Pamela Holmes was born in Charleston, South Carolina. At the age of eight, she moved with her family to England. Her first novel, The Huntingfield Paintress was set in Suffolk and told the story of Mildred Holland and the painting of St Mary’s Church in Huntingfield. Her second novel, Wyld Dreamers, was published last year.
1. Who were your literary influences and heroes as you were growing up?
I devoured the Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton as a young girl. New to England from the USA, I was to be sent to St Felix School in Southwold and knew nothing about what happened in girls’ boarding schools.
Once there, Anne Golon’s Angelique series kept us giggling under the blankets (no duvets in those days). One day, I was sent to the sanatorium (a very scary prospect) with flu. A trolley of books was wheeled between the beds and I was grateful to find the poetry of TS Eliot. My physics teacher sent me Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Those books have stayed with me.
2. Your path to publication was a varied one, taking in nursing and journalism. If you knew then what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
I’m not sure I’d change anything. I needed all those experiences, disappointments and opportunities to be the person I am and the writer I continually strive to be.
Nursing gives you the chance to be with people at difficult times of their lives and so perhaps provides some insight into the human condition. Journalism gives you permission to poke your nose into other people’s business, a great boon for a would-be writer.
3. Mildred Holland was a remarkable woman. When did you first become aware of her and her seven-year labour at Huntingfield?
On 1 January 2011, I visited St Mary’s Church, Huntingfield, on a whim. Above my head danced images of winged, haloed saints. A pelican pecked at her own breast, feeding droplets of blood to her young brood. Golden angels holding jewelled crowns leapt from the roof between beams patterned in blue, green and red. A leaflet said it was a Victorian vicar’s wife who had created the medieval fresco that arched above me. Mildred Holland had stood, and latterly lay on her back due to crippling arthritis, to create this vision of beauty.
I was amazed. What had driven her up the ladder? The ceiling fresco was no casual undertaking. What had sustained her over those long years? Wives of the Victorian era were expected to dispense tea and sympathy to the sick and needy. But she had taken a different path.
Our second son had just gone to university and I craved a new direction. Finding out about Mildred set me on the path to the British Library. I researched Mildred’s life and times, and when I found limited information about her, I decided to write a novel. After taking a creative writing class at the Mary Ward Centre in London, I settled down to the blank page and began The Huntingfield Paintress. Mildred inspired me!
4. Wyld Dreamers was based on your experience of living in the countryside in the 1970s. What was it like to revisit that time, and did you need to do a lot of research?
Wyld Dreamers is about five young people who form a hippy commune on a smallholding, which crumbles after 18 months. Twenty-five years later, circumstances bring the group back together. But where to set the story? That was easy: Somerset, where I’d lived on a farm with friends in the 1970s.
None of the characters in Wyld Dreamers are based on people I knew, though some of the events draw on what happened: milking cows, gutting rabbits, driving tractors and dancing under the moon. Characters include Amy, who loses her mother soon after she arrives on the smallholding, Seymour Stratton, a successful London photographer who thinks of the place as a playground for his friends, and Mrs Morle, the housekeeper, who is critical of her employer’s city habits and what the hippies get up to.
I explore ideas of that time such as parity between the sexes and self-sufficiency. Our discussions seemed radical then, even if they’re mainstream now. So my research for Wyld Dreamers meant delving into diaries, record collections, recipe books and journalism rather than parish records and history books, which were what I needed for The Huntingfield Paintress.
5. Do you have a message for your readers in Suffolk Libraries?
Do what you can to help make the case for libraries. Whether you live in a rural area or a town, libraries are places of learning, discovery, peace and community, which everyone is going to need more, not less, in the future. Use them now and show their value. Let’s make sure libraries survive!
6. What was the best advice you were ever given?
“You’ve got to live hard and play hard”; that was my dad’s motto, and though I didn’t always do what my father told me to, I remember to act on his words.
7. Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
I’m the lead singer in a rock bank called The Scratch Band; we play in pubs and at parties. When I do my vocal exercises, my husband says the sound is like a wailing banshee. I hope he’s teasing.