“I do moody” - A walk around a Sheffield graveyard with an author known for tackling taboo subjects
Bestselling author Susan Elliot Wright does dark. Familiar themes in her books are grief and loss. So as she picks her way around the graveyard at Ecclesall Parish Church, she feels at home.
“I do moody,” she tells us as the clouds gather overhead and the skies darken, which all seems appropriate for an author who specialises in challenging stories which tackle taboo subjects.
We’ve come to the graveyard after Susan revealed they are among her favourite places and after our visit she confirms she is now a big fan of the Ecclesall site, off Ecclesall Road South.
Susan, aged 62, is a mother of two and has five grandchildren. She is also a big fan of Sheffield. It gave her a way into writing, something she dreamt of as a child, growing up in Lewisham in south-east London, but which disappeared when she left school at 16 and married unwisely at 18.
“I was a typical little girl, who wanted to get married and have babies and my own house. So I married my first boyfriend, who was abusive and controlling. I sort of knew, I knew he was moody, but I thought I need to be better and then he won’t be like this.
“But it was awful. The first time I thought of leaving him was when I was pregnant with my second child, but where could I go with a child under three and another on the way?
“I left after 12 years with a bin bag full of clothes and toys. I took the children and the dogs and moved in with my mum and sister.
“Eventually I got the house back but such an experience does influence you. It’s hard to put your finger on how, I left him at 30 and in all our time together I never read. I had dreamt of becoming a novelist, but nobody in my family had done that or even been to university. It wasn’t what we did.
“All the time in my marriage I never dared to read. I was wary of reading because he took it as a personal affront, so when I left it was like a rebirth. I was able to read, to write, it had been stifled before, leaving him was the start of my new life.
“I shook for six weeks but within six months I was reading again and I signed up for creative writing classes. At 16 I had one O level, but at 30 I did an A level in English and then a degree.”
She decided to choose a new name, and began flicking through the phonebook for ideas.
“I sent off for brochures in four different names, one was Lockwood, I’ve forgotten the rest, but when one arrived saying Susan Ellliot it felt right.
She changed her name by deed poll. Then she met 'Mr Right' (actually, Mr Wright) to whom she is now happily married.
She came to Sheffield in 2005 to do an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University and went on to become an Associate Lecturer.
Susan lives in Sharrowvale. “It’s just so lovely,” she says. Her love affair with the city began in 1997 when she was on holiday in the Peak District. She and her husband ventured into the city and liked it. So when the creative writing course beckoned, the couple moved ‘tentatively’
“We let our house out down south with a view to maybe going back. I fell in love with Sheffield very quickly. We started in Middlewood, the London Road area and now Sharrowvale.
“Everyone is so friendly, it seems more relaxed, people look you in the eye. I like the fact it’s so green, so many places to go in walking distance and it’s so tranquil, whether that’s Endcliffe Park, the General Cemetery, so many places.”
Which brings us to the graveyard at Ecclesall Parish Church, where there are 10,000 graves. She’s impressed. “I’ll definitely be coming back,” she says. Another reason to like her adopted city.
“Sheffield is a very good place to be a creative person, whether that’s a writer, a musician, a painter. It is a really supportive city to arts and artists, it feels like an arts friendly place. It has been incredibly supportive to me, I have found other writers to hang out with.”
These include Russ Thomas, author of Firewatching, with whom she ran creative writing classes in Crookes.
So what are her top tips for writing? “Read widely, read out of your comfort zone, notice what excites you in what you read and work out how the author did it. Notice what bores you and work out why. You can’t be a writer unless you really know about fiction and the way to know about it is to read. I had students on writing courses who said they didn’t really read novels, so why were they on the course?
“When you write, don’t expect that the minute you pick up a pen you’ll turn out the equivalent of what you pick up in a bookshop. It’s a craft, you need to practice and practice it. I wouldn’t pick up a saxophone and expect to play it immediately but because we all write all the time, whether it’s a shopping list or a note to yourself, we think we can write a story. If we’re not happy with it, we give up. Don’t give up, keep going, every day you write you become a better writer.”
The pandemic brought an unexpected change in what she did. Of course, she didn’t stop writing but lockdown changed things. “I couldn’t run the classes but was asked to do critiques and mentoring.
“People thought they couldn’t go out, they couldn’t go to work, so why not write that book I talked about. I love doing that, I love helping other writers.”
She also completed a two-year stint as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, which involved her spending two days a week helping students, mainly science students, with their essay-writing.
“I know nothing about science, but good writing is good writing,” she says.
Her first novel was The Things We Never Said, published in 2013. She followed it with The Secrets We Left Behind in 2014, What She Lost in 2017 and The Flight of Cordelia Blackwood in 2019.
It looks like seamless progress. It wasn’t. “I had 40,000 words of a novel but on my first tutorial in Sheffield I was told I had the character and the setting, but where is the story?”
The critic was Jane Rogers, a tutor at the time at Hallam. She wrote Mr Roe’s Virgins, which became a Tv mini series so definitely someone worth listening to.
“She said restructure it or try something else. I went home, thought about it and put it aside. So I started The Things We Never Said, it was 2005, the first draft was done by 2008, followed by months and months of rejection until I signed with an agent in 2010. It meant more reworking and by now I’d started another book but at last the first one went to the publishers.”
Five years later it was in the bookshops - a labour of love. Now she banks on taking between 18 months to two years to write a novel. She’s also written two non-fiction works on emotional abuse and dementia.
Her novels have themes which crop up again and again. “In every one is my obsession with motherhood, maternal issues and mental health.”
Difficulties in early motherhood comes from personal experience and surfaces powerfully in The Flight of Cordelia Blackwood, which explores motherhood, tragedy, grief and loneliness.
“I had a terrible time after my daughter was born. It was probably due to sleep deprivation and I was going a bit barmy. I was later told it was post natal psychosis. You can’t underestimate sleep deprivation, when you’ve not slept and baby is crying, especially if you feel solely responsible, you can go a bit bonkers. I thought my baby was judging me but as she got older I got better. The GP gave me a drug to help her sleep and after 10 months I got my first five hours.”
She is putting the finishing touches to her fifth novel, title yet to be decided. “It’s quite dark,” she says. “Codelia Blackwood was dark and dealt with a difficult subject, this one is dark in a different way, there’s a sense of unease.” It should be published next year by Simon and Schuster.
She regularly meets Russ Thomas to discuss ideas and they hope to restart the creative writing classes. “I met him through the MA, we’d been at an event and started talking in the pub afterwards. We just hit it off and took it from there.
“I started doing classes with him and we had a really good rapport, we teach well together and having him there takes the pressure off me.”
It also means she has to share the fees, but it’s not really about money.
“We do it for the love it and get quite excited when someone who is stuck works with us and sees a way forward.”
Contact her via her website https://susanelliotwright.co.uk/