Blackpool and Poland inspired new book by Lancashire novelist Rachel Evans
Rachel Evans was never going to let cerebral palsy hold her back. The teaching assistant told Fiona Finch of her joy at seeing her second novel published.
Rachel Evans has always been keen on story writing. The only problem was the aspiring author found it hard to write.
Living with the condition cerebral palsy meant Rachel learned at an early age she would have to overcome obstacles.
Chief among them was, she revealed, writing with a pen. But a wonderful teacher taught her to touch type at the age of 10, paving the way for her to gain a string of academic qualifications before fulfilling her writing dreams.
Rachel, from Lancaster, explained: "I find the physical act of writing really difficult .I always have because I've a different pen grip, the grip on my left hand is terrible. When I was 10 as well as physiotherapy a lady taught me to touch type. That has literally changed my life completely. It makes writing just an absolute pleasure."
She continued: "Holding a pen and writing, tying my shoelaces - I have to really work at that. Turning a key - I find that difficult. Writing has just always been my escape from that. It's a real release. It's a complete escape for me. It's something I find easy, whereas a lot of things are quite difficult."
Rachel, pen name Rachel Clare, gains much inspiration from places she visits. Her new book 'The Woodcarver of Krakow' draws on her own visits to Poland and closer to home, to Blackpool as well as her mother's memories of growing up in Blackpool.
She said: "After setting my first novel 'Roses of Marrakech"on the vibrant streets of Marrakech, infused with hot spices and mystery, I decided to set my second novel in Poland in the depths of winter. I love the folk culture of the country, the woodcarvers and embroiderers, the soft sounds of the language, the comforting stews and dumplings as well as the stunning scenery - the steep, rugged mountains, the calm, mirror-like lakes and stunning architecture of the elegant cities. In the area south of Krakow where I've set it there's a tradition of woodcarving and a lot of the houses are actually made of wood and have got carvings. That really inspired me to make the grandfather of my main character Tad a woodcarver.
Her Roses novel featured two interconnecting stories set during the Second World War and the present day, focusing on family and romantic relationships. There are similar themes for “The Woodcarver of Krakow”, a tale of two brothers brought up by their grandfather in the Tatra Mountains.
Rachel said: "They rely on each other for everything until Poland is invaded in September 1939. The story follows the younger brother Tad’s escape across occupied Europe, which is fraught with danger. Finally reaching Blackpool, he joins the Polish Air Force. Eighty years later his descendants retrace his steps back to Poland and discover the horrifying truth of what happened to Tad and his brother Jacek."
Rachel, 46, said: "In my writing, I want to tell people’s stories that haven’t been told. I grew up visiting my grandma in Blackpool every weekend and, between trips around the illuminations and eating fish and chips and candyfloss on the seafront, I learned of the historical background of the Polish Air Force in Blackpool. The famous
303 squadron was even formed in the town. What struck me most was the bravery and determination of these young men who, despite being thousands of miles from home, knuckled down to become skilled and fearless flyers."
As research for the book Rachel visited the site of the now closed Polish club in Blackpool and went to the Layton cemetery where Polish airmen are remembered and honoured. She said: "The club closed after the New Year's eve at the Millennium. It's still got a Polish eagle above the door and inside there's a model of a Lancaster bomber. I also went to Layton cemetery where there are 22 war graves of Polish airmen. They've all got red flowers (on the graves) because of the Polish flag colour and a red perpetual light.
"Blackpool was already a well established RAF base where thousands of men undertook their basic training before being allocated to squadrons in the east of England. But then for these Polish airmen who had escaped from Nazi occupied Europe Blackpool became a debriefing centre. It became (a place for) rest and recuperation. They did training at Squires Gate because there was already an airport there and facilities and they actually did a lot of their physical training on the beach."
It took Rachel three years to write her first novel and 18 months to complete the second. Lockdown has provided the time for her to make swifter progress on a third book.
She said: " The first took me three years because I didn't know how to structure a novel. I did a lot of writing and I found a lot of it I edited out. It just wasn't relevant or there was too much description. In a novel you've to keep to the action. Because I had been through all the rewriting and editing with 'Roses of Marrakech' this time I did a proper plan of each chapter and I stuck to it and it was a lot more succinct! You learn, don't you?"
Combining writing with her full time teaching assistant job at St Mary's primary school in Morecambe demands commitment and discipline. She gets home at four pm and aims to write for two hours on school days, has a break on Saturdays and writes for seven hours on a Sunday.
She made a career change seven years ago, retraining to become a teaching assistant and loves the work, also teaching French to Key Stage two pupils.
As a civil servant Rachel previously worked as an administrator for HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) in Preston and Lancaster.
The former pupil of Ripley St Thomas school at Lancaster graduated in English and French from Liverpool Hope University, before taking an MA in modern languages and research at Lancaster University. After searching for work for two years she became a civil servant. But harbouring an ambition to become a journalist she then took a postgraduate Diploma in Newspaper Journalism, where she honed her writing skills, but found her job opportunities limited as she could not drive and was unable to write shorthand due to her problems with handwriting.
It was then that her role as a teaching assistant beckoned and she retrained again. She said: "Since I had the career change seven years ago that's when I've been writing the novels. I think it is being happy, being contented and being productive in my school life that has made me write and be a novelist.
"I've had to be very patient to realise my goals. But I think you get where you are meant to be in the end."
* 'The Woodcarver of Krakow' is published by The Book Guild at £8.99 and is available in the Lancaster and Blackpool branches of Waterstones, from Amazon and direct from The Book Guild (www.bookguild.co.uk). Rachel hopes it will also soon be on sale at the Preston branch of Waterstones.