Q1: When did you start writing and whom influenced you the most now and currently?
Helen: I suppose all writers can trace their penchant for writing back to early schooldays. This evolved quite dramatically in my teens when I was asked by my English teacher to keep a folder of all my stories and poems.
What really helped my poetry develop was analysis/practical criticism of the work of established poets, both British and French, particularly Baudelaire and Verlaine. I began to understand how poems are ‘built’ using specific elements and how poetic devices can enhance the whole experience of imbibing a poem and getting as much out of it as possible.
There was a fallow writing period when I was at university, although I was still learning technique through studying English literature as a degree; I particularly enjoyed Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, I remember, and Samuel Beckett’s The End made an impact on me, showing how writing could portray the brutality and hopelessness of existence so disturbingly; it taught me to push boundaries.
I enjoy the poetry of Simon Armitage and Sylvia Plath, but nowadays, I enjoy discovering new talent; Twitter, for example, has unearthed some fabulous writers.
Staying Alive and Being Alive (Bloodaxe) are great introductions to modern poets, and there are so many fantastic literary journals out there where new voices can be discovered.
There are some brilliant fiction writers, too, like Donna Tartt, Jeanine Cummins and Delia Owens; I’d love their storytelling skill, but it’s difficult to pin down specific influences as every writer has a unique style.
I recognise good writing when I read it, that’s for sure. Having been a judge for several writing competitions, and having to pinpoint what works, or doesn’t, there is always a ‘tighter writing’ checklist at the forefront during my own creative process.
I now dabble in a lot more than short stories and poetry, although the latter has gradually seeped into other forms of my writing. Microfiction, flash fiction, and children’s novels are also in my repertoire. I have even dipped a toe into playwriting.
Q2: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Helen: As a primary school teacher, I absolutely loved teaching the children creative writing techniques and took immense delight in what they produced as a result. One day, we discussed how an ant would see the world, and talked about similes and metaphors for how he would perceive a puddle, or a blade of grass, for example. That evening, I came home and began work on my first children’s book, Charlie Chumpkins, about a tiny character who finds himself caught in a series of calamities in the world of humans. Imagine my dismay when Stuart Little came out soon after! The assumption would be that I had piggybacked the idea, so I self-published and kept reasonably quiet about it.
However, by then, I had the bug. I gave up teaching and wrote eight more books of children’s (MG) fiction, the final one of which is still tucked inside the computer, ready to make an appearance, maybe to a publisher…
Q3: Who has helped you the most with writing and career?
Helen: Ha! The Oscar speech…
I have to initially thank my teachers, of course, not only for igniting the spark, but also for their belief in me and encouragement to submit pieces to school magazines and writing contests, but, after that, I can honestly say that it’s been connections on social media which have fuelled my creative passion. I have had brilliant support from other writers, wonderful feedback from readers, and have several times been approached by editors and publishers offering platforms for my writing. I inadvertently picked up a paid writing position for an educational publisher for a couple of years; I wasn’t even looking for a job!
Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work?
Helen: My childhood home was Newport, in South Wales, just my widowed mum and me in a tiny two-bedroomed bungalow. I had a handful of books which I read over and over, relishing the concept that other worlds could exist outside this physical one.
My imagination slowly and tentatively found increased freedom, probing at the edges of creativity, but it took a while to acknowledge the extent to which this was ‘allowed’. I remember reading an edgy story to my mum that I had written for homework, and she was appalled! My second attempt was also met with a mother’s horror that her daughter could have such a twisted imagination. I dumbed down the whole piece for story #3, and that was the one I submitted, but it always irked me that my best writing never saw the light of day! I now have several short story collections published, some of which lean towards The Dark Side, and I relish the shocked reactions of friends who have read them as they shake their heads, muttering, ‘But you seem so nice…’
I was always aware of being ‘walled in’ by Newport, in some way, and feeling at odds with my surroundings. Whilst, in part, the boxing in was reassuringly comforting and familiar, it also somehow implied that the world outside was not mine. It was where other people did Big Things. I remember having a mental list of all the things I would have loved to do, but seemed impossible. Astoundingly, I have achieved every single one of them, writing a book (in fact, several!) being one of the dreams.
Travels have certainly contributed to my poetry. When I see something beautiful, I have to capture it in a way other than a photograph. I particularly enjoy writing about the sea and the sky. I recently published a poetry collection entitled Breathe, the blurb of which reads:
From the smallest insect to the infinite sky, the natural world has given us poetry of its very own.
And, while we can never hope to recreate anything quite as exquisite, this collection is a small reflection of some of the gifts and realities that co-exist with us during our fleeting communion on, and with, this planet.
Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you?
Helen: I would say that my poetry collections mean a lot to me.
Poetry comes from the heart and is infused with emotion; I do believe that, in many of my poems, I have revealed a hidden part of me. Apart from the anticipated trust which comes with the opening up of oneself in this way, the composition of the poems was no mean feat. Each one was built from the ground up, undergoing many revisions. Finally, collating the poems into collections, then into a meaningful order took a great amount of energy.
I am very proud of the collection Frame as it’s struck a chord with so many. It’s about broken people… and how many of us can honestly say that we haven’t been broken in some way? I have had some beautiful and heart-rending messages from readers who have found that the poetry in this collection relates so poignantly to them. I was delighted when the East Ridge Review showcased Frame as their featured Book of the Month for August.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Helen: I find great peace in yoga and meditation. There is nothing so restful as a quiet mind.
Walking is important to me, too. I live in the countryside now where it’s a joy to hear birdsong and feel the tips of the wheat, or cold leaves brushing my fingertips as I walk through fields and woodlands. A few weeks ago, I was inspired to write a poem about the abandoned canal boats I passed on a walk, and on a recent holiday the wreck of a tiny boat inspired me. Outside is where ideas bud and where the senses come alive, which is also a great fiction resource for capturing moments and creating authentic characters in context.
Q7: What is a favorite line/stanza from one of your writings?
Curled in a seashell
sunk in my skin,
you hear my heart surge.
This is from the poem Expectation, which deals with the subject of miscarriage. It is soon to be published in Afterfeather, Black Bough Poetry’s summer anthology.
Q8: What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song that always comes back to you as an inspiration?
Helen: I really enjoy haunting indie music, and will use search terms such as ‘rain’, ‘water’, ‘dreams’, ‘winter’, etc to find interesting pieces. I have a VERY long Spotify playlist called ‘Chill Time’. I don’t really have one song that would serve as general inspiration.
Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, music, events, etc that you would like to promote?
Helen: Recently published poetry collections:
I am currently working on several more themed poetry collections (forthcoming titles: Bliss, Ether, Figment, Rapture, Reflection, and Shadowfall) as well as a second volume of microfiction which will be entitled Ink Spills.
Bonus Question: Any funny memory or strange occurrence you’d like to share during your creative journey?
Helen: I once offered a children’s book free to an online reading group in the hope of getting a few more reviews. As in all of my children’s mysteries, there is peril, but by the close of the adventure everything always turns out well.
The book, titled Mandrake’s Plot, is set in a mysterious boarding school in the Scottish Highlands. Two pupils join the school late in the term and find a key to a door at the end of their dormitory which leads to an old burial chamber. Inside, the skeleton of an evil nun clutches a piece of paper, which is the key to the whole story.
Well, I hadn’t expected a member of the reading group to be a nun… She wasn’t happy.
Bio and links
Helen Laycock’s poetry collection Frame was August’s Book of the Month at the East Ridge Review. Other poetry features in Popshot, From One Line, Poems for Grenfell (Onslaught) and Full Moon and Foxglove (Three Drops Press), and will imminently appear in Afterfeather, Black Bough Poetry’s Summer Anthology. She won the David St. John Writing Award for Novice Poetry in 2006 and is a nominee for the Dai Fry Award for Mystical Poetry.
Her children’s poetry has been twice published in The Caterpillar Magazine.
In 2018, she was commissioned as a lead writer at Visual Verse and her flash fiction has featured in several editions of The Best of CafeLit. Pieces have been showcased in the Cabinet of Heed, Reflex Fiction, the Ekphrastic Review, Serious Flash Fiction, Paragraph Planet and Lucent Dreaming – whose inaugural flash competition she won. She was longlisted in Mslexia’s 2019 flash fiction competition and her work has several times appeared in Flash Flood Journal as part of National Flash Fiction Day. She has published several short story collections and is currently compiling a second volume of microfiction.
Helen Laycock | Fiction in a Flash
She has penned nine children’s books for 8-12-year-olds and has been employed as a writer by an educational publisher.
Helen Laycock | Children’s Author
All her books are available on Amazon
She can be followed on Facebook
and Twitter @helen_laycock
Great interview, Helen.