Talk to Me: A conversation special - Romani Author Louise Doughty meets Ruby Smith

23 April 2018
Louise Doughty

“As a novelist as well as entertaining somebody you can expand their knowledge and make them understand something about somebody who is different from themselves”.

TTs youth member and aspiring writer  Ruby Smith previously reviewed Stone cradle (2006) by award winning Romani author Louise Doughty. The book is based on her own Romany ancestors and provides a historically accurate exploration of Romany culture in England during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ruby enjoyed it so much TT decided to set up a meeting between them both.

Louise Doughty is also bestselling author of several other novels and one book of non-fiction including Fires in the Dark (2003) which tells the story of survival of a boy from a family of nomadic Kalderash Roma, set in Central Europe during World War II, it offers a heart-rending and dramatic depiction of the Romany people and their fate in the Holocaust. Louise Doughty has also worked widely as a critic and cultural commentator for a variety of newspapers, magazines and broadcast institutions. She has been the theatre critic for the Mail on Sunday and presenter of BBC Radio 4's books programme, A Good Read. A collection of her weekly columns for the Daily Telegraph's Saturday Arts & culture. 

RS: Hi it’s Ruby.

LD: Ruby Hi, nice to speak to you, how are you doing?

RS: I’m fine thank you how are you?

LD:  I’m great thanks!

RS: I have about 8 questions I would love to ask you, the first one is, why did you choose to write ‘Stone Cradle’ and ‘Fires in the dark’ about Roma?

LD: Stone Cradle is very much my family ancestry, my family were Cambridgeshire Smiths, I don’t know how much you know, do you know Cambridgeshire at all?  Where do you live?

RS: I live in Hertfordshire.

LD: Right my great granddad was a horse dealer in Cambridgeshire and we had lots of stories about him when we were growing up and has always been a big part of our family mythology. It’s actually my father’s mother who was the Smith and that was the last generation that was on the road, after that our family was settled in Peterborough but it was a big part of my dad’s personal identity and we grew up with amazing stories about him and I was always fascinated by them and that is why I went on to write ‘Stone Cradle’ it’s my family history.’ Fires in the dark’ was concerned the British council sent me to be a writer in residence at Masaryk University in Brno in Czech Republic in 1999 and I lived there for a month and started to look in to the history of the Czech Roma and the minute you start doing that you come up against the events of the Second World War and the killing of Romanies during the Nazi occupation of what was then Czechoslovakia. It was such a huge story that hadn’t really been written about in fiction and I thought it was really important that somebody should write that story. Although that story wasn’t my family ancestry its very much what would have happened to my family if they had stayed in Eastern Europe. We think our family were originally Kalderash Roma from Romania, but we are not too sure because there are no records going back that far. We think our family came over from Eastern Europe in the middle of nineteenth-century, so my great great grandmother who was originally a Smith but then became a Lee eventually, she always said that she came to this country on a ship with a big white sail which would have been sometime around 1850’s 1860’s but we are not too sure we are just going on the family stories, so ‘Stone Cradle’ is my family history and ‘Fires in the dark’ is what might have been my family history if our  family had stayed in Eastern Europe.

RS: I haven’t actually read ‘Fires in the Dark’ I have got it but I haven’t read it yet.

LD: It’s quite a big one. It is a quite fat book.

RS: No it’s not that I’m just in a bit phase of vampires at the minute, true blood and vampire diaries, 'Interview with a Vampire' is all what I’m reading.

LD: Yeah both of my girls where really into those on one stage.

RS: I love vampires, but I have read ‘Stone Cradle’ and I love that.

LD: Thank you that’s kind of you and you gave that great review that is really nice of you.

RS: My second question is who are your writing inspirations and why?

LD: O gosh there is a loads of them, I really love Margaret Atwood who is Canadian writer I think she is fantastic,  for American writers I love Tony Morrison who’s  written a lot about slavery in the deep South America, British writers I love Hilary Mantel , Helen Dunmore I think is wonderful  and  Naomi Alderman, yes loads of them!

RS: The list could go on forever…

LD: It really could.

RS: My next question is would you write another book about Roma and why?

LD: That is an interesting question you know because what was interesting about those two books is they got very good reviews but they didn’t sell particularly and I think at the time they were published which was 2003 and 2006 there wasn’t much interest or understanding of Gypsy Roma and Traveller issues and those books didn’t sell very well.  I think maybe that’s changed and if those books were published now maybe they would reach a wider audience. So in many ways I think there is a room for another book but I guess if I was going to do it now I would want to bring it up to date and maybe write about Eastern European Roma in London perhaps. Migrant issues because obviously the whole issue of immigration and migration is incredibly important at the moment and I think that story is waiting to be told but it might be a while before I get around to it but yes I would like to at some stage.

Ruby Smith
TT's Youth Advisory Group member Ruby Smith

RS: I’m definitely looking forward to it, when did you realise you first wanted to be a writer?

LD: When I was really very young I use to make up stories a lot and when I was at school I made up what I called my first novel when I was 11 and gave it a cardboard cover because I wanted it to be hardback and it was about a bunch of horses which is rather sort of strange choice form me because I grew up in a house and I don’t think I ever sat on the horse in my life, so maybe there was about my ancestry in there. Then I went to University and I did degree in English literature which was just reading all the great writers going back centuries and then I ended up doing an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia which is a really interesting course that has produced a lot of writers and for me that was sort of the beginning of taking it seriously as a profession really.

RS: University of East Anglia? I think I have been looking at that one; I’ve just started year 10.

LD: That’s great have made you GCSE choices yet? 

RS: I chose business studies, History, Spanish and triple science and RE.

LD: Oh wow you’re doing triple science you must be really cleaver, very hardworking or both! Good for you do you know what you might like to do in A-levels.

RS: What is an interesting fact about yourself?

LD: That is really hard,  I actually think about myself phenomenally boring I spend most of my life in the room on my own making up stories, an interesting fact….  I’m left handed and I’m very clumsy whenever we buy any new crockery my husband gets it out of the bag and say should we just break it now to save time, I’m always falling over, I’m always tripping over, I’m terrible at crossing the road, I’m really accident prone so it’s a good job that I’m a writer really which is a job that doesn’t involve having to do anything practical.

RS:  I still manage to break stuff I’m not really clumsy but I manage to break stuff.

LD: I think there is something to do of being left handed in my occasion I think I’m just so poorly coordinated.

RS: I had laptop once that I used to write a story’s on and I spilt water on it a week after I got it.

LD: How come you ended up doing stuff for The Travellers Times?

RS: They had a couple of books that needed reviewing that my Mum had so they were floating around the house for a while so I said to Mum I would like to read them so I started to review them. I love reading and read quite quickly and the magazine were really impressed with my reviews and asked if I would like to do more. I was like yes sure. It’s just doing what I really like, reading, hoping to work my way up to JK Rowling one day.

LD: You never know, there is a more money in writing about wizards then the type of novels I write.

RS: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

LD: I definitely need coffee in need caffeine and my most important time of the day for writing is when I have that first sip of the coffee, so I’ll wait until I’m ready to sit at my desk before I take it because there something about that first sip of coffee when I’m sat at my desk that really signals OK its time to write and that is a really important moment and if I missed that for any reason  like occasionally if a friend says lets meet for breakfast lets meet for a coffee I think you don’t understand that’s ruining my whole working day because I have to do it right at the beginning if I don’t do it right at the beginning of the day  it becomes non-writing day and I just end up doing emails and social media and all that stuff, so starting that first thing in the morning that is the most importing thing.

RS: What does your family think about your writing?

LD: That’s a good question. I’m not sure, I think they're quite proud of me. To start off with certainly when I started out as a young writer my parents were worried about it because obviously it’s not a stable way of earning your living and It’s an insecure profession and can take years and years to get published so they were quite worried about how I would support myself and how I would earn living  for quite long time, but when I started publishing and became more successful they came round to it. My parents were certainly quite anxious about it when I started because there was never been anything like that a writer in our family none of my parents went to university they both left school at sort of 13 and 15 so it’s a really new thing in our family to have a writer, it’s very unusual.

RS: Quite cool thing, do you hear from your readers much?

LD: I do occasionally and I really like it. I love it when the readers gets in touch, sometimes they send letters to my agent or to my publisher or sometimes they will contact me on Twitter and it's just nice to know there is readership out there because quite often as a writer you feel quite isolated you just in the room on your own and quite often it feels you are writing to your agent or publisher and a handful of reviewers and you can almost forget there is readership out there so when someone gets in touch its actually really exciting, 'Oh my God there is actually real people reading my work out there'  it is really nice.

RS: That is the last question, what is your favourite thing that your readers have said?

LD: I think the favourite thing that I ever had was a women who wrote to me from Surrey after she read ‘Fires in the Dark’ and she wrote to me and said I never understood before that Romanies were persecuted during the second ward war and now I have read your book I’ll try to be nicer and more understanding when I hear some of the bad publicity about Gypsy and Travellers in the press and I understand more about the history of your people and I thought that was really sweet. I think is a great thing to do as a novelist as well as entertaining somebody  you’ve  expand their knowledge a bit and have made them understand something about somebody who’s  is different from themselves.

RS: I get it it’s nice that you have changed somebody’s mind

LD: Yes, someone said to me, when you read a novel you get to walk in somebody else’s shoes’, you get to believe this made up characters are real but there have feelings like you emotions like you loves like you and I think it is really important act of empathy and that’s why I think fiction is so important really because you can transport you into the head of somebody whose completely different from yourself. so when you feel that you have been able to do that for somebody else as a novelist that is really satisfying.

RS: I don’t know what I would have done without fiction through my life.

LD: And the other famous quote about the reading is that ‘we read to know we are not alone’, it’s amazing to read a novel and have your own feelings described precisely by somebody else and love the idea of being able to do that for someone else it  is a really satisfying thought.

RS: Some books you read and think ‘are you sure you not writing this about me?’ I certainly enjoyed your books and I will get around ‘Fires in the dark’ sometime I promise. Thank you.

Are you interested in developing your writing skills?  Check out this free hands-on online course at Future Learn. It could help you to get started with your own fiction writing, focusing on the central skill of creating characters.

Main picture © Charlie Hopkinson