Elizabeth Chats With…Debbie Young
Debbie Young is a very busy woman! She is the best-selling author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries; she has also published three collections of short stories plus a variety of non-fiction books. She is the founder and director of Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, and Author Advice Centre editor and ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). The photo shows Debbie, on the left with Caroline Sanderson, Associate Editor of The Bookseller; once a month they join presenter Dominic Cotter for an hour-long Book Session. I have only met her once for real, in a packed room over a pub in London at ALLi’s fifth birthday party; but we have ‘met’ in a virtual sense many times, both via ALLi and in preparation for her appearance at Chudleigh Literary Festival in 2017. I’m delighted she’s here with me today.
Hello Debbie and welcome to my blog. Let’s start by going back to the beginning. What is your earliest memory – and how old were you at the time?
I was still in my pushchair, so probably about three years old, on holiday with my parents and my big brother and sister in the Cotswolds. We didn’t have a car in those days, so walked everywhere or used public transport. I was complaining that I’d lost the toy soldier that I’d had in my hand and wanted us to go back to look for it, but they refused. Goodness knows how far they had just walked, but I think we were staying in a farmhouse miles from anywhere, and had just reached our destination, possibly Bourton-on-the-Water. I cried, but it didn’t spoil my holiday – in fact, I think it was during that stay that I decided that when I grew up, I was going to live in the Cotswolds myself. About 28 years later, I bought a house in a little Cotswolds village and have no intention of ever living anywhere else! The photo shows me taking part in the Hawkesbury Upton Village Show’s Carnival procession, with our decorated trailer, Pandamonium, celebrating the pandas we’d just seen at Edinburgh Zoo – my (Scottish) husband is the zookeeper and I’m the Chinese ambassador (The village show is the inspiration behind Best Murder in Show. I was on the Show Committee for 13 years, and have been on countless carnival floats, but fortunately haven’t had a murder there yet!)
What was your favourite subject at school – and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
English was always my favourite – whether writing in our news books at primary school, or studying literature in secondary school. I went on to take a degree in English and Related Literature at the University of York, and never considered any other subject. It was the right decision for me.
I hated all forms of PE, except country dancing, because that didn’t feel like a sport, just jolly, romantic fun, and doing the hurdles, possibly because it came up on the curriculum just at the time when my legs were of optimum length for striding between the hurdles and then leaping over them. Both country dancing, when being spun round by a partner, and hurdling, made me feel like I was flying – really exhilarating. But otherwise I bunked off as many PE lessons as I could – and when I did have to go to one, I’d make as little effort as possible. On cross-country runs my best friend Liz and I would keep to the very back, and run slowly enough to leave us enough puff to talk all the way round. For hockey lessons I’d always volunteer to go in goal as it meant I wouldn’t have to move about as much – and I kept my tights on under my hockey socks to keep me warm.
If you had to escape from a fire, which three things would you take with you?
Assuming husband, daughter and cat aren’t permissible, I’d have to say (1) the small writing case my grandmother gave me when I was eight, decorated with pressed flowers (2) the plaster statuette, of an old monk reading a book, which sat on my grandmother’s mantelpiece throughout my childhood (3) my grandmother’s seed pearl necklace in the shape of a swallow that she had for her twenty-first birthday.
Talking about yourself, how would you finish the sentence “not a lot of people know…”?
As you might guess from my answer to the previous question, I was very close to my grandmother, who was exactly 60 years older than me, and with whom I spent an hour at lunchtime every day throughout primary school. In those days, when fewer mothers worked full-time, a lot of pupils went home at “dinner time” rather than staying for “school dinners”. I hated school dinners, which put me off baked beans and beetroot for life, but Grandma came to my rescue. Those dinner times at her house were hugely formative for me – she taught me to play lots of games including Scrabble, at which I’m now a complete wiz, trained me to love BBC Radio 4 (how many other four year olds adore Desert Island Discs?!), and dispensed plenty of home-spun wisdom that stayed with me for ever. She died when I was 13 – I was with her when she had her fatal stroke – and I miss her still. I often dream I’m visiting her house and having tea with her – it’s such a comfort. So that childhood bond remains very strong – and now that I’m approaching the age she was when I was born, I look almost exactly like her. She is the inspiration behind the wise and kindly Great Auntie May in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and also behind the old lady in my short story Lighting Up Time.
If you could change one thing about yourself or your life so far, what would it be?
I once heard Professor Sir Joseph Rotblatt, the anti-nuclear campaigner, say at a talk I attended that “regret is a sterile emotion” – an astonishing statement considering that he had previously been a part of the Manhattan Project, the war-time research and development programme that produced the first nuclear weapons. If he could so effectively put something clearly so regrettable behind him and move on, I can too. But I do regret just a little that I didn’t take either a formal journalism course on leaving university or a creative writing degree. Either option might have made me a completely different type of writer, and not necessarily a better one, but I still can’t help wondering “what if…?”
If you were a car, what type would you be – and why?
I’m going to cheat slightly here, and quote how a writer friend, Shaun Ivory, described me recently: “A Porsche in the slow lane”. I interpreted that as meaning I’m capable of writing something more ambitious and daring than the cosy mysteries and happy-ever-after stories that have been the bulk of my fiction so far. I don’t think he just meant I should write faster, as I published the first four Sophie Sayers novels in just thirteen months! While my novels are getting more ambitious, more complex and a little darker, (but not so much as to upset cosy mystery fans), I hope to write something quite different in the future that stretches me in other directions. Not sure what yet, though!
Upload a picture that best represents you, and tell us why.
The image by Angela Fitch is a group shot taken of the authors and volunteers at the 2018 Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, an annual event that I run in my village. I’m standing at the centre, looking ever so slightly smug, at the end of another hugely successful Festival, surrounded by my wonderful band of authors, artists and helpers, who all generously volunteer to help me stage a free community event that is accessible to all. I launched the Festival in 2015, as a one-off evening in the pub, and it’s morphed into a multi-stranded whole-day extravaganza that takes over the village. I’m a gregarious extrovert who loves to share things, and I’m also passionate about helping other authors reach a wider audience, so this is me in my comfort zone and feeling on top of the world.
If you could take part in one television programme, which would it be?
I hardly watch any television, and only the occasional DVD. I enjoy documentaries, particularly travel programmes and biographies, but last night’s viewing was fairly typical: University Challenge (I’d be rubbish on that, though I can usually answer a few questions), and an episode of the 1970s twenty-part dramatisation of War and Peace. So can I cheat again and choose a radio programme instead? That would have to be Desert Island Discs. Over the years, I have changed my playlist many times, but my choice of luxury to take with me has been the same since I first heard the show as a child: an endless supply of paper and pens, because I’d never get bored with writing or run out of things to write about.
What would you have printed on the front of your t-shirt?
Busy Bee – for two reasons. Firstly, the name Deborah is Hebrew for bee. Secondly, I am always buzzing about like a mad thing from task to task, trying to do far more than there is time for in the day. I’m either working at top speed or keeling over from having done too much without sufficient rest. I often describe myself as a busy bee – I think it’s currently at the end of my Twitter profile description – because it’s a much kinder description than workaholic, ill-disciplined frenzied wreck, or similar. Plus as everyone knows now, bees are A Good Thing! Until, of course, they sting you. So maybe on the back of the t-shirt it should say “No sting in this tail”.
And finally, why did you choose to write cosy mystery?
This picture shows the array of all five book covers in order, with my photo taken by Angela Fitch in the local churchyard by the lychgate. I’ve always loved gentle mysteries of the kind that keep violence and gore to a minimum, particularly those from the Golden Age of Crime-writing (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, etc). This is partly because I’m hypersensitive and the slightest horror will give me nightmares, but mostly because the best cosy mysteries have a strong sense of place and a fascinating cast of characters. When I decided to write in celebration of village life, its intrigues and its personalities, classic cosy mystery provided the perfect skeleton on which to build my stories. I love the intellectual puzzle of a good cosy mystery – the more red herrings, the better – but I also like the way it allows for almost everyone to live happily ever after (apart from the victims and the villains, of course), with each player emerging a little wiser by the end, and moral values gently asserted.
The cosy mysteries I write are really a celebration of village community life all year round. My planned series of seven Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries runs the course of a village year from one summer to the next, so there’s always a book in season! Just now, for example, is the right time to read Murder in the Manger, which kicks off just after Guy Fawkes’ Night and runs through till Christmas, focusing on a village nativity play that goes haywire. Then comes Murder by the Book, running from New Year through Valentine’s Day. I’m just about to launch Springtime for Murder, set at Easter. I have a murder for all occasions!
Debbie, it’s been fascinating chatting with you and thank you for making time in your busy (bee) schedule. Readers, you can find out more about Debbie on her website. You can also find her on Twitter; on Facebook; and on Bookbub. You can see all her Sophie Sayers books at your local Amazon store by clicking here.