“I’ve always written to help people understand people”

Illustration by Elaine Gill

Louisa Campbell is a local published poet who has recently turned her hand to writing a book which has its literary roots firmly based in Tunbridge Wells. Here, she tells Eileen Leahy all about ‘Secret Street’ and why she hopes local residents will help her get it published courtesy of a fundraising initiative…

So Louisa, what gave you the idea of Secret Street?

I wanted to know the untold stories of people living in Tunbridge Wells. It struck me that we’re all contained in our homes, unaware of what’s going on the other side of the party wall, or across the street. Added to this, life seems so harsh these days and there’s frequent mention of the need for kindness.

Over 2,000 years ago, Plato said, ‘Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about’. Something similar is written behind the reception at my local GP surgery. So I wanted to know what battles people are fighting behind the scenes in Tunbridge Wells.

How did you manage to curate all of Secret Street’s stories?

I chose a street (no, I won’t say which one – as it’s a secret!) and put a letter through each door, inviting people to a cosy storytelling session at the local pub, with a view to writing the stories up into a book. But one by one, people came to me and said: ‘I’d like to give you my story, but can I just tell you, privately?’ And of course when I heard the stories, I realised why.

They are astonishing. Some of them are quite gritty and very moving. The themes include adoption, asylum seeking, abortion, violent assault and addiction, so I had to anonymise the hell out of them! Having said that though there is one character in Secret Street who didn’t want his story anonymised: Ian, the well-known 80-year-old local gardener, who rides his bike slowly but surely around Tunbridge Wells, and has been a bell-ringer at St Peter’s Church for 50 years!

How did you ensure that they all remained anonymous?

I thought the best way to add an extra layer of anonymity was to turn the book into fiction. The central character of the book is a woman called ‘Minty’ Cavendish who is woven throughout the narrative. Known to all – apart from herself as ‘Minty’, the royal-obsessed Araminta Cavendish pretends to be posh. At 82, she is single and lonely, but she plans to make friends and become her street’s queen bee by organising a Platinum Jubilee street party. But when a last-minute knock on the door threatens to spoil everything, she discovers her neighbours have secrets of their own. Getting Minty to plan the Secret Street Platinum Jubilee street party allows for scenes in which the characters can interact. The book also includes relevant stories of Princess Margaret and Princess Diana, all told through Minty’s experiences and conversations.

What do you think residents of TW will enjoy about reading this book?

People who’ve read it so far love that the book is set in their home town. This, and the emphasis on community makes readers feel part of the story. Of course, the other thing is that they learn that if their own life isn’t as perfect as they’d like it to be, the chances are that nobody else’s is, either.

What made you decide to write a ‘fiction-based-on-fact’ book instead of your beloved poetry?

I’ve always written to help people understand people. I write in this space because then the words I write can literally be life-changing. I don’t write to show people how clever a writer I am, I write to make a positive difference to people’s lives. Poetry is perfect for evoking particular snapshots and moments in time, so my first three books were all poetry about mental health – mine and others’ experiences as both mental health nurse and patient. It seems to me that understanding removes stigma. With people’s stories, you need prose to be able to describe, explain, and elaborate – to create a coherent narrative.

What do you think these ‘secret’ stories will tell our readers?

When it came to the stories in Secret Street, I wanted them to be accessible to people as an explanation of how perfectly ‘ordinary’ people can find themselves in extraordinary situations. So Secret Street became a book of linked memoirs. One of the stories, for example, is of a lovely, amiable man who ended up on a life prison sentence; another of a man with a degree who ended up being an ‘entrenched’ rough sleeper. Although anonymised and fictionalised, all the stories in Secret Street remain scrupulously faithful to their emotional truth, because that’s the point! Adding in the story of Minty Cavendish adds a light-hearted theme to the narrative. It’s important for readers to know that there are some funny moments in all the seriousness – just like real life.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you are planning to get it published?

I’ve created the publishing label, Penny Drop Press, and I plan to raise the funds to pay for the printing of the first edition with a Kickstarter campaign. The way Kickstarter works is that a target is set for the minimum amount needed for the first edition print run. You pledge to buy a book, but if insufficient pledges are received and the target isn’t met, then the money is never taken from your card, and the book doesn’t get printed.

Can you keep a secret? Here is the lowdown on the stories in Secret Street:

Secret Street recounts the tale of Araminta as she sets out on a quest to find friends. Each friend she makes tells her their secret story, and each story gives Araminta a gift of knowledge that helps her learn the only way to find peace – and friendship – is to be herself.

Secret Street blows apart the stereotype of comfortable middle-class England personified by ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’. It weaves together the true stories of 12 people living in a street in Tunbridge Wells right now.

For fear of shame, or stigma, these astonishing stories were told to the author behind closed doors, carefully anonymised, and turned into this powerful and entertaining creative non-fiction book.

Although Secret Street clearly has a wider appeal, it’s currently very much a Tunbridge Wells project. With a gorgeous cover design by renowned local artist, Elaine Gill, and endorsements from local residents, the signed, hardback first edition of Secret Street is £20, available only from a Kickstarter campaign which starts on March 28 and runs until  April 30.

If you pledge to buy a copy by then, not only will you be buying it at £5 less than the future bookshop price, but also, your name will be printed in the back in the list of patrons, and local delivery (within 10 miles of Tunbridge Wells) will be included.

Louisa Campbell’s Kickstarter launches on March 28, and runs until April 30.

Readers can sign up on the Kickstarter website to be notified when the campaign goes live at: kickstarter.com/projects/secretstreet/secret-street or via the book’s website at: secretstreet.co.uk

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