A daughter of the artist Cyril Hamersma, Theresa was raised in London and married at nineteen. After having three children in quick succession she trained as a hairdresser, took up pottery but ended up working in a factory to pay the bills. After her eventual divorce she married again in 2006. Finally, having the support of friends and family, and with her children settled in New York and Kent, Theresa is able to follow her passion for writing and express her strong views about social injustice. She is an avid listener of Radio 4 and a keen gardener, growing all of her own vegetables. Her first novel, The Sea Inside His Head, was also published by Robert Hale.
Here she talks to us about the inspiration behind her writing and why social issues are so vital in her storytelling.
When did your love of writing begin?
As a child, I always had my head buried in a book. I began by writing poetry and associate this with feelings of melancholy. By the age of thirteen I had my own typewriter and began delving into my parents’ copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. So exciting! This was when I began sending work, poems and short-stories out to publishers. The feel of a newly typed manuscript in my hands thrilled me and it still does to this day.
How do you come up with your ideas?
The idea for The Forgiving Sand came to me with the phrase: ‘On the underside, rust was seeping from steel rivets onto the shingle, staining it amber.’ This line, which is about a derelict fishing-boat, appears in the first chapter of my second novel. British Social History in general interests me, especially when it involves unfairness in the workplace. I’ve written about the coal-miners in The Sea Inside His Head. When I was employed in a factory, I resented giving up my day, especially in the summer. The low wages didn’t seem worth the time I was sacrificing, but I still had to go to work. It’s a bit like the commitment of having to go to school every day which I truly resented as a child. I still wonder why school has to be compulsory for children. I think they miss so much. Everyone deserves to be free to choose.
I’m quite religious and when I’m in a creative mood, I think about the mystery of life and the wonder of nature, especially when I’m out walking. I walk our greyhound three times a day and it gives me lots of thinking time. When an idea is hatching I get a sensation, like a yearning for something, but for what? It’s quite intriguing. A character will just come to me and I get to know them by deliberately trying to think ‘inside their head’ to quote a familiar phrase! Only then will I discover what’s going to happen in the next scene.
Underlying a lot of life’s issues are social injustices just waiting to pop up and declare themselves. My characters are in touch with reality. They have to eat, go to work, they might have money-problems – but life for ordinary people is like that. Under my protagonist’s skin there’s a vulnerable person who needs to achieve something (otherwise there wouldn’t be a plot). Finding their problem, and how they set about solving it, creates a story; this is what draws me, and the readers, to become involved. More than that, a person who cares about something so intensely that it causes friction in a relationship provides the basis for a strong love story. I’m not interested in political issues as such, only in how it affects people personally. Love, hopefully, has to survive outside pressures like unemployment, therefore my love stories aren’t just about love. Nor are they just about physical and sexual attraction. That comes into it of course, but I like my characters to have depth and soul.
How do you go about writing a book? Do you plan first or just dive in?
I just dive in. As I said earlier, a single phrase comes into my head and that can start me off. I won’t necessarily start at the beginning; it’s purely character lead so I can’t plan. Half-way through I might have to start planning though. When the novel’s almost complete, I isolate each scene and juggle them about a bit. I do a lot of cutting and pasting after the first draft is written, making sure the pacing is right and the dates correct. I think of the plot as a succession of hills and valleys. The ‘hills’ are the dramatic bits, when something happens to further the plot and these are in place at the first draft stage. Going through the manuscript again I add the ‘valleys’, when I can give the reader time to relax and have a look round at the scenery.
What made you choose Cornwall as the setting?
It couldn’t have been anywhere else. It’s a spiritual place. In the opening chapter of The Forgiving Sand, my character is torn between the beauty and the haunting melancholy of the landscape. There’s a certain atmosphere there which I haven’t found anywhere else. I love Cornwall and have lived there, on and off, for several years. My first glimpse of it was when my father wanted to join the artist’s colony in St. Ives in the 1960s, so we all moved there to a tiny fisherman’s cottage. I had just left school and I worked as a waitress in a café on the harbour. In that beautiful setting I felt inexplicably sad; this was the inspiration for my novel.
Do you have any particular quirks or rituals when you’re writing?
I have to be alone to write. Fortunately I have my own study upstairs and I usually try to stick to the hours between 10am and 5pm, breaking for lunch to feed and walk the dog, and do housework I suppose. I used to spend all day writing but recently I’ve had to give more time to ‘social networking’ – it’s essential these days of course. I also spend a bit of time on background research. At the start of the day I like to sit down at the PC with a cup of tea and put on a CD, either pop or classical, depending on my mood and what I’m writing about. Music often feeds my imagination.
What books do you love to read?
These days I mostly read non-fiction because I don’t have time for research otherwise. I do love reading novels though, especially the classics like Dickens. Recently I’ve been reading more contemporary stuff. I’ve just read and enjoyed ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ by Mark Haddon and ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce. Currently I’m researching the lifestyle and history of Romany Gypsies because that’s the subject of the novel I’m currently working on. This is a kind of relaxation for me, indulging in my love for nature and taking a break from troubles in the workplace to pursue the freedom of the open road. As with The Forgiving Sand, it will be set in Cornwall.