Friday, 8 March 2013

Interview #15: Rachel Lyon

Rachel Lyon with her book outside the Childe of Hale's cottage, near Runcorn

A remarkable thing happened to Rachel Lyon when she was a little girl.

Remarkable because it was a kind, generous and selfless act by someone who had been moved by her writing and had such faith - even at that young age - in her talents as a writer.

Now she is a published author, Rachel intends to say thank you to that person by giving him a signed copy of her brilliant debut picture book The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale.

Rachel's charming debut, The Childe of Hale

I'll let Rachel take up the story: "I have always wanted to write. From when I was very small, I used to write poetry. I got a typewriter for Christmas when I was nine or ten and I used to write my poetry on that.

"When I had a bundle of poems, my family showed them to a neighbour. He asked if he could show them to his wife. For two weeks we didn't hear a thing. And then he turned up and we discovered he'd paid for them to be printed and bound.

"He'd called the book No Thorns On This Berry. Berry was my maiden name. And he'd written a lovely preface, saying I was only ten years old."

It seems Rachel has been blessed by mentors in her life who kept the flame of her writing ambition flickering, as she explained as we chatted in the coffee shop at the end of the road where she lives in St Helens.

"In primary school, if they had a writing competition, teachers used to say to me, it's something you are good at, you've got a good imagination. I won a few prizes and got a lot of encouragement."

She continued to write throughout her years at high school and at Leeds University, where she studied communication and English. The notebooks of ideas for stories and poems piled up.

After graduating, she worked in London for a while before returning to St Helens, where she struck out on her own as a freelance copywriter.

Vanina Starkoff's beautifully striking illustrations accompany Rachel's words

Her passion for telling stories had not waned in all this time. She decided to sign up for a creative writing course at St Helens College. Little did she know how her fortunes were about to change. She discovered the course's tutor had written a musical about the Childe of Hale, a true story of a 16th century giant, John Middleton, from a village near Runcorn.

Contemporary accounts put Middleton's height at nine feet three inches (2.81 metres) which would mean he was taller than Robert Wadlow, the Guinness Book of Records' tallest man.

Middleton is reputed to have met the King in London, and defeated the monarch's wrestling champion. For his troubles he was presented with £20, which was stolen by thieves on the journey back to Hale.

It was a story Rachel was vaguely familiar with. But as she researched Middleton further, she realised nobody had ever written a children's book about him. When she read about Middleton having to sleep with his feet dangling out of his cottage window, she realised she had to write his story.

"I thought, children would love that. I thought, why has nobody ever written that as a story for children?"

So she sat down one day and began writing, in rhyming verse. "The words just flowed. I finished most of it that day and the next day I polished it and took out any awkward rhymes."

The grave of John Middleton, the Childe of Hale
She felt a change in her writing with The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale.

"As soon as I had written it, I knew that it was what I had been trying to do for all those years."

After friends encouraged her to try to get it published, Rachel sent it out into the world. After some interest from a small Liverpool publisher, the story was snapped up by Maverick and its charismatic boss, Steve Bicknell.

"I liked Maverick because they published Mrs MacCready Was Ever So Greedy and the Fearsome Beastie."

As Steve told Bookengine last year, there is a timeless quality to Rachel's The Childe of Hale. In a bid to reflect that quality, Vanina Starkoff was hired to illustrate the book.

Steve told Bookengine: "It's going to be absolutely amazing. We want to give it an interesting old look without falling into cliches."

And they certainly have. The book was published in January, and Rachel attended a launch party in Covent Garden, where she met other authors from the Maverick stable, including Giles Paley-Phillips and Julie Fulton.

I suggested to Rachel that she might have struck gold with her first book by finding a particular niche - historical true stories told in verse. She agreed. Perhaps sensing a classic book in the making, the National Trust is stocking the book at Speke Hall, where a portrait of John Middleton hangs, while the Childe of Hale's cottage may soon stock the book when it opens as a holiday cottage.

Vanina Starkoff consulted pictures of Hale village for her illustrations

Rachel has written other stories since, including a convention-busting version of George and the Dragon (Georgie and the Dragon where the damsel in distress saves herself). But she has been scouting around for another slice of history that she can turn into her rhyming magic. And she thinks she might just have found what she's looking for.

A school teacher who read The Childe of Hale suggested Rachel should turn her talents to Queen Ethelfleda. Not heard of her? No, neither had Rachel.

But seemingly she was a warrior queen, not unlike Boadicea. The foundations of her ninth century castle were found by workmen constructing the Runcorn-Widnes railway bridge across the Mersey. (I used to be the editor of the local newspaper in Runcorn and Widnes and I'd never heard of her, but apparently the bridge has a plaque bearing her emblem.)

Rachel is researching the story but she has not yet talked with Maverick about a follow-up book. That, however, will have to wait. Rachel has a rather more pressing matter to contend with... she's heavily pregnant with her first child.
* My thanks to Rachel for speaking to me. Her website is here,
Maverick Books are here,

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