Interview with Dawn Allen, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

As there are now only 12 days to go until the deadline for submissions for the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize  I thought it was high time that I shared this interview with Dawn Allen, the prose winner of last year’s prize. Many thanks to Dawn for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope it inspires YOU to put pen to paper and enter our Writing Prize!

Photo courtesy Dawn Allen

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a single mother to my three children: daughters aged 3 and 6, and a stepson who is 15. We’ve lived in Cambridgeshire for some time now but I grew up in Dorset and have also spent time living in Canada as I have family there. I used to work in Local Government before my stepson lived with me and then I completed a Psychology degree part-time as a mature student whilst he was in primary school. Since having my daughters I’ve been a full-time mum and we enjoy a lot of creative pursuits together as well as exploring the outdoors. In my spare quiet moments I love reading and knitting. I’ve also been practising pilates for over 10 years and recently started Qi Gong. I’m keen to learn to paint and try new ways of creative expression as I find it really therapeutic and I also like to learn new things alongside my kids, so they see me trying things too and starting at the beginning the same as they do.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’ve been writing since I was quite young, firstly sending letters regularly to my aunt and grandmother in Canada and then short stories when I started school. I can remember writing to my grandmother when I was about 5 saying that I was going to write a novel, and I recently found the title page I’d drawn for it. I haven’t got round to writing it yet but one day I will, probably (hopefully!) a bit more easily than when I was 5. In secondary school I had some short stories published in the school magazine, and my parents still have copies of a lot of my teenage work. I’ve always loved to write, both as an expression to others and as an expression of imagination.

3. How often do you write?

I’m quite sporadic with my writing, I tend to either think about an idea for a long time before actually getting it on paper all in one go, or I might wake up in the middle of the night with something I have to write down there and then. I don’t have a regular practice to my writing, but then I’ve never been good with routines so I think it’s just my way of doing things and it definitely works well for me around the children. I try to keep a notebook with me to write poetry as that’s normally inspired by being outdoors so then I don’t have to try and remember it for later. Once I do start writing I usually keep at it until I’ve finished the complete first draft. Sometimes that’s a few hours and others it’s over a couple of days, but once I start it’s like I need to get the words out so I don’t want to be distracted with anything else. It means a lot of the evenings I start writing have turned into mornings by the time I’ve finished writing but I’ve come to accept that as my style and it suits me.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I decided to enter because I love the essence of Mother’s Milk Books and I enjoyed having the opportunity and challenge to write within such a meaningful theme. It gave me the chance to write from the heart which is a very empowering experience.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was really surprised and it actually took a little while to sink in. I hadn’t expected to win but I was really proud of the piece I wrote because I realised afterwards that I’d needed to write it not just for the writing prize but also for myself. To then have someone else read it and choose it as the winning piece was a really special moment.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

It’s basically an expression of the inner voice I’ve had to find as a mother. I’ve spent a lot of evenings in the dark, alone, feeling like I’m getting everything wrong. I would sit on the floor and despair that these children only had this failing, useless mother to look after them in the world. But then when I realised I was totally alone, and they did only have me, I also realised I was actually doing a pretty good job. I just needed to give myself a break. I tried to think of what I would say to someone else exactly in my position and I wrote this piece as if I was sitting next to myself in those darkest moments, saying the things that I needed to hear. And not only because I needed to hear them but also because they were true.

 I think all parents, whether raising kids with a partner or alone, have times when the fear and doubt are just overwhelming. We all need a positive voice to acknowledge and encourage us, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it can come from within. I felt this particularly fitting to the theme of love within a family context because so often as parents we are so busy giving our love to our family that we forget to give ourselves the love that we do truly deserve.

Photo courtesy Dawn Allen

7. Any future writing plans?

Well I’m hoping to get around to the novel I’ve been planning for the past 29 years, although I think that’ll have to wait until my children are a little older. I’m continuing to write prose around my experience as a parent and also trying my hand at different genres of fiction.

8. Any tips for writers?

I think it’s important to just start writing, even if you’re not exactly sure where you’re going to end up. The important thing is to get going and not be put off by over-thinking it. I find that often a story will take you where it needs to go once the words start flowing.

            It’s also good to read a lot, and to try different authors and genres. I think it helps you grow in your own writing to see that of others and to learn what you do and don’t like from it.

            Most of all I would say to write the words that you need to write and be comfortable with your own natural style. Your voice is unique and you should have confidence in that (although that’s easier said than done, I know!).

Dawn’s winning prose piece ‘Nurturing My Darkness’ was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of JUNO. It also features in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2015: LOVE. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize, please read the full guidelines here.

An Interview with Angela Topping

I am delighted to be able to publish this interview with Angela Topping here. It has been an honour to work with Angela on Letting Go. I’ve learnt a lot in the publishing process and made a new friend as well, which has surely got to be the best way to publish a book! The first readers of Letting Go have told me how moved they have been by the poems within, and also how it is inspiring them to write. High praise indeed! So thank you to everyone who has bought a book and taken the time to comment, and thank you again to Angela for taking part in the interview.


Tell us about yourself…

I’m Angela Topping. My first poetry collection was published in 1988 by Stride, and my most recent one was published with Mother’s Milk Books. I am a mother of two adult daughters. I studied at Liverpool University and hold three degrees. I left my first job, in the Civil Service, to be a mum, before going into freelance writing, poets in schools and teaching in FE. This work led to a teaching career, but in 2009, I returned to the freelance life, which has proved a good decision. I’ve collaborated with an artist to create an exhibition of art and poetry, The Lightfoot Letters, which has now appeared in three different places. I recently took up a residency at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, which was another new challenge.

Photograph courtesy Angela Topping

1. Have you always considered yourself to be a creative person?

Yes, making rhymes up was something I did from being very small. I remember telling people that when I grew up I wanted to be ‘one of those people who said things’ because I’d heard people saying ‘Plato said’ or Shakespeare said’. I didn’t realize it was written down, so I suppose I wanted to be a writer even before I knew what one was. I always loved stories and poems, and colouring in, and I used to spend hours building cities and farms on the living room carpet, with blocks and ornaments, and making up stories. I also knitted and sewed from an early age. It’s an urge to create, and I feel miserable when I am not making stuff.

2. Has motherhood enhanced your creativity? If yes, in what way and why do you think it has enhanced your creativity?

Motherhood definitely enhanced it. I was a stay-at-home mum, and that gave me time to write, even though sometimes I’d be cooking the tea, with a baby in the sling and a notebook in which I had to keep writing poems down, all at the same time. It also gave me the chance to return strongly to my own childhood, reliving it by doing things with my daughters that my parents had done with me. It was like having the chance to go back and really savour it. I loved doing craft and cooking with my girls, and their childhoods got me writing children’s poems as well. To be creative is to play, and I spent many hours playing with my kids. Being a parent also boosted my confidence immensely.

3. Do you have any tips on how to find time for your creative work amongst the everyday busyness?

When I was teaching full time, it was very hard. Often the only writing I did was in the holidays, or in the Writers’ Club sessions I ran, where I’d be interrupted to read someone else’s poem partway through writing mine. It does help that when I teach a poetry workshop session, I often do the exercises myself, though of course one cannot fully concentrate as one eye has to be kept on whether participants need me. Now I am freelance things are easier. I don’t really have a routine as such, but I tend to spend the day in my study and do all my chores when I need a break from writing or reading or thinking. I also make art and handmade books. These other creative outlets can feed into my writing.

So my tips would be:

  • Make use of even 10 spare minutes, and always carry a notebook
  • Use the time when you are doing physical chores or out for a walk, to think. All writers need to think.
  • Have like-minded friends, other writers, to whom you can talk about your work
  • Go to classes and workshops, or if you lead them, do the exercises yourself.
  • Treat yourself to a writer’s retreat or a short course or even a day workshop every now and again.
  • Writing last thing at night or getting up early works for some people.

4. What does breastfeeding mean to you?

I loved it. It gave me closeness to my babies and there was no need for any of the work that goes with bottle feeding. My girls wouldn’t entertain any kind of teat, and they have grown up very secure. With my first baby, it gave me the chance to rest and sit reading with my feet up while she fed, and with my second, a chance to involve the older one with cuddles and a story while the little one fed. It’s a very pleasurable feeling and I sometimes still miss it. I am proud of my body for its capacity to nurture my babies – it’s all so miraculous. It saddens me when people don’t even consider it, when it is free and saves a lot of fuss and work. I was quite determined to feed my babies when I was out and about, and never had any problems unless at the baby clinic or the hospital, amazingly enough.

5. Were there any pieces in Musings on Mothering that spoke to you particularly?

I love all the art work. For poems I prefer the ones which take a sideways way in, like ‘Blackberries’ by Alison Parkes, and ‘Skin’ by Alwyn Marriage. I’ve been lucky enough to never lose a child but that section in the book showed me eloquently how difficult that must be.

6. Are you working on any particular project right now?

I have just published a selection of my poems spanning 25 years for Mother’s Milk Books (Letting Go). I am very excited about this because some of these poems have been out of print for ages. It is my tenth solo poetry publication.

Other than that, I am trying to write new poems towards my next collection. No particular theme has emerged yet so I will wait and see.

I am also trying to finish writing a book about the poet John Clare, which ought to have been out a while ago but the publisher wanted me to augment it further. I always seem to be doing something!

Oh, I am also editing a box set of poems inspired by Shakespeare, Austen and The Brontes for Like This Press.

7. Is there any one piece of work that you are particularly proud of?

I had a very important poetry friend and mentor, Matt Simpson, for many years. In 2009, he died unexpectedly. He was only 73. The elegiac poems I wrote for him came out of my deep sorrow at his loss, and I am proud of them because they are the first poems I’d written without showing him the drafts. I think all 17 of them would stand up to his scrutiny. Six were included in my Salt Modern Voices chapbook and ten in my Rack Press pamphlet. I put them all together to make a sequence with a new coda, and included it in my 2012 Lapwing collection, Paper Patterns. My favourite one is the sonnet ‘Keeping Faith’ .

8. Is there any one person (or persons) that you consider to be a true inspiration to you?

My friend Matt Simpson, mentioned in the last question, was a huge inspiration to me, and I learned a lot from reading other poets, particularly Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost. Closer to home, my parents were massively inspirational and so are my daughters.

9. Is there any one piece of art or music, or writing that has influenced you, or inspired you to continue creating?

I truly love music and art, and dabble a little in both. One of my favourite pieces of music is The Trout Quintet by Schubert. When I was a child, it taught me how to tell a story without words. I love Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, which was also Matt’s favourite piece. I used it as a motif in the elegiac poems.

10. What would you to say to someone who doesn’t consider themselves a creative person, but would like to try their hand at something new?

I believe everyone is creative. The best advice I can give is to go for it. Be prepared to fail, failure is good. It paves the road to success. Since I took up painting I’ve learned that what one sees in an exhibition are just the pieces that worked. Many more didn’t but the creation of them was a stage on the way. Learn from what works and what doesn’t and always always stay true to oneself.


To find out more about Angela please visit her website:

If you’d like to purchase Letting Go please do stop by The Mother’s Milk Bookshop. Any purchase made pays for one entry to The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. Angela, herself, is the sole adjudicator of the poetry categories.

An Interview with Alison Moore

Back in May 2013 I spent a lovely evening at Waterstones in Nottingham listening to Alison Moore read from her new book The Pre-War House and Other Stories. I was enchanted by the way Alison spoke – quietly, but passionately – about where the ideas for her stories originate and the actual process of writing and editing. It was also inspiring to discover that she wrote her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel The Lighthouse whilst caring for her baby son. This was yet another wonderful example of creativity and motherhood in action! So I was delighted when Alison agreed to the following interview. With many thanks again to Alison for taking the time to answer my questions.


In case you didn’t already know – I’m the short one. 🙂

Alison Moore is the author of The Lighthouse, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and winner of the McKitterick Prize 2013, and The Pre-War House and Other Stories, nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2013. Born in Manchester in 1971, Alison Moore lives in a village near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.

She is a member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio and an honorary lecturer in the School of English at Nottingham University.

1. You began to write at a young age. Were you also passionate about other creative outlets?

I did some drama and youth theatre in my teens, which was fun and taught me a lot, but writing’s always been the main creative area for me.

2. Have you nearly always had some sort of writing project on the go, or have there been some periods in your life which weren’t as productive?

It was very sporadic when I was younger, although I’ve always tended to jot things down. Even when I was in my thirties, before having my son, I’d be working full-time and doing voluntary work and evening classes and not necessarily writing until a story came along and needed writing.

3. You must inevitably have had to deal with rejections of your work at various times. In an earlier interview on this blog, Cathy Bryant said to ‘Expect rejections, and throw a party when you’ve had a 100.’ Did you ever come close to throwing a party?!

I’ve had a whole bunch of stories creeping back home with their tails between their legs. I’m not sure they’d be in the mood for a welcome-home party but you do just have to get on with it. If you’re getting rejections it means you’re writing and sending work out so that’s a good starting place. Hopefully enough will find a home to keep you going, and the ones that come back you have to look at with a critical eye.

4. As I understand your Booker shortlisted novel The Lighthouse was written when your son was very little. How did you manage to fit in writing whilst caring for a baby?

I started writing The Lighthouse when my son was about six months old, but it only worked because I didn’t really do both things at once. I only wrote when he was asleep – sometimes typing one handed on my laptop while he was napping on me after a feed – or when he was out with his dad or his grandma. So it was a bit ad hoc but it got done and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

5. Can you think of some really positive things about fitting in writing with everyday motherly work (or household chores!)?

Having got into the routine of writing every day, the story was always in my head. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it while I was playing with my son or talking to him while I emptied the dishwasher, but in downtimes it was all there ready to go – I’d get a bit of story or the solution to a problem when I was in the shower or sitting in the dark feeding him at night.

6. Would you say that motherhood has enhanced your creativity or simply changed it in some way?

What it did is put a stop to the routine I was in where I did a whole lot of things in my free time but none of them was writing every day, and I started again, so even though I had a lot less free time after having a baby, what I did have I used for writing.

7. In some of your writing the absent mother is one of the most haunting characters. Can you tell us more about that?

The majority of my stories – and all those in my collection – have been written since losing my mother, so that’s presumably where this recurrently absent figure comes from but it’s quite a shock for me to see the stories collected and to realise just how often the mother, for all sorts of reasons, just isn’t there.

8. What are you working on right now and when’s your next author event?

I’ve been working on my second novel, which is about ready to be delivered up for inspection. My editor Nicholas Royle and my husband Dan will be the first to read it.

On Saturday 28 September I’m doing an event at Marlborough Literature Festival in relation to receiving this year’s McKitterick Prize for The Lighthouse, and on Sunday 29 September I’ll be at the short story festival Small Wonder with Brian Kimberling.

9. Do you consider yourself a ‘full-time writer’ now that your son is at school?

I do. His school is a few minutes’ walk away so after taking him there I have six hours before going to pick him up, so if I get a bit done in the evening too I’m writing or doing writing-related work full time now.

10. Is there any one person (or persons) that you consider to be a true inspiration to you?

When I think of being inspired to write, wanting to write, I picture being a child, sitting on the edge of my bed with a book in my hands and more on my shelves, my typewriter on my dressing table. I tend to think every story I’ve ever read must inspire or influence me to some degree.

11. What would you say to someone who doesn’t particularly see themselves as a creative person but who would like to try to make a go of writing?

It might depend on how you think about creativity. Writing doesn’t always feel so creative to me; sometimes it feels like just organising what’s hanging around in my head, but it creates something.