Q&A with Suzie Grogan

Posted on Wednesday 8th June 2016

Suzie Grogan with Shell Shocked Britain
Suzie Grogan talks to warfare magazine about her career and shell shocked britain
By the looks of your website, you are an incredibly busy woman, with an array of interests; law, poetry, mental health, history... Let's start at the beginning. What did you want to be when you were younger, before you found yourself on the road to being an author?
I have always wanted and loved to write, even at primary school, but before I could give myself permission to pursue that ambition I tried lots of other things – nursing (I was terrible, over-sensitive at times when a cool head was needed); law (just as bad – if I felt an injustice was being done I would want to cry and shout ‘it’s not fair m’lud!!); working in local government, and for a mental health charity. It was only when that charity made me redundant that I decided to really go for it.
Law was a fabulous grounding in research methods and has helped me so much when writing the books, but it was not the career for me. Dandelions and Bad Hair Days came about after I shared my experience of depression and anxiety on the blog I set up (called No Wriggling Out of Writing) to get myself putting words to paper again. I had so many positive responses, and heard so many other moving stories that I thought it was an opportunity to raise some money for charity and get the message out there – mental ill health can happen to anybody.

How do you juggle writing fiction, non-fiction, features, web copy and the occasional poem? It's quite a list!

I don’t do them all at the same time! I have to earn a living, so the website work and blogs for other people pay a few bills and the articles I write also support the time I have set aside to write the non-fiction books. The fiction and poems are a luxury and I don’t write nearly enough for pure pleasure, there just isn’t time, although I do have two unpublished novels (one based on the story that inspired Shell Shocked Britain) at an editing stage. One day!

You also find the time to host a fortnightly talk show on Somerset's local radio 10Radio! On the air you chat to other authors about their work – who has been your favourite author to interview?

I couldn’t possibly say! There have been so many in the three years I have been doing the show. I do love to talk to poets though, and hear them read their work. I can talk about poetry all day, and also write for The Wordsworth Trust blog about my favourite poet, John Keats, who features in my next book for Pen and Sword.

The Children of the Great War Project is fantastic. I wrote the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and we got the highest amount available - £10,000. I have co-ordinated it for the past two years, and it ends in September this year with a community event, including the unveiling of a fabulous mosaic memorial, made by children of the town with help of local artists, and is to be used as a focus for future commemoration. There is also the publication of a book to accompany it, including poems and quotes from the children of the local school, and illustrations designed by them. It is very much a team effort though and as a freelancer it is lovely to have something that enables you to get out and work with other people.

I pitched the idea for Shell Shocked Britain to Pen and Sword when I found out more about how mental health had affected my family down the generations, and discovered that my Great Uncle had killed his girlfriend and then himself after being traumatised in the First World War. I researched more widely and discovered that he was far from alone in finding it hard to cope with life in a changed post-war Britain, and with the commemorative period coming up I thought it was a story that had to be told.

29th Battalion Canadian Division going into action at The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917, under heavy shell fire. Image courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.com
The research process must have been tough, considering the topic. How did you gather your information?

The research side was fascinating. I found out who might be the best experts to consult, read their books and checked through their bibliographies and sources before contacting those that might be willing to talk about my ideas for the book. People were lovely, and pointed me to other sources and archives that offered new information, previously unpublished. I read lots of articles, visited libraries and ended up with far more information than I could possibly use. It is a difficult subject, and many of the stories are deeply moving, but nevertheless it was fascinating work.

British dead form the 62nd (West Riding) Division left behind in the German trenches after one of the failed attacks at the Battle of Arras. Image courtesy of Paul Reed at www.greatwarphotos.com
Was there any part of the writing process that you thoroughly enjoyed?

I visited the wonderful Liddle Collection in Leeds and found some letters written from Hull, by a woman visiting her mother, to her husband working in London during the First Blitz. Her initial excitement at seeing the Zeppelins fly over quickly changed as she witnessed the devastation of Hull, and heard reports that parts of London close to her husband’s office had been attacked. She wrote with compassion about the hundreds of people made homeless and was terrified that her husband would be injured or killed. Those ‘ordinary’ stories were vital to making the book appealing to a wider audience and were a great find.

Can you sum up Shell Shocked Britain in just 5 words?
That is tough, but I would hope it is moving, informative and compassionate. It has also been universally described as well-researched and engaging, which is a relief!

And finally, can you give us some sneaky peaks about your next Pen and Sword instalment?

From the Womb to the Tomb takes the reader back to the early 19th century and looks at medical care, and how it differs from today. Focusing on the surgeon-apothecary, many of whom were the GPs of their time (treating people from the womb to the tomb!), it gives some wonderful characters the chance to shine (and well-known medical trainees like John Keats) and also goes into the rather gothically-horrible training doctors undertook and treatments that people endured in the days before anaesthesia and antibiotics.
Images used in this article from Paul Reed have been extracted from Shell Shocked Britain.

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