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'My Upside Down World:' An Interview with Author Bonnie Meekums

My Upside Down World from Bonnie Meekums chronicles one woman's fight against injustice in the middle of the WWII catastrophe. Lily, the main character, will captivate readers as she discovers a degree of strength and confidence she never imagined she had. The novel is uplifting and intimate, and it is a must-read.

To learn more about the story behind the story, read A Good Book To End The Day’s interview with the author below.

Did you always have in mind to be a writer or did it just happen?

I was an avid reader as a child. I have written about this in my memoir of a working-class childhood, Remnants of War, co-authored with my sister Jackie Hales. But she was the writer. I just tagged along, performing her plays. I do remember writing a poem, though, aged about ten. Without being told how to do it, I realized the power of repetition and rhythm – but to this day, I remain uncertain of my talent in that area. I wrote short stories at school when I was about fourteen, which my English teacher liked.

Then, in my twenties, I went to college to study dance, theatre, and writing (this was after doing a science degree!) and I was complemented by my writing tutor, but given absolutely no tuition. It wasn’t until 2011 that I enrolled in a course for staff at the university where I worked (Leeds University in West Yorkshire, UK). Our tutor was a local writer called Ian Clayton, and for the first time, I began learning some of the basics of short story writing. By the time I retired in 2016, I had a few short stories, most involving the same characters. I did an online short story writing course through the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) organization Futurelearn, which again gave me lots of useful tips.

Then, in 2017 I did something that absolutely changed my life. I gave up alcohol – which a lot of people are discovering improves your productivity. I had thirty thousand words towards a novel, and I promised myself I would finish it. By the end of that year, I had sent it out to beta readers (I didn’t know that term at the time – I just knew, as a retired academic, I needed critical friends). I promised myself that in 2018 I would finish the revisions and submit the novel to agents and publishers, which I did. Then, at the beginning of 2019, I was offered a contract by Between the Lines for my first novel, A Kind of Family.

So, the short answer is no, I didn’t always think I could be a writer, and no, it didn’t just happen either! I made it happen.

Tell us about My Upside Down World and the inspiration behind the story.

My Upside Down World is my second novel, and I approached it very differently. The first one began as a series of connected short stories, and then I filled in the gaps. The second one began as a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) book. I drafted the first fifty thousand pages in the month of November 2019. I guess I probably began with an idea that had been bugging me, around the second world war and what ordinary women like my mum went through in London, especially during the Blitz.

I brought my own knowledge of both South-East London (where I grew up) and Keighley, West Yorkshire (in the North of England, where I lived for some years – I now live across the Pennine hills from there, in Greater Manchester). And I had the inspiration to write it as Lily’s diary. During the book, Lily goes from being a working-class, ill-educated Londoner to becoming a writer who has learned to write properly – so her voice changes through the book as she begins to look up words in a thesaurus, much as I have done throughout my youth and adult life! I started out working class and ended up as an academic. My own parents were denied the privilege of free education past the age of fourteen, despite being very bright. My mum, like Lily, was evacuated with my brother to the North of England, though not to the place Lily goes to. I loved doing original research for this book, plus I was also able to use my mother’s stories and my own as a post-war baby.

I also used my extensive understanding of grief and trauma, as someone who has had my own share of these, and as a therapist. Lily not only loses some important people within the context of both war and ordinary life – she has to uproot herself (which I have personal experience of), and take care of her children both born and unborn when she previously had relied on others to make major decisions, and find her voice.

This is, in essence, a story about a woman finding her voice. Lily, despite her internalised oppression as a working-class woman with darker skin (she, like an ancestor of mine, was brought to the UK from a far-off land). She learns to stand up to, among other people, her son’s headmaster. Towards the end of the story, she befriends a black GI who is badly treated by the white GIs in the UK. I did some research around this and discovered they had to have separate dances whilst in the UK, despite the UK not having segregation laws. The local people were much more inclined, it seems, to support the black GIs against the racism they suffered, though we in the UK have our own share of shameful history with respect to the treatment of people of colour. I wanted Lily to be a good ally to her new friend, Lincoln.

What were the challenges in bringing this book to life?

It has been hard to sell the idea to agents, so I decided to self-publish this one rather than give it to another independent publisher, wonderful though they are. But this means I have to learn to be a marketing exec and salesperson – not something that comes naturally to me!

How do you celebrate when you finish a book?

A glass of alcohol-free fizz.

As an author and therapist, you must understand the importance of words. What was an experience where you learned that language had power?

Wow. This is an interesting one, not least because my approach to psychotherapy involves a lot of nonverbal work. But here’s the thing. My approach to Dance Movement Therapy is based around the idea of what some of us call the ‘movement metaphor’ (see my book on Dance Movement Therapy). I describe, in one of my academic papers, a time when I was working with a young man who was scared of asserting himself, because of what had happened to him in the past. We were moving together with two garden canes suspended between us by our fingertips - a delicate balance. I noticed he was backing himself into a corner, so I said so. His reply was that he didn’t want to push himself on me. Without thinking, and completely staying within the metaphor, I said ‘I’m not a pushover.’ Then I encouraged him to show me some strength, and he was able to come out into the centre of the room. When the therapy ended, he said that was a turning point for him. So, even when I’m working largely non-verbally there is an implied focus on the power of metaphor. Metaphor has the capacity to convey a lot very succinctly, to be understood without having to be explained, to give a safe distance from overwhelming emotions, and to bring us closer to each other because of that level of understanding.

What does literary success look like to you?

It’s not about making big bucks, to be honest (which I don’t!). It’s about getting my work read, and about making a difference to someone. One of my reviewers said, about my first book, that it came along at just the right time in her life. It spoke to some part of her that needed to be ‘heard’ through the text. That, to me, is success.

Do you have any other projects in the works at this time?

Haha! I seem to always have several projects on the go. Right now, I’m finishing off the rewrites on my third novel before I send it out to beta readers. I’m also working on a non-fiction book, my first in a while, which will focus on trauma (something I have researched, and that has personal meaning for me). Plus, I’m collaborating with a poet on some hybrid pieces; I spend a lot of my time writing flash fiction. I love flash fiction for its brevity, its succinctness, its quasi-poetic form, and the surprise element. It can be written fairly quickly and read in a few spare minutes. Win-win.

How can readers keep in touch with you?

  • You can follow me on Twitter: @bonniemeekums

  • Also, follow me on Facebook

  • I also have a website, which is intermittently updated, has links to some of my freely available shorter pieces of writing, and where you can sign up for my newsletter.

  • I also write a blog about becoming an older woman.

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