When a good friend dies - Katherine Roberts

A good friend died just before Christmas. She was about 10 years older than me but still too young. She had cancer but it was still a shock. In the summer when I went back to Wales to see her, she seemed quite well. She had completed a course of chemotherapy and was walking 15 miles a day, writing and keeping up with her various social activities and her family. Now she is gone, and I will never again walk with her along the banks of the River Wye discussing books and publishing and putting the world to rights.

Sue in Usk

Before she died, Sue self-published a book set in the near future in the Welsh border country where she lived. She'd been writing it for several years but kept quiet about the story, most of our discussions being about how she might find a publisher. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she decided she couldn't wait any longer for publishers to say 'yes' and took the book to a local printer. After her death, her daughter kindly sent me a copy.

Reading this book has been an emotional experience. My friend comes alive again through the words, perhaps more so than if she'd gone the traditional publishing route and worked with an editor to shape the story. The book can probably be described as Welsh dystopia, set in a fictional town called Wyton not all that far removed from Ross-on-Wye, where I used to live. Floods have cut off the community, and the batteries of the title are precious currency to power up the otherwise useless technology that survived the floods. The novel follows a girl called Hope as she makes her way through the lawless feudal border country in search of a home she can call her own. With an underlying Pandora's box theme, there are poems and songs written by Sue mixed in with the prose, and the opening verse seems particularly appropriate for this time of year:

Long ages past trees took the land, men ran from them afraid.
What creatures prowled the shadowland, what terrors stalked the shade?
So in the days before the books when the first songs were made
they hunted in the open plains and shunned the forest glade.
And when they learned to farm the land they set the woods to burn
and felled the trees to make their walls and warships in their turn.
But now the trees are marching back the land is quiet again,
and we must take another way after the scouring rain
and we must find another way to live our lives again.

I have to admit I cried when I read that last line, because of course my friend does not have the luxury of finding another way. It has made me question some of the the things I've been putting off for the future, and in particular made me wonder about all those stories I too have stashed away that, for one reason or another, were deemed not commercial enough for publication. My friend's Welsh dystopia fell into that category, so if she had not published it herself the book would no doubt have been lost forever on some computer disk cleared out with the rubbish, and I'd never have been able to read it and remember my friend with such bitter-sweetness. Sue had many friends from different walks of life, so I'm sure I'm not the only one to be glad she produced this book before she died.

Taking a break on the Three Castles walk.

I suspect that in (traditional) publishing's quest for instant bestsellers, we have lost some of the original reasons for writing and publishing our stories. In Sue's case, it was obviously appropriate to self-publish. But for those of us who still have the time to choose whether or how our words should reach readers, here's a thought you might like to take away for the new year: How many potential readers does a book need before it is worth publishing?

If you want to read some of Sue's work, her short story QUEST is in the Mammoth Book of Seriously Comic Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley.

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and legend for young readers. Her latest book is Prince of Wolves - the first in a series of novellas for YA readers about Genghis Khan, being published independently because we can never know how long we have left in this world.

Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a very moving post. Your friend sounds like she was a remarkable woman. I agree that we should follow our dreams as it is true we don't know how much time we have left. Very well said.
Sandra Horn said…
A beautiful post, Katherine - thank you. I self-published The Mud Maid after a dear friend died. She often said that if we wanted to do something, now was the time, as you never know about tomorrow. I went home from her funeral and handed in my intention to take early retirement from work so I could write (and publish). I miss her still, very much, but her words transformed my life.
Lovely post with which I can identify. A good friend of ours, who is now extremely ill, took the self publishing route a few years ago and I'm so glad for him and for his family that they have his books and that he was able to take pleasure from seeing them in print. And so glad that these options are now open to all of us. I think, too, this is something that you become more aware of as you grow older. When you're younger you think in five and ten year periods of time. I want to be doing this or this in ten years. And that's why you wait, and rewrite, and try again. But you reach an age where you realise that time goes by with astonishing speed, you've learned a lot, you're often wiser than the people who are now telling you to wait - and you can give yourself permission to self publish if you want to.
Bill Kirton said…
A very tender tribute, Katherine, and a poignant reminder for procrastinators everywhere.
Mari Biella said…
A beautiful tribute, Katherine, and I'm glad your friend had the chance to see her book published. Carpe diem. You never know when it will all come to an end.
glitter noir said…
I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, but grateful for the tribute--and glad, too, that she did publish the book.
Thanks for the lovely comments. Yes, Sue was a remarkable woman. She was a good writer too, better than me, but her work with publishers was confined to a short story in Mike Ashley's Comic Book of Fantasy. She also won a high-profile first chapter competition before I met her, which might have led to a book deal if she'd finished the book. At the time, though, she was teaching and looking after her family.

It's strange how mortality creeps up on you, and sometimes a sad event like this can provide that all-important permission. Now, instead of picking up the phone for a chat, I find myself asking "what would Sue say about this?"
Enid Richemont said…
Katherine - such a moving post. I've thinking of doing the same with DRAGONCAT, which no publisher ever accepted, so I put it out as an ebook. The cover image was designed by David who'd never done one before, so I'm now considering a paperback to honour his memory. Love Catherine's comments on this, too.
Sue Purkiss said…
Much sympathy, Kath.
Thank you - oh, and the grubby mark on the book cover in the photo was courtesy of my cat, who came and sat on it in sympathy when it arrived... she didn't know her muddy paws would leave a mark on a plain white cover. If you want to read some of Sue's work, her short story QUEST is in the Mammoth Book of Seriously Comic Fantasy edited by Mike Ashley - I've added the link above.

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