The first of a trilogy, ‘Tommy Ellis Goes to Sea’ relates a boy’s adventures during a fishing trip to Bear Island with his father, the trawler’s skipper. Tommy is soon exposed to the dangers on deck, not least icebergs, the Russian Navy and an unusual stowaway.
Hi Jes, thanks for taking part in this blog series focussing on writers I’ve worked with. I know you are very passionate about the themes and setting of your narrative. Could you tell us, what drew you to tell this story?
Being an island, Great Britain relied on fishing from its shores for centuries. After World War 2, the deep-sea fishing industry grew and grew, especially in ports such as Hull, Grimsby, Fleetwood, Lowestoft and Aberdeen. The trawlers would fish off the coasts of Iceland, Bear Island, the North Cape of Norway and even as far away as Greenland. However, the industry started to decline in the late 1960s and 1970s due to the Cod Wars, whereby countries such as Iceland extended their territorial waters – making it very difficult, if not impossible, to return to the well-known fishing grounds. As a result, the industry came more or less to an end. Children and young people today know very little, or nothing at all, about the life their ancestors led in the not so distant past. There are many books available about fishing, but few for children. For this reason I created Tommy Ellis, hoping that through a boy’s adventures, children could learn something about their culture and their heritage.
How easy have you found it to connect directly with your readership?
This has not been difficult at all. First, I visited the schools personally, leaving a donated copy of my book together with a copy of a press release and an article that appeared in the local press. Most of the schools came back to me within a few days and booked an appointment for me to go and read to the children. Although I have targeted the book at 8—14 years, most of the readings were to years 5 and 6, (ages 9—11). At the moment, there is a huge drive in schools to improve reading and writing skills, especially at KS2.
I usually begin the session by asking the children if they know anything about the fishing industry, if they know where Bear Island and Norway are, and I explain a little about the background and why I started to write the book. I then read an extract from the book. After the reading I answer the children’s questions, and the teachers often ask me if I can give the children any tips on writing. My answer to this is, 'Use your senses. Describe what you can see, what you can hear, what you can smell and what your character feels.' I also tell the children not to get upset when their work comes back to them marked with comments and suggestions written by the teacher. Their teacher is helping them to write better stories. Some of the schools have purchased copies of my book to use in the classroom and the school library. I don't take batches of books to the schools to sell directly to the children as some headteachers do not agree with this. However, I am always asked where the book can be purchased and I have seen sales gradually increase.
Many of our local libraries hold a 'Chatterbooks' session once a month for children of school age. As I approached schools, I also approached libraries where I run similar sessions. The libraries have copies of my book for the children to take out on loan.
Can you tell us a little about the research process? Any fascinating facts that didn’t make it into the final draft?
My father worked on the trawlers as a Radio Operator, so I already had a little insight as to life on board. However, most of my research was reading journals and tales written by ex-trawlermen, speaking to ex-trawlermen, and through the internet, studying the sea and weather conditions north of the Arctic Circle around Bear Island at different times of the year.
Being from a fishing family, I am fully aware of what life was like for those who waited at home. The fishing community were very superstitious, but I have only mentioned a couple of superstitions in the novel. There will be more next time.
You chose to write under a pseudonym – and are in good company there! Can you say a little about why you decided to do this?
I chose to write under a pseudonym as my surname by marriage is not English and many people find it difficult to pronounce. My maiden name is Smith and there are already a lot authors called Smith, so I decided to use my initials, JES. Parkin was my grandmother’s surname.
Can you tell us something about what’s next for you as a writer?
I am already writing the first draft of the second novel of the trilogy, where Tommy’s journey takes him to Greenland. The third novel will be ‘Tommy Ellis, Icelandic Adventures’.
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