I was inspired my time in a Romanian orphanage – where the toothbrushes were gone

An Italian-based author with Preston roots is making an impact with her third children’s novel, Arrowhead. MALCOLM WYATT tracked down Ruth Eastham near Trieste....

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 31st May 2014, 1:00 pm
Award-winning novelist Ruth Eastham
Award-winning novelist Ruth Eastham

Award-winning novelist Ruth Eastham prides herself on “edgy fiction where past meets present”, with fine examples of her craft in her first two award-winning brilliantly-observed teen reads, 2011’s The Memory Cage and 2012’s The Messenger Bird.

Now she’s enjoying similarly-positive reactions to her third book, Arrowhead, this time turning an expert hand to Norse and Viking mythology.

Arrowhead tells the tale of 13-year-old Jack, the ‘new kid’ in a town near the Arctic Circle, originally from North-East England but with Norwegian parents.

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Struggling to come to terms with his dad’s death, Jack befriends bullied fellow outsider Skuli, their budding friendship leading to a discovery threatening to unleash evil on the world.

What could be far-fetched in some hands is a skilfully told, well-researched and believable story, keeping readers - of all ages - gripped.

Along the way, Jack and Skuli are joined by similarly-resolute Emma, another reluctant to go with the crowd, the ice warrior trio facing a disturbing turn of events amid talk of Odin’s revenge, the four deadly plagues and their effect on this small town, its adults and children.

At times it could be The Wicker Man for high school readers. In fact, think Nordic Noir for teens.

But the author offers wider themes too, about herd mentality, finding your own way, and that age-old battle between good and evil, in a pacy plot full of descriptive detail, the writing as sharp as the Arrowhead of the title.

I asked Ruth, speaking from her home in the north-east of Italy, near the Slovenian border, what the reaction’s been like to Arrowhead?

“I’ve been really pleased with the response. I was lucky enough to have several writers read and review the book before it was published, and they said some really nice things about it.”

Did she immerse yourself in Norse and Viking mythology?

“I did quite a bit of background reading, yes!

“Everyone has a Viking fascination, don’t they? For me, it’s such an intriguing era and the culture is so rich.

“And we still get swept away in the stories they told, even after a thousand years.

“It took me about nine months to write. Like producing a baby! That’s about the time-frame for my other books too. Everything has to be finished well in advance of the publication date.”

Ruth, whose nine and seven-year-old daughters attend a Slovenian school, is a seasoned traveller, and much of that shows in her books, in this case seen in her portrayal of small-town Norwegian life.

“A journey to Norway a few years ago had a big impact. The epic mountain settings I hiked through helped with the setting. I also visited the awesome blue ice caves of a glacier. That made a strong impression and in the story an ice cave is a pretty important feature.”

Ruth mentions in Arrowhead’s author notes her past trips to Northumberland’s evocative Holy Island too.

What is it about that remote coastal setting that fires the imagination?

“Being able to visit the places I’m writing about has always been massively inspiring. Lindisfarne is a very atmospheric place, and there’s something special for me about the way the tide cuts it off from the mainland.

“The attack at the monastery there in 793AD was so pivotal in our Viking history; it’s where all the negative reputation stemmed from.

“But apparently Lancashire was quite a hot-spot for Viking settlers. There’s probably quite a few of us in the county with Viking blood in our veins!”

Chorley-born and Preston-raised Ruth lives between Italy and the UK at present, but enjoyed spells in Australia and New Zealand too, and is well travelled in her own country too.

“My first year of teaching was at a village school in the Lake District, not far from Penrith. I was at uni in York. I later taught in Cambridge and Nottingham, so have lived in a few different places.”

These days, she splits her time between her writing, teaching and bringing up her children. So how does that work?

“I try to keep my writing hours to a schedule, to fit around my daughters and English teaching that I do. There’s also something special for me about writing in the quiet of the evening – though too many late nights takes its toll after a while!

“I divide my time between Italy and the UK, going backwards and forwards quite often as I do school visits regularly in primary and secondary schools.

“I’ve been back to the Preston schools where I was a pupil: St Patrick’s Primary School in Walton-le-Dale, plus Our Lady and St Edward’s Primary and Our Lady’s Secondary in Fulwood.

“All my family still live in Preston, plus close friends I love to catch up with. I was actually born in Chorley Hospital, and see myself as a Preston girl through and through!”

After studying at Preston’s Newman College, Ruth trained as a teacher in Cambridge, but continued with her writing, something she always loved.

“I wrote from an early age. I had some great teachers who inspired me no end, but my main inspiration was my dad, who always read bedtime stories to my two brothers and me as we were growing up. Everything from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens.

“I think this is where I started to understand the power of story and imagination, and where I got my love of storytelling from.

“I was something of a bookworm when I was growing up! I used local libraries a lot, which is why it’s so sad to hear of cuts and closures that are going on around the country.

“When you live abroad, you can appreciate more the quality and strong tradition of libraries in the UK, and the passion of our wonderful librarians.”

Which of Ruth’s contemporary writers does she admire most?

“I was lucky enough to once have pizza with His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, share a croissant with Jacqueline Wilson, have Patrick Ness sign my copy of A Monster Calls, and have one of my stories read out by Michael Rosen.

“Needless to say, these are my writing heroes. I really enjoy books with different layers of meaning to them; stories that can be enjoyed by adults, as well as younger readers.

“There can be some wrong assumptions about fiction for younger readers, that the stories lack depth, or are somehow easier to write.

“Absolutely not! And if you haven’t grabbed your reader by the second page, your book’s doomed.”

Ruth can certainly craft a story, her real depth in character appealing to boys and girls, children and adults.

“It’s very important to try and think in the head of your characters, definitely.

“The voices of the characters have to be real, or they just won’t seem authentic.

“I seem to always have a boy as the main character, but strong, feisty female characters are also important to me.

“I have two daughters and wouldn’t want them to think girls keep to the sidelines while the boys are in on all the action!

“It’s about positive role models.

“Actually, all my books so far have trios of teenagers in them: two boys and a girl.

“This might have something to do with me being the middle of three children, with brothers either side.”

For her next book, set for publication in May 2015, Ruth’s again looking at a story with a modern setting but woven in the past, this time in Brazil, centred on the search for El Dorado.

But it’s unlikely to be one-dimensional, judging by her previous publications.

Her first book, The Memory Cage, expertly wove in elements about dementia and old age, adoption, childhood insecurity, family dynamics, small-town issues, the Second World War, pacifism, refugees, and even the Bosnian conflict of the ’90s, part-inspired by a spell working in a Romanian orphanage.

“Readers of a certain age might remember the Anneka Rice appeal back in the ’80s. That was the same orphanage I visited one summer to do voluntary work.

“By then the donated slide in the playground had a 
jagged tear of metal in it, and the toothbrushes were all gone.

“The bars of the cots referred to in The Memory Cage is an image that came directly from that experience. It was something profound to be there; all at once deeply sad and desperately hopeful.”

In The Messenger Bird, there’s a Second World War theme again, but this time centred on secrets, inspired by a meeting with a female Bletchley Park veteran.

“The whole Bletchley Park story fascinates me, and I’ve visited the site several times.

“Being able to talk to someone who was actually there at the time was a priceless experience.

“What you come to realise, when you get into the whole story, is just how vital the work there was. The intelligence gathered there is thought to have shortened the Second World War by two whole years.”

It says something about the author’s visual presence on the page that she also has a passion for photography, having had photos published in the Lonely Planet travel guides.

“If I visit a place that I feel inspired by, photography is a great way to try and capture the spirit of the place to refer to later.

“When I write I’m quite a visual thinker, imagining the chapters as if they’re scenes from a film.

“So images, as well as the actual words, have always been important in the writing process for me.”

And while Ruth’s books are definitely action-packed, there’s an educational aspect too, although the author never patronises her reader.

Is that the teacher in her?

“Maybe, yes! I’m really not aware of teaching anything when I write.

“All my books are set in the modern day, but the historical back stories – World War II in the first two, and now the Vikings – can give an educational feel.

“For me, it’s the pace and excitement of the story that counts, with meaningful characters you really care about.”