|Image courtesy of Norman Watson|
What a pleasure to be sitting down to tea with Shirley Blair, Fiction Editor of The People’s Friend. Many of you will know that after more than forty years of working in magazines, the last twelve of them with The Friend, Shirley will be hanging up her boots in February next year. So let’s find out what she’s been doing all that time, why she’s leaving now and what her hopes are for the future.
It’s lovely to see you, Shirley, and while I wouldn’t have the cheek to offer you Dundee cake, there are some nice mince pies for you to tuck into while we talk. It’s more than seven years since you first accepted one of my short stories, only the second I’d ever sold, and it was for me the beginning of what has come to feel like a personal friendship. However, I realise that I know very little about you other than that you are highly regarded in the industry and that tears (even be they metaphorical) will be shed when you leave. So, how did you get into this somewhat crazy business in the first place and what have your experiences been up to the time you landed what you have referred to as your dream job?
|Shirley with Oor Wullie|
Hi, Natalie, and thanks for the excuse for a coffee-and-cake-break in the usual daily whirlwind. Always appreciated.
Gosh, 43 years of me and DC Thomson…
I always loved writing, encouraged by my parents, who I must have half-deafened battering away on their old Underwood typewriter. Encouraged by them, and by my English teacher, I applied from school, the only full-time job I’ve ever applied for. I started work the week after I finished my last exams. I was so keen I didn’t even take a holiday. I began in “Star Love Stories in Pictures”, a romance library similar to “Commando” – same office and Editor, in fact. From there it was to Chief Sub in letterpress, a range that included “Red Star”, “Secrets”, “Red Letter” – remember them? All fiction, of course.
Then there was a change of direction into our glossy monthly “Annabel”, where I was Beauty Editor, which was fabulous fun and a whole new experience. I got to write features there, too, for example about visiting a plastic surgery hospital and observing procedures. How many jobs give you that kind of opportunity?
From there I was drafted onto Chief Sub a launch project, but I moved on again before it actually got beyond the lengthy development stage. Next it was Chief Sub in “My Weekly”, then, after a few more years, I was made Editor of “The People’s Friend Story Collection”, which evolved into the “’Friend’ Pocket Novels”. And it’s from there that I came here into “The People’s Friend” itself as Fiction Editor.
Interspersed with all of those experiences I’ve had other random short spells, eg, as a Features Editor, a Knitting Editor….! All great learning opportunities.
What a varied and rewarding career you’ve had! It’s a well-known saying that if you want something done you should ask a busy person. Obviously they don’t come much busier than you. Do you have a strictly adhered-to routine or do you juggle your work as seems fit?
|Taking a short break with Marmalade, the office cat|
There are some tasks that follow routine. Website content is very schedule-driven, as is anything fiction related that’s already on the production schedule. And I keep in mind which month we’re in in relation to when manuscripts have been submitted. I hate to keep writers waiting any longer than necessary. But other than that, if I feel like reading short stories from regular writers, or unsolicited writers, or serial instalments or ideas, or getting back to writers, I can please myself, though I always balance that with what’s actually required.
Who came up with the Writing Prompt Story Starter idea? It certainly worked for me. One of yours or one of the team? And speaking of the team, it’s clear there is a very special relationship between you all. That comes through on Facebook, on Twitter and through your web page. Can you tell us about the fiction team and how you all work together? Oh, and do please have another mince pie.
The Story Starter was my own idea. I was always taking random photos with my phone, and I thought they might be useful. I only intended to do it for a few weeks, a year at most, but I know from feedback how it’s caught on. Now I can’t not see things to photograph!
The fiction team – well, we’re genuinely great mates. We have such a giggle – between all the hard work, of course – and talk about a million different things, from space travel to politics, favourite cakes, books, films, TV…But we often just talk about the work, too. We honestly love it. As well as the general fiction content, we each have our roles: Tracey’s is pocket novels, Lucy is pocket novels and poetry, Alan provides the sweets, and I keep it all ticking over on schedule.
Oops, sorry – ‘scuse the crumbs….
Job satisfaction is obviously something you have in shed loads. What pleases you most?
It sounds a cliché, but it genuinely is signing up a new writer. Discovering that talent, giving it its opportunity. And it really is rewarding. One writer who I’ve just signed up with a short story shyly said, “As it happens, I’ve just written a long read…” It’s a corker and we’ve just bought that, too!
It’s also satisfying to take a chance with a story, something our readers haven’t encountered before – as we did with ghost stories, and our cosy crime category - and to receive letters saying how much they’re enjoying the variety.
I’m aware that you are yourself a fiction writer but, as I don’t know your pen name, I have no idea if you have a preferred genre or whether your writing takes the form of books as well as short stories. Can you enlighten those of us who don’t know and will we be able to follow you in the future?
Way back I set myself the challenge of writing a story for every one of our genres. I’ve completed it apart from a pocket novel. So far! But I actually enjoy writing modern serials. It’s a challenge to make them contemporary and interesting and yet still “Friend” appropriate.
You have said on your own blog that in February you will leave your Fiction Ed’s chair spinning behind you and go off and do new things. Work or leisure? Are you planning to travel? Are there things you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time? Perhaps you can share some of your aspirations with us. What is the hobby you would most like to pursue?
The big novelty will be that I can ignore the calendar and the clock. My working life has been entirely dictated by deadlines. Mr Fiction Ed and I have never denied ourselves in the travel and holiday department, so we’ll probably do even more of that. But I have lots of little ambitions. To make jam when I feel like it instead of squeezing jobs like that into weekends. To catch up with friends over leisurely lunches. There’s a corner of the garden that needs rethinking. To write more. To get involved in some local environmental projects. My big one is to try – yet again – to learn to swim, but I think I may need hypnosis!
Do you have a dog? Or a cat? Or a budgie? Are pets part of your life and/or will they be so in the future?
No pets. We’ve had two cats twice. The first two, separately and many years apart, got run over. The second two lived the lives of Riley until succumbing to old age. We haven’t replaced them and have no plans to, but I enjoy being cat auntie to my sister’s gorgeous Angelo.
It’s been a delight working with you and I’ve enjoyed talking to you today. I wish every success to whoever steps into your shoes but I cannot let you go without saying how much I will miss our email chats. As you know, we met in person for the first time at the Writing a Serial workshop at the beginning of September but it was like meeting an old friend. And that’s what I feel you’ve been to me over the years. I’m sure there are many others who will say the same. The People’s Friend is not the only friend I found at DC Thomson.
I wish you a very Happy Christmas, an outstanding Hogmanay and the future you wish for. Thank you, Shirley, more than I can say.
It’s been a pleasure, Natalie. My whole career has been a pleasure, from the first minute to this. I will miss it, and the people I’ve worked with along the way, but at the same time I feel a cosy wee glow knowing that my stepping aside allows someone else the most wonderful opportunity.