Northern Soul’s Wendy Pratt Talks to author Debbie Taylor about Herring Girl, Mslexia and taking the scenic route to becoming a writer.

Herring Girl lured me in like a fish on a hook. It bundled up my emotions in a kist and delivered me into the story so beautifully that I was unable to stop myself falling through the pages, one after the other.

There’s this little boy, you see. His name is Ben and he isn’t like other little boys. He’s a little boy who is really a little girl trapped in a little boy’s body. He’s so vulnerable and so brave that I felt immediately anxious for him; the way he trawled the internet for sex change drugs and how he locked his bedroom door so that he could be a girl in private while outside his fisherman father lived as an alpha male in a rough male world. All this made me want to look after him. It sparked a maternal instinct in me. He’s searching for understanding. And that’s one of the themes in this beautifully crafted book: the search for connection.

Ben’s family becomes a patchwork of people; different ages, different sexes, but they are all linked by a search for some kind of relief, for acceptance and happiness. It’s what we all search for. The story evokes a sense of wandering, of looking for a place to bed down, and of wanting to experience more than the roles to which we are allotted might allow – not unlike Debbie Taylor’s experiences of travelling, exploring and coming to rest in a converted lighthouse in North Shields.

I spoke to Taylor recently and found her to be genuine, open and honest about her experiences and decisions. She was also very reassuring as I fumbled through my first real interview for Northern Soul. I was more than a little star struck to be talking to the founder of Mslexia; a magazine I follow and whose website I regularly use for guidance and prompts. Taylor’s life is inspirational: her determination, curiosity and willingness to accept possibility have driven her career forward and made her a role model for women writers everywhere. And she lives in a lighthouse! Which is obviously extremely cool.

Taylor’s career path has taken the scenic route. Though she always wanted to be a writer, she feels that there were not many women role models out there, no female presence in the arts that might have encouraged her to give it a shot. Her parents were not big readers and there were not many books in her childhood home in Cardiff, Wales. She followed her own path, followed her own logic and, like many women writers, her first career was not in writing.

“The nearest thing to being a writer was to become a psychologist,” she tells me. Which she did and did well, studying psychology at University College London where she gained a first class honours degree and then going on to work at the National Hospital of Nervous Diseases.

Taylor says: “As my confidence grew and my career progressed, as I got further into my career, I realised that I would never become a writer if I remained a psychologist.”

She decided to make a life change and travelled to Africa, taking herself entirely away from the life she knew in order to “force myself to change my life”. She lived in mud huts and sat at the edge of the Kalahari Desert typing on an old travel typewriter. This is where her writing career started, in Africa. She was working for New Internationalist magazine.

Herring Girl“I worked as a freelance journalist, travelling to different countries, doing research on developing countries and drawing together lots of information. I took part in participant studies on women and health, for the UN.”

Taylor has always found inspiration in women and has been driven by a curiosity to explore other cultures, to connect with women from entirely different backgrounds. Her first book, My Children, My Gold, was based on research into the experiences of single mothers across the world. Women that had been widowed, abandoned, and faced the challenges that are common to single mothers everywhere.

“The women faced sexual harassment, they were the main wage earners while being the care givers for their children, and they were facing the most challenging situations. We all live in a patriarchal society but this is much stronger in other countries, it’s very difficult to survive as a single mother. The women I met were amazingly tough.”

Women are amazingly tough. When Taylor had her daughter she noticed that the lives of women writers were very different to their male counterparts.

“It’s tough to be a creative writer and earn a living,” she reflects. “The vast majority of women writers end up taking a day job either doing paid writing like journalism or as barmaids or whatever, to pay the bills. When my daughter was born I realised that it is an issue for all women writers. There are three things going on: they need to earn a living, they have caring responsibilities, either with children or partners or elderly relatives, and then there is the creative writing too. That was the main reason men dominate the arts, which is improving slightly, women role models are more prevalent, but men have more time.”

And that was the conception of the idea for Mslexia, the leading magazine for women writers, written by women writers. Mslexia has been a big influence on me – the website alone is a wealth of knowledge and inspiration. It’s strong, unashamed and celebratory. Mslexia allows women to come together and be who they are, but there is also guidance there – it’s a resource, and a good one.

The female characters in Herring Girl are, not surprisingly, strong women. The herring gutter, or gipper, Annie, of 1898, is intensely, vividly drawn. This novel is, in part, a historical novel. And with any historical novel comes a massive amount of research. Taylor has written historical novels before – The Fourth Queen in particular is so detailed that the research on it was intense.

“I vowed I’d never write another historical novel again,” says Taylor. “The problem with writing a historical novel is that if you are disturbed, if you have to put the book to one side for six months, if you are disturbed at all, you have to read all your research again. My style is very intimate, very close to the characters, I want to envisage exactly what it was like at that time, I want to inhabit every aspect of their lives – the food, how they go to the toilet, the smells, the houses, all information needed to write in such detail. I learnt a lot about the social norms in order to get inside my characters, things such as the way that girls were so ignorant about sex despite living cheek by jowl in tight-packed communities. It’s important to be as accurate about facts as you can be because, especially with more recent history, you don’t want someone ringing you up to tell you that you aren’t right about something because they actually remember it, you don’t want to be caught out.”

In Herring Girl, Taylor links the characters to one another through the idea that they are searching for the same connections and relationships over and over through different, previous, lives; they are being reincarnated repeatedly and their current problems relate to unresolved past life experiences. It’s a fascinating theory. Once I’d finished reading the book I found myself watching endless YouTube videos of children who were, supposedly, reincarnated. It was very convincing.

“I wanted to write a book that linked the past to the present day. Reincarnation was a literary idea to do that, I found the scientific studies in reincarnation incredibly interesting.”

The character of Mary, a regression therapist, acts as the link between all the lives. Mary’s own maternal instincts are brought to life when Ben comes to see her for an assessment so that he might be given hormone therapy. Mary cannot have children and her character is so carefully drawn that this information is a subtle undertone to her personality. Maternal instinct is a powerful motivator. The yearning for a family has led me through four rounds of ICSI with a fifth imminent. Taylor also faced the gruelling rigours of IVF and suffered several failed cycles.

Debbie Taylor“I suppose she [Mary] is based on me a bit. But my other book, Hungry Ghosts, is far more autobiographical. Mary pushes it [the infertility] out of herself and becomes a prickly person. I don’t think I did that. I chose to go around the world, to four different countries in six months trying traditional fertility treatments. It was part of my research as a freelance journalist. I was given herbs to drink in Uganda, in India I saw a saint, a sort of wise man who laid hands on me and doused me in water. In Brazil I saw a very strange woman who went into a trance and ran her hands over me, I also saw a Chinese healer who was working out of a hospital, he used traditional Chinese medicine. Not long after I returned, I became pregnant.” 

After all the travelling and research around the world, Taylor seems to have found her roots in North Shields with her husband, the poet W.N. Herbert. They live in a converted lighthouse. The house and its own previous lives were the spark that put the book in motion. And the house itself features in the book, or at least a version of it, as the home of Mary the psychologist.

Taylor explains: “The idea came from our house. It’s a Grade II listed building and we needed a special sort of planning permission to do any alterations to it. We needed historical buildings permission in order to renovate it. I went to the local library and researched the house, what it had been like before, so that we could renovate it accordingly. While looking at photos of the way it used to look, I came across all these pictures of how North Shields had looked – filled with herring boats and bristling masts, the boats so close together that you could walk across them while they were moored. Now you look down and there are three or four little prawn boats in the harbour. The bank that we look out on is clear now, just grass, but in the photos it is crammed with slum houses, brothels, pubs, shops, hen houses.”

Given her close attention to detail, it didn’t surprise me that Taylor has tried past life regression herself.

“My own experience was non therapeutic. I was interested in the experience. The character, Edith, in Herring Girl is based on the past life that I uncovered. The character in the book is different, but the personality is based on my experience. I came out of [the trance] not knowing if I had made it all up. It was a profound experience but the trance itself is very strange. I cried a lot, it was exhausting, interesting. The hypnotist tried to pin down the exact location of where I was living and Bristol was the nearest city. Afterwards, it occurred to me that I was born in Cardiff which isn’t that far away. The historical time frame in which she died fitted the year I was born. I wasn’t aware that I was constructing anything while I was hypnotised. Research implies that souls hang around in the vague vicinity of previous past lives, it sounds bizarre but it’s not random. Countries that have been invaded often show a spate of past life memories of children speaking the language of the invading army.”

Fascinating stuff. And it’s that edge of strangeness and curiosity that makes this book so much more than ‘just’ a historical novel. Herring Girl is one of those rare books that straddles genres, but does it in such a way that it feels subtle and ‘right’. I can’t imagine the book any other way, or any other book like it for that matter. Like the characters in the book, the ideas and the themes refuse to be compartmentalised, refuse to be filed. Everybody is connected to everybody else and actions are connected to consequence, the past lives vibrating through the lives of the living. It is a beautiful, skilled book and a thoroughly riveting read.

By Wendy Pratt