December 6, 2013
Handloom weaver Henry Wakefield, his wife Sarah and their five children live in abject poverty in the Manchester area of the UK in the early 19th century at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Henry hates the new factories and won’t let his family work in them. He clashes with Sarah, a factory agent, a local priest and reformers, and son Albert runs away. The family are evicted and move to Manchester but are even worse off, living in a cellar in a terrace and have another little mouth to feed.
Henry’s love of money overrides his hatred of factories and he starts one of his own, but it is beset with problems. The Wakefields eventually become quite wealthy, but Henry holds the purse strings and this has a devastating effect on the family. Albert is caught stealing and is transported to New South Wales. Her baby’s death, Albert’s unknown fate and society parties become too much for Sarah, who hears voices and is taken to the lunatic asylum. Son Benjamin falls in love with an orphan girl and they have a baby. Henry is furious.
Family members, including Sarah who has got out of the asylum and Albert who has returned to England unbeknown to Henry, have had enough and seek revenge.
Interview with author Chris Pearce
Tell us about your main characters. Who are Henry and Sarah?
The main characters in A Weaver’s Web are Henry and Sarah Wakefield who, with their five children, live in abject poverty near the village of Middleton, north of Manchester, UK, in the early 19th century. Henry is a handloom weaver working from home and makes about six shillings a week, pretty dismal even by the standards of the very low wages of the time. Sarah spends her time looking after the family and the house.
Henry Wakefield is old-fashioned and headstrong. He hates the new factories and refuses to let family members work in them. He’s the only earner in the household. Despite their impoverished state, he somehow still affords to go to the local inn and drink and gamble. But Henry can be bought, such as when an agent recruiting factory workers offers him a shilling to shelter from the rain.
Sarah Wakefield is a kind, hospitable woman who was happy to let the agent into their home and have a meal of potato despite there being hardly enough for her and the family. She wants to do what is best for the family and this doesn’t always coincide with Henry’s views of what’s best and they argue a lot. Sarah often comes across as meek and mild, but there are a number of occasions where she gets fed up with Henry and even overrules him.
Henry’s desire to make money eventually overcomes his hatred of factories and he starts up one of his own. After early struggles, it does well and he transitions into a cotton baron. He and his family live a luxurious lifestyle in a large house with a maid and a cook. He holds the purse strings. Sarah, on the other hand, doesn’t make the transition well. She has become lady of the house but has little to do and is bored, and she can’t cope with Henry’s society parties. Worrying about son Albert who is sent to Australia as a convict doesn’t help her mental state either. She ends up in the lunatic asylum.
What research did you do for A Weaver’s Web?
I had already done quite a bit of the research for A Weaver’s Web earlier when I wrote my printed non-fiction book on an Australian convict, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway. Pamphlett became a brickmaker in Manchester before being sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to New South Wales. In pre-internet days, I had spent a long time researching information on Manchester at a number of libraries in Brisbane and Sydney, seeking out material on brickmaking, living and working conditions, crime, social and political issues, and so on.
Additional research for A Weaver’s Web included things like early 19th century life in rural Lancashire, handloom weaving, the cotton industry, the extremes of poverty and wealth, asylum life, the battle between the Church of England and the Nonconfomists, and the reform movement. This last one included considerable research into the Peterloo Massacre, which started off as a reform meeting of at least 60,000 people in Manchester, UK, on 16 August 1819. The Wakefield family attend this meeting.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Surrey, UK, in 1952 and came to Australia on the Arcadia with my family in 1958. My parents were what were called “ten pound poms”. A year or so earlier, we nearly went to Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia. I think I’m glad we came to Australia! When we arrived in Melbourne, we were to stay at the migrant hostel, an old army barracks, but were rescued by relatives who we stayed with until we found our own house. We lived in a lovely spot in suburban Hampton, a hundred yards from the bay.
I have worked in various jobs and have a background in statistics, economics, research, writing, editing, marketing, market research, accounting, and motel management. I have qualifications in economics, management/marketing and writing/editing. I worked as a public servant (federal and state) for 25 years and in the real world for 12.5 years. I drew one of the 14,000 short straws in a purge of the Queensland public service by a new state government and now write full-time. My hobbies include family history and tenpin bowling.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I didn’t really have a favorite book but I liked the Famous Five series of books by Enid Blyton. I know there was a lot of criticism of her books, but the Famous Five Series just kind of took you away into various holiday and adventure scenarios that was kind of an escapism from ordinary life in a big city (I grew up in Melbourne). My family often went on camping and caravanning holidays and I think the Famous Five Books were a kind of extension of that. I liked holidays and wanted more.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I think it was at quite a young age. I’ve always liked writing. In grade 1, when we were supposed to be sitting on the floor listening to a story, I sat at my desk and wrote, both words and numbers. I recall in prep grade when the class was being taught to count to 10. Being a bit of a little upstart sometimes, I said I could count further than that. I counted to seventy something before the teacher said that was good and to sit down.
By about seven, I was writing essays on holidays and so on, pages at a time when we were only supposed to be writing a few sentences. Between about 11 and 14, I started about four novels but never got more than about a quarter way. I said to mum I wanted to be an author. She said I should get a proper job. Writing went on hold and I went into accounting after school and lasted four years. I’ve been lucky in most of my jobs though in that there was a fair bit of research, writing and editing.
Do you outline or do you prefer to wing it?
I kind of do a mixture of the two. I will start off with a brief overall outline and main character descriptions. Then I might start writing. It depends on how I go as to how soon I come back to the outline. I allow the outline to change. Sometimes I will do a brief outline for certain chapters. For A Weaver’s Web, I was sometimes winging it for two or three chapters at a time, with only a few basic notes, or just thoughts in my head. The whole novel more or less evolved.
Whether I outline or wing it, I go through many rounds of rewriting, editing and proofreading. I must have gone through some parts of A Weaver’s Web twenty times, other parts perhaps five to ten times. One of the people who gave me a five star review makes a specific point of picking up on grammatical and other errors and he found none in 400 pages, so I was happy with that. I tend to edit my own work. I know I shouldn’t and that every writer should have an editor, who might be a professional or it might be a family member or friend who is good at English.
If you could pick one writer (living or dead) as a mentor, who would you choose?
I think I would choose the English novelist Charles Dickens. Unlike other writers at the time who were writing about kings and queens and the more affluent members of society, Dickens wrote about the people on the lower rungs of society. He brought their plight to the attention of everyone. The illiterate poor would pay a halfpenny to have Dickens’ latest weekly or monthly instalment read to them.
He was a master of characterization and created an array of strange but believable characters. I don’t try and copy Dickens in any way but I guess my writing would be influenced by him. One of my five star reviews of A Weaver’s Web said: “His writing style is of very high quality, not unlike a modern day Charles Dickens ...”
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
There are lots of beautiful places around the world, including here in Australia, but I think the place I would most like to visit would be the city of Manchester in the UK. I would like to see the remaining cotton mills (now museums) and terrace houses and cellars where people lived, to try and get an idea of what life must have been like in the industrial revolution. While in the UK, I would love to see others areas, such as London, and Devon and Cornwall. I spent my first five years in England but have never been back.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got several projects on the go. I’m not sure if I will write a sequel to A Weaver’s Web. Several people have said to me that I should. If it sells okay, chances are I will. Also, several people have said the book would make a good movie or television series. I am thinking of writing a script based on the novel and targeting literary agents who take scripts.
I am writing a non-fiction book on the history of daylight saving time around the world. It is one of the most controversial issues of our time and there are some amazing stories about people on opposite sides of the river being on different times, even people in the same building, and about how a lot of people detest it and a lot love it. My next publishing project will be to convert my book on Australian convict Thomas Pamphlett into an ebook. Also, I am writing a novel set eighty years into the future.
Do you have any advice for new writers just entering the market?
Don’t give up your day job. It’s a tough market whether you’re considering the traditional path and targeting literary agents and publishers or taking the indie path and publishing an ebook. Both methods have their pros and cons. Literary agents don’t seem to be taking on much at all from new writers these days, especially novel writers. A novel by a new writer is very hard to sell. You might have a bit more luck with non-fiction and could consider specialist publishers too.
The indie path probably isn’t any easier. There are 80,000 new ebooks a month and you’re a voice in the wilderness, again especially with fiction. Non-fiction might be slightly easier as web users will search by subject and perhaps a few will stumble upon your book. For fiction though, users tend to search by author and a new author stays buried.
I approached over 100 literary agents without successful. Most just say your book doesn’t suit our list, or we’re not passionate enough about it, or some other standard thanks but no thanks. I got a few good comments, including one who compared it to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath but still couldn’t take it, and a smaller number of not so good ones (although no two agents made the same or similar comment).
I’ve now taken the indie path. Here I think the best bet is to basically establish a presence on the web, through social media and by requesting reviews and getting your book and self onto the various sites that offer book and author promotions. The self-serve ads at Goodreads can be a good way of getting people to at least add you to their reading list. Join other sites such as Shelfari and Librarything. I’m finding that I can get some really great reviews (9 five-star, 3 four-star and 1 three-star review on Amazon) but sales are slow.
Make sure your book is well written and has a good plot and interesting characters. Do plenty of rewriting, editing and proofreading to make it the best you possibly can. Maybe target a couple of dozen literary agents and then consider indie publishing, which is becoming more and more acceptable. And write because you love it rather than dream of making a fortune, something that was probably never much better than a million to one shot anyway.
About the Author
Chris Pearce was born in Surrey, UK in 1952, and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He has qualifications in economics, management/marketing and writing/editing. He worked as a public servant (federal and state) for 25 years and in the real world for 12.5 years.
His inspiration for writing A Weaver’s Web was a postgraduate creative writing course he topped from 30 students in the mid 1990s. After unsuccessfully targeting many literary agents, including one who compared his manuscript to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he decided to publish it as an ebook.
He also has a non-fiction book (print only), Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, which he plans to publish as an ebook later in 2014. He is writing a book on the history of daylight saving time and has some notes towards a novel set 80 years into the future.
His other hobbies include family history and tenpin bowling.
Chris and his wife live in Brisbane, Australia.