Lucy Owen is one of Wales’ most recognisable faces as a journalist, news reader, and TV presenter, but 2021 will see her publish her third children’s book, Flower Girl. Gary Raymond caught up with Lucy on Zoom to talk about the development of stories, finding the dream partnership with an illustrator, and writing inspirational stories from personal trauma.
Gary Raymond: Lucy, you have a new book coming out in 2021, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Lucy Owen: It’s called Flower Girl, and it’s about a girl who is magically made from blossom after her mother wishes for a child. She’s on her own and hasn’t had any children and is desperate for one. The blossom magically creates Cherry and she’s got this pink curly hair that drifts petals, and she cries petals. The deal with the blossom tree is that she needs to prove herself, almost, to remain a real girl. She needs to be kind, honest and strong. She faces different tests along the way and falls short, as we all do sometimes, then ultimately, she faces a test of self-sacrifice and it’s about how all comes good. It’s a story of friendship, and of overcoming feeling different. Cherry’s a bit quirky; she’s got this pink hair and is born out of a tree, so it’s about feeling different, and trying to overcome that and accepting and celebrating your differences.
Gary Raymond: Does it follow on in any way from your last book?
Lucy Owen: I suppose, if it’s similar to The Sea House, it’s because whenever I write something, it comes from something that’s personal and then branches out. I came up with the idea for The Sea House when I was snorkelling on a holiday. This beautiful sea world stuck with me. Halfway through writing it, I realised that this was somehow connected to my dad, who drowned when I was sixteen. That was informing it. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, right, this is where this one comes from’. I burst into tears at the computer then thought, ‘Oh, actually, this is quite therapeutic’, and I carried on. I was inspired by something deep inside me. With Flower Girl, I think the central idea of the mother struggling to have a child came from my own experiences with the IVF journey to have Gabs [Gabriel is Lucy’s son]. That’s what Flora, Cherry’s mum, is dealing with at the beginning of the book. But that evolved through the writing.
Gary Raymond: It’s really interesting that you come up with an idea and then something very personal rises up through the idea, rather than the story developing from very personal – and in some cases traumatic – experiences.
Lucy Owen: I hadn’t really thought about it. The first book I wrote was Boo-A-Bog in the Park, and I wrote that on breaks, often during late shifts. Gabs was very young at the time and I often wasn’t able to be with him. So, I think that was again very much from the heart. I’ve learned that when I want to write, it is something that means a lot; sometimes it’s subconscious, and it comes out, and then I sort of piece it together afterwards, a little bit slower. But no, I’d never consciously want to say, right, I want to express this, but actually, I was really pleased that I did with The Sea House. Because it was dealing with the subject of grief, really.
One of the things that strikes me about children’s literature is that often you’re dealing with quite difficult subjects, but in a very different way, in a lighter way. I think at the end of it, though, the message has no less depth.
Gary Raymond: Have you always written creatively?
Lucy Owen: I’ve always really enjoyed books written for children. And you know, as an adult, I do love a bit of Disney. So, I’ve watched lots of that over the years. I’ve always liked fairy tales, and as an adult I’ve read more widely about different types of fairy tales from different cultures. And then when I had Gabs I started to read more books with him. Being in work and not being around as much I would have liked because of the nature of my working patterns, I found it was a way of having a connection with him. When I wasn’t there, I was writing stories for him. That’s when I wrote Boo-A-Bog in the Park. It was about a character that was inspired by him, really. Gabs was shy in the park. And I could relate to that. I’m an only child as well, and I can relate to feeling shy around other kids because you’re on your own and the other kids have siblings and they’re all doing their own thing and you feel on the outside. So, I think it was that really, it was seeing him experience that sort of shyness, that I had experienced too. And then wanting to feel close to him while I wasn’t with him. That was published, but it was never the ambition for it. I’m an ambassador for the Noah’s Ark charity, and we were thinking about fundraising and I suggested these stories as a potential way to raise money. Gomer published it, but while I was looking for a publisher I was put in touch with Firefly, who eventually brought out The Sea House.
Honno ran a scheme called ‘meet the editor’. One of the editors available to have a consultation with was Janet Thomas from Firefly. So, I sent a few pieces of Boo-A-Bog off to her. She really liked it, but said it wasn’t what Firefly did. I’d had the idea for The Sea House by that point, so I mentioned it. I was so nervous about it; I can remember just bluffing, absolutely terrified. Janet said, ‘Oh, I like that. Why don’t you write a few chapters and ping them to me?’ So, I did.
Gary Raymond: You sound like you were putting yourself outside your comfort zone.
Lucy Owen: Book publishing is just so different from telly. The speed that everything works out in publishing was a real revelation to me because I’m so used to thinking, right, you come up with an idea, you film it that day, and there it is broadcast that night, and bang, you’re done. This is such a slow process. It was really difficult for me to get my head around.
Gary Raymond: You’ve moved to a different publisher for Flower Girl, but you’ve kept your relationship with your illustrator. That must mean you have a good working relationship with Rebecca Harry; how was that evolved?
Lucy Owen: Oh, she is so talented. Firefly came across her and said, ‘Look, we think she would be perfect for The Sea House’. I initially wanted to work with Andy Catling, who did Boo-A-Bog, but Firefly were really sure that she was right for it. Then the drawings started coming through and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is just absolutely magical’. She’s brilliant.
So when Atebol Cyfyngedi said that they would like to publish Flower Girl, I thought, ‘Gosh, I would really love to work with Rebecca again’. We’d done some book events together and become really good friends, so even before it was official, I was sending up chapters to her, and I think she’d got excited about it as well. She was sending me the image that is now going to be the cover, and this was way before she’d been commissioned; I think we were just both getting really excited about it. That’s been so lovely. I’m her biggest fan.
Gary Raymond: It seems like it’s been a slightly different process because your relationship as friends developed from working together. So, with The Sea House you had a finished book and that was given to Rebecca and she illustrated it. But with this, you were sending over chapters as you were writing the book, I suppose. Did you ever feel that the story was being influenced by some of the images you were getting back?
Lucy Owen: Yes, actually. When Rebecca sent me the cover image, I thought, ‘Oh, I think I might have to change Cherry’s hair’. Rebecca had put lots of blossom around her and her hair was curly, whereas I’d had it straight and pink, but I thought, ‘Oh, no, actually, she’s totally right’. The blossom feels bubbly, it feels like there should be some curls and some movement. And so it changed how she looked in the book.
Gary Raymond: You’ve been putting the actual physical book together during lockdown. Has that been a really nice kind of outlet?
Lucy Owen: It really has. And I always find that writing is a real escape. It’s odd working in news and factual journalism all the time, and then there’s this whole children’s book world, which is all about the imagination and fantasy worlds. So, I feel like I’ve got these two things going on, one rooted in really difficult news at the moment, really heart-wrenching stories, day in day out, and then there’s this writing and letting my imagination escape into worlds of beautiful images and hopefully uplifting and heart-warming stories. It’s a wonderful escape, and I love having that contrast, that place I can go to take myself away from what can be quite a tough time during the pandemic. To know that this was happening and to be able to escape into this world has been a really lovely way of balancing what we’re dealing with.
Gary Raymond: And how has it been working as a news journalist in the last year?
Lucy Owen: It’s been incredibly difficult. Difficult for everybody involved in producing these programmes at this time, especially at the beginning. It was such a shock to everybody when it kicked off. Yet it’s the contrast between the day job and being able to work on this book that’s been wonderful. Having spent the last few months working with others to put the book together, I’ve really missed the writing, so I’ve already started a follow up. I need a little world to go into.
Gary Raymond: I have been quite interested in how you’ve gone from Boo-A-Bog and then to The Sea House and now Flower Girl coming next; you’re sort of moving up the age brackets. I wonder if you’ve got any plans to continue that progress.
Lucy Owen: Well, I don’t think so; I try my best at writing and it turns out my stories are suitable for six to eight year olds. Having Gabs definitely informs what I write; sometimes I’ll read stuff to him and he’s always incredibly underwhelmed by my writing. But sometimes he’ll say, ‘Oh, we don’t say that, mum. We wouldn’t say that.’ And in the book that I’m writing at the moment, and in Flower Girl actually, there’s a boy who is 11 and he’s really into his gaming. I definitely can hear when I’m writing the things that Gabs has said to me. Gabs can tell me there’s a new game coming out and it takes place in a temple and I’m like ‘Okay, thanks very much’.
Gary Raymond: You have your sources.
Lucy Owen: Yes, definitely. Stay informed. Do your research.
But seriously, that’s just my life, and working in the news has an influence too. For instance, the BBC is really trying hard to be more diverse, and it’s become very much part of what we do, we try to be much more inclusive at every opportunity. That’s definitely impacted my writing. I feel like it’s really important to have diverse characters. I have that in Flower Girl with my gorgeous character Ruth who has mild cerebral palsy. Cerebral Palsy Cymru was the first charity that I got involved with more than twenty-five years ago. So, I’ve been messaging them to tell them about the character and ask for help getting them right. I wanted to make sure that I represented the condition accurately and fairly. That’s been a lovely part of it.
Gary Raymond: Has your day job informed anything else in your writing?
Lucy Owen: This morning, on the new book, I was writing a chapter called ‘Breaking News’. I just loved putting that in the book, because it involved a little bit more with the kids getting on a campaign. So I could really relate to that, you know, having covered lots of that kind of stuff.
Gary Raymond: You’re very much part of the children’s writing scene now. I saw your brilliant little video on social media of you reading one of the poems from the new debut collection from Alex Wharton.
Lucy Owen: I still definitely suffer from imposter syndrome. When it comes to children’s writing, I still can’t quite believe that, you know, it’s me. And I still feel like I’m just playing, really, and can’t believe that anything actually makes it out into the wider world. But there’s such a lovely writing community. All the children’s writers – in Wales and beyond – are so supportive of each other. Eloise Williams, the Children’s Laureate of Wales, has been really supportive and great. She’s working so hard inspiring children and writers alike, and she’s certainly inspired me. I love her writing and her work, but she’s just so generous. And Sophie Anderson took time out of her incredibly busy schedule to have a read of this and give me her thoughts; she was really kind and I’ve been bowled over by that.
Gary Raymond: There’s a real community vibe in Wales at the moment when it comes to children’s literature.
Lucy Owen: You’re right. I feel like this is a real growth area. It’s just really encouraging when you see that, despite the difficulties, and despite the tough times that we’re having, success stories are also happening. It’s good for writers, but most importantly, it’s good for the kids.
Flower Girl by Lucy Owen is due to be published in May by Atebol Cyfyngedi.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.