Q&A with Début Novelist Linda Baker by Vicky Pointing

Linda front coverVicky Pointing, compère of last year’s Krampus Crackers project in the UK, interviewed début novelist Linda Baker to find out what inspired her to write The Sun on Their Backs; a love story set against the miners’ strike of 1984, and what she learnt from the process.

A large part of ‘The Sun on Their Backs’ is set in 1984, and you describe the Battle of Orgreave and events surrounding it. What made you want to write about this?
1984 was a significant year for me. A week after the strike began I moved back to South Yorkshire because of my husband’s job and we bought a house four miles away from the mining village where I’d been brought up. The week before the strike my stepfather, who was a pit surface worker, had been made redundant. He was my last link with the mining industry.
Each week I would take the bus with my toddler to visit my parents. The route was along the country lane past the pit and I’d see the pickets by their brazier. I felt suddenly disconnected from my roots and became, like most people in the country, a television witness to events. This feeling was enforced when I watched TV news coverage of a local soup kitchen and the young man being interviewed was a bright ex-class mate of mine who had left school after O level to become a miner. It struck me what different life paths we had taken. I began to gather the seeds of a novel based on conflicting loyalties, class culture and roots, though the seeds lay dormant for more than twenty years as I moved to Leeds and pursued a career in teaching.

As you wrote the book, did you feel obliged to present a balanced view of the strike?
This was tricky. I was sympathetic to the miners’ case against pit closures but very uncomfortable with what I saw on TV during the strike. I had little idea of what people were really suffering and on the day the miners returned to work my mother arrived at my house in tears having watched the procession though the high street. I suddenly realised the implications for the future of the villages across the region and felt guilty I had not given more support.

Once I did my research this feeling was strengthened and it was difficult to be neutral. I have over the years witnessed the demise of many mining communities across the region. It is heart breaking to remember how fiercely proud people were of their villages and how close knit and supportive of each other the mining families were. After the strike unemployment became rife, crime and drugs problems increased. Some villages had young men who grew up with little or no work ethic: their own fathers had never found work after the strike; their grandfathers were redundant miners. In my opinion politicians should always consider the impact of policies on ordinary people before pursuing their own political ideologies.

I did try to represent some of the feelings of the police who were drawn into a battle not of their own making, and I did want the novel to embody the theme of hope and fresh starts. I didn’t feel obliged to be objective though. My grandfather died as a result of a fall of coal but the family received no compensation since he died in hospital and not in the pit itself, which was privately owned then. That one accident in 1924 affected me decades later when my own father died at the age of 39 from an illness caused by childhood poverty. So I am keenly aware of injustice. Consequences rumble on. Also if you are writing in the point of view of your character you have to be true to their beliefs.

What sort of research did you do?

The internet is a wonderful source of freely given stories. At the time of the 25th anniversary of the strike there were many anecdotes on the web. Some I borrowed. Others I absorbed to ‘relive’ the atmosphere of the time. I read investigative journalists’ accounts, followed one particular miner’s blog and I interviewed an ex-miner who had gone on to take a degree and become a lecturer and local politician. For some people the strike was a catalyst in a good way. I also interviewed two ex-policemen. There were many surprising anecdotes. The pub smashed up by the ‘Met’ was one of them, though of course I fictionalised the event. I am still hearing stories. There were too many to use.
For anyone who’s interested in finding out more about the strike, I’d recommend they read The Enemy Within by Seamus Milne and Marching to the Fault Line by Beckett and Hencke, both excellent non-fiction accounts.

Your two main characters, Helen and Pavel, are each flawed in their own way. Why did you decide to make them like that?
We’re all flawed. It’s the human condition. The novel is essentially a love story but I didn’t want to write a romance with idealised characters who were too good to be true or ‘soppy’. I think unflawed characters lack authenticity. As a student I shared a flat with two girls who had their heads constantly in romantic fiction. Occasionally they would read aloud a line or two of ‘quirking eyebrows’ and ‘smouldering’ looks and men who ‘fired cheroots.’ Then we’d fall about laughing. But then that kind of romance has never been my genre choice as a reader. I like people for all their flaws and I didn’t want the characters to be too predictable.

Who was in charge of the story, you or your characters?
The characters really did take over. I used to think this was arty drivel but it’s true. I suppose this is because once you really know them you automatically know how they will respond to situations and what they will say. I became a bit precious about them actually and I definitely fell in love with Pavel which is complete madness. And I cried when I wrote the ending.

I thought the funeral scene was particularly well written. Do you have a favourite scene?
My favourite is definitely when Pavel runs away from the picket line and into the woods. But I also loved writing Coker’s chapter when he’s arrested. I knew people were bribed during the strike but it would have been impossible to find anyone who’d admit to it, so I had to write from imagination, letting it run riot but at the same time trying to keep the event believable. It was a lot of fun taking myself way out of my own experience.

What did you find most difficult about writing The Sun on Their Backs?
Pitching the voice for each character was a challenge, from dialect to MP speak, from Polish immigrant to Jewish refugee. When my character Isaac spoke very formal English he became quite wooden but I had based him on an old Jewish gentleman I had actually met who did speak in this very correct way. I had to compromise and give him some contracted verbs such as ‘don’t’ and ‘didn’t’ otherwise the reader would have fallen asleep. Also I had to make the characters’ personal stories fit in with the historical facts such as the Brighton bombing in October 1984. I took Pavel to London and the ACAS meeting when I discovered it actually took place at that time and it fitted the bill. Serendipity.

What did you learn from the process of writing this book? If you could go back in time to before you started it and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
I’ve certainly realised which words I repeat. I’d tell myself to think more about structure and novel length before I started. A first novel shouldn’t be longer than 70 to 80 000 words I am now told. I let this story grow organically and not to a strict plan. On the other hand I wrote the story I wanted to write and loved every minute of doing so.

Linda photo 1Linda’s début novel The Sun on Their Backs is available now from ypdbooks.com in paperback, kindle and eBook versions, and as a kindle version from Amazon.
If you’d like to find out more about Linda, visit her blog at lindaannebaker.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @LindaAnneBaker

Book Launch

If you’d like to meet Linda and hear more about The Sun on Their Backs, then come along to the Victoria Hotel on Great George Street in Leeds from 7pm on Monday 27th July. Linda will be reading from her book and answering questions. Entry is free and tickets are not required.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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