Lesley Parr grew up in South Wales, at the bottom of a valley and quite near a seaside steelworks. Now she lives in the middle of England (almost as far from the sea as it's possible to get) with her husband and their rescue cat, Angharad.
Lesley shares her time between writing stories and teaching at a primary school. Lesley graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University's MA in Writing for Young People. The Valley of Lost Secrets is her first book.
The Valley of Lost Secrets (Bloomsbury Children's Books)
Our Debut Author of the Month Lesley Parr tells us more about The Valley of Lost Secrets (Bloomsbury Children's Books), which follows evacuee Jimmy when he is sent to a small mining community in Wales, and starts to uncover secrets from the past:
1. What is the Valley of Lost Secrets about?
When Evacuee Jimmy is sent to Wales and finds a human skull in a hollow tree, the valley is more frightening than the war.
2. What brought you into writing for children?
When I was a child, I was always writing stories and poems. As a teen, I had many pen pals so wrote lots of letters. Then life took over - I was a nanny in London, then a teacher - and the writing got a bit lost.
When I decided to try to become an author, children's books seemed the obvious choice. One of the reasons I chose to be a teacher was so I could read stories to the children in my class. Particular favourites have been books by Roddy Doyle, Harriet Whitehorn, David Almond, and poetry by AF Harrold.
3. What was the starting point for The Valley of Lost Secrets?
It all came from a writing task when I studied for a Master's Degree in writing for young people at Bath Spa University. We were asked to write a short historical piece. When previously researching a different story, I discovered the true account of children finding a skull in a tree, so used that as a starting point. The words just flowed... Jimmy and Ronnie felt instantly real and everything grew from there.
4. Why did you decide to step back into the past for your debut?
Oddly, I didn't ever see myself writing historical fiction, even though I've always been interested in history. This whole book came from the chance to try a new genre. Once I'd started, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell.
5. How much research did you need to do into evacuees and the effects of the war on children?
With historical fiction, it's essential to be interested in the era you're writing about. And this time period has always fascinated me. I wanted the reader to discover the setting along with Jimmy, so he needed to be removed from his own life and put somewhere else - marrying these two things made evacuation the ideal way to approach this.
I read books, watched documentaries, and visited the Imperial War Museum in London. Most of all, I enjoyed reading real-life accounts from evacuees, and was lucky to be able to speak to someone who was evacuated to South Wales with his brother - just like Jimmy and Ronnie.
6. Why did you want this story to be set in Wales?
I wanted the evacuees to have a very different experience from their London home, and I chose South Wales because it's where I'm from. I watched a programme about a man who was evacuated as a child to a village called Llanhilleth and knew straight away this was the setting I needed.
However, as I wrote - and after visiting the place - I realised I had to fictionalise it for it to work with my story. So Llanhilleth became Llanbryn, but many of the features, like the Miners' Institute, are the same. It's just the geography that is different.
7. Do you prefer to use settings you know for your stories?
I like to create fictional places within real settings. So, in The Valley of Lost Secrets, Llanbryn is fictional but real places, like Islington, Cardiff and Aberbeeg are mentioned to set it firmly in its place in the world. The landscape itself is a mixture of what I know, and what I imagine.
8. How much do you draw on things that happened in your own childhood for your books?
My work is very much character-driven so I draw on relationships and people more than anything. Because those things are eternal. I like to show how working-class, close-knit communities work - the simultaneous blessing and curse of living in a place where everyone knows everyone else.
9. Why did you decide to put the mystery of the skull at the heart of the story?
The idea lent itself perfectly to a mysterious storyline... why is there a human skull in a tree on a Welsh mountain? How did it get there? How long has it been there? Who's responsible? Is there a murderer on the loose? These are all questions Jimmy ponders while he's trying to work out what to do.
10. Do you plan to write more historical fiction?
My next book, like The Valley of Lost Secrets, takes place in a small village, but this time the main character is a Welsh girl called Natty. It's set very early in the 1920s when the world was still reeling from the impact of the First World War.
11. Where and when are your favourite times and places to write?
I don't have a particular time of day that works best for me, it's just however the mood takes me. Some mornings can be very fruitful, some not - the same with afternoons. Over the years, I've learned not to question it and just go with the flow and be grateful for the productive times. I like to write at my desk, with lots of lovely things around me - presents from my husband, my mother and my friends - reminders of happy times.
12. What would your dream writer's shed look like?
I have a summer house but this is where I tend to read and research, not write. My husband named it my Word Shack and it's a calm space with lots of nice things around me and pictures on the walls.
13. What are your favourite escapes from writing?
Walking is always good, it clears my mind and offers a bit of exercise. I'm a big fan of rugby union and can often be found shouting at the TV or watching from behind a stuffed toy dragon when there's a match on. I also love cooking, seeing friends and, of course, reading.
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr (Chicken House Books, £6.99) is now available from bookshops.