Q&A with Lauren Ross, author of ‘November Took My Father’

Lauren Ross is the author of the memoir piece ‘November Took My Father’ which features in Stryvling Press’ Time and Tide anthology. When she’s not researching for yet another historical novel idea, Lauren can be found tutoring kids, at the cinema, or walking around her beloved home city of Edinburgh. Last year, she gained a first-class BA Hons degree from Stirling in English Studies. Before that, she studied a foundation diploma in Art & Design. While she gets her love of art from her mum, her passion for history comes from her dad, and literature is her own way of blending the two together.

How did you become interested in creative writing?

I guess I’ve been writing stories ever since I could write. In primary school, I would make my own illustrated books by stapling A4 pages together. My very supportive teachers let me add them to the class bookshelf and even allowed some of my classmates to write their book reports on them. My stories back then included (separate) tales of Snowy the Snowman and Pink Pirate, whose unicorn, Sparkle, ‘was called Sparkle because she sparkled a lot.’

What made you want to be an author?

I’ve always enjoyed writing and received encouraging feedback on it. I remember making it my life’s ambition when I was about ten to be the world’s youngest published author. After learning that much younger kids had already beaten me to it, I settled for becoming a published author as soon as possible. I’m quite fickle by nature, though, and went through multiple phases of aspiring towards other vocations, including farmer, singer and top chef.

Throughout secondary school, I loved art and English equally but received more recognition for drawing and painting. While applying to study illustration at art college as a way of fusing my joint passions for writing and visual art, I tried my hand at animation and had an epiphany: this was illustration magicked to life, this was my calling! I changed my application, pulled together a showreel of stop motion and hand-drawn animation, and gained an interview at Edinburgh College of Art but no eventual place. I studied a foundation course in art and design instead, planning to reapply to the animation course the following year. But although I enjoyed my college course, it made me realise that I wanted to test my literary abilities more and keep my art going on the side rather than the other way around. That led me to study English at Stirling Uni and subsequently their MLitt in Creative Writing.

Before and during undergrad, I had some success in a couple of short story competitions, which boosted my confidence as a writer and reignited my desire to become a published author. In 2015, I was shortlisted in the junior category for the HG Wells Short Story Competition and invited to Folkestone for the award ceremony. My parents and I headed down, making a weekend-away of it, with no idea that I would be announced the winner. It’s a very special memory now since it was almost exactly a year before my dad passed away.

Can you give readers a brief overview of what your memoir piece is about?

‘November Took My Father’ is about my experience of losing my dad to a heart attack in 2016. It recounts the time immediately before and afterwards, and talks through how I dealt with my grief and how I came to realise that, although I’d never experienced true grief before, I was already equipped with some of the skills and knowledge I needed to manage it.

‘November Took My Father’ deals with tough topics in a powerful yet sensitive way. How did you find the writing process?

Thank you. Some of it was written not long after my dad passed away as a therapeutic exercise. I’ve never been someone who finds it easy or natural to speak my feelings aloud, and that’s okay, I’ve learned. As a kid, writing it down was the compromise reached when I refused to tell my mum or teachers why I was upset. It’s often seen as unhealthy if you don’t talk about your grief or other tough emotional experiences, but there are so many other ways to communicate, writing being one among many art forms. That’s what people really mean, or should mean, when they say, ‘you need to talk about it’: you need to communicate in whichever way is best for you. Sharing with a blank page or canvas works well to begin with before you’re ready to share with other people.

The opening paragraph hasn’t changed much from when I first started typing. Although I usually use pen and paper first, I wrote the memoir straight onto my laptop. Joan Didion began her grief memoir on her laptop, too. I think there’s something about the neatness of screen text that fits with the desire to organise the tangle of emotions you’re writing about.

It’s understandably presumed that I found the writing process emotionally challenging, but I didn’t particularly struggle in this way. The three years between then and now made me feel largely dissociated. It was as if a story was appearing to me, like some psychic vision rather than memories, about someone other than myself, and all I had to do was not let it slip away as I articulated it. It was a strangely satisfying challenge, editing my rawer writing and then delving back into that past mindset to flesh it out, seeing everything from a new perspective.

Is memoir your preferred style of writing?

Not at all. I actually came onto the Masters course aiming to become a historical fiction novelist. That hasn’t changed, but I’ve recently started to read and write more contemporary fiction as well.

I would never have considered developing ‘November Took My Father’ as a ‘serious’ piece of writing if it hadn’t been for the Masters course. I sent in a draft for a workshop as a last resort after giving up on what I had intended to submit. When I received encouraging feedback on it and inspiration from our seminar on memoir writing, I decided to develop it further for an assignment and submit it for inclusion in the Time and Tide anthology.

At first, I saw it as nothing more than an extended exercise to meet a course quota: ‘You can’t write a memoir aged twenty-three,’ I thought, ‘how conceited!’ But everyone, no matter their age, has an interesting story to tell and advice that they can offer.

The story is interestingly interwoven with the Romanovs. How did your personal interest with the family begin?

In 2014, I discovered Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov while searching for inspiration for a novel idea I had about six sisters. I was instantly enchanted by their personalities when I started reading about them: they hadn’t been vapid icons but individuals with their own relatable sets of virtues and vices. They seemed to balance each other out, as well: together they were the perfect unit. Perhaps because I’m an only child, I found that kind of synergy enchanting.

For my final major college project, I created an installation that aimed to ‘bring them back to life’. It included life-sized prints of photos the sisters took of one another sat around a breakfast table one morning in 1917 (which my dad printed for me at his office for free); a table and tea-set borrowed from my mum’s growing collection of auction buys; and four deconstructed, old books that I made into concertina scrapbooks about each sister.

Photo Credit: Lauren Ross

My dad was the one to spark my passion for history. If I asked him when a certain historical event happened, the answer always included much more than a date. He loved to read historical fiction—especially about Ancient Rome and the Tudors—and would take me to museums and castles, even drove a six-hour roundtrip one day so I could visit the Brontë parsonage, staying in the car the whole time reading the Sunday paper while I looked around. In my memoir, I talk about how my fascination with the past – the Romanovs, in particular unexpectedly helped me to deal with grief.

What do you hope readers will take away from ‘November Took My Father’?

For those who have suffered grief themselves, I hope they feel a sense of solidarity by finding their own emotions in my writing, as well as a potentially new way to reflect on their grief. For those who haven’t, perhaps they’ll remember my memoir if or when they experience grief in the future and be reminded to fill their sense of loss with the richness of memory.

I would also like it to inspire people to engage with history in a more emotional way than they might normally. I think it’s a greatly rewarding ability, to feel connected to the past.

Are there any authors who particularly inspire you?

I don’t have favourite authors so much as favourite books and for different reasons. I still cite Gone with the Wind as my all-time favourite novel. It’s the characterisation I find most impressive: you don’t like Scarlett, you don’t want to be her friend, and she doesn’t change as such by the end, but you admire her greatly regardless. Her cunning, manipulative, ruthless and determined spirit becomes a strength, helping her and others to survive the Civil War.

Middlemarch is famously a marmite book, but I personally love the web of flawed characters that George Eliot weaves and the ‘voice of God’ narration that teaches valuable life lessons. The final line is my favourite ending in all of literature. I have it memorised and recite it to myself sometimes to feel more grounded.

My ultimate comfort read is One Day by David Nicholls. He’s the king of contemporary dialogue, and I’m in awe of his heart-warming sense of humour.

Last but certainly not least, Fingersmith is a complete gem of a novel. I’m still awestruck by the plot and how Sarah Waters seamlessly incorporates rich historical details. She ingeniously mixes motifs of nineteenth-century novels, like squalid London pickpockets and the repressed young lady locked up in her uncle’s mansion, with lesser-known truths about the Victorian underbelly. It engages with the nature/nurture conundrum and proposes that money—as much as we might like to deny it—has always been the root of freedom, leaving you with much to chew on long after the story has ended.

What are your future ambitions as a writer?

I’m going to focus on writing some short stories for the moment and try to get them published. My long-term goal, though, is to be a novelist. Perhaps I’ll even publish another memoir someday!

I’d like my future writing to inspire and comfort people, encourage them to see things in a new light and maybe even change someone’s life for the better, as these are some of the highest powers that words can have. So nothing too ambitious!

‘November Took My Father’ will be published as part of Stryvling Press’ Time and Tide anthology later this summer.

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