BackStory: Five Questions with Diane Simmons
Author of A Long Way Away
What inspired you to write ‘A Long Way Away’?
My brother was in a TB sanatorium in 1959/60 – just before I was born and it was always something I knew had happened, but I never asked him about it. A few years ago I heard a piece on the radio about some of the awful experiences of children in a sanatorium in Wales and bought the book that told their stories. This is the second story I have written using the things I learnt.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I talked to my sister about her memories of visiting my brother and about the treatment he had in hospital before he went into the sanatorium. I also dictated the finished story to my nine-year-old neighbour to see what spelling mistakes a nine-year-old might make. I re-read the book The Children of Craig-Y-Nos – Life in a Welsh Tuberculosis Sanatorium 1922-1959 by Ann Shaw and Carole Reeves. It is a fascinating record and at times heart-breaking. Attitudes to children and in particular to the care of ill children have changed so much since the 1950s. There is much talk in the book of cruel/uncaring adults in charge, but also of kindness and life-long friendships made. What struck me was how much being away from home and having TB affected the lives of some of those children when they became adults.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
I love cutting a piece down to make it fewer words – it is such fun and very satisfying when I manage to get it to fit the word limit. Cutting the word count often makes a story better and can make me come up with a more effective word or phrase. I usually don’t like starting a story even if I have what I think is a good opening. Often frightened by the thought, I’ll put it off for as long as I can – twitter and Facebook are very good for this kind of avoidance.
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
Not a lot, other than his love of reading and I’m not sure I ever read a Biggles book. The character certainly wasn’t based on my brother or me. In my mind he comes from quite a well off background. Like me though, he is the youngest in his family.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
I think it’s difficult when you have done a lot of research because you want to put it all in – to show what you know. But I think most of that research should be left off the page.
Diane Simmons has been widely published and placed in numerous competitions. She has helped judged several flash competitions, been a reader for the BSSA and is part of the Flash Festival organising team. Her debut flash collection ‘Finding a Way’ will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in early 2019. She can be found online at http://dianesimmons.wixsite.com/dianesimmons and on Twitter @scooterwriter.
Image of children in a tuberculosis sanatorium courtesy of The Finnish Museum of Photography via Wikimedia Commons. Original photograph thought to be taken between 1930 and 1950.