Congratulations to Lesley Allen whose book, ‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’ is out today in paperback, published by Twenty7. I asked Lesley some questions.
Can you tell me a bit about ‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’ please?
Biddy Weir is a shy little girl who lives a lonely, solitary existence with her old-fashioned, emotionally crippled father. But she exists quite happily in her own little world, sketching seagulls and examining bird poo – until one day she is branded a ‘Bloody Weirdo’ by the most popular girl in her class. What follows is a heart-breaking tale of bullying and redemption, which spans from the late 1970s to 2000. Biddy’s story is set in Northern Ireland, but it has universal appeal, as ultimately it affirms the value of being different.
What made you want to write this book and where did you get your ideas from?
Biddy made me write it. I know that sounds a tad trite, but it’s true. She first appeared in a short story I wrote, but she wouldn’t leave me alone. She nattered away in my head and peck-peck-pecked at me until I agreed to explore her story some more. And bit by bit (or Bird by Bird if you’ve read Anne Lamont’s inspirational book) her story turned into a book.
How long has it taken you to write?
This book has a long history. It started life over ten years ago as a short story, then very gradually, over three or four years, evolved into a novel. It was almost published back in 2008, but the deal fell through, which was awful at the time. I couldn’t let it go though, and neither could my agents, Susan and Paul Feldstein, who were determined to get me another deal. So after a long break, I dug it back out, did a radical re-write – and they sold it to Bonnier. And this time it actually happened!
Can you relate to any of your characters?
I’ve been living with these characters for many years now, so I know them all very well. I really like some of them, and utterly detest others, and there are definitely a couple I can relate to, or at least understand what makes them tick. None of the characters are me, but some are hybrids of people I’ve encountered throughout my life.
What would you say to Biddy Weir if you met her for real?
If I met young Biddy, the first thing I’d do is give her a huge big hug. And then another one. Then I’d look her in the eye and tell her that she isn’t a bloody weirdo, that she needs to confide in someone about the bullying, and that, ultimately, everything will be okay. Oh, and that that Alison Flemming one is going to get her comeuppance big time! Then I’d invite her round to my house for tea and Kimberley biscuits. (If you’ve read the book, you’ll know!)
What do you want people to get from your book?
The reaction to the book has already surprised me. It seems to be really touching a chord with many readers, and that was so unexpected. I’ve been contacted by people who have been bullied saying that reading the book was cathartic for them and thanking me for ‘telling their story’. Others have told me it helped them to understand what friends or loved ones suffering from anxiety or social disorders are going through and some have said it’s given them the confidence to intervene in a situation they know isn’t right. It’s incredibly humbling.
How easy has the publishing process been for you?
It hasn’t been easy at all. A bit of a rollercoaster-come-dodgems white-knuckle ride! But after years of setbacks, rejections, re-writes and confidence crises, I’m one of the lucky ones whose book has finally been published. And I promise you, it has been worth every second of the wait!
Are there more books to come?
Definitely. Book two is well under way. It’s not a sequel, but as with Biddy, it does deal with some fairly dark topics.
What’s the best bit of advice you have been given about writing?
I’ve had so much advice over the years, from so many people, and it’s all been gratefully received – even if I haven’t particularly agreed with it at the time. But the one thing that has stuck with me above everything else is that in fiction, there are no hard and fast rules. So play with your story, and your characters and your voice. Try out different structures, and if you can’t find one that fits, create your own. There is no right way, and no wrong way, no best way, and no worst way – just your way.
Who are you favourite authors?
This is so tricky, as the authors and books that make an impression on your life are constantly evolving. My bookcase is a forever changing landscape. But in recent years, Maggie O’Farrell, Sarah Winman, Zoe Heller, Alice Sebold, David Nicholls and Lucy Caldwell are the writers who have inspired me the most. My very soul absorbs their stories.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read. I read as much as I can, particularly debuts as I’m always interested in new writers. I also like a wee glass of red wine, and if I can combine the two, even better! And I have to admit to a bit of binging on Netflix, most recently Stranger Things. (By the way, when Hollywood comes calling, I want Millie Bobbie Brown to play Biddy in the film!)
If you were only allowed to keep five items what would they be?
Assuming my daughter is not classified as an item, then I’d say my laptop, a notebook, a red pen, a bottle of red wine, and my cat, Herbie. All the components I need to finish my next book! (Herbie is glaring at me as I write this with an “I’m not a flippin’ item either” expression!)
About Lesley Allen
Lesley Allen lives in Bangor, County Down, with her teenage daughter. She is a freelance copywriter and the press officer and programme developer for Open House Festival. Lesley was named as one of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s 2016 Artist Career Enhancement recipients for literature. She will be using the award to complete her second novel.
‘The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir’ is available to buy from Amazon UK:-