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Hypatia Trust Woman of the Month

Penzance-based Hypatia Trust specialises in women's history and literary contributions and collections. This interview appeared on Hypatia Trust's website in January. I feel that it says quite a lot about me as a woman and as a writer.

1. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Giving birth to my son Alex in December 1996, and the publication of my debut thriller Fairest Creatures in October 2021. Both achievements didn’t come easily but are all the more special for that. I spent three decades writing a succession of books which gained some attention and plaudits but didn’t find me a publisher. Fairest Creatures was really my last throw of the dice. It was the sequel to a novel I wrote for my MA dissertation in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) at the UEA 2017-2019. The first book got me an agent and some promising responses but was ultimately not ‘loud enough in a crowded market’, according to one major publisher.

At the start of 2020 I attended a UEA reunion in Norwich, and we were encouraged to bring along 5,000 words for discussion. This prompted me to write the opening chapters to Fairest Creatures. I made them ‘pretty loud’ and sent them off to the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award on its deadline day, from my hotel room in Norwich. When my entry got longlisted several months later, with the UK and pretty much the world in lockdown, I got my head down and finished the book at my kitchen table.

My 23-year-old son was working upstairs in his first proper jobs. It felt like we had both reached important life stages at the same time.

2. What motivates you to do what you do?

Writing is what I do best. I can’t stop myself from writing. Whether in a diary, in emails, letters, short stories, novels, social media. From an early age my writing skills and vivid imagination were remarked upon by my parents and teachers. I loved books and films and wanted to emulate my favourite authors and directors.

3. What do you owe your mother?

So very much. In her unassuming way she introduced me and my sister to all the right things at the right times – for example, pre-school reading and writing, libraries and the best state school in the area. She was a housewife and bookkeeper for the small family building business. Her natural intelligence, organisational skills, perception and sharp wits kept us all in check! Her own mother died when she was fifteen and she gave up the opportunity for higher education to help run the family home and support her widowed father. But her drive and determination saw her leave home soon after and head to London to find work and, as it happens, my father – the love of her life. Between them they raised two independently minded career women. When she passed at 87, Maud Heaven (her maiden name) left my sister and I a small inheritance which we used to buy our place in Penzance – my inspiration for getting on for five years now.

4. Which women inspire you and why?

My sister Yvonne Taylor inspires me. She was head of English at a state comprehensive for 36 years and was a legendary teacher. She helped so many young people achieve good grades and fulfil their potential. Parents vied to get their children into the school because her results were so good.

My first journalism boss, Cassandra Jardine. I worked for her in the Corporate Communications Department of Unilever and she gave me my first writing breaks. Her charismatic leadership and mentoring got me into journalism. We both went our separate ways, with Cass (as we called her) becoming Features Editor of The Telegraph and mother of five children, as well as writing several non-fiction books! Sadly, she died young – at 57 – of lung cancer. But she was still positive and encouraging others until the end – campaigning for Lung Cancer Awareness and sharing her experiences in a Telegraph column.

Oxford University professor of vaccinology Dame Sarah Gilbert who started designing a vaccine just two weeks after reading about a mysterious type of pneumonia emerging in China. To have her finger on the pulse like that and achieve such an incredible result for mankind is incredible.

Serena and Venus Williams – both phenomenal tennis players that came from nothing to achieve greatness and sustain it for decades.

And looking back over the years and in our own locality – the artist Dame Laura Knight. From the first glimmers of her early talent, she built a career that spanned a lifetime and many different artistic styles and disciplines. I was so impressed with the recent exhibition of her work at the Penlee Gallery in Penzance. She was the first woman to be made a Royal Academician, the only woman to be given War Commissions in both World Wars. And, in 1946, aged 69, she was the only British artist to be commissioned to cover the Nuremberg Trials.

5. What are you reading?

Beautiful World, Where Are You? By Sally Rooney, the poems of Charlotte Mew (for my Morrab Library Poetry Group) and listening to Apples Never Fall, by Liane Moriarty.

6. What gender barriers have you had to hurdle?

There are few gender barriers in my line of work – writing and journalism. However, when I was starting out, I spent several years as a commodities reporter. One of my more challenging roles as an editor and senior reporter was to price minor metals – like cobalt, cadmium and mercury. This brought me into contact with a very macho group of traders who took no prisoners and would in turns try to beguile you and then bamboozle you to get their POV across. I remember one industry event when I was representing my publication and making a stand for our pricing, which the traders always took issue with. I stood alone against a barrage of criticism. After these verbal assaults, the traders were usually friendly – it was a game to them – and one of them said to me and his audience of men. ‘The thing with Karen is, you can knock her to the ground time and time and again and she will always get up, bloody but unbowed.’ I took this as a compliment! When I left the job I ‘immortalised’ this crew in a novel called The Trade, which was published by the leading UK digital publisher of its time Endeavour Press.

7. How can the world be made a better place for women?

Championing equal rights and education for women throughout the world. When I was that young commodities journalist I travelled the world, and I was interviewed by a female reporter on Zambian Radio. Her angle was, ‘What’s it like to be a woman working in a man’s world?’ So, they were pushing for change back then. The Zambians also had a simple but strong slogan ‘Teach The Mother To Teach the Child.’ Those women were right, but more, much more needs to be done and that’s where western aid should be targeted.

8. Describe your perfect day?

Waking early to a beautiful sunrise and jogging along the coastal path from Penzance Harbour towards Marazion. Then spending some time researching and writing at The Morrab Library before having a light lunch at Mackerel Sky with a good friend and catching a movie at Newlyn Filmhouse. We’d walk back along the promenade to my apartment, and I’d cook a fish or seafood supper from the catch of the day at Newlyn Harbour. We would then stroll out for a night cap at one of the pubs in Penzance and listen to a local band, before walking back home under a full moon and star-studded sky.

9. We've noticed there really aren't many (if any) statues of women around Cornwall - who would you like to see remembered?

Dame Laura Knight

10. Give us a tip?

Paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling: ‘Dream, but don’t let dreams be your mistress.’ It is fantastic to realise an ambition, but it can take years and lots of hard work and disappointment along the way. Keep that dream alive but take joy in the everyday and the smaller achievements, which can mean so much to not only you, but also to others.

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