One Monday morning when Middlesbrough Libraries were buzzing from Middlesbrough Literary Month,Darlington writer Allison Agius came to chat with users of Thorntree Hub. This was reading group open day when groups and individuals could see the resources available to them at their local hub.
Seated in the library we heard a fascinating story unfold of a life disrupted by parents leaving, moving back and forth geographically and undergoing a less than ideal formal education.
Yet coming through it all Allison Agius has become a successful writer and with something to say on how we might all attain our goals and if necessary turn our lives round as she has done.
Allison began by unwrapping her philosophy on seizing the day to attain targets in life, chronicled at more length in her first published work. Hidden Secrets Buried Treasure and then had masses of advice and encouragement for writers and indeed readers in the audience.
Afterwards I grabbed Allison for a brief chat about her life and literature.
Q: Allison did you enjoy giving the talk today at Thorntee Hub?
AA: I loved it. The people were so warm and welcoming and the facility is fantastic as well. It is an amazing building full of fantastic things. I just had a quick peak looking around and it is just brilliant. The library is wonderful, all of the reading books here for the reading groups as well, it is just great.
Q: Great to see so many active reading groups here. Libraries find themselves very much under threat at the moment don’t they?
AA: I think we need our libraries because I remember it being a real sanctuary for me as a child, the library in Darlington. And it is where I took my children when they were really young as an introduction to books, being able to take lots of different new books. And I think they thought it was really quite exciting that they could go into this place and just choose anything they wanted and take it away. It was quite a refreshing change for them as opposed to going to a toy shop where they couldn’t have anything (laughs).
Q: And unfortunately there are less and less book shops as well.
AA: There are. I think for writers it is getting more difficult. Having said that we have ebooks now and that makes it easy to get your work out to the public but then that needs your readers to be able to have access. Either have a kindle or some electronic apparatus to download on.
So, I suppose it is like any revolution, it is swings and roundabouts, we have got ebooks which is great but less high street and especially independent book shops, where they were more keen to take local authors. The mainstream book sellers, only take from distributors and if you are not on the distributor supply list then you don’t have a chance of getting into a book shop.
So libraries like this are really important for local authors because they can get their books out direct to the public.
Q: You have given a talk about your life and background and how you started writing. Would it be fair of me to describe your early life and upbringing as unusual?
AA: Yes you can. It was very chaotic. I don’t know how unusual it was because where I grew up most children came from… I don’t like to use the words dysfunctional family because I don’t know what a functional family is. Families are just families and they have their own idiosyncratic ways, regardless of where you grow up or regardless of whether you have two parents living in the house or whatever.
For me when I was a child it wasn’t unusual it was just the way it was. But it was an adventure. It wasn’t the same thing everyday and probably gave me a lot of material to work with as a writer. Perhaps had I grown up in the kind of environment that I think writers are supposed to or used to think, you know, middle class with book shelves and parents for teachers etc maybe I wouldn’t have had quite so much material to work with. But growing up as I did being the eldest of five children and having an alcoholic mother and being a carer and having that level of responsibility and the chaos of people coming and going in your life it means you live a lot of lives in a few years.
Q: It is a bit like a blues singer, where they say you have to have lived it.
AA: Yes, that is true, I like that idea.
Q: You said you first attempted to write when you were 14 but you got some discouragement which was a real knock back for you.
AA: Yes. When I was 14 I wrote my first book and showed it to my step father at the time. I think he was genuinely trying to help but he returned it to me full of red marks because my grammar and spelling were poor. It is tricky one, how do you critique someone’s baby, their creative endeavour without destroying the creative impulse? And it did for several years. For three or four years I just stopped doing it because I thought I wasn’t very good at it. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realised that very few writers are very good at it straight away. You have to learn how to do it. I have written eight novels but only two have gone into the public domain, the third one is coming out soon. That is my apprenticeship. I think what we need to instil in our children is you will make mistakes, they are inevitable and that is how you learn and just keep doing it. If you have a passion for anything, regardless of what it is, just keep doing it. Keep practising.
Q: I was interested when you were talking about the process of writing about getting up at 5am to write when the day has not begun yet.
AA: That beautiful stillness when it is undisturbed. You can just sit in that undisturbed stillness and it is almost as if you can pluck ideas out of the thin air because it is unruffled. Then people start waking up and the air gets agitated with noise and movement. But there is something special about it.
I don’t get up at 5 am every morning. I would have to go to bed at 8pm. This morning I was up at 5 and it is a special time. So if anyone is stuck, like a gentleman in the audience who said he had been stuck on a chapter of his writing for 2 weeks, getting up first thing in the morning is a really good time to do it. Or just sitting down and not moving until you have written something.
Just do it. It might come out pants. Sometimes we stop ourselves from writing because we think it has got to drip from the pen in perfection but most of the time the reality is it is just scribble. If you have some paragraphs that are perfection then you are doing well but generally speaking it’s clunky and it’s just dropped on the paper. But actually I find the more I write the easier it is to write. It is like any art, isn’t it?
Q: It is interesting the way you say you might write something roughly then go back to it again and again. You said you could use brackets to stay put description in here later. So, maybe it is like an artist with a sketch and they go back again and again to work up the sketch into a finished painting.
AA: Yes and you build again and again.
Sometimes I get a scene in my head and I know just how it has to go but there is something I need to write before then. I have got the creative impulse to write that scene, so I will write that scene and then write the scene before it afterwards.
It is a bit like painting by numbers where you do the bits you feel inclined to do and then it all starts to join up together in time. Every writer works in a different way. I have a writer friend who is very successful and she starts at the beginning, she has got it all planned out and she knows exactly where she is going. I am different, I start at the beginning and I know where I want to end but I’m not entirely sure where it is going to take me because I’m still getting to know my characters.
Q: You were talking today about your philosophy, of being very proactive to change life in your favour. You first wrote about this but how did you jump from that into writing novels?
AA: Well I always wanted to be a novelist it was by accident that I wrote the non fiction book in the first place because I was teaching. I had a therapy centre. I had small children and I needed to do something but I didn’t want to go out to work. I needed to be there so I could collect them after school and I could wave to them at school plays and I wanted them to be the focal point for the first few years of their lives. So running my own business seemed the obvious choice and I went to the States and trained as a therapist and set it up and it was really successful. I used to run a number of courses, meditation, relaxation and manifesting what you want in your life. And we are going back about fifteen years ago now, it is quite mainstream now but at the time it was a little on the edge.
By this time I had given up on writing. Yet every now and then I couldn’t help myself and I would write something but I just kept it to myself and didn’t show anyone. I had this ache to write but felt I was not equipped to do it and I can’t really understand why that would be… And a student said you should write all this down in a book. And that was the first time that anyone had ever said I should write a book and it really turned everything else on its head. It might be because I was changing my mind and using the techniques to put out a different persona. That could be why that person said that to me. And that is when I started to pull all of this together; started sending it out and somebody said yes we will publish it for you, a UK publisher in the south.
That book in 2001 was the beginning of me thinking maybe I can do this, maybe I can be a writer. Now I am a full time writer. I have two official novels out now and a non fiction. I’ve got my next book coming out in August and I’m already half way through my next book. It is almost like I have taken the hand break off and so instead of revving the engine I’ve just taken the hand break off and you can just move through things so much more quickly.
Q: You were talking about how someone asked you if you were THE Allison Agius?
AA: (laughs) That happened a couple of years ago when I went to the doctors and the receptionist said I know this is unprofessional but I have to ask you are you THE Allison Agius. Had I been Smith or Brown I could understand why I might reply the way I did. But my name is Agius, a popular name in Malta but not in UK and I said “I don’t think so.” Which is probably the only time in my life when anyone is going to say are you THE Allison Agius and I say I don’t think so. And then she said did you write ‘Hidden Secrets’ and I said yes. She said it had changed her life, she said it is an amazing book and it has changed my life.
That is an amazing statement for her to have made and I just hold that really close to my heart and in my low moments when I think I might be kidding myself about all this because I do feel like I’m dreaming sometimes. I feel like my dream has finally come true. I am writing full time. My books are selling and people are enjoying my work. When I think is this real? Is this worthwhile? Am I doing the right thing? I just have to think, yes you know even if you just make a difference to one person’s life and your own life then that is a life well lived isn’t it?
Q: Absolutely and that is why you are THE Allison Agius.
AA: I don’t think so…
For more information and books of Allison Agius http://allisonagius.com/