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Monday 15 July 2019

Debbie Young-Interview

Carol Westron talks with Debbie Young

Debbie Young is the author of several collections of short stories and the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, a cosy crime series set in the Cotswolds.
She is UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors and the founder and organiser of the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival.

Carol:                The Sophie Sayers books are set in a village in the Cotswolds and both are very vividly portrayed. What is it about the Cotswolds that makes them such a special place for you?
Debbie:             I’ve loved the Cotswolds ever since my father brought our family here on holiday, to show us where he had been evacuated to during the war. Even if there wasn’t that personal connection, I’d still be charmed by its quiet, natural beauty - gentle, rolling green hills dotted with sheep; gorgeous honey-coloured buildings and dry-stone walls; and sense of space and fresh air. The local accents are soft on the ear and the
people are kind and funny.  Although I was born and raised in Sidcup, on the border of Greater London and Kent, the Cotswolds feels like home. I finally achieved my ambition of moving to the Cotswolds when I was in my early 30s and have lived in the same Victorian Cotswold stone cottage ever since. I have become a very active member of the village community, and now I never want to live anywhere else.

Carol: In the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries you combine an on-going love story, a village full of eccentric but usually lovable characters and a mystery. Did you plan such a brilliant combination, or did it develop as you were writing?
Debbie: Thank you, you’re very kind! I planned the series of seven from the outset to span the course of a village year. This was partly to allow the mystery element in each book to tie in with the passing seasons, such as staging the Nativity Play at Christmas. I liked the idea of building up a complete picture of a year in the life of a village as the context for each story.

But I wanted to provide more than just a series of seasonal puzzles. I also wanted to celebrate village life and its sense of community. The best village communities respect individuals and allow people to be themselves, which is one reason why they often boast a fine collection of eccentrics!

I planned quite a few of the subsidiary characters in advance, such as shopkeeper Carol Barker, a bit of a Mrs Malaprop who organises her shop in alphabetical order by product. Others turned up of their own accord. Old Billy, for example, came into the bookshop café for his elevenses, started heckling Sophie and Hector, and wouldn’t go away. Other characters dreamed up for one book, such as teenage tearaway Tommy insisted on
returning in later episodes – or readers wanted more of them!

I thought the romantic element would provide an extra dimension and an additional source of tension. Gentle romance is a useful foil to darker side of the story, providing reassurance, hope and light relief. It’s also an
important part of the development of the characters. There’s a story arc planned for Sophie and Hector’s romantic relationship spanning all seven books in the series.

Carol: As I indicated in the previous question, the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are detective stories but they also have Sophie’s love story as a very prominent theme running through each. How do you balance the love interest and the detective story?
Debbie: The mystery element is the starting point for their romantic relationship, because in the first book, only Hector is at first persuaded by Sophie that a murder has been committed – everyone else thinks for ages that the death in the opening chapter is due to natural causes. Learning to trust and support each other comes partly from working together to solve the mysteries, and that fuels their romantic relationship. But I’m not making it too easy for either Sophie or Hector, or else the relationship would become boring (for the reader, anyway!) I try to make the romantic storyline and the mystery plot feed off each other, and to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Carol:                In your earlier career you had some fascinating jobs, often involved with marketing and writing, but I got the impression that the job closest to your heart was your work for the charity Readathon. Could you tell us a little about that and your involvement with it?
Answer) I’ve been very lucky to be in full employment for all my adult life, in jobs which always allowed me to do a lot of writing of some kind, such as magazine articles and features, newsletters, brochures, and latterly website copy. But in 2010, I decided to pursue my real ambition which was to write fiction. For this I needed more time, so I quit my full-time day-job at a boarding school and sought a part-time job instead. I was incredibly lucky to find just a short commute away what was then known as the children’s reading charity Readathon and has now been rebranded as Read for Good. Read for Good is a national registered charity that promotes the benefits of children reading for pleasure by running sponsored events in schools and other places throughout the country. The money raised by the children taking part enables Read for Good to send free books and storytellers into children in hospital. Children love helping other children, so even reluctant readers are encouraged to read for Read for Good.
Seeing non-readers transformed into bookworms and children and parents benefitting from the hospital programme is heartwarming, and I feel very privileged to have been a part of it. I worked for the charity for three years, liaising directly with schools and hospitals, and spreading the word about its wonderful work.  Working such an inspiring cause that revolved around books also somehow seemed to validate my writing ambitions and encouraged me to take my novel-writing ambitions seriously.

Carol: Tell us about the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival and your connection to it.
Debbie: I founded HULF five years ago, after being a volunteer for World Book Night for several years. World Book Night (WBN) is sponsored by publishers to encourage adults to read for pleasure, so it echoed what Read for Good does for children.

To coincide with WBN 2015, I wanted to stage a free local literary event for the people in my village, and thought I’d bring together a few author friends for an evening in one of the village pubs, The Fox Inn, and staged some talks and readings. All those I spoke to loved the idea, and we ended up with a packed programme from 6pm till 11pm, and the wonderful Katie Fforde, bestselling romantic novelist, kindly came to launch it.

Before the end of the evening, people were saying to me “Can you make it a whole-day event next year?” and “Can you do it on a Saturday so we can bring our kids?” Of course, I said yes – and ever since it’s been a full-day event, on a Saturday, that gets a little bigger and a little better each year. We’ve just had the fifth HULF, which included contributions from about 60 authors, plus an art exhibition, a poetry slam, a bookshop, and a café, involving six venues simultaneously! 

All the authors and artists give their time as volunteers to ensure we can stage it as a free event, to encourage everyone to come along, including both eager and reluctant adult readers and those who simply don’t have the budget for litfest tickets. We are also inclusive of all ages and abilities. Our oldest author this year was 84 and the youngest 4! One of our venues is the village primary school, and we helped them publish a poetry book featuring a poem by every child in the school. We also have an outreach programme into the village care home for the elderly so that we can involve residents who are too frail to attend the main festival venues.  Photo left by Angela Fitch.

I could write reams about the Festival, I feel so passionately about it, but if you’d like to learn more, please visit its website at, where we also have a new blog featuring a guest post each week by one of our Festival authors on their impressions of the most recent HULF.  Debbie  and Brad Borkan, keynote speaker at this year's Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.

Carol: Like myself, you are a passionate supporter of Indie Publishing and an ambassador and editor for The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). In your experience, what are the advantages of self publishing? And what, if any, are the drawbacks?
Debbie: I’m proud to be UK ambassador for ALLi, co-author of its series of guidebooks for indie authors, and for six years I was also commissioning editor of its author advice blog.

Modern technology (digital publishing, print-on-demand, online sales) has been incredibly empowering for authors, enabling them to self-publish in a manner that is both professional and economically viable.

To be a self-publishing or indie author essentially means that the author assumes all the duties of a publishing house, rather than just writing the book: editing, design, marketing, selling rights, etc. This means project-managing a team of experts who specialise in those things – hiring editors, proofreaders, cover designers, etc. It also means you are in charge of the marketing (but to be fair, if your books are published by a traditional publishing house, they’ll expect you to do lots of marketing too – a trade contract doesn’t let you off the marketing hook!)

That’s obviously a lot of work and a lot of responsibility, but if you’re prepared to learn, there are great resources out there, such as ALLi, which will make the process easier for you and hold your hand along the way. I highly recommend joining ALLi to anyone who is serious about self-publishing – it offers a fast-track to expertise, a massive network of trustworthy contacts, and invaluable practical and moral support. For more information about the many benefits of membership, visit

Carol: I understand you’ve got some exciting plans on your writing horizon. Please tell us about your next Sophie Sayers book and also about your new venture, Secrets at St Bride’s.
Debbie: After writing the fifth in the planned seven-book Sophie Sayers series, I wanted to start a new series and then alternate between the two, to give my readers (and myself!) more variety. In the same way that the Sophie books celebrate village life, the new series will celebrate life in a boarding school community. I worked in one for 13 years, so am very familiar with the territory!

Boarding schools are similar to villages in many ways – a limited pool of characters, quirky traditions, and an alluring setting – so it was a natural side-step for me. I’ve therefore created a fictitious boarding school for girls, St Bride’s, but the storylines will revolve around the staffroom rather than the pupils. I hope it will appeal particularly to anyone who grew up, as I did, hooked on classic school stories such as the Malory Towers and Chalet School series. My series won’t include murders – not least because no school could remain open if staff or pupils were being murdered – but every member of staff has a dark secret to hide, and there will be plenty of mysterious goings-on. There’ll also be a strong romantic element and plenty of humour – my usual mashup, really!

I like to think of this new series as “School Stories for Grown-ups” – and pure fun! Secrets at St Bride’s will be first in the series, which is due out later this summer, and the second should follow early 2020, after Sophie Sayers #6, Murder Your Darlings, which I’m just starting to write now.

Carol: With all your exciting activities, I’m not sure how much spare time you have, but what are your other hobbies and interests?
Debbie: You’re right, there’s not a lot of spare time, but whatever spare waking hours I have, I put to good use! As well as running HULF, I’m a member of the Friends of St Mary’s, which supports the fabric of our wonderful
pre-Domesday Book village church. I read voraciously and across multiple genres. I love to travel in our family’s camper van with my Scottish husband and teenage daughter – I am now planning a bonus eighth book in the Sophie Sayers series to be set in Inverness and the Scottish Highlands, where we spend a lot of our holidays. Back home in the Cotswolds, we are lucky enough to have a beautiful cottage garden, and although my husband, who is retired, does all the real work there, I am very good at issuing him with instructions! I also love visiting local museums, art galleries, stately homes and anywhere else where I might find inspiration for my stories. I’m so lucky to live in the Cotswolds where such places abound.            
Photo above right by Angela Fitch. Debbie in the bluebell woods

1 comment:

  1. A great interview, thank you! Debbie does so much wonderful work, as well as being a great writer. Thank you for all you do for indie authors Debbie!