Friday, 27 February 2015

Margaret Forster - A Life in Books

A few years ago I was asked to write a small pamphlet on the life and work of Cumbrian novelist Margaret Forster.  It was funded by the Arts Council as part of a project that involved asking writers to write about other writers who shared common ground.  The pairing was deliberate.  Margaret Forster and I were both born in Cumbria, both brought up in working-class households, educated in local grammar schools, both had to leave and go south in order to get an education and become writers.  There were other connections too - Margaret’s ambition at university had been to become a biographer, but she became a novelist instead and it was only years into her career that she wrote her first biography and discovered that she preferred fiction.  I started out as a poet and fiction writer and only became a biographer to fund staying alive while I raised four children.  It was years into my career before I published my first novel.


But that’s where the parallels end.  Margaret had instant success with her second novel ‘Georgy Girl, which was made into a film, and became a household name.  I had a best-seller with my fourth biography, ‘Catherine Cookson’, but it proved disastrous (and that’s another story) and it was years before I published anything else.  Our careers have had opposite trajectories, which explains why I was chosen to write about her and not the other way round!

The pamphlet, ‘An Introduction to the Life and Work of Margaret Forster’, quickly went out of print, but people kept on asking for it.  It was Margaret’s husband, Hunter Davies, celebrity biographer and journalist, who suggested that I might re-vamp and republish the little memoir.  I wrote to Margaret to find out how she felt and was delighted to be given permission.  ‘Margaret Forster; A Life in Books’ was re-published as an ebook three years ago and began to sell modestly.  There was a lot I couldn’t talk about in the book, including the novelist's struggle to overcome health problems. Margaret is a very private author - she doesn't have a web page, doesn't appear at literary festivals or give readings and her personal life is exactly that.  At the time I rewrote the biography, she had never publicly admitted that, as a young mother in her thirties, she had suffered from cancer and her recent relapse after years in remission was a closely guarded secret.

Margaret, with her husband Hunter Davies, outside their Cumbrian home.
When you write about a living author, they are constantly adding to the story, but the delight of ebooks is the simplicity of the updating process.  After I re-wrote and re-published my biography, Margaret wrote two more books, which I knew would have to be included.  Then, at the end of 2014, Margaret published a new memoir,My Life in Houses, in which she finally talked about living with cancer.  It was time to update the biography again, adding information which was now in the public domain.  So, Margaret Forster: A Life in Books, has been given a face-lift to bring it up to date, revised and re-published with a lovely new cover designed by my partner Neil Ferber.  Unlike print publishing, it’s a simple matter to re-write sections of an ebook, add a new chapter, run the document through a file converter and upload to Amazon and Kobo.  Unfortunately, my re-writes meant altering the order of the endnote references and adding more.  Neil had great fun with the html links (a braver person than me to even tackle them in the first place!).

Margaret as a judge for the Booker Prize in 1980
I don’t know Margaret Forster personally - if I did I wouldn’t have agreed to write about her.  I’ve met her, and I know her family and other people who know her.  I’ve been one of the judges for the Lakeland Book of the Year awards, asked by her husband Hunter Davies, and Margaret’s daughter Caitlin Davies was going to be my co-tutor on one of the Writing in Tuscany courses.  She’s now, like me, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow.   There are lots of lines of contact, but none so personal that it would affect my objectivity. I couldn’t write about something or someone if I couldn’t be honest.

Writing about someone who is still alive is very difficult - not something I relish.  There are a lot of ethical questions and you have to be aware that you are invading the privacy of their family and friends.  Margaret generously gave me permission to write about her, as did Hunter and Caitlin.  I like to think that her choice of title for her latest book, ‘My Life in Houses’, might have been influenced by mine.



Margaret Forster:  A Life in Books by Kathleen Jones £2.22

"Kathleen Jones gets to the heart of Margaret Forster's contradictions in this book. She sets the scene in the early chapters through an account of the prolific and much loved author's formative years, then reflects on Forster's intellectual life and personal concerns at the time when she was writing each of her many books."  Carol Mackay, Amazon

"Kathleen Jones weaves Margaret Forster's life and books into a beautiful tapestry." Amazon reviewer




Note:  Margaret's own memoir, My Life in Houses, is available on Amazon in print for £7.41, but as an ebook for £9.06!   You can guess which the publisher wants you to buy.   Mine is only £2.22

3 comments:

  1. But just purchased for £2.22! And most pleased to do so. Thank you for this preview.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As a blogger I try when I write about the work of a living author, especially one starting out, to realize there is a real person who May have poured their soul into a work.

    ReplyDelete