I was born in Tallahassee, FL in 1963 but the family moved to Tampa soon after. This is where I was raised and schooled until I left for Duke University in 1981. We lived on the middle of three inter-connected freshwater lakes, in a new suburb carved out of the swamp. There was plenty of wildlife, including turtles which feasted on each new clutch of baby ducks, slurping their fluffy yellow bodies right under the water; palmetto bugs, which are flying cockroaches the size of hamsters; and a geriatric alligator who just wanted to be left in peace. My brother and I dug Native American arrow heads from the muddy shore.
There were hurricanes most years, strong enough to send us scurrying for the safety of the bedroom closets, but nothing on the scale depicted in SUMMERTIME. I am happy to say that I’ve never experienced a natural disaster of that magnitude. The summer rains routinely submerged our back lawn completely, and we loved watching fish swim among the blades of grass. Shoes are not that practical in the tropics, so I spent a lot of time barefoot, even at school. Summers were spent mostly underwater – either fresh or sea – as it was the best way to escape the heat.
In 1981 I began a BsC degree in Zoology at Duke University in North Carolina, which included a semester at the Université de Paris. I very nearly did not return to the US to complete my degree, so smitten was I with the adventure of life in Europe. When I did come back, it was not for long. Paris called to me but, like a failed attempt at rekindling a romance, things were awkward and difficult the second time. Over the course of several months, Paris and I fell out of love with each other. Homeless and jobless, I slunk, defeated, back to the UK, where I had worked briefly on my way back to France.
There I gave up my dream of a glamorous French life and settled into a more recognizably grown-up existence, with a career in academic publishing, a mortgage, a marriage. A cat. While it wasn’t as exciting as my Paris adventure, there were still plenty of strange things about the British way of life. I got used to being offered baked beans with almost everything. I tuned into the subtle distinctions of accent and behaviour which separate the social classes. I became aware that, as a foreigner, I was exempt from the standards of behaviour expected of natives. British people seemed really pleased, and somehow proud, that I ate with utensils and kept my feet off the table.
As my career thrived, the marriage did the opposite, and I became single again in 1996. There followed several years of outright romantic disaster, in the steam age of the internet. I met James, now my husband, in 1999, and moved from Oxford to Marlborough in Wiltshire in 2003. Soon after, I began writing feature articles for the newspapers. Writing was always a part of my life, from my first story at the age of six, but I had not made any efforts to get published. This changed when I wrote my first novel, about a group of women who all have breast cancer, based on a friend’s experiences, followed by another work of women’s fiction. Little did I know that I too would get the disease a few years later, in 2009.
Many people say that having cancer changed their life in good as well as bad ways. That’s certainly true for me. I had been singing in acapella groups for years, but only decided to train as a vocal leader and start the Marlborough Community Choir after my treatment finished. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Music is now a huge part of my life. Leading the choir is immensely satisfying on all levels. I’ve met such fantastic people, and come to appreciate the incredible healing power of singing. It played a huge part in my recovery, and enriches every day. I also sing with the area’s oldest girl group, Mother’s Jam. I’m not a believer, in the religious sense, but any spirituality I have is bound up in singing. This is one reason why the character Missy sings.
Discouraged by my lack of publishing success, debilitated by the cancer treatment, I gave up writing for a few years. And then, on a visit to my family in 2010, I opened the morning paper and read a story which changed all that. It was a long piece about the ‘spectacle’ lynching of Claude Neal in Florida in 1935, for which no one has ever been prosecuted. I had never written historical fiction, but suddenly I was filled with inspiration, to write a novel based on these real events. I took the newspaper clipping back to the UK and began researching the period of history in my home state, which I knew nothing about. And this is where I discovered the story of the Labor Day hurricane which became SUMMERTIME. It’s also the title of one my favourite songs, the iconic number from ‘Porgy and Bess’, which coincidentally was written in 1935. Here’s Ella Fitzgerald singing it. The plot of the book loosely follows the song lyrics. Once again, music has a major influence on my life.
‘Summertime’ was followed this year by ‘At First Light’ (June 2017), which dramatizes another incredible, true episode from Florida’s history. It’s a companion story to ‘Summertime’, set during 1919 in Key West, where a mixed-race couple came to the attention of the Ku Klux Klan. When I was writing the book, I had no idea how horribly topical it would become.
Around the time of its publication, I learned that the cancer had spread not only to my brain, but to my liver, lung, and bones. I’m now undergoing palliative treatment, which means there is no longer hope of a cure. I’ve started a series of articles on Living While Dying to chronicle my experiences from now on. I welcome your comments and your stories.