Sallie Eden interviews author Sophie Neville
Sadly, despite also interviewing Sophie for this month’s ‘Acting Up’ feature, space constraints mean there’s no opportunity to cover her life as a researcher, producer, director, traveller etc… you’ll just have to read her books!
Sophie appears to be a firm believer in the ‘write about what you know’ tenet, as evidenced by her books ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’, about her time in Africa, ‘Funnily Enough’ which describes her struggle to recover from a long period of illness and ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’.
Since it has been a major influence on her life and brought about such changes I started by asking her how writing had helped her overcome illness. She says “I was first diagnosed with Post Viral Fatigue by the BBC doctor who gave me an unusual prescription: ‘Keep a dairy, record how you feel.’ I added sketches to capture the essence of what was happening around me. It was certainly good therapy and useful to keep a record of how the days were passed. When I typed up the diary later, I thought it might be an ‘inspirational Girls’ book’, so was surprised that men of different ages and people from around the world found it interesting. They tell me how deeply they sympathise with my father who was attacked by his rotavator at the start of the story and re-building a river launch by the end. It’s a good book to give to anyone stuck in bed with ‘flu, but readers tell me it makes for amusing holiday reading.”
I wondered if she had always wanted to write and she explained “I started writing TV programmes that I was producing in about 1987. I wrote my first book, ‘Funnily Enough’, purely to help others, so was surprised when it hit no. 2 in the free UK Amazon Kindle charts. It was also serialised in iBelieve magazine and won a Book Award, something I had never dreamt of.”
I asked if she had any advice to people suffering from ME/PVF and she said “I hope my book will persuade a few people to spend time convalescing after a virus and not rush back to work whilst still on antibiotics, as I did. Chronic Fatigue is an awful nuisance so I’ve collected a few home cures which might help others.”
Most people are keen to know whether authors need a trigger to start writing or to give them an idea and how long it takes to percolate.
“Good stories always call out to be written and to be read. Getting down to illustrate them would be difficult if the drawings were not already waiting. I started putting together ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’ when I was living in Africa but only added the illustrations once it was formatted, filling natural gaps with sketches and paintings. I used about 120 graphics, accumulated over 12 years. Someday I am hoping a version will be produced in full colour, a coffee-table book that will motivate others to get out into the wild and start painting.”
As to where she writes, “I find it easier to write the first draft if I retreat to an African hut, in the middle of nowhere, which I did earlier this year. However, much of writing is re-writing, which I do at any opportunity. Most of my books have to be checked by experts and get re-drafted many times while I improve the flow. It’s hard work and takes time but it’s vital. Even when a book is based on a diary I might re-draft it a 100 times, drawing on skills gained as a painter and when editing films. I have learnt not to take offence too, preferring to laugh at my own mistakes rather than have them displayed in print like dirty washing.”
I asked what writers she enjoys and she told me that she has been inspired by authors of amusing true life stories, in particular “Anne Lamott, Monica Dickens, James Herriot and Helene Hanff, who wrote ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ from letters she’d received from a book shop in London. I worked on the first BBC drama serial of ‘My Family and Other Animals’, when Gerald Durrell told me how he’d edited the story of his years on Corfu, making the construction of his book seem easy, when of course it must have been soul wrenching.” [Note: in my review of ‘Funnily Enough’ I drew comparisons between it and ‘My Family and other Animals” before I read of Sophie’s love of Durrell’s writing.]
Given the number of things she’s involved in I asked her how she describes herself when asked what she does. “I’ve managed to live about five lives professionally, working interchangeably as a writer, producer, artist, actress and horseback safari guide. None are much good at making money. Many people assume that we get residuals from Swallows & Amazons but we only received a small daily rate whilst working on the film and nothing at all from VHS or DVD sales. I eventually spent my fee on a ticket to Australia where I learned to dive. Simon West (Captain John) used his money to buy sailing dinghies in which he won the British Optimists Championships aged about 15.”
“I wish I was better at raising funds for charity. The need is so great. In the year 2000 I helped to set up the Waterberg Welfare Society, in a corner of rural South Africa, to help combat the pandemic HIV/AIDS. You can see some of the mad things we do help finance their work http://waterbergwelfaresocietytrust.com/fundraising/
“I love riding through the wilderness on a horse, but it’s a hard way to earn a living. I see myself as a writer and yet a huge proportion of my time is whittled away promoting my work. When I was a professional wildlife artist I’d spend half the year painting and the other half framing and exhibiting. People often want to know what I’m doing now, so I try to provide an up to date list.”
So what’s next? “My fourth book ‘Life on an African Farm’ is waiting to be finished. It was commissioned to write a screenplay based on a true story called ‘The Meeting House’, chronicling the wartime adventures of a family friend in Tanzania. I am currently working on the novel of this romance, about a man who had to buy his wife, that spans the years from 1914 to 1944, which is to be called ‘Makorongo’s War’.”
Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to tell readers about yourself or your life in general? “Well, my family really have kept tame otters for over 30 years. Also, the St Mawes ferry must have made a huge impression on me as a baby as I still have a photo of me with my father, Martin Neville, heading out on it. I love Cornwall and return at every opportunity. My dream is to ride up through the county on a horse, exploring the wilder areas and staying at interesting places en-route. I would love to write about that.”
A visit to the Roseland by Sophie Neville, now that would be something to look forward to! Something to add to my action list.