Student Press Officer, Siobhan O’Toole, talks to Didsbury’s Sue Stern—published novelist, poet, and children’s author, about her influences, journey as a developing writer, heritage, and joy of becoming self-published.
Words by Siobhán O’Toole
On approaching the lovely Didsbury home of Sue Stern today, I could not help but feel nervous excitement after reading and enjoying many of her poems, short stories, and extracts from various novels, instilling a naïve sense of stardom in my expectation of her. However, as soon as Sue opened her door, this child-like nervousness evaporated, leaving only burning curiosity and interest concerning details of her life and works.
Following kind offerings of tea and coffee, and prior to any questioning from me, Sue began the interview by explaining that due to her four book readings of Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid over the past month, she has had many opportunities to hone a semi-overview of her life and works in preparation for today, of which I was extremely grateful and eager to hear. ‘I’ve always loved to write, and before that I loved to read. I actually can’t remember when I couldn’t read’. Such initial comments definitely secured my attention and interest regarding Sue’s life-long passion for reading and writing, something very much evident in the polished style of her work.
Born in London, with most of her life spent living and working in Manchester, Sue studied French at Leeds University. She spent time in both Paris and Aix-en-Provence, teaching English and studying at the University of Aix-Marseille. During these rich years her experiences provided her with various inspirations–one including a Brontë-esque scenario in which she was confronted by a woman on the balcony of her Aix-en-Provence apartment, ‘with straggly hair and crooked teeth, holding a bottle of red wine’. This was in fact the wealthy landlady’s daughter who she had decided to seclude and hide. As well as the exceptional inspiration she was awarded with in her younger years, Sue’s family, marriage and subsequent children, would prove to be equal, if not more profound, sources of motivation and creativity.
After years of teaching, working alongside people with learning difficulties and being in between jobs and courses, Sue discovered Commonword, an organisation that helps aspiring writers fulfil their potential. Despite being relatively unknown at the time, this group is now well established and popular amongst ambitious writers, a progression and growth that Sue herself played a significant role in.
Likewise, through a plight to reduce her similarly creative and artistic Mother’s presence at the family health food shop in Northern Manchester—due to her wonderful age of 80—Sue went with her to Womanswrite, a unique Manchester writing workshop for women. This workshop, as well as Sue’s Mother, who was very supportive and always encouraged her, would prove to represent substantial support systems to both Sue, and her work throughout the subsequent years of writing.
While Sue’s son, Richard, practiced on the guitar, sending melodic sounds of smooth jazz through the house, creating a wonderfully relaxing atmosphere, we began to talk about the influence of her heritage on the multi-cultural aspects of her writing. Sue’s Grandparents, who were Russian, Jewish anarchists, came to England to escape the tyranny and violence of their home country, and with them they brought their honour, pride, and will to help those in need in their community, qualities that Sue’s Socialist parents exuded also.
The influence of such kindness and care in regards to the needs of others is clear in Sue’s own demeanour. She explained to me that her main aim in writing is to represent those with difference, those outside of ‘the norm’. Sue’s devotion to representing people who are often forgotten, ignored, and sadly discriminated against by society, originated from her own Jewish roots and culture, as well as her experience of having a daughter with profound disabilities. Her daughter unfortunately passed away some years ago and remains a constant motivation and influence.
Despite her ever-progressing success today, especially following the self-published Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid, which originated back in 2006 when Sue achieved her MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, she has not always been able to get her work out there for people to enjoy.
|The People’s History Museum|
The writing, illustrating, publishing and publicising of Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid has been a long and difficult process. However, it has been an extremely worthwhile and rewarding one too. The novel, illustrated by esteemed artist, Heather Dickinson, is a beautiful story about a young, dyslexic boy called Rafi, who struggles at school, but excels in drawing and art. A belief very close to Sue’s heart is that ‘all people have gifts, it’s just finding them, digging them out’. In the book, Rafi meets a delightfully eccentric girl, the Candy Floss Kid, and they explore local areas of Manchester, such as Didsbury Park and The People’s History Museum, to escape the horror that is their year 6 teacher, Mrs. Hegarty.
One review that touched Sue profoundly, was from a young boy on Amazon, who exclaimed that it is ‘an awesome book’. The teachers reminded him of his own, and he loved the fact that he recognised places in the book where he had visited himself in Didsbury and outer Manchester. On this kind review, Sue said that she had ‘achieved the objective’ of relating to children and depicting issues with which they could relate and feel comforted by.
Currently, Sue is working on publicising the novel, persisting with efforts to get the book into Waterstones—a job made easier by people requesting the book in store (hint hint!). She is working on various projects, such as a novel on anarchists in Edwardian London and pre-revolutionary Russia, and also a new anthology of poetry made-up of various poems written from the past.
On the close of my interview, Sue kindly gifted me with a signed copy of Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid, jokingly adding me to her team of publicists, a title I was indeed happy to receive. I am extremely eager to read the book, and write a review. My meeting with Sue was everything I had anticipated; intriguing, exciting, touching and very relaxed, and I very much look forward to reading her work in the future.
Here is Siobhan’s interview with Sue Stern:
Siobhan studies English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan and is an inspiring writer, hopeless optimist and romantic, and a complete technophobe. Follow Siobhan on Twitter @smo_07