After a bleak few years, author Debrah Martin and her daughters are relishing a new life, as Jaine Blackman finds out
Five years ago began a bleak time for Debrah Martin and her daughters... one that included bereavement, bureaucratic battles and loss of a business.
But they have weathered the storms and are relishing a new life in Oxfordshire.
The girls are doing well with their studies and Debrah is enjoying carving a career as a writer and heading this year’s Wantage Literary Festival.
“Life has moved on dramatically – and happily,” says Debrah.
“Largely, I think, because we moved to Oxfordshire just under a year ago to make a fresh start – and it has certainly been that.”
One of the big changes is Debrah has started writing books – in three different genres.
“Writing for me started in earnest about four and a half years ago after my estranged husband died,” she says.
“We’d been separated for a little while but had remained close friends regardless and as our daughters were quite young we often did things together as a matter of course.
“In fact, I still call him my best friend if I talk about him now. I believe he felt the same way because when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer it was me he came to for support, and I was privileged to be there for him.”
It was a difficult time but the year after his death was worse in a different kind of way for Debrah and her daughters, then aged 11 and 15.
“If the Queen’s annus horribilis was 1992, ours was 2010,” she says.
“My older daughter, Laura, was about to take her GCSEs only four months after her father died and my younger daughter, Aislinn, was about to make the transition to secondary school – not without its own difficulties. “I had to launch an appeal for Aislinn to attend the same secondary school as her friends when the local county council [Hampshire] changed the admission priorities that year, and to cap it all, the secondary school where I taught part-time and ran my nursery business from decided not to renew the lease of my premises.
“It was another year or more pointless battling against the inevitable, but of a different sort; the stranglehold of bureaucracy.
“The nursery closed the following year – a huge blow to us financially – but the little lights in the darkness were my daughters’ stoicism and maturity – even though only young themselves, and me starting to write.”
Debrah’s first foray into writing was a “terrible” children’s book she started writing in her twenties and abandoned almost immediately, apart from some of the illustrations she made at the time. (She also studied Fine Art).
But looking for something to do which was close to home (“my daughters were still young and shell-shocked by the whole horrible experience of cancer – we all were”) she joined a local adult education programme and wrote her first short story.
“It, too, was terrible, but I persevered and the next few were better,” says Debrah.
Debrah Martin with her dog Rosie
“My older daughter – by then 16 – introduced me to NaNoWriMo [nanowrimo.org - an annual novel writing project] and I found I could break the 50,000 word barrier – if shakily.
“Then the writing bug bit properly. I wrote a somewhat controversial first novel about a transitioning transgender, published in 2013, and which I am now planning on re-releasing next year and settled down to write in earnest.”
The results have seen Patchwork Man published last month. Webs, a young adult fiction, is released on Monday and the second book in the Patchwork trilogy at the end of September.
“Hundreds of submissions to agents and publishers further on, I’m delighted to have signed with literary agents, A for Authors over the summer, and they’ve convinced me to write under three pen names in three genres; suspense mysteries as DB Martin, YA fiction as Lily Stuart and literary fiction as Debrah Martin,” she says.
“They will be taking all of my current works, plus a literary fiction as yet unpublished, to the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn, which is incredibly exciting.”
Away from her writing Debrah has agreed to be chairwoman of the Wantage Literary Festival.
“It’s a week-long feast of all things literary and literary related at the end of October each year, with a bit of fun involved too,” she says. “For example, as we have a crime writing workshop being run by crime thriller bestsellers, MR Hall and William Ryan – the Guardian newspaper masterclass tutors – we are also having our own murder mystery dinner and have an interesting and eclectic mix of well-known names such as Kate Adie and Andy McNab speaking for us.”
Younger daughter, Aislinn, is doing well at the local secondary school, and Laura is studying classical archaeology at Wadham College.
“She is the main reason we moved here. She simply refused to stop nagging me until we did,” says Debrah. “So far I would rate Wantage one of the friendliest places I’ve lived. Now when I talk about how glad I am that we made the move, Laura delights in telling me, ‘I told you so’. How right she was!”
And she can even look back at some of the dark times and know they played a part in shaping her new, happier life.
“I realise now I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had such wide-ranging life experiences, even though it may not have felt that way at the time, and it’s these I draw on to write,” she says.
“Writing is therapeutic and also fascinating. I wouldn’t ever dwell on the bad experiences – such as cancer – but they do open doors to explain the human character and the things about it that inspire bravery and cowardice, good and bad, love and hate.”
Debrah Martin talking about Patchwork Man:
What is the plot – without spoilers?
Lawrence Juste QC finds himself tricked into taking a case defending a juvenile against a charge of manslaughter by his clever –but dead – wife. Normally he wouldn’t even have opened the folder without her around to persuade him, but she’s left something else to do that for her; a list of all the unsavoury people and events from his past. The ones he’s carefully hidden until now and didn’t even know she was aware of.
What was the inspiration?
It all started with my mother’s description of how the rag and bone man used to tour the streets years ago. My mother is now 80. It was such a vivid piece of living history I wrote it up straight away and then started looking around at what else was happening at the time. Next I hit on some information about what it was like being in a children’s home in the 50’s and how some of the children desperately wanted to leave that past behind them when they left. I started to think about what it might be like for someone with an experience so bad they wanted to entirely forget it and even turn their back on the whole of their past life, even the times before they were unhappy.
Who is your favourite character in the book?
Obviously I have to say Juste – and I enjoyed causing him to have to face himself as the patchwork man unravelled. However, I have a secret favourite too; Heather Trinder. She’s one of Juste’s business partners and shares Chambers with him. She’s an intriguing blend of maternal concern, business bitch and avid shoe fetishist. I can never think of the sassy retort at the right time, but Heather can!
What’s next for DB Martin?
The second part of the Patchwork series, Patchwork People, is being released at the end of September and I’m in the throes of writing the third and final part, Patchwork Pieces. This will be released in 2015. I also write as Lily Stuart – teen detective. Lily is sixteen, irreverent, blunt, sarcastic, funny and vulnerable – like most teenagers. And I’m lucky to have the advantage of two extremely critical reviewers – my 20-year-old and 15-year-old daughters – for the series. I knew it was going to work when Laura took time out of university social life to ring me to say how much she was enjoying it. I nearly fainted! The first in the series is called Webs, and comes out on September 1.
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