Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Henry Slator about the life circumstances that inspired him to write his book, Conversations At The Pond, and the creative process that went into it.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Born 1953 in England. 3 older sisters. Boarding school education from 8 yrs old including university. Probably made me independent and quite reserved. Happy with my own company. Have a theory that in early years of school holidays I did not have my friends with me so I used my imagination for adventures. Hence my remarkable imagination that can be found in my writing. The friends made at university became friends for life.
Married Margaret, a turkey and arable farmers’ daughter in 1977. Became one of the first small family farms into turkey portions, business transformed by concentrating on retail. Social life minimal, no TV for 20 years. No children, by choice. Early retirement to north Cornwall 1999.
Continued being fit and active, dog walking, tennis, 7 acres of garden, writing. Now have 2 TVs!
Huge fan of Nature, it never ceases to amaze me. From galaxies to ground beetles, moths to marine life, it is all a wonder.
Then, in January 2020 along came colon cancer, surgery in February and chemo in May to August. Thought I was handling it well until I really struggled with the chemo.
When did you first want to write a book?
About 35 years ago. I needed something, a hobby, outside of work. I found work satisfying, but it was all-consuming.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Enrolled for Creative Writing evening classes, organised by the district council, around 35 years ago. Very much enjoyed them. A totally different challenge to turkeys!
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Begun in May 2020, initial draft of Conversations at the Pond nearly completed September 2020, decided illustrations a must and Cheyenne Hardwick (a local girl who had done artwork for me before in an unpublished novel) begun in October 2020. In mid-January 2021 I approached Cherish Editions (specialist publisher regarding mental issues) with the first 2 chapters including their artwork. And a suggested front cover design that included the words, ‘Talk to the wildlife. It works wonders for your mental well-being.’ It was enjoyed enough to be taken on board.
Eventually 85 illustrations appeared in the book. I added the epilogue in April 2021.
Conversations at the Pond was published on September 23rd 2021.
What made you want to write Conversations At The Pond?
Arriving on the chemotherapy ward for the first time in May 2020 I chatted to two nurses, told them I was a part-time writer for over 35 years, but for once in my life, I had no stories in my imagination that needed telling. They suggested I write something entertaining for all the chemo nurses. Having admitted I was a writer I could hardly say ‘no’, could I? It later dawned on me that cancer had knocked the stuffing out of me and that to write I needed motivation. The nurses had provided just that.
I had no inkling our garden pond would take centre stage in a story until walking the 130 paces to the bench on its island became a major part of my coping-with-chemo fight.
What is the inciting incident of Conversations At The Pond?
I have to approach this question from a different angle as my book is a collection of 19 independent short stories (chapters) all about chatting with the inhabitants of a pond. There is not just one inciting incident.
But there is a single incident that kick-started the book.
Feeling miserable after my first chemo I visited the pond in late May 2020. I managed to get to the bench to admire the beauty and calm surrounding me. The blue sky, all the colours of the plants and trees around me and the shimmering surface of the water. Wonderful.
Then I thought about the mass of life under the surface, and more particularly the larger diving beetles. What stories could they tell me? What could these beetles do to intrigue and entertain me?
In leapt my imagination. Water ski-ing! The beetles would need towing, … the sticklebacks. It’s boring just going around the pond, … so have competitions. With beetles from other ponds flying in. How about some cheating? Spotted by the stewards. Some sort of drastic resolving action. Before long I had a short story mapped out.
Because of my existing interest in pond life, I knew that, with background reading to provide ‘authenticity’, I could create other entertaining short stories with different creatures. And bind them together in chats between them and me. And I could make it happen during my months of chemo so that the creatures were seen to help me. Therefore, readers found out a bit about me. But the stars of the show had to be my new-found friends, not me.
Lost in the entertainment of my imagination my misery was shown the door. If I could do that for me, why couldn’t it work for others? Uplifting anyone, not just chemo and cancer patients? Aged from 8 to 98!
NB. The water ski-ing beetles became a 1,200-word chapter called Foul Play with 4 striking illustrations by Cheyenne.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Conversations At The Pond?
Regularly feeling like manure in the first 3 months until chemo was completed.
Restraining my imagination as a few ideas for chapters were too far-fetched and too ridiculous.
Knowing that as my immune system was seriously compromised by the chemo and that if I caught covid it would likely be life threatening. Not an ideal situation for writing amusing goings-on.
However, Margaret and I quickly saw lock downs and strict self-isolation as our saviour from that worry. Also, Cornwall was one of the safest places to be in the UK, and we were in the rural north.
When I engaged Cheyenne at the end of 2020 she went to live in Spain, taking a manuscript with her! I thought conveying what I saw on the big screen of my imagination in e-mails for her to convert to illustrations was a recipe for crossed wires and misunderstandings. Even though I directed where each illustration was to be placed in the text. My challenge was to write brief sentences that were not open to interpretation. Amazingly, out of nearly 100 illustrations we only had one disaster!
Who or what inspired you when creating your protagonist? And antagonist?
Nature inspired my imagination to see every creature as having a story to tell. Their life cycles can be astounding, sometimes verging on the unbelievable. I can create stories out of that.
What is the main conflict in Conversations At The Pond?
Survival of the fittest. Me included.
Did you plot Conversations At The Pond in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants?
Once I had the outline of a chapter in my mind, and any scientific info to support it, I had the basic plot. I then began writing, which was ‘seat-of-the-pants’ stuff as my imagination created ideas to add to the outline as I progressed.
And it wasn’t just the text that benefited from my ideas. For example, a chapter called Bun Fight takes place in an exhibition area where the creatures show off their wares. The story revolves around only two stalls but I asked Cheyenne to create a row of stalls because my imagination had come up with additional stall names such as ‘Frankly Fishy’, ‘Toads Tools’, ‘Snails R Us’ and ‘Beetlemania’. An eye catching and smile inducing illustration came about.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Conversations At The Pond need?
Yes. But other than losing a few hundred words (superfluous) and needing an education regarding certain punctuation it was straight forward.
Problems did arise because my original manuscript to Cherish Editions was on A4 and the size of page for the book meant certain illustrations had to be moved as they did not fit. Unhappy with this I altered the text and/or repositioned the illustration to better suit the text. Quite a challenge, but we got there in the end.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Look at your writing as if you are the reader as it is so easy to have too many words.
Are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Hugely so. It may have taken 35 years but it is so worth it.
In writing terms, I see myself as beginning in Division 4, then soon went to Division 3 where I feel that I’ve recently been writing at the top end. With Conversations at the Pond, I’ve suddenly found a style and a subject, and Cheyenne’s artwork, that has promoted me to Division 2.
As a bonus a proportion of profits from the sale of all Trigger books (of which Cherish Editions is a part) goes to the Shawmind charity, which aims to ensure that everyone has access to mental health resources whenever they need them.
I was so fortunate; Conversations at the Pond was my mental health resource.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Given my answer to the previous question I will revisit the only 3 works of the last decade which, with a fair amount of rework, may just keep me from demotion back down to Division 3! I believe the stories are compelling, my old style of writing them is not.
Find more from Henry Slator:
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