Here is the third and final installment of my Interview with the short-listed writers in this year Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices book award. Today I am joined by Sue Stern whose story Rafi Brown and Candy Floss Kid was commended.
Synopsis – Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid is the story of two children misunderstood by adults: mildly dyslexic Rafi draws brilliant cartoons, but is bullied by his teacher, Horrible Hegarty. Carer of a mother with M.E, Candy defies the educational welfare officers. The two bunk off to the People’s History Museum, where Rafi is inspired by a photograph of child printers during the Russian Revolution to draw an exciting graphic story. Back at school, Mrs Hegarty collapses at her desk, but Rafi saves her. Truth is revealed, Rafi’s gift is acknowledged, and Candy joins him and his mates at school.
Sue Stern has lived in Manchester since she was five, apart from a few years’ teaching and studying in Parisand Aix-en-Provence, one of her most favourite places in the world. She lives with her husband, who sinceretirement, has played saxophone in several groups, and her younger son, a jazz guitarist. Her older sonworks in advising sports sponsorship people and is very busy indeed at the moment…Sue has been writing seriously for several years. Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid is her third novel; nowshe’s working on a novel for adults, How I Broke Mama’s Commandments, based on the life of her Russiananarchist grandmother. The first chapter of this novel has just been published as a short story in ImmigrationStories, Crocus, ISBN9780946745234. Another story, I Never Wear Black, (placed second in their 2009 shortstory competition), is shortly appearing in an anthology published by Bridge House Publishing, Radcliffe,Manchester.
T.A. – Rafi Brown and The Candy Floss Kid is set in Manchester, is this a part of the world that you know well?
S.S. – I was born in London and lived in Amersham until I was five, but grew up and went to school in Manchester, so yes, it’s a place I know well.
T.A. – When did you start writing Rafi Brown and The Candy Floss Kid and what helped you?
S.S.- Rafi was my third novel. I’d always written, but joining a fantastic workshop at Commonword Writing Development Agency in Manchester city centre helped me see myself as a ‘real’ writer. I even started to publish poems and short fiction in magazines and on-line. My first novel for children, about a Russian immigrant girl in an East End sweat shop, was critiqued by Liz Kessler, now a hugely successful children’s writer. (The Tail of Emily Windsnap and lots of other books). In 2003, she suggested I enrol on a brand new MA for Writing Children’s Fiction at MMU, where she was one of the tutors. Despite my fears about it being too academic, which it wasn’t, I enrolled, and really enjoyed it. As part of the MA, we had to write a novel; I wanted to write a story for boys who hated school and reading – and I’d known plenty of them. But I also knew they all had a special ability or hidden gift, unrecognised by the school system. Rafi simply told his own story. As for Candy Floss, she appeared. Just appeared, as I was writing. I didn’t plan for her but she’s so cheeky and independent, she just wouldn’t go away…
T.A. – How did you come to focus on the issue of children with special educational needs?
S.S. –This was something very close to my heart. My first child, Vanessa, had profound physical and learning disabilities, but a huge personality. We spent hours teaching her very simple movements and words. Although I’d taught French, I preferred working with people like Vanessa. So I taught drama to young adults with learning disabilities in a local FE college, and finally left teaching to work in a voluntary organisation, supporting people like them and their families.
T.A. – Had you entered any other competitions before d.v.? Any that you would recommend?
S.S. –I’ve entered several poetry and some short story competitions. Very occasionally, the poems have been selected or even placed. I don’t have any recommendations except to say that it’s best to check out on the organisers. Make sure all the money doesn’t find its way into someone’s pocket never to be seen again!
T.A. – Who do you usually write for and why do you write?
S.S. -I write for myself! I also write to share my thoughts, questionings, confusions, inspirations with anyone who will read them. Seriously, I’ve written for children and adults and people in between. In between is best… Why do I write? I can’t help it. I’ve diaries going far back in time, (to most of your readers, Tom), to my teens and my university years. And stories going back to that time too. Perhaps it’s to grasp things that are passing, tenuous, like a will of the wisp, and catch them so they don’t disappear. And I like to write stories where a problem is solved, connections are made- Suddenly we’ve come through-which I think is a line from one of DH Lawrence’s poems, is the kind of thing I aim for.
T.A. – What did you enjoy reading as a child and what do you enjoy reading now?
S.S. – Enid Blyton; Elisabeth Goudge – my favourite being: A little White Horse, which I understand is JK Rowling’s favourite book too; lots of girls’ books about families, like Little Women and all Noel Streatfield’s books about the theatre. Later, theatre-mad, I read loads of plays. Now, concept novels like The Lovely Bones.
T.A. – Do you have any favourite authors?
S.S. – Anne Tyler, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Michelle Roberts, (because I lived in France), Helen Dunmore, and 19 century writers like George Elliott, Dickens, Chekov. In children’s literature, I very much like the work of Anne Fine and Adele Geras.
T.A. – What would you say to someone considering entering next year’s Diverse Voices competition?
S.S. – Just go for it. You never know what can happen. The award ceremony was a wonderful evening. The Seven Stories Book Centre is amazing.