I have recently been looking at memoir. There are many types of memoir books that have been written. Diary memoir is one of them. My friend and fellow writer, Fran Hill has written her latest book, Miss, What Does Incomprehensible mean in this format, following the life of an English teacher in a secondary school.
Why did you decide to write your latest book, ‘Miss what does incomprehensible mean’ as a Diary Memoir?
Ah, a question I ask myself whenever sales figures dip, but that’s merely paranoia. In summary, the memoir was suggested by Tony Collins, a commissioning editor. He’d read my first book ‘Being Miss’ which charts one fictional day in a teacher’s life. He suggested a book in the style of ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ by James Herriot, but set in school. I thought the diary form would be fun, a la Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones. It’s a tricky format – Tony sent back first drafts with instructions to make my sentences grammatically incomplete. As an English teacher, I had to breathe deeply, but it began to feel natural.
I loved some of the characters in the book, especially Camilla and Bahlul, are they based on real people, and if so, have you changed their names?
My daughter’s favourite character was also Camilla, she said. (I thought this harsh as the main character is her own mother.) But it’s best to see the teachers – and the pupils – as composite characters: mixtures of all those I have known and worked with. Camilla’s personal problems (I won’t specify …) and Bahlul’s aversion to marking – these are characteristics from people’s real lives that I have integrated into the narrative of the memoir.
I felt desperately sorry for you and your very long work hours, is that really the case?
It is absolutely the case, particularly for a full-time English teacher. The reading, planning and marking burden is Sisyphean and, now, working from home, I look back and wonder how I coped. The book bears witness to the fact that I barely did. My husband calculated my hours and told me I was really earning £8 an hour. That was a fun conversation. It’s the reason I switched to part-time but found that ‘part’ was a term used loosely.
I also felt very sorry for your terrible sleep patterns, is that also true?
For me, teaching equalled restless nights, and that didn’t change until I left the traditional classroom and became self-employed. I’d lie, staring at the ceiling, worrying about seating plans, pastoral issues, coping with misbehaviour, lesson observations, whether I knew enough about Shakespeare, how to fit in my marking …. How long do you have? Using evenings to mark and plan lessons rather than watch Coronation Street or have bubble baths didn’t help and Mrs Menopause compounded the issue.
Are you still working at the school and if so, is the school real or imaginary?
I’m now self-employed, tutoring English and creative writing from home – currently via Zoom. In between, I procrastinate and sometimes write. The school itself is, again, a composite of all the schools in which I’ve worked. Teachers who’ve read the book say it’s instantly recognisable as typical of school life. I dubbed it Beauchamp School because the book is based in Warwick and Richard Beauchamp was the 13th Earl of Warwick. I’m sure, from the grave, he is delighted with his mention.
The school magazine was a great idea. I see by the write up in the back of the book that it was imaginary. Is that due to the fact that with your very busy schedule it would be one thing too many?
No, I really did produce some school magazines, so those experiences were typical. I think you’re referring to the mention of Warwick Printing in the acknowledgements. I consulted them as research for the ‘imaginary’ magazine I included in the memoir. And, yes, it was definitely one thing too many, cue more sleepless nights.
Is your spouse really that into exercise?
Spouse is Outdoors Man and has always loved walking in the countryside. Worried about being 60 plus, he bought some sports shorts more appropriate for men in their 20s, and off he went, striding through our local fields like Wordsworth only without the poems. He’ll go out in rain, wind, and possibly tornadoes, while I stay at home and eat a Curly-Wurly, like sensible people do.
I loved the humour in your book and much admire anyone who can write funny. How did you develop this or did the gift come naturally?
That’s really kind of you, Sheila. Is it a gift? It’s the way I naturally look at life and anything I write reflects that. I’m unreasonably aware, it seems, of ironies and mismatches and the funny side of things. It gets me into bother. Not everyone sees the world that way and I should keep some of my opinions to myself in serious situations. I have also tried to hone the skills by studying how comedians construct jokes or how funny writers such as Wodehouse or Dorothy Parker achieve their laughs.
What is the next thing you are working on? Will it also be school related? And funny?
My next major project is a novel. Yes, there will be a school, and, yes, I hope to make it funny. Time – and the sales figures – will tell.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ll add my thanks to you for reading and appreciating the book, Sheila, and for featuring me on your blog. Can I also add that my website can be found at franhill.co.uk and, if people would like to know more about my writing, I would love them to visit. There are a few laughs there, too, on my biography page.