite a lot to differentiate Dilly from my eighteen year old self , changing things about her background and appearance, but a great deal of her day to day experience was described from memory. Nobody interesting ever did appear in my life during that last year at school. However I have a lot of trouble convincing some people that I’m not still yearning for some lost love, who in fact never existed.

The older Dilly is a more successful poet than I am and my husband is not an academic and is not at all like Steve although he’s convinced Steve is based on him – actually he’s a bit more like Mike!

Are any of the characters based on real people – that you will admit to!

After the book was published I got an e-mail from a man who’d been a pupil at the Boys’ Grammar School in the same era. He wrote,
‘The most fictional bit is the passage on the title page which says “Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead or to businesses, companies, events, institutions or locations is completely coincidental. I was reminded of many people institutions and locations…”’

I did invent some people however – or half-invented them. The hero, Mike, for example, is based on anecdotes my then boyfriend used to tell me about his history teacher. After the novel was published another one of the ex-grammar school boys put me in touch with the real life history teacher ,whom I found, to my embarrassment, was still alive . He turned out to have come from a very different background than the one I’d invented for him. He wasn’t the son of a Welsh coal miner, but of a German, Jewish banker. He’d come over here on Kinder transport. Fortunately he was amused by the character I’d created.

So yes, a lot of the characters are based on real people or my interpretation of them.

The book is co-published, what did this involve between writing and publication?

3Score Publishing was set up by a friend of ours and my husband and I had been involved in it for some years.

A few years ago I’d become tired of a senior editor at a large publishing house telling me how, having been so impressed by the first three chapters of my novel she couldn’t wait to read the rest. She managed to resist the temptation for 5 months; so I decided I’d had enough and turned to 3Score.

My husband did most of the work preparing it for the printers as he has a background in IT. It was meticulously proof-read by another 3Score member who is a retired language teacher and our friend who set up the co-operative,had had a career in PR so helped with publicity.

I had some outside help. My sister did the painting for the cover which I then gave to a graphic designer. The marketing manager of Blackwell’s in the Broad in Oxford whom I know, offered me a book launch there. I managed to get 60 people to come that evening and it was a great success.

I’m not much good at social media and most of my sales come through word of mouth. Lately I’ve been giving talks to local W.I s on my novel and have sold a number through them.

What’s next, is there another novel in the pipeline?

As I’ve said I’m a bit stuck on my next novel at the moment.

The title is ‘A Passion for Dead Leaves ‘. It’s about the relationship between two sisters who, despite their strong affection for each other, have a rather strained relationship.

Part of it is set in Cyprus where we lived for 4 years during the 60s and one of the reasons I’m not progressing at the moment is that I’m doing some background reading about the politics of the time. I also need to find out something about RAF family life, the A level chemistry syllabus in the 60s and, later on, about coloured glazes on pots. In other words this novel requires more research than the first one.

In the meantime I want to finish my play, ‘Franglais’, which will be entered for a competition in January.

Thanks Pam.Good luck with the play, and your research for the next novel.

You can buy “But I’ll Remember This” from Amazon.

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Filed under Interviews, Phil, Writing

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