Why I Wrote The Waggon by Lesley Atherton

My book, The Waggon, will shortly be published....


In this instance, the old adage write about what you know about is true. It is a story that draws on many of my own life experiences.


Why I Wrote 'The Waggon'

The Story of an Overly Idealistic Life

My route to the creation of 'The Waggon' has been almost as convoluted as the journey my two main characters are forced to take.

This is something that 'The Waggon' shares with a great many other novels (especially debuts). When we write what we know, it is inevitable that personal events and recollections will influence the text. 'The Waggon' is no exception. Though it doesn’t tell a story directly taken from my own experience, many elements of my own life have been used. Old diaries and exercise books of notes have provided valuable and timely research material.

The protagonists of this book are Ellen and Blue, a mother and daughter who find themselves travelling in a gypsy caravan. Ellen’s husband and Blue’s dad was Reuben who has recently died from cancer, but his long illness allowed him the opportunity to prepare his family for his departure. His will requests that his two loved ones take time off school and work to travel in the ‘waggon’ he painstakingly restored, to locations which meant something to him. He also requests that they sprinkle his ashes at various locations along the route, and that they follow the instructions he provided them for him via a hand-drawn map and a detailed location and action plan.

Having lived somewhat of an alternative lifestyle, I loved writing some of the scenes in which I recollected my own life and experiences in camps and around campfires. Struggling to cook edible food using minimal cooking utensils, an irregular heat source and scraped-together ingredients, was a strong element of my personal experience. I have also drawn on my own experiences when I wrote about the desperation to return to a normal house with a normal, warm bed.

I remember these experiences vividly and hope I’ve managed to relate them well within 'The Waggon', just as I related my late-adolescent starvation on peace camps and within the protest community in my first full-length novel, Past Present Tense.

'The Waggon'’s plot development also owed much to a shorter story I wrote about a woman and her child on holiday in a gypsy waggon who were attacked by a strange goblin-like creature. They then travelled to a friend’s house where they recovered, and the young family soon found themselves in an underworld situated beneath the roots of a large tree. I believed that the mother and child relationship worked well, as did the waggon, but decided to work on developing them in another direction from the magic realism format I had originally conceived. The mother and child relationship remain the same, as do the character names, but Ellen’s attacker is no longer a goblin, but a gang of young thugs they encounter on a remote lane.

Blue is a 14-year-old girl who is forced to undertake the waggon journey, and who initially rebels. She is also unexpectedly and newly pregnant with the baby of a very unpleasant boyfriend. The fact that I am a parent of a 14-year-old daughter, who is very similar in feistiness to Blue, does help when it comes to research, as I do get a strong feeling of the conflict that can arise, for example, through very well-meaning parental comments.

Once I had planned the story’s arc, it was time for extensive research. I read many titles about gypsy lore, Scottish and Lancashire travelers, and the natural folk remedies that gypsies might have picked up from the roadsides in the old days. However, I soon realised that I did not want to write the story of travelers who had been born to it (though I loved Rumer Godden’s 'The Diddakoi 'as a child) or about people who were simply making a journey from A to B. I didn’t even want to write about ex-travelers reliving their previous lifestyle. I wanted my characters to be dragged, protesting and resentful, into the whole experience, and to suffer conflict, difficulty and hardship along the way.

Another part of my research came about via a long conversation with Roger Tyrer, an ex-work colleague. He had spent a very long period of his life (thirteen years) living in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, much like the one I envisaged in my book’s early stages. I picked up a great deal from this interview, particularly regarding the frustrating details of everyday life, the interior of the caravan and the horse-care routine. In the completed script I have glossed over much of the detail that Roger provided, but it’s there in the background, I hope, giving the story more unseen depth.

As the work progressed and developed, Blue and Ellen remained much the same as I’d first intended, but the character of Reuben underwent enormous changes. Initially, he was intended to be a vindictive man who sent his wife and daughter on an unwanted trip as a method of beyond-the-grave narcissistic control. Reuben had planned that shocks would be revealed gradually, including him being massively in debt and having many other sordid secrets that would arrive with Ellen through his confession letters. This would mean that Ellen would end the journey as an emotional wreck knowing that her marriage had been a sham.

My finished work does not portray Reuben as the ‘bad guy’ in this way. He was no saint but was a good man who cared about his family, just as Ellen is an ordinary woman who is full of ups and downs. The Reuben I wrote is a decent man who intends his wife and child to grown and learn through their own grief and believes that her recovery will be assisted by the change of scene and a different set of everyday challenges.

However, he also doesn’t want her to feel too lost and disconnected from their old life. To accomplish this, he has left letters and gifts in various locations along the route. From the very first day of the waggon travels, when Ellen picks up a letter and chocolate confirming Reuben’s love for the pair of them, the reader is offered glimpses into the life and the good marriage they once had.