The Big Interview: Val Wood

She might not be as famous a name as Larkin, but Val Wood is one of Hull’s most successful authors. Chris Berry meets the city’s answer to Catherine Cookson. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Author Val Wood.Author Val Wood.
Author Val Wood.

WhilE poet Philip Larkin always captures the headlines as Hull’s foremost writer, with playwright John Godber and script writer Alan Plater not far behind, Val Wood simply gets on with writing books that sell in their hundreds of thousands. Such is her popularity in her home city that Hull Library Services launched The Val Wood Prize for fiction in the last week of July and she is inundated with requests to appear at literary lunches throughout the UK.

Val’s novels are nearly all set in Hull and Holderness and sell worldwide. She is published by Random House, one of the UK’s leading book publishers and her most recent novel His Brother’s Wife, is her twentieth. Her stock in trade is 19th century fiction and her lead character is often a down-on-her-luck young woman.

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Although Val professes she is not the Yorkshire version of Catherine Cookson, she certainly mines a similar territory. Her professional literary career began when she won the Catherine Cookson Prize for Romantic Fiction in 1993, which subsequently led to the publication of her first novel The Hungry Tide. Val was in her fifties when that hit the shelves and today she lives in Beverley. She has also lived in Hull, Leven, Sproatley and Burton Pidsea. Even though her first book was a long time coming, the idea of making up stories has been with her from childhood.

“I’ve always been a storyteller and I would make up stories for my middle sister Diane, but it wasn’t until I had my two daughters Ruth and Catherine that I started writing. Once the girls had both gone off to university I decided to join a writer’s workshop in Hull where I met other like-minded people including the tutor Daphne Glazer who was just brilliant.”

In common with most writers Val suffered rejection from publishers for her early works. Short stories would be returned with the usual polite refusal. Her salvation and the catalyst for The Hungry Tide came as she drove to Hornsea.

“We were living in Sproatley and I was near Mappleton on my way to see my mother. I went around the last bend I saw this vast expanse of sea. It was more than you could normally see and I realised another chunk of cliff had gone. That made me think of the lost villages of Holderness.

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“By the time I had come back home I had this story in my head about a family living on the edge and trying to save their home. I began to write and it consumed me, then I began to think about the North Sea and the ships that would have sailed from Hull. That’s when I realised the research that was needed and I discovered the city’s whaling industry. I soon realised my story was to be far bigger so I started again, this time in Hull and by various ways and means I got my characters out to Holderness.”

Val’s novels are not “sexed up” and her books seem squarely aimed at the middle-aged reader and upwards, and those who want to immerse themselves in the period.

“They are ‘safe’ novels, there’s been nothing too graphic or gratuitous. In His Brother’s Wife the lead character Harriet Miles enters into a marriage of convenience to avoid going into the workhouse.

“Women didn’t have their own independence in the 19th century and quite a few of my books have followed that theme. The Doorstep Girls was about two young girls living in slums and working at the cotton mills. There were two mills in Hull and I wanted to explore their rights. I think it’s one of my best.

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“My publishers never ask me what I’m doing. I just write a book and send it to them. There was one time I contacted them beforehand when I wrote Fallen Angels and I spoke to my editor about it. I told her it was set in a brothel and her voice went up slightly when she said ‘oh’. Then I said ‘but there’s no sex in it’ and her second ‘oh’ sounded slightly disappointed.

“I have no intention of changing my style or the type of story. I always finish a book in March, send it off and it is published in November. I start work on the next one almost immediately. It takes me about 9-10 months to write and I’m usually in my office for 10 o’clock each morning. I live off tea.”

Val came from humble surroundings. She was born Valerie Beardshall in Castleford and moved over to Hull at 13 when her father came to work as a war damage assessor.

“I’d grown up listening to the miners’ clogs as they went up to the pithead. My father had been in the army and my mother had worked in my uncle’s grocer’s shop in Castleford Market Hall. We never considered ourselves poor because nobody had much during the war years but in granny’s terraced house in Glasshoughton where we lived there was no electricity, only gas light and a candle to light the way for myself and my sister to get to bed.

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“Coming to live in this really big city of Hull was quite an eye opener. When we came the trees were in flower and flowers were all along the central grassed areas. It was so lovely.”

Val’s early years saw her enjoy the glitz and glamour of modelling and dancing. She had attended a mannequin (modelling) school in Leeds prior to leaving Castleford and continued to make the longer journey from Hull each fortnight to the Queens Hotel where she would walk around with a book on her head.

‘I was a model at the House of Morrell in Prospect Street. We were at the top of the building and our salon was completely pink. We put on three fashion shows a year at the New York Ballroom and I absolutely loved the catwalk. We had an orchestra and I remember walking along to Ain’t She Sweet.

“Ballroom dancing was my passion. I joined Dorothy Chester on Beverley Road and then danced with a chap called Bill who was a professional dancer. We did very well! We were much more ‘strictly’ than they are on TV today and I just loved big bands. Victor Silvester was a favourite.”

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Tragedy plays its part in her books and in recent years Val has endured her own personal pain, losing both her sisters and husband Peter. He died in 2009 having suffered from dementia for 12 years.

“It was when he went to see a consultant who suggested that he try the drug Aricept that alarm bells rang for me. I Googled immediately we got home and knew then that he had some kind of dementia. Gradually he forgot things and how to do things.

“Dementia is an awful disease. You lose the sense of who you are and can’t function in the normal way. He had been such an amazing character full of personality. It’s all very distressing and I could sense his frustration. It’s as though everything is closing down in your brain one by one.”

The effort required at home took its toll on Val too.

“Peter was a gentle but big man and that made it difficult to help him at times. It meant I wasn’t functioning properly either.

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“That’s when I decided that perhaps the time had come for him to be cared for in the old school house down the road here in Beverley where we had moved to be closer to Catherine who helped us so much.

“What I really wanted was for Peter to be cared for better than I could manage. He was in there just three months before he died.”

Val wrote Rich Girl Poor Girl during the last months of Peter’s life. It was an experience that left her numb and brought about one of the more surprising comments from her editor.

“I finished it three months after Peter had died and you know I can’t remember writing it at all. It was simply an outpouring and I wrote it just when I could. My editor called me to tell me she thought it was one of my best books ever.”

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Catherine Cookson’s novels have been turned into made-for-TV movies so what about Val’s works?

‘Who do you know?’ she says with a smile. ‘Catherine Cookson was in her 90s when hers made it on the screen. Perhaps my time will come.’

Val Wood’s latest novel His Brother’s Wife is available both in hardback and paperback from all bookshops, Amazon and Kindle. Last year she also released her first short story The Maid’s Secret that is available solely as an e-publication.