Thanet Writers Question Madeleine White
I was born in Germany, with roots in Canada and the UK. I moved from Germany to Thanet when I was ten. This displacement has had a huge impact on my work as I have explored identity and belonging throughout a twenty-five-year career spanning journalism, teaching, educational technology, and publishing.
I believe change is possible, if we have the courage as individuals to come together and make it happen. We need to raise our voices though, with stories that help us come together. As a publisher I have created national and international web and print magazines aimed at creating a voice for those without one. A notable example of this is the successful Nina-Iraq, a project I worked on with the World Bank to reach out to Iraqi women everywhere.
These days I edit Write On!, a magazine I created for Pen to Print. My work as a ‘storyteller’ consultant, also continues apace—spanning the needs of educational technology companies and international development partners, and connecting diverse cultural, geographical, and digital communities.
I have tried to collect my beliefs and the wonderful stories I have heard over the years in one place: my debut, Mother of Floods, a speculative novel that has been inspired by the growing belief that fiction is often more powerful than factual journalism in opening us up to truth. It was digitally launched on International Women’s Day 2020, and will be available from bookshops in the UK, US, and Canada from 22nd April 2020.
I am married with three children and live in Broadstairs. My family also includes Lucie horse, who lives in a nice big field in St Nicholas at Wade.
I wrote my first book in an exercise book in Germany when I was about eight years old. I wanted to get lost in the fantasy worlds of my reading and writing. When my parents separated because my father had his first manic episode, I changed from a German child who was a bit of a loner but knew where she belonged into a fake English schoolgirl. I remember language being weaponised, as although I was bilingual I didn’t understand the colloquialisms. For example, I’d use ‘wotcher’ when I meant ‘seeya,’ making people dissolve with laughter. The more isolated I got, the more I lost myself in the worlds of fantasy. I remember thinking that my first year in England was just a dream. When I first read Marian Zimmer Bradley’s book Mists of Avalon, in German, it touched something that has stayed with me. The belief that in this magical world that ran parallel to ours we could affect change across dimensions. There is power within us we just need to grasp. It was a kind of spiritual awakening that shifted into my writing and, in particular, my poetry.
I have a need to communicate, to tell stories. In terms of journalistic writing, my first big story was published in the Evening Standard when the film Mr Jones came out in the early 90s. It was about being bipolar, the same illness my father had. I had written and supported my student newspaper the Leeds Student in my time at university, dipping my toes into making my own experiences and take on the world count, but this was the first time I’d really made the leap. I got loads of letters, passed through by the paper, telling me how much my story had helped them. From then on, I realised that no matter what I went through, there was a purpose to it all—my story might be able to help others shape or make sense of theirs. From then until the late-90s I was working in multilingual magazines. My main hat was marketer, but I continued to freelance. Notable features were linked to my eating disorder. An eagle eye eventually led me to a story in a women’s magazine about the gastric bypass operation. This eventually led me to re-mortgaging our house and having one of my own. This shift from 21 stone to 10 is a major part of my personal story and I used the interest in this and the research I had done to lobby for change. Using my story to build awareness had a significant impact in the UK and I was published in many newspapers, magazines, and participated in a number of talk shows. The important thing to mention here though is that I was telling my story in my voice, as a writer. I wasn’t having someone interpret it for me in a voyeuristic kind of way. I still dip into this occasionally, building on the message of my Guardian feature in 2008—that heavy people are scapegoated because there is a massive money-making industry around it. I am quite interested in revisiting this again more stridently, as it has become evident to me that over the twenty years since my operation every aspect of the ‘weight escape’ has become aggressively monetised, including the operation that bought me my freedom, whilst food manufacturers continue to take little or no responsibility. It’s so much easier blaming people who are heavier, after all. Campaigning and writing to change the way people live in and perceive the world has run though all my work. I’ve used words to weaponise positive action, from conceptualising an educational technology project aimed at educating girls in Kenya and funded by the Department for International Development to reports, leadership pieces, and events supporting diversity in business, with a particular focus on women’s economic empowerment.
You’ll notice that using writing to change the paradigm, one voice at a time, starting with my own is a theme that runs through my career. However, although my creative writing fits that same ideal, it is more ‘need’ driven. Emily Dickinson likened pinning down inspiration to trying to catch a moving train. I feel the same way. When events happen in my life that move me deeply, I write poetry. Moving this sentiment across to a full work of fiction in Mother of Floods came from that same place, but obviously took much more commitment. It was a real risk emotionally and financially and only came about because I was able to manufacture the time to answer this burning need in me to pull my beliefs and learning from my work together. The stories contained in this book are based on the amazing truths real women have shared with me. Pragmatic, moral, and fierce in turn—cultures, backgrounds, and geographies may differ. What connects though, is the way they lead their communities into shaping their own destinies. It illustrates what I truly believe—that collectively, we can make change happen. In Mother of Floods I have woven in strands of ancient and modern mythology and my quest to explore what it means to be human in the 21st century as digital, physical, and spiritual worlds collide. Digging deeply into my own story and then binding in the interlocking narratives of Martha Johnstone and her dead husband Dave, who lives on in digital form, was motivated by the stories of the women who inspired characters such as Anjani, an Indonesian Mogul who finds herself investing in Mercy’s Zimbawean micro-business, and Fatima, the abused teenage bride who finds safety in a tucked-away Baghdad garden. Mother of Floods makes connections between the spiritual, technological, and human worlds, leapfrogging towards a transformative energy that infects the digital world and ultimately creates a new kind of being. I honestly believe we are battling for the soul of the world at the moment, and drawing attention to some of the things that motivate my passion for change is therefore front and centre in terms of motivating my writing.
My writing habits are not great, to be honest. I am hugely disciplined in my day-job—consultancy work, which is obviously underpinned by my writing, as I have worked for myself for many years. However, where my creative writing is concerned those rules don’t seem to apply in the same way. I know I need to pull myself right back again and read through what I’ve done on my work in progress to find that energy again. For the moment, though, my second novel has not moved beyond 66,000 words since November last year. A friend of mine has suggested I write in the morning and then do PR and other work in the afternoon—I shall take that as something to aspire to.
Truth, faith, hope, love, pain, despair, need. The human condition in all its frailties and a belief that we can change things. I love riding my horse, Lucie, through the lovely Kent countryside. A couple of weeks ago I met with a sparrow hawk, who led us in procession from fencepost to fencepost, until he threw himself back into the deep blue sky again. That meeting with nature, in the place where I am, connects who I am to where I want to be, and it’s that I want to write about.
Fear. As I mentioned I am stuck about halfway through my next novel at the moment. Is it good enough? Will there be a market? What if it doesn’t work? I think this underpinning narrative is caused in part because last November there were glitches, beyond my control, with my first book which left me feeling worried and interfered with my writing. To make me feel better, I started focusing on things that could offer a more immediate return—more consultancy projects, my social media presence, audiobooks, food, and slowly time ran away with itself.
I’m still here. I’m still writing and I’m working on things I believe in. I believe in ripple effects and I think that by focusing on my achievements, being true to myself, kindness, and using words and stories for good, these things will reach others. I want to be the best I can be, one day at a time. Sometimes I struggle with that, but my continual sense of failure is a sign that I am growing. It is only struggle that hurts. In inactivity, mental, physical, or spiritual, there is no struggle. My sense of failure and discomfort comes from my desire to progress. Writing the Imlango project for DFID, creating Oi and So magazines for teens, or Nina-Iraq for the World Bank, the Sweden on the Go platform, and Write On!, are symptoms of my desire to grow, change, and shape; they are not ends in themselves.
Leo F. Buscaglia said: “Risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.”
I am promoting Mother of Floods, my debut novel, which I have written to show how individual choices can lead to powerful ripple effects if we are bold enough to come together to remake ourselves and the world around us.
Next I will be finishing my second novel, for a start, but also building Write On! into something greater. This print and digital magazine is distributed in London, Essex, and Kent, and we’re getting new readers and submissions all the time. I want to build on this issue’s sponsorship by Penguin and support of Writers’ and Artists Yearbook as well as partnerships with Margate Bookie and Thanet Writers. There are also a couple of interesting International publishing projects in the pipeline, but as a Contributing Editor for Thanet Writers, I’ll be sure to share them here first!
© 2020 Madeleine White
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Madeleine White was born in Germany, with roots in Canada and the UK.