Summer of ’76 – Q&A with author Isabel Ashdown
I’m really pleased to welcome author Isabel Ashdown today to mark the publication of her third novel, Summer of ’76.
” Luke is all set to enjoy his last few months at home on the Isle of Wight before leaving for college. But when the close knit community is gripped by scandal, everything he thought he knew about friendship and family is turned on its head. ”
I went to Isabel’s book launch which was held on a hot, muggy night in Bloomsbury. We ate cheese and pineapple on sticks and twiglets for that seventies vibe, and those of us who were old enough to remember that summer, swapped stories as to what it had meant to us.
I put a few questions to Isabel:
1. What made you decide to set the story on the Isle of Wight?
The Isle of Wight is a place I have great affection for. It was a reassuring landmark on my horizon since earliest childhood, as it could be seen from the shoreline in my hometown of East Wittering in West Sussex, the clarity of its outline our simple barometer as to what the weather might hold that day. I visited as a child, but more recently, since having my own children, we’ve adopted it as a kind of second home, travelling over in the campervan where I can write in the tranquil salt air of the island’s many beautiful locations.
2. How do you go about creating a sense of place? Do you prefer to set your stories somewhere you know well or would you ever set a story somewhere you’ve only researched virtually?
Location plays a strong role in my writing, and I need to immerse myself in the real places I write about in order to feel them entirely. If my character is to walk those paths, breathe that air, then so must I. I think it’s important to get the key features right, but of course creative license must exist so as not to restrict the story. So, for Summer of ’76, Sandown and its pier, Bembridge and its lifeboat station, Wootton Bridge and its holiday camps are all real and carefully researched – yet the street names I use might be fictional, in order to give the story a life of its own.
A number of real events get a small mention, such as the 1969 festival and the island marathon – and although these things only get the tiniest glance in the final novel, my research was studious, to ensure that I was able to represent them accurately in the few words I used. I took several holidays and day trips to the Isle of Wight, so that alongside family time, I could visit particular settings featured in the novel, photograph them, make notes, or simply stand and stare …
3. One of the two alternating narrators in your first book Glasshopper is Jake, a teenager dealing with an alcoholic mother, and the second Hurry Up and Wait centres on another young person, Sarah Ribbons, which vividly brought back all the insecurities, intense friendships and confusing feelings, as well as the excitement, of being a teen. How do you get back into that mindset? Were you a troubled teen or is that tautology?
I’m often asked this, and I guess I only have my own perspective to relate to fully. But, yes, I suppose I was a troubled teen, in that I was a deep thinker, trying to make sense of the ever-shifting adult world, making mistakes and watching the consequences roll out before me. I think that description might relate to a great number of 15- or 16-year-olds, and perhaps that’s why readers respond well to my characters. I remember my teen years acutely – certainly with far more clarity than I do my 20s – and so I draw on what I’ve got to go on. I’m fascinated by the adolescent narrator, by their honest and often uninhibited voice – and ultimately the truths their voices can reveal.
4. I know the Isle of Wight well and I love the fact that many of the places we go to on our ‘circuit’ feature in the book – the Crab and Lobster pub at Bembridge, Whitecliff Bay, Black Gang Chine etc. It seems to hark back to a gentler age and is almost like the island that time forgot. However, after about a week or so I go a bit stir crazy – I don’t really like the fact you are governed by the ferry/hovercraft times and can’t just get off the island. Are there any hidden gems that you can tell me about?
A couple of years back we stayed in a National Trust coastguard cottage at the Needles, nestled at the foot of Tennyson Down. If you’re looking for a writing retreat, this is a gem – in a small windswept cottage peaceful enough to squirrel yourself away to write – with breathtaking sea views from the coastal path up towards the monument (where if you drop back down you’ll find the Highdown Inn and a very good seafood platter).
The kids love Robin Hill park at Afton, and we always try to visit the tiny beach at Steephill Cove, which is accessed via a deep and winding path once you’ve passed through the Botanical Gardens in Ventnor. There, you’ll find a small beach with glimmering rock pools, a tiny café, and fresh crab and lobster landed daily and sold from a little house on the front. We’re also regulars at the Yaverland Café, where they serve up the best full English breakfast – and don’t forget to get yourself a Minghella ice cream – produced on the island for over 60 years, and simply divine. As you can probably tell, food features quite strongly on our list of holiday priorities!
5. I love the way you capture the feeling of the seventies with humour – all the references to the trousersuits and cheesecloth. Being a child in the seventies really brought it all back! I’m old enough to remember that Summer – my Holly Hobbie dress, the standpipe in the street, an ant invasion in our larder, the tarmac melting, the petrol drying up in the car. How did you go about researching all the period details?
Ah yes, Holly Hobbie – we had the curtains! Much of this material comes from my own bank of memories, which I then went on to validate via research. I was six that summer, and I have sharp memories of the ladybird invasion, the dried-out duck pond at the end of my road, the bohemian parties of my parents and their friends – the clothes they wore, the food they served – the endless heat! I’ll never forget our beloved ‘uncle’ Graham with his gently swept white hair and cravat, who every year celebrated his birthday during Wimbledon week, serving salt-edged cocktails on the sunny patio of his small seafront bungalow, as we children eagerly awaited the cutting of his famous strawberries-and-cream cake. I can see it now – feel it – smell it – as clear as day. I suppose, without realising it, I was always a ‘watcher’, and as a result, I’ve absorbed a lot of period detail from the times of my childhood. Perhaps all that time wasted on daydreaming as a schoolgirl is coming to fruition in my adult life …
Summer of ’76 is published by Myriad Editions. Follow Isabel on Twitter (@isabelashdown) and on Facebook..