Lorraine Gregory is the author of Mold and the Poison Plot, a middle-grade novel about being a misfit and finding true friendship. Lorraine is the daughter of an Indian father and an Austrian mother. Raised on an East London Council Estate her local library fed her love of books and though becoming a ‘proper’ author seemed like an impossible dream she started scribbling stories for her son and those tales found their way off the page and into the world.
Having been virtually introduced to Lorraine by my good friend Em Lynas I was keen to find out her writing journey. There is a warmth and honesty in Lorraine’s story that really struck me. I could deeply relate to her description of how disorientating it is to be a working class writer at sea in the social world of publishing. How exhausting it is to try to fake the confidence that is needed to get through events. As well as these intimate glimpses Lorraine’s story is full of uplifting insights into a writing dream made real. It’s incredible and inspiring and Lorraine’s responses to my questions are so generous about the path to becoming a writer, the craft and the industry I’ve split her story into two parts so that you can enjoy over two courses, like a good dinner and pudding, to fill you up ready to set off on your own writing journey in the New Year.
Tell me about where you come from? Were stories told in your house? What did you like to do as a child?
My parents were offered council housing when I was two years old. We moved from the cramped furnished apartment with added mice, to a lovely spacious three bedroomed maisonette on a concrete council estate in East London. My parents who’d struggled to manage were thrilled at their good fortune and continued to work as hard as they could to ensure their children had everything they needed.
My mum was from a poverty stricken home in Austria and took full advantage of the local library to ensure my brother and `I were never short of books.
My dad was from Goa in India and we loved listening to his stories of growing up barefoot, running on the beaches and his crocodile “best friend”.
The first book I remember having a huge affect on me was “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” by Judith Kerr. It’s an extraordinary book and it spoke to me on so many levels. As Anna becomes a refugee from her home in Germany her sense of being different and not fitting in resonated with me.
I loved writing from an early age, scribbling huge adventures that sprung out fully formed. When I wasn’t reading or writing I was out playing on our estate with the other children. The estate was a concrete jungle but that only made it perfect for bikes and roller skates and skateboards!
I went to my local primary and comprehensive schools and enjoyed both. I loved reading and writing at primary and teachers were very encouraging there but at secondary school imagination was less valued I felt and there was little time to write creatively.
I didn’t meet any writers, I never expected to, writers were special, amazing people who were far too busy and important to meet mere mortals.
My local library in Fullwell Cross was an oasis of books with a special, separate children’s library. My mum took us every weekend and every summer we did the reading scheme and it was always one of my favourite spaces. Without it I’d never have been able to afford to read as voraciously as I did and without all that reading I doubt I’d have become a writer.
The current trend of closing libraries is going to impact hugely on children from working class backgrounds and limit their potential.
Did you train to become a writer? What jobs do you do or have you done that aren’t related to writing? What skills do you bring from outside writing to the craft of getting it done?
I have no training whatsoever for writing, except all the reading, film/TV watching and story imagining I’ve done over the years.
I worked in catering after I left school, a brief stint as a dinner lady was followed by a year as a catering assistant, a few years as a chef and then catering manager. After I had my son I began a diploma in antenatal education so I could teach at home and choose my hours. Now the teaching fits in well with my writing and means I have enough time for my family and friends too which is a bonus!
Doing my diploma was really helpful because all the essay’s got me back into the habit of writing and fired up my brain.
It also gave me confidence that I could finish things, work to a deadline and gave me some experience of editing. It’s also been useful for enabling me to be confident enough to stand up in front of people and deliver a workshop or author talk.
I first started writing again properly for my son. He was a reluctant reader and I had to try really hard to find stories for him to engage with. Once we got through Roald Dahl and Mr Gum I struggled to keep him interested so one day I started scribbling a story down just for him.
When I read it to him later he loved it and was so excited and desperate for more. Every day I’d write a chapter for him and then at bedtime I’d read it to him and he would laugh and bounce around on the bed in excitement. Then we’d discuss what might happen next and it really inspired me to keep writing. (Also if I didn’t write any he would be cross with me and insist I write extra the next day!)
The other factor that contributed to me writing was my health issues. I suffered from repeated disc prolapses that caused constant back pain and made it very hard for me to do much at all. My life narrowed to home and occasional days of work for several years and I needed to find something to occupy me…writing filled that gap and I quickly rediscovered my love for it. I was spurred on by my son whose enthusiasm never wavered and he became my sounding board for my ideas and the first reader of all my work.
My husband supports me. I’m lucky and privileged that he can do so and that he sees the value in my work. With his help I can work part time and find the hours I need to write and promote my work.
Once I started writing I found I couldn’t stop. I wrote quickly, completing a full draft of my first MG (middle-grade)novel in three months or so and then moving on to another. But I knew nothing about editing or how to get published. Luckily I found SCBWI ( society for children’s book writers and illustrators) online and through their workshops and talks I gained an understanding of what was involved.
I think my main barrier has been myself to be honest. The publishing industry is almost inherently white middle class and while everyone I’ve ever met has been lovely and welcoming I often feel like I don’t belong there; that I don’t talk “right”, that I’m not educated enough, that I’m wearing the wrong clothes and I’m convinced someone will realise I’m just a jumped up council estate brat and kick me out!
It feels harder, sometimes, to go to social events, to make conversation with professionals when my childhood consisted of being looked down upon, being seen as “lesser” than the middle class children, being labelled and then judged as one of the “council estate kids”.
I possess none of the inbred confidence that is often found in the privileged, privately educated.
I’m not sure that people realise how difficult it can be to enter the publishing world from a working class background. Publishing is a very sociable business, getting to know other writers, agents and publishers is important and I think that part of it can be a barrier to the working class – standing around in bookshops sipping prosecco while chatting about literature doesn’t necessarily come naturally and could certainly put people off.
I manage to come across as confident and sociable but it’s really just an act.
After every social event I’m racked with self doubt and convinced everyone was secretly talking about me…
But I have to say that the children’s book world is one of the friendliest places to be and, I’ve been told, far more generous and forgiving than other sectors of the book world. I’ve made many friends since I started writing and have found a place in the publishing world where I feel comfortable and happy.
There are many working class writers writing for children now and that is a brilliant thing. If we could get more working class people IN to publishing houses as editors then we might find more working class stories and characters being commissioned.
I think it’s of ever more importance that these changes happen – poverty levels are increasing in the UK, more and more children are homeless and hungry – all the while schools are more and more unable to cope with the decreasing budgets given by the government – and lets not forget that more and more libraries are closing.
Books will become a luxury if we’re not careful and the opportunities I had growing up to improve my social status through education could disappear.
I desperately want more books and stories about working class children, children in poverty, BAME children, to be out there so that children will see themselves and engage in reading which we all know is one of the biggest indicators for a child’s future.
Besides that I think seeing different lives is hugely important for ALL children, to increase their empathy levels and make them aware of the diversity of experiences out there.
The other issue that comes up is that many schools can’t afford author visits now and sometimes it might be the one chance a working class child has of seeing that it’s a possible dream for them. I love going into schools and talking about my experiences and watching their faces light up but I’m worried that author visits will soon become a luxury only known to private schools.
Click here to read Part 2 about how Lorraine found her genre, her voice and her story champions.