I have been working on the San Francisco Bay ferries for over 20 years. One of the perks of working the ferries is the ever-changing beauty of the view. Another is the stories. Sailors have a great stockpile of stories. Short or long, chances are you will be told a good story at some juncture of the day. There is a wide range of subjects: accidents, vessel breakdown, feuding crew-mates (we all have those stories), or humorous incidents. And sometimes, swearing.
Seagulls flying behind the ferry, San Francisco waterfront in the background.
I first discovered swearing at age 11, in the back of my friend’s family station wagon. Before that, the most ribald language I heard was Mom saying ‘Mercy Maude!’ in that tone of voice that said, “I’m at the end of my rope, and you better stop exasperating me this instant!”
My fancy was not sparked by ‘Mercy Maude.’ However,in the back of that station wagon, the intoxicating nature of prohibited word use was revealed. As we fooled around, my friend said, “Holy Moses.” The words I knew, but together they sounded intentionally naughty. We both glanced forward. No response from her mom. The car rolled on down the road. We proceeded to toss this fun new phrase around. Finally, her mother called back to us, “Enough, girls. I don’t want to hear that anymore.”
Why were two words, words heard in church, not to be uttered together? It was a mystery. Now that it was proscribed, ‘Holy Moses’ became more fun. I was thrilled. In addition, when I tried the phrase out in the hearing of my mother, I got censured immediately. Even better, she couldn’t explain why I shouldn’t say it.
I loved Holy Moses.
“Wow,” I thought, as I repeated the phrase silently to myself, “There must be others, equally fun.”
As I grew older and moved away, I found out I was right. Each new swear word I heard got tucked away for future use. In public, I held the juicy words back. Among my friends, we spiced up our conversations with abandon.
At work one day on the ferry, our crew was finishing up lunch, the Lead Deckhand, who had worked the ferries for forty years, chuckled. We looked at him, waiting.
“Have you heard of that time Carolyn came down to our boat to tell us we had to watch our language?”
Not swear? We all joined in his laughter.
“Yeah,” he continued. “We’re on break. We see Carolyn hustling down here from her office. She come aboard, says hello, and proceeds to tell us that she has gotten complaints, a number of complaints mind you, about our language. Apparently, someone wrote to the company, objecting to the “language” they overheard during a voyage.”
He smiled. “None of us say anything. She stands there, looking around at us. When no one says anything, she asks, “What should we do about it?”
One of the guys speaks up. “That’s easy! There’s just one answer.”
She looks at him optimistically. “And what is that?”
With a straight face, he declares, “Stop hiring sailors!”
“We are all different and there is no such thing as normal.”
There are a lot of good authors on Amazon who don’t appear on the Best Seller list. It’s fun to poke around and use the ‘Look Inside’ option and see what appeals. This is how I discovered J.M. Forster. She is an award winning British author, and has written two well-received books for middle grade readers. The first, a mystery adventure, Shadow Jumperwas Gold Winner of the Wishing Shelf Book Awards. Her second book, Bad Hair Days recounts the story of Mallow, who is desperate to hide an embarrassing secret. Bad Hair Days was a finalist in 2017 for the Wishing Shelf Book Awards.
I contacted Ms. Forster, and she generously took some time to answer a few questions.
As a child, Julia spent a lot of time reading, making her way through piles of library books every week. When her sons were young, she shared her love for books with them. As a result, in 2009 she decided to try her hand at writing a “positive and upbeat” story, with rewarding results.
In this email interview, Ms. Forster shares some of her favorite books, why she likes being a writer, and the tools she uses for her work. With two books published, she is challenging herself to learn Spanish.
LC: What sorts of things did you write when you were young:
JMF: To be honest, I didn’t write a huge amount when I was young, I was more into reading. However, I did attempt to write one book when I was about eight or nine years old. It was written in the style of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories. Enid Blyton, who died in 1968, was a famous children’s writer in England and her books are still really popular today.
Unusually for me, as I’m not a hoarder, I kept the notes of my unfinished story, which I called The Mystery of the Golden Locket. It’s written partly in blue biro, partly in red crayon and tied together with pink wool.
LC: How was reading/writing encouraged and supported in your family:
JMF: My family weren’t great readers; there weren’t many books in the house, compared to the number I have in my home today. But my parents were supportive of my passion for reading and I was a member of the local library. They’d ferry me along there practically every week, so that I could stock up on reading material. At that time you could only take out three or four books at a time with your membership card, so I’d take the whole family’s cards along and would come back with armfuls of books.
LC: What are some of the books you enjoyed as a young reader, and which ones still hold up:
JMF: As I’ve already said, I was a great fan of Enid Blyton when I was younger, and particularly loved The Famous Five, Malory Towers, and The Secret Seven series. One of my all-time favourite books is A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (I’ve still got my original copy). It’s an historical time-slip story set in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. And of course, I loved The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and A Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier.
When I got a bit older I started reading Agatha Christie novels; Christie was a genius at plotting great murder mysteries.
LC: What else interested you then, along with reading and writing?
JMF: What other interests are there? ; ) I was always reading!
Other than that, I’d spend a lot of time with my family. My mother used to take me and my sister on day trips to London and other nearby places to see the sights. We also spent a lot of time doing craft activities. At Easter we’d set up a little factory making eggs out of papier mâché, then we’d make sweets to put inside them and give them to family.
When I was in my teens I got into drama a bit, but it was always reading that kept my attention the most back then.
LC: What books do you enjoy with your family now?
JMF: My two sons are older now, (my older son has turned 18) so they have their own interests. My younger son likes non-fiction and science, so reads The New Scientist magazine. My older son is re-visiting books he read when he was younger, like the Skullduggery Pleasant series [ed.: by Derek Landy]. He’s also interested in visual special effects and animation so reads magazines about that.
LC: What pursuits do you follow when you are not writing:
JMF: My main interest, apart from writing, is learning Spanish. It’s something I’ve been doing on and off for years, having spent a number of months in Spain when I was in my twenties, teaching English as a foreign language. I now have Spanish classes, do language exchanges, watch films and TV series in Spanish etc. I love it and it keeps the brain active!
I enjoy walking my dog, Frodo, and when I can, I do Pilates (essential if you have a job where you’re sitting down most of the time.)
LC: What books are you reading now, or have you read recently:
JMF: I read a lot of fiction written for young people as that is what I love. At the moment I’m reading Stone Cold by Robert Swindells with the added challenge that I’m reading it in Spanish, obviously with the aid of a dictionary!
LC: Do you have a favorite library or librarian, or bookstore:
JMF: I have to give a shout out for The Suffolk Anthology in Cheltenham, an independent bookstore, run by a lovely lady called Helene. In the basement of her shop I run my writers’ critique group. A group of six or seven of us meet every 2/3 weeks to critique each other’s work and talk ‘writing’. Helene has always been incredibly supportive of us writers. Sadly, the bookshop is closed at the moment, given the current situation, but I hope that we’ll soon be able to meet there again.
LC: What do you like about being a writer:
JMF: I like being able to set my own timetable (although that does bring its challenges). As I publish my own books, I have a lot of control over how I do things and when. It’s that independence that I enjoy. Also, seeing how my story develops and changes as I write it and how it gradually gets better and better (hopefully!) over time, until at last I feel it’s ready to be launched into the wider world. Although I start off with a plot outline I often find that new ideas come to me whilst I’m writing, and they can change the direction the novel is going in. It surprises me when I’ve finished a story and return to the first draft and compare it to the final one; they are always so different.
LC: What got you going on writing Shadow Jumper and Bad Hair Days:
JMF: Before I started writing Shadow Jumper, which I think was in about 2009, I read a lot of books with my children. I enjoyed reading them so much, I decided to have a go at writing one for myself. The story for Shadow Jumper came from two different ideas; one was the game I played with my two boys when I was taking them to school and kindergarten each morning. We would jump between the shadows on the pavement as a game and as a means of keeping them entertained until we got to school. The other idea came from the skin condition my dad suffers from; he’s sensitive to sunlight. It means that he spends a lot of time inside, his skin reacts badly to the light and he comes out in an itchy, painful rash. The doctors have never got to the bottom of what causes this problem. I started to think about what it would be like to be a teenager with such a problem, how they would cope with it. I then connected the two ideas together and came up with Shadow Jumper.
Bad Hair Days comes from a similar idea: being different. Although the story is about a girl who suffers from alopecia, or hair loss, it’s really about the fact that we are all different and there is no such thing as normal. It’s also about the importance of friendship and family.
I wanted the stories to be positive and upbeat. I like to think I achieved that as both books are very popular.
LC: What “writing implements” do you use? (paper/pencil/pen, typewriter, desktop, laptop, tablet, etc.):
JMF: I normally write using my laptop in my writing cabin. It’s a wonderfully tranquil space with a lovely view of the garden and a huge magnolia tree. However, when I start a novel, I scribble plot and character outlines using pen and any bit of paper I can find – I’m not terribly organized. Sometimes I brainstorm ideas onto a large piece of flipchart paper with a marker pen. Invariably, however much planning I do, things change as I go along, meaning those original hand-written notes become obsolete.
LC: Are there any particular writing programs that you like and use:
JMF: I use Word to write. It’s easy and I’m a bit of a technophobe, so I stick to the familiar. To help improve my writing I use ProWriting Aid program which helps me identify bits of text/vocabulary which are repetitive, don’t make sense or are not grammatically sound.
LC: Do you have anything to say for writers who get no encouragement, or are actively discouraged:
JMF: Don’t listen to those people who try and discourage you, which is easier said than done, I know. At the end of the day, no one can stop you putting pen to paper and writing your story. As long as you enjoy what you do, that is the important thing.
Without a doubt, one of the hardest things about being a writer is the rejection you are going to have to cope with, not just from well-meaning friends or family who think you shouldn’t be wasting your time, but from the publishing industry itself. Rejection comes with the territory of being a writer and it means that you have to develop a thick skin.
One practical suggestion for a budding writer is to find a supportive critique or writing group, either in your local area, or on line. Mixing with fellow writers who understand what you are doing is essential, in my opinion, and they can be a fount of knowledge, inspiration and encouragement.
Thank you, J.M Forster! I look forward to finishing up Bad Hair Days. Meanwhile, there is always room for another fun and exciting read-aloud book, and we await your next story!