Friday, April 24, 2015

An Interview with Kathryn James, author of Gypsy Girl (Countdown to 7th May)

Hello! Today I am thrilled to share with you an interview with Kathryn James, as part of the Countdown to 7th May multi-author multi-blog tour, which celebrates the great new books that will be released on 7th May 2015.

I think Kathryn gave some really interesting answers, so without any further ado...

When I began reading Gypsy Girl, I was drawn immediately into Sammy-Jo's world. It was very easy to imagine her life - there's a lot of detail about her family and their history. Even the wedding planning parts were fascinating - and they led to some great group scenes. Your bio says that you have worked with Gypsy and Traveller children. How much of this experience fed into the book? Did you have to do any additional research before you wrote it?

Yes, I worked for eighteen years with Gypsies and travellers here in Leicester, firstly organising play schemes on the sites and then later doing classes in photography, video, literacy and Driving Theory for the teenagers and adults, and nursery classes for the little ones. We also had a mobile classroom in the shape of an old Leicester City Bus which had been repainted with a rainbow painted on the side. We loved this work, and the days spent with the traveller girls were always filled with lots of excitement and laughter. We didn’t only teach them, we also joined in with their celebrations – they are very big on Weddings and Christenings and first communions – in fact they celebrate most things!

I didn’t do any additional research for Gypsy Girl, because we’d worked alongside girls like Sammy-Jo and her family. Of course Sammy-Jo isn’t based on any one girl, but I met many like her, with the same spirit and strength and love of family. I also saw the prejudices on both sides when a Gypsy falls for a non-Gypsy and wanted to illustrate these problems through Sammy-Jo’s relationship with Gregory.

The video classes led on to us videoing some of the weddings. Features from all of them went into Sammy-Jo’s sister’s wedding in the book. But the last wedding we videoed a couple of summers ago was probably the biggest influence. It was a really big, full-on Gypsy wedding.

Here’s the bridesmaid that inspired Sammy-Jo’s dress!

I loved the Smith family - there are a lot of them but you have given the members distinct personalities. My favourites were probably Sammy-Jo's aunts, Beryl and Queenie. Which of the secondary/background characters is your favourite? (I'm a bit obsessed with this question - I've made two Bookish Brits videos about secondary characters!)

I loved Beryl and Queenie, they were such fun to write! They were based on women we met whilst working with the travellers, but also I think there’s a bit of me and my best friend in there as well! Like Beryl and Queenie, Mandy and I like to know everything that’s going on, and we’re always in the middle of things plotting and planning and giving our opinions. Mandy hasn’t read the book yet, but when she does she’ll really enjoy Beryl and Queenie. I do have a soft spot for bride-to-be Sabrina as well, I think she knows she’s being spoilt and demanding but she can’t seem to stop. I put it down to wedding nerves :)

Like you, I also have a fascination with secondary characters. In some books I’m almost more interested in them than the main heroes. When I was at school we read Jane Eyre and I always remember wondering and worrying about the mad woman in the attic and wanting to know how she got there. Years later I found out that another author had exactly the same thought and had written a book all about her – Wide Sargasso Sea.

Are you going to write any more stories about Gypsies/Travellers? I have to admit that when I first saw the title, I didn’t like it, because I thought 'It sounds a bit like this is The Book about characters with this lifestyle, and I think there should be loads'! As I read the book, I changed my mind - it makes sense as 'Gypsy Girl' is Sammy-Jo's fight-club name, and because it is an identity that she is proud of, but that can lead to problems for her and her family, because of the assumptions other people make about them. It's central to the book.

I’d love to write more about Gypsies and travellers. The girls and boys in our classes very rarely see themselves in fiction. When we were doing the nursery classes we made photo books for the children, showing them leaving caravans rather than houses when going to school, and playing around a site rather than in a garden. They loved them, I think it was the first time they’d seen their surroundings and way of life in a book.

I’ve just finished writing Gypsy Girl 2, which carries on with Sammy-Jo’s story and her fight to make her family safe again. Before Gypsy Girl I wrote a couple of books called Mist and Frost, about the Elven that live secretly amongst us. Although the Elven were a fantasy based on the Scandinavian tales of elvish people, I actually based some of their characteristics on the gypsy children I worked with – their toughness and liveliness, the fact that they live secretly amongst us and that people fear and mistrust them, even thought they don’t mean any harm. But after writing those two books I wanted to write a book that was based in the real world, about some of the girls we’d worked with. I wanted a feisty heroine who would fight for her life and her family against great odds – and there’s no girl better equipped to do that than a Gypsy girl, even if she’s wearing her heels. And by showing Sammy-Jo’s life I hope my readers will enjoy learning about these secretive people and their lives, loves, hopes and families.

The word 'Gypsy' and derivatives are sometimes used as insults, yet 'Gypsy' is a word used in law and by community organisations to describe themselves, for example, the Gypsy Council. Sammy-Jo describes herself as a Traveller and as a Gypsy, and as I said above, she is very proud of who she is, but is very concerned about how other people see her and her family and friends, because of the stereotypes and myths about Gypsies. Could you explain a little about the history of the term 'Gypsy', and how it is used today?

The term Gypsy apparently comes from the word ‘Egyptian’ because people used to think they came from Egypt but that’s incorrect. Most historians believe they are a lost and wandering tribe from India, who left that country after persecution hundreds of years ago, and gradually wandered right across Asia and Europe. Imagine how exotic and foreign they must have seemed all those centuries ago, when most people didn’t move far from where they were born, to suddenly see the Gypsy wagons pulling into their village!

Nowadays Gypsies and Travellers often live on council or private sites, or own their own land. Most still travel but some stay put and live in houses.  But even those who live in houses now would still consider themselves Gypsies or travellers.

The girls and boys we worked with were a mix of Gypsies and Travellers. The Gypsies were mainly English, and proudly call themselves Gypsies. If I asked a girl to describe herself, she would say, ‘I’m a Gypsy Girl’, so the title of my book reflects this love of their lifestyle. They name they hate being called is gypo, this is the insulting term for them and is considered offensive.  The travellers we worked with were mainly Irish, (but there are Welsh and Scottish travellers as well) and they didn’t refer to themselves as Gypsies, only travellers. If you’ve every watched the programme My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, then the families normally shown on it are actually travellers not Gypsies, so people still get it wrong. Perhaps the programme makers thought Gypsy had a bigger impact than travellers!

Finally, how are you going to celebrate on 7 May?

Well it’s the day of the election so I will go and vote. But after that there will be champagne I’m sure!

Thanks for some very interesting questions!

Thank you for taking the time to answer them, Kathryn!

Kathryn also sent us some photos taken when she used to work with Gypsies and Travellers:

If you enjoyed this post, please do go to to find out more. You can also follow @CountdownYA and #CountdownYA on Twitter.


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