Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Interview with Christina Hollis, Author of Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol

1 February 2022

Special Guest Interview with Christina Hollis, Author of Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol

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Welcome to the life of a Victorian woman living in one of Bristol’s riverside tenements.Women lurked in the footnotes of history until they gained an element of control, first over their own money, later their vote and finally, their lives. Much of that progress was driven by women themselves. It took a hundred years of hard work, lobbying and violence before their lives improved to anything like today’s standards. The only way was up—and Bristol women led the way.

I'm pleased to welcome author Christina Hollis to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol is the book that launched me on a whole new career! I’d been writing romance and short stories for quite a while. Then one of my friends in the Romantic Novelists’ Association mentioned that Pen and Sword Books were looking for writers to contribute to a non-fiction series. It was to be about women’s lives between 1850 and 1950. In the past I’d written novels based in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so I already had an interest in that era. When I contacted Pen and Sword, they asked if I’d like to write the Bristol edition. 

 I was born and raised in a village only a few miles outside the city, so I jumped at the chance. I investigated the lives of women who had battled against the odds to make successful careers in education, medicine, the arts, and politics at a time when they were seen as “the weaker sex”. I enjoyed working in the Bristol archive so much I enrolled at the University of Gloucestershire, and I’ve just graduated with an MA (with distinction) in Critical and Creative Writing.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I’m an early morning person. To play to that strength, I do all my creative work first thing. Everything else is relegated to the afternoon, which means I start each day with what the writer Antony Johnston calls “a clean mind”. I wake at around 5:30am and once the pets are fed and the dog’s had his walk, I settle down to writing. I prefer to use pencil and paper but for the sake of convenience I usually type straight onto my desktop computer. I have a target of 2,000 words per day and write until I’ve reached it (or lunchtime, whichever comes first!). In the afternoon I tackle correspondence, research, marketing, background reading, and make notes for future projects.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Understand that you’re in this for the long haul, and never give up. If you’ve got a good story and you can tell it well, you will eventually find an audience. For the best chance of success, give your reader—whether that’s going to be an agent, a publisher, or someone who discovers your work while browsing online—what they want. That means researching the market.

What have you found to be the best way of raising awareness of your books?

There’s no substitute for getting the word out through interviews like this, word of mouth endorsements, and reviews. The Society of Authors and the Romantic Novelists’ Association are very supportive, and I’m sure other specialist organizations are the same. We promote our work and that of other members online with retweets, reviews, and guest blogs. Social media is like fire: a great servant, but a terrible master. It’s invaluable in getting the word out about books, but it’s far too easy to pop in to do a few minutes of promotion, only to discover that half an hour has disappeared.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.

One of the world’s first true superstars was raised in Bristol. Dame Clara Butt (1872-1936) had a story steeped in romance. Her parents had eloped: Clara’s talent as a singer was spotted early and she was catapulted to international fame. She fell in love with fellow singer Kennerley Rumford. One night when they were performing a duet Clara turned over her sheet music to find Kennerley had written his proposal of marriage on the next page. When Queen Alexandra spotted Clara in a London store, she asked her to sing on the spot! The great English composer Sir Edward Elgar composed his song cycle Sea Pictures with Clara in mind. For the premiere, she dressed as a mermaid. As Clara was six feet two inches tall, that must have been quite a sight.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

Without a doubt, it was the section in Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol about the baby-farmer Amelia Dyer (1837-1896). In those days having a child outside of marriage meant ruin for a woman. Dyer posed as a respectable, caring person offering to take in unwanted babies—for a fee. Once the mother had left, Dyer would kill the child and sell its clothes. She was operating at a time when infant mortality was high, so her crimes went unnoticed for a long time. It was only after one woman, Evelina Marmon, returned unexpectedly to visit her baby daughter Doris that Dyer’s murderous career came to light. Evelina was shown a baby she didn’t recognise because Doris was already dead. When the baby’s tiny body was found, writing on paper used to conceal it traced the crime back to Dyer. It’s calculated Amelia Dyer may have killed more than 400 children. If true, that would make her the worst serial killer in British history.

What are you planning to write next?

It’s another non-fiction book, based on a year in the English countryside. It draws on my experiences of growing up in a village at the end of the twentieth century. The younger students on my university course gave me the idea. They listened open-mouthed to my short stories about growing up in the pre-internet age. The idea of living without central heating, fridge, freezer, or microwave, queueing to use a telephone kiosk, and the bus being our only form of transport amazed them. They thought my generation must have felt miserable and deprived, but of course we didn’t know any better. I, and the older students and lecturers, couldn’t believe the reactions of the younger ones. It was exactly as L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go-Between; the past really is a foreign country!

Christina Hollis

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About the Author

Christina Hollis is an author from the south-west of England who lives in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean. She left school at sixteen with few qualifications, and after working in various low-grade jobs in finance and marketing took a year out to see if she could become a writer. Six historical novels, seventeen contemporary romances, and dozens of non-fiction articles later, she was commissioned by Pen and Sword Books to write Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol. This gave her a taste for research, so she enrolled at the University of Gloucestershire as a mature student. She emerged from the archives two years later with an MA in Critical and Creative Writing—and is now planning her PhD. Christina is a member of both the Society of Authors, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She acts as a Reader for the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme, which helps unpublished novelists learn their craft. Find out more at Christina's website and follow her on Twitter @ChristinaBooks

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