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Helen Matthews left corporate life to live her dream of becoming a successful novelist.
In this podcast Helen talks about how she transitioned from full time employment to writing for a living and the issues she had to address
How she came up with the idea for her first book which involved intensive research into the topic.
Having the confidence to base her second novel in elements of her own experience
How characters develop and ‘speak’ to the writer
Topics brought to life in her novel – various types of deceit in relationships – including financial deceit and the impact that can have on a relationship
3 tips for transitioning from corporate life to writing – and still being able to pay the bills!
For those who prefer to read, here is the full transcript:
Full episode transcript of interview with author Helen Matthews
I’m Ceri Wheeldon and welcome to the Fab after Fifty podcast. Leading the pro age conversation, talking about all things life after 50.
Hello and welcome to this week’s Fab after Fifty podcast. And I’m very pleased to have with me today Helen Matthews.
Now, Helen is a published author and she has just published her second book, Life Behind the Ruin. Hello, Helen. Thank you for joining us on Fab After Fifty. Hello, Ceri. Thanks for inviting me. Now, you’re a relatively recent published author, aren’t you? This is this isn’t your first career, is it?
No. I had to battle my way through a first career and growing children and all those kinds of things until I was able to take a bit more time and focus on what I wanted to do myself.
Have you always had a love of writing, though?
Yes. I’m one of those people that’s been writing ever since I could hold a pen while I wrote all through my childhood and sometimes I entered competitions or had a few things published in magazines for younger women. And then I carried on through my early part of my working life, writing short stories with moderate success, not very much. And then as I got more embroiled in my corporate career, I found it more difficult to write fiction. So I switched from my leisure interests to writing articles, and I had some published in mother and baby family and lifestyle magazines. And then on the BBC, I did a couple of columns for something John Peel used to run called Home Soon.
And what in terms of your corporate career, what were you doing there? What what was your main role?
Well, I sort of transitioned through a few different things. So I started off working for the British Council thinking I have a glamorous, sort of quaint diplomatic career. But I soon realised that I needed to do something that was a little bit more financially stable. So I went into the energy industry and I worked in internal consultancy. Then I worked for a bit in oil and gas. I did alright in corporate management. And then I went into HR employee benefits. But very, very different then to sitting writing. Yes. And of course, the trouble with that is that it demands a certain kind of writing for your writing and your career, but you’re writing reports and analysis and financial papers for the board and that does take you away from writing in a creative fiction way.
It is different, isn’t it? I mean, I found that when I started Fab after Fifty, I had to write for people to read and hopefully enjoy. Whereas in my career, I was a head hunter. I’d be writing reports on candidates that I’d interviewed and summaries of. No. In terms of how they wold fit into teams and things. But then you approach it in a very different way. Are you would use different language. It’s more formal.
Exactly. And there are certain boxes that you’ve got to tick, you know, and if you’re writing something that needs to be very precise, you can’t introduce any colour into the language. You know you find your writing stocks go a little bit dead and words dont dance from the page. No that’s what I found that would have transferred over into my attempts at writing, which I would do in the evenings and weekends.
People used to say to me, I don’t know probably that what you’re used to writing. I was but not used to writing in that way.
Yes. I’m glad. I’m glad you said that. Actually, because I don’t know whether people really realise because, you know, as I changed my career, as I came out of the corporate world, it took me a few passes to get to the point where I could really let it flow and write fiction again. And along the way, I could have done things like copywriting, though I did some copywriting where I would write about the things I knew from my corporate life, like employee benefits and pensions, for example, happened.
Not something we want to take to take to bed and read is it. It might send you to sleep, which could be a good thing.
But if you can write something that’s interesting for people about a pension for example, then there’s a good chance you might be able to write something interesting when you turn to fiction. Well, that’s what I hope.
And I have to say, I’ve read your second book. I haven’t read your first book, but I’ve barely read the second book, which I have really enjoyed and I related to it a lot of, it’s based in France, isn’t it? So I can certainly relate to that, having spent quite a lot of time than myself.
Yes, that’s right. Yes. It sounds like you might have had some kind of similar experience to me. Falling in love with a, In our case, dilapidated, tumbled down property and then deciding, you know, it would be easy to do it up.
And of course, it isn’t as easy as it seems. Is it really? But what was the inspiration behind the book?
Well, in my first book, which I think we have, we mentioned maybe later I’d written about something that was way outside my own experience that I had to research very thoroughly. And then with this new book, when I came to write it, I thought, I feel confident enough now to start drawing, drawing on some of what I know. You know, just write what you know that writers are often told to do. So I did have the starting premise or a starting location, the experience that we had in France where we impulse bought our property. It was very, very cheap at the time. And it was literally a case of us standing at the ATM cash machine drawing out enough money for the 10 per cent deposit because it was so small. It wasn’t you know, I mean, if people ever want to imagine it, it wasn’t like one of these lovely mansions that you see. It really was a tumbledown farm building.
Well, now all we’ve done the chateau then. No, no, no, no.
There was there in the village, but we certainly didn’t live in it.
So. So you drew it, so that was that sort of really the premise that you wanted to write about bringing that life experience that into a novel.
And yes, the thing that’s different. And then I mean, obviously, I drawn on my own experience that I I take the family in my novel in a very, very different direction because they without knowing it, they all have different motivations for what’s happening. So one one party in the marriage thinks one thing is happening and the other party is making plans for something completely different, which, of course, you’ll find out if you read the novel and we should mention the name of it.
It’s called Lies Behind The Ruin, isn’t it? So I guess lies as a clue. And in terms of what we can expect to uncover as we read it.
Yes. I mean, I’m hoping that title works on a few different levels. But certainly the main title that you would understand but is intended to be. Yes.
And from these I guess some of the issues in the book. I mean, one of the things that we touched on, having read it and we don’t want to give too much away is obviously if we want people to be encouraged to read it, they put deceit on different levels, isn’t there within the book. And I guess one of the areas that there’s an element of deceit quite early on, which again in part creates the need for them or that the desire for them to go to France.
This part of is is financial deceit. Yes, that’s right. So the husband in the book, whose name is Paul, he has been he probably got married a little bit later. And I’ve been you know, he was coming up to 40, whereas Emma, the wife, will be coming up to 30. So she’s quite a bit younger than him. And they have quite a different different experience in their past. So Paul has had quite a glamorous life, really good jobs, and he hasn’t had to think about what he spends his money on. So if he wants flash holidays, flash cars, horse racing, all of those things have been available to him. Whereas Emma was a single mum shortly after she had a short marriage when she was at university, which didn’t last very long. And she’s been struggling to bring up her son from her first marriage on practically no money at all. So they’ve got very different values and principles towards money. Of course, Paul doesn’t think he has to tell her everything that’s really going on, and that comes as one of the first early surprises in the book.
So, I mean, how mean from your own experience, I mean, how common is it that husbands or even wives would hide their financial dealings or their financial situation, from their spouses?
Well, when I was doing a bit of research for some blogs that I wrote around the publication of the book, I did dig into some statistics which I can’t remember about the causes getting divorced. And I did discover that finance and financial problems is probably the number one, which is surprising because people might think it’s something else.
Many think it’s adultery. Aren’t they all playing a part? Yes, they do. But I suppose if people come to a marriage with such different principles towards money, then it’s going to be very, very difficult to draw back from that. And I did have some experience about myself in an early marriage where my husband at the time, you know, he just could not contain his spending. And I don’t know whether you know, I don’t know whether that was something from his childhood. It probably was. But he was determined to hide it from me. So he sort of called me in the role of a kind of strict parental figure that was always telling him off and spoiling his fun while I was desperately trying to keep track of where the money was going.
And it was not very a very happy time. Even though I was aware of it. I was watching like a hawk. It doesn’t make for a very happy marriage, but if somebody is determined to hide it, then it’s surprising how long they can hide their financial mismanagement.
No, I actually I am aware of that. I won’t go into too much personal detail, but it’s something I’ve experienced in the past as well.
Yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if if many people listening might, you know, it might strike a chord with them. What do you think?
I think it probably would do and I guess it makes you realise that you don’t really know what somebody is doing or spending or on what you know. We don’t know, do we? I don’t know. Do you think there’s an element of male pride there that they perhaps I don’t know this is the case with your character on your book where they don’t want to admit that they haven’t got what you think they’ve got and they tried to cover it up there. It makes the situation worse.
I think you’re absolutely spot on there, actually. Particularly if it’s somebody who’s liked, used to being perhaps the center of attention or somebody who is very popular, you know, they might well be the first person to buy the round of drinks and keep on paying for others. That might be one of the thing. And I suppose it feeds back into some kind of insecurity that their mask might slip if people don’t see them always being at the centre of things and paying for everything.
And so from your perspective of people read the book. Are you hoping that they will gain some sympathy about it or do you really write it just for entertainment?
Well, I like to write things that are very, very contemporary because I’m interested in the world as it is now and all things that are going on around us. And I’m also very interested in people’s individual experience and things like how a life can change in a moment. You know that the small things that happen. So in this particular book, obviously, I loved writing the French part because having had some of that experience myself, I’m very, very attached to it. And the characters that you meet in France and the different feel for the landscape, the villages and the town. And then another thing would be when I’d started writing the book and I started writing it before the referendum on the EU membership. And so when the referendum happened and Britain voted to leave the EU, I actually thought, oh, my goodness, do I have to abandon my book or is it suddenly going to become a historical novel or can I weave that into the plot? So there is a little bit about the challenges of the potential Brexit looming, even though the novel actually runs from 2015 to the beginning of 2017. In real time, though, nothing is resolved. But I’ve tried to sort of show that the and the issues around Brexit are definitely something that will affect people who are thinking about moving to France or to Europe, and they have to deal with that along with all the other challenges.
And of course, we don’t know how long it’s going to be challenge for at the moment. Exactly.
I was certain that, you know, we would know one way or the other when the book came out. And I was sort of stealing myself or having to ask Google the question from people who would say, well, you know what? They wouldn’t be able to do that. You couldn’t just up and off without massive amounts of money and land up in a French village and decide, oh, well, the business, because that’s not necessarily going to be open to people in the future.
You might not know it’s a very different landscape now, isn’t it? .
But I don’t think there’s anything that any of us really considered at the start of it. Yes, totally. And over the years I’ve spent in France. But then, you know, in our holiday house in France, that is no longer ruins and looks like a modern bungalow, unfortunately. Rather than like a beautiful stone cottage. I’ve met many people who’ve come from the UK for all sorts of reasons, sometimes perhaps their children were in a school where they thought they might be in danger of getting involved in gangs. So they moved to the rural part of Franc where our house is and put their children in the French education system and started a new life. So, you know, there are so many reasons, not necessarily just older people that want to move. People of all different ages can start again. And perhaps if you’re artistic and you want to, set up a pottery studio. I know people who’ve done that kind of thing as well. You just need a change in their life. And unfortunately, now that’s not necessarily going to happen. Or maybe it will. We really don’t know.
We don’t know. No, not at all. So you mentioned also we would come back to your first book, which was very different to the first the second one, because that was based very much more research based rather than drawing on your own experience. What inspired you to write the first one?
Well, the first book is called After Leaving the Village, and it tells the story of an Albanian girl who is 17 years old when the book starts and living in a village and working in her father’s shop. And she thinks her life is over in the sense that nothing interesting is ever going to happen to her again. And then one day, an enigmatic stranger from the capital, walks into the shop and tells her about the dazzling, exciting career she could have if she went with him to London. And then, of course, her life is about to change, but not in the way she expected. So that book actually is about human trafficking, modern slavery, but it’s very much written at the human level. So it’s not a novel about international criminal activity and gangs rampaging across borders. It’s we follow very closely in the footsteps of one girl, but it’s not. I also have a dual narrative with another woman who lives in London who came originally from a village in Wales and they end up on the same street and how their paths eventually cross and what then happens becomes an interesting part of the plot. So I got very, very interested in researching modern slavery and trafficking, and I was involved with a charity that’s now appointed me as an ambassador for the charity. It’s an anti slavery charity that works to support survivors and to raise awareness. So my ambassador role, I go around and I give talks and I also tell people about my book and then I give a donation from sales about book back to the charity.
Did yo know about the charity before the book. Did you write the book before the charity?
Well, I had all the ideas for the book, but then I started doing research and of course I discovered, which might surprise some people because we’d be back in about 2013, 2014, but there wasn’t as much material available as you would expect right now. Obviously, we hear a lot in the press about slavery because it’s come into prominence in the last couple of years. But then the routes that I had to follow were taking me towards charities, the people they’d worked with and the case studies that they’d written up about people’s life experience. So that was how they helped me with my research. The charity is called Unseen and they helped my research checked my book and wrote an introduction for it and they was very helpful and wanted to help me in any way they could because they felt it was. Given that fiction really could have a role to play in bringing this to people’s awareness.
But some yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? You said it wasn’t much out there then, but hopefully your book and the involvement with the charity has perhaps in some way helped to raise the profile of this problem.
It’s yes, it’s been fascinating going round and doing talks all for different groups from book groups to WI and all sorts of people asking me to come and talk. And they all like have a light bulb moment when I’m talking. So they have read things in the press, but they’ve never really discussed it or thought about it. So we talk about, you know, cases of forced labour type slavery, child slavery, all the horrors that happen when people are tricked into selling a kidney, for example. And they really do raise their awareness in the course of a short talk. And then hopefully they buy my book and they read it, you know, a bit more that helps them to relate to the people. And you won a prize for that one, didn’t you? Yes, I won a prize at Winchester Writers Festival. It was a novel prize, but it was only, you know, what you submitted was just the first chapter. So it wasn’t the whole of the novel, but I was still very, very pleased to win.
That must have been been very rewarding, especially it was your first novel.
Yes, it was. Yeah. And it was really exciting. I was really I was I was really delighted because I think, you know, you’re always uncertain of yourself as a writer, as an author. And you need a certain amount of feedback to understand that it is okay, really.
So they are two very different books aren’t they. So what’s the third one going to be like. With one that’s researched based and one based on your own experience, what’s number three?
Well, I’ve I’ve had a small bit of a setback in the sense that I started writing a sequel to After Leaving the Village, which would have been sort of along the lines of Returned to the village. And the reason I started writing that was because so many people who reviewed after leaving the village that they really wanted to know what will happen next. I knew there was a lot more story to tell. And so I thought I would give it a go. And I again, I did loads more research. And then when I started writing it, I got quite a way on with it. And for some reason the characters weren’t speaking to me anymore. It was like they were saying to me, we’ve already told you our story. We’re not going to talk to you anymore, though.
Right. And I’d written almost half of the novel.
I’d written about 40,000 words, submitted my first draft, and this was about last November. And at that point, I thought, you know what? I just need to leave this. It may I may never be able to write it, because if the characters don’t work, however good your plot is, you’re not going to have a very good novel.
And you said there that the characters stopped speaking to you. Do you actually sort of have conversations with them as you write to create the characters or for readers to get to know the characters and they weave into the storyline.
Well, it’s a very strange thing. But although, you know, I’m moderately organised in the sense that I do like to plot out most of the novel before I start. And I like to know a bit about the characters. But once you start writing it, it can often go in a different direction. And some of that is because the characters form themselves into a version of real people. And so you find you can actually force them sometimes to go down a route that you are thinking of taking the plot. So what I do is I’m practically living in that world with my characters or I want to because I want the reader to have an experience of, you know, particularly with something like after leaving the village, which is so sensitive. I want people to think that my character with, you know, could be you or me or one of our daughters and people could then walk in her shoes and really understand what it was like to be somebody in that situation. So, yes, I did live it and some of it was a bit intense.
And interesting, I hadn’t thought about writing the book in that way and sort of becoming the character, so to speak. So if that one doesn’t go ahead, do you have plans for a different option beyond that one.
I do have another one. So when I left corporate life, what I did was I went to university again to do an MA in creative writing. And the reason that I did that was because I just wanted to make it a proper break between the corporate life and what I was hoping to do afterwards. Although I did sort of carry on doing, you know, writing related work to earn a bit of money. And I wrote a novel for my dissertation, which I kind of knew at the time wasn’t really good enough. But nevertheless, I did get me my MA, so it can’t be that bad. So what I think I’m going to do next is revisit that novel and see if I can. With everything that I now know from having two published novels, I’m going to see if I can work on that novel, which is complete, but really change it fundamentally to make it a much more acceptable proposition for being published.
One of the things that we were talking earlier before, before we started the actual podcast is the fact that you said you came from corporate life and it wasn’t too late, but having decided it wasn’t too late. You progressed in quite a considered way by taking that break then to go back to university first.
Yes. I mean, there were a couple of reasons for that. One of the reasons was I was on quite a long period of notice. I think it was and was maybe six months or something. So I had to give a lot of notice. And I was really worried that because I had a have a very good job and I did enjoy it. And so to give it up was putting my whole family at risk in some ways. But I thought if I’ve applied for the M.A. to start the following September and if I’ve got the place confirmed, then it wouldn’t be so likely that I would change my mind or be persuaded to not leave after all. So that was one reason. And then the other reason was related to that business. The thing we were talking about earlier, which was that the more you write corporate work, the more you write reports and analysis, the more tied up your writing becomes. So I needed to sort of free it up again so that I would be able to write fiction in an acceptable way that really flowed rather than, well, all those kind of work anachronisms and things that you use when you’re acronyms, rather you use when you’re writing for a big company.
Now they are two very different worlds aren’t so different.
And of course, you know, because you’re doing it so intensely, it just gets under your skin. And before you know it, you become that person, you become that corporate person. You thought. I mean, after my first degree was in English and my first job, as I think I may be mentioned with the British Council, which was like, you know, the arts and international development side of the diplomatic service in those days. And so I thought of myself as like a creative person. And then I ended up going into areas of work that were anything but. I mean, they’re perfectly fine. But the financial and legal aspects of what I have to do just meant you have to be very precise and not the same as writing, I think fiction at all.
So anybody listening today that’s perhaps worked in the corporate world and wants to come out of it and take that step and write that first novel. What would you be able to get in three tips, how to get started? Wow. , I’ve put you on the spot there.
But it’s it’s a totally fair question. I was probably grappling with it myself for many years . I think I am a bit of a risk taker. I mean, obviously, impulse buying the house in France was an example. So once I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to do something. Then I will do it. And sometimes I’ll perhaps do it a bit too quickly. Then maybe you should. So if you want to write, my first tip is then then write. So whatever situation you’re in and if you’ve obviously got to keep on working because you’ve got to pay the mortgage and all these things, then find yourself some time to start writing and do it alongside everything else that you have to do with child care and elder care and job. And then soon after that, maybe join a group, perhaps a writers group where you can share your work with other people who will give you good advice and feedback. It’s really a lonely thing where it can be a lonely thing to be a writer. So if you’ve got people who know, you know, who are at the same stage as you were, maybe a bit further on, you can really support one another. Which is it. But I think probably the third tip is you may need some kind of um, if you decide to stop a well-paid salaried job. You don’t think that writing is going to pay your bills because almost certainly you’re going to need to do loads of other things on the side. We all know the names of J.K. Rowling and the like bandied around a lot, but the majority of writers and full time writers really make very, very little money and probably have to do other things like editing other people’s work, teaching or lecturing those kind of things. So you just do need to protect yourself financially if you still need to earn an income.
Well, that’s not quite how it is because people think you write your first novel, have an international bestseller, and you’ve sold the film rights and are now on an island in Caribbean somewhere. Exactly.
And for some, you know, for some tiny, tiny percentage of people it is. But but for the vast majority, even like well respected name, they certainly make some money. But they probably would be a lot worse off financially than if they carried on, I don’t know, being a teacher or something. I’m sure teachers would make a lot, lot more money than. Your average novelist? Sure.
Well, that’s a really interesting take on that. So but haven’t thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing those tips that you can people who think. Food for thought there thinking about alternative channels to make money while writing that. Thank you so much for sharing that. We would just like to say people go out and read the book. I’ve read it. I really enjoyed it. I don’t know if it’s actually out or I had an advance copy.
Yes. It came out on the 25th of April. And there’s also an e-book on Amazon. It should be available in some leading bookshops or it may have to be ordered otherwise. Yes. From Amazon or Smiths or Waterstones.
And again, it’s the title of Lies behind the Ruin and should be a great summer holiday. Read . Yes.
I mean, one way that I think I could describe it is it could be a beach read for somebody who likes their beach read on the darker side. If you don’t want like light and fluffy, then you might find hopefully this will keep you turning the pages.
I belong to a book club. I think it would be a good book club read? Actually, when you go through it, it raises quite a different number of issues, doesn’t it? Within relationships? Yes.
There’s a lot to talk about. Certainly my last novel has done really well with book clubs and I sometimes get invited along to talk to them, you know, after they’ve read it. I very much hope that lies behind the ruin will be picked up by book clubs as well. So they can have a good debate about all the issues.
Thank you so much for joining us today. And this let us know when you’ve got book number three on the bookshelf.
Oh, thank you, Ceri. Yes, I’d love to. Thanks very much for talking to me about my book. I really enjoyed it. But again, thank you Helen Matthews, the author of Lies Behind the Ruins. Thank you.
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