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Village Food & Drink

Fairy-cake ending?

Posted on October 20 2011 at 2:27:07 2 comments

Sue Watson

Oakalls author Sue Watson chats to Sally Oldaker about writing her first novel, the importance of pursuing your passions, and the joy of fairy cakes.

The idea of abandoning the rat race to start your own business based on something you love is merely a dream for many people, but it became a reality for Sue Watson when she swapped her media career for a new life as a novelist.

This scenario also forms the plot of her debut novel, Fat Girls & Fairy Cakes, in which the beleaguered heroine Stella Weston (who bears a certain resemblance to her creator) quits a high-flying TV job to turn her cake-baking hobby into a business.

In the book, Stella’s dramatic decision is precipitated by an altercation with her evil boss, but Sue’s own lifestyle change mirrors Stella’s other reason for leaving work – a desire to redress the work-life balance.

“About four years ago I was working very long hours as a producer for the BBC and so was my husband [Nick, who still works in the media], when our daughter Eve, who was six at the time, had a serious illness and ended up in hospital. This really made us look at our priorities – we wanted to be able to spend a lot more time with her,” explains Sue.

“At the same time, the BBC was looking to make redundancies, and I realised that at the age of 40 I was one of the oldest people in my office.
“I couldn’t afford to give up work completely, so I began to think about alternative options. Writing a book seemed perfect, as I could work from home, although I knew it wouldn’t make money overnight.”

Having gained an English degree at Manchester Polytechnic and worked as a journalist before moving into TV, Sue already had plenty of writing experience – but penning a novel was something else again. She signed up for writing classes at the Number 8 arts centre in Pershore, which she still attends, and says this was extremely useful as well as rather liberating.

“It’s so different from writing articles or scripts – there’s much more scope to be creative because you don’t have to stick to a strict word count, and you can go where you want with the plot.”

Sue says English was always her best subject at school, with the teachers embarrassing her by making her read out the stories she’d written.

“One teacher said, ‘When you write your first book, send me a copy’, but I had never really thought about writing books as a career. However, I did get a lot of encouragement from my mother, who is also a very creative person.”

Unsurprisingly for a first novel, Fat Girls & Fairy Cakes is semi-autobiographical, with Sue drawing on her experiences in daytime TV (and life in general) to create the characters and plot.

All the characters apart from one (Stella’s outrageously camp best friend, Al) are fictional, but she says many of the situations in the book are based on actual events, though none happened to her personally.

“Plenty of amusing and bizarre things did happen in my own career, but I probably wouldn’t be allowed to tell the real stories!”

Having grown up in Manchester, Sue decided to move to London after university, and worked on The Sun’s TV pages in the era of Kelvin MacKenzie, Piers Morgan and the now-infamous Andy Coulson.

“Along with my colleague Matthew Wright (the two of us represented the ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ faces of The Sun!) I was invited to attend lots of programme launches, and we had a great time with all the free food and drink and meeting the cast and crew.”

The contacts she made were useful when Sue moved into television and eventually to the Midlands with her husband, starting as a researcher on Good Morning with Anne & Nick.

“It also helped that my husband knew someone who worked on the programme, although that’s not the reason I got the job!” she says.

It was on this show that Sue’s love of baking was developed, when she worked alongside chef James Martin. “He specialised in making sweet treats, so I was inspired and learned a few tips too.”

This inspiration is apparent in Fat Girls & Fairy Cakes, which not only details Stella’s sweet tooth and her fraught foray into professional cake-making, but also includes a collection of Sue’s fairy cake recipes which correspond to incidents in the story.

English Rose fairy cakes

Sue’s daytime TV CV takes in DIY makeover shows (“things were falling to pieces even as the team left the house!”), Points of View with Terry Wogan, City Hospital and Ainsley’s BBQ Bible, and she even came up with the concept of To Buy or Not to Buy (“it was written on a Post-It note”).

Although she recalls thinking to herself that these experiences would make a good book one day, it was the memory of writing for women’s magazines – which she did as a freelancer while in London – that really inspired Sue’s literary aspirations.

“Nowadays those magazines are full of celebrities, but when I was writing for them most of the stories were about real people – the sort of ‘triumph over tragedy’ angle,” she remembers. “I decided I wanted to write something like that.”

And so she did – but although she loved creating Stella’s chaotic world, it wasn’t as easy as she’d thought to get the book published.

“I wrote the first three chapters and started sending them out, and I got plenty of rejections at first. A London agent was interested and asked to see the rest – but I hadn’t written it yet! That gave me the impetus to finish the story, and I wrote non-stop for weeks.

“The agent liked my work and I thought, ‘Wow, that was easy!’ She wanted to edit it slightly and then send it to 10 top publishers, who would be asked to make their decisions within three weeks. But none of them got in touch… apparently it was the ‘wrong climate’ for launching this kind of book.”

Sue took up teaching for six months to make ends meet, but happily her manuscript then came into the hands of a small, relatively new publishing firm called Rickshaw – and they signed her up to write three books in total.

Will they be sequels? “Not necessarily – my second book is definitely not. It’s called The Terrible Truth about Tanya Travis, set in Manchester and Nepal (a place I’ve never been!) and it’s about a talk show host with a dark secret.”

However, she may return to Stella with her third book. “I would love to send her to California to make cakes for the stars, since the Americans love cupcakes even more than we do!”

How about a cookbook, I suggest.

“You never know,” she muses, but for now she will stick to giving away free cake recipes at her book signings. Locally, these take place at Waterstones in Redditch on November 12 and Bromsgrove on December 10, while Fat Girls & Fairy Cakes is also available to buy on Amazon.

Sue would be happy to give talks for book clubs or groups such as WIs in the local area – if you are interested, give her a ring on 07531 660290 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Review: Fat Girls & Fairy Cakes

First, a confession: “chick-lit” is not a genre to which I am naturally drawn. However, I genuinely enjoyed this, and not only because it made a change from the somewhat grittier material I usually choose.

It’s far better written than the other (albeit few) examples I’ve come across, and I really like the inclusion of unusual cake recipes – chick-lit with a practical twist.

All the genre’s conventions are present and correct – middle-aged but still fashion-conscious heroine, a little overweight, loves cake and chocolate, works in the media, has a gay best friend, a bitchy boss, a feckless partner, and struggles to balance career and kids… but the tale is lifted by the author’s pithy turn of phrase as she describes the incidents that befall Stella.

The bit where she bashes her husband over the head with the Christmas turkey is a particular highlight, as is the part where the narrative switches to the third person to narrate a sexual encounter.

Although exaggerated for comic effect, Stella’s reality-TV and dating disasters have enough truth in them to be plausible, and the book as a whole is a lighthearted pleasure. SO

What Villagers have been saying about this story . . . most recent comments first

Comment posted by Platform
from Blackwell on December 05 2011 at 7:43:45

So, is this going to say I’m from Blackwell?

Comment posted by Platform
from Blackwell on December 05 2011 at 7:32:50

So, now we can put more than 5 characters in a comment!


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