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Ann Kramer

Ann Kramer

Ann Kramer: local writer and historian

Local non-fiction writer Ann Kramer, commissioned by publishers to write on specialist subjects such as women in the world wars and, most recently, conscientious objectors, talks to HOT’s Xaverine Bates about making a living as a writer and the intricacies of researching and writing.

You worked in publishing initially as an editorial researcher, checking scripts for BBC quiz programmes; after which you went freelance and worked as an editor with various publishing companies, including Diagram Visual Information, Dorling Kindersley, where you were the senior editor for DK’s Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia, and Gaia.  How did you get into the publishing world initially and what was your experience as a woman in this field?

Actually it was a happy accident. I’d known since I was at least 15 that I either wanted to write books or work with them. I left school as soon as I could, equipped myself with shorthand and typing, and started working as a temp shorthand typist in the early ‘60s. My aim was to get a job in publishing or on a newspaper and I wrote off for many jobs but without success. I hadn’t gone to university, which was probably a disadvantage, nor had I any experience, which was always one of the questions, if I got to interview. Catch 22: how do you get experience if you haven’t got experience? Finally, in 1968, one of my closest friends, who was working as a secretary/editorial assistant with a tiny book packager called Leander operating out of a basement office in Ladbroke Grove, decided to go travelling: she suggested that I take over her job and her room, which was a fabulous huge room just round the corner from the Portobello Road. I did and was fortunate to work for a very experienced journalist and writer, who gave me a first-class training in editorial work. Leander had the BBC contract and used me first as their researcher, and subsequently as an editor. I worked with them for two years then went freelance – much, much too early but that’s how it started. I stayed freelance and found myself working as a researcher for companies such as Mitchell Beazley. Somewhere along the line, I was approached to run a big book on Women’s Health, which was the first women’s health book in Britain, and subsequently also found myself working for companies such as Dorling Kindersley – building up experience all the time.

In terms of my experience as a woman in this field, it’s a bit difficult to answer this part of the question but I would say that when I entered publishing  – or non-fiction publishing anyway – women had a very secondary role. They weren’t top executives and many of my colleagues, like me, came into publishing as secretaries or personal assistants rather than into specific jobs. Certainly many of the women I met at DK had first got into publishing that way. One had even been a nanny to one of the DK top folks before getting into an editorial role. What was interesting also was that children’s non-fiction publishing — once the Cinderella of the publishing world — was swamped with women. Men clearly saw it as not the best area for them; however once children’s non-fiction became a best seller, which it did in the 1980s/1990s, then it became more acceptable for men. Also I would say, though it didn’t affect me because I avoided middle-management, women in those roles had a much harder time than men, had to work harder, get back from maternity leave as fast as possible  and so on,  which was not exclusive to publishing. I like to think that female colleagues of mine working in those roles did a great deal to open them up for women.

You used to write illustrated non-fiction books for children and young people for many years and now write mainly for adults.  Some of your more recent books e.g. Land Girls and their Impact (Pen & Sword, 2008), have focused on the lives of women during the two world wars, the research for which has allowed you to meet, interview and retell the stories of women who actually took part. What led you to move from editing to writing and what fuels your interest in writing about women’s history?

Ann Kramer

Ann Kramer

It took me a long time to decide whether to be an editor or a writer, and wasn’t an easy choice. I like editing, particularly managing books as a project or senior editor, and, provided you work in-house which I used to do for Dorling Kindersley, having an editor’s role ensured a reasonable and steady income. Writing is far more challenging and certainly more financially precarious but more personally rewarding. To some extent my personal situation helped me to decide. I moved to Hastings in the mid-1970s and my daughter was born in 1977. I was a single parent and wanted to be at home for Sarah, so from the late 1970s/early 1980s increasingly took on more writing work, interspersing it sometimes with patches of desk editorial work in London to bump up funds.  Being a freelance writer meant I could organise my time more easily around parenting, which was a good thing although Sarah did have to live with me battling to meet deadlines. Also in the 1980s through towards the end of the 1990s, there was a lot of writing work around, particularly for the schools and library markets so I was never without work, though payment could take months to come through.  When it comes to choosing between editing/writing, writing is also quite a lonely occupation compared with editing which is more companionable. As a writer, you are your only critic, which is hard, and probably why I talk to myself a lot!

In terms of writing about women; I had always been interested and to some extent engaged in second-wave feminism, particularly the women’s health movement. Also during the mid-80s I took time out to do a degree in history at Sussex University, specialising in women’s history. After that I was on something of a crusade to do what I could to make women’s history more widely known and, as a freelance writer, have become known for writing on those subjects.

Tell us how you structure your research into each book that you are commissioned to write on your specialist subjects e.g. women in the world wars and, most recently, conscientious objectors. How do you go about finding subjects for live interviews and researching archive material, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, and other specialist prime source material?

That is a massively huge question. Fortunately my early days at Leander gave me the best possible grounding in research, which I love. Clearly I’ve built up a good deal of expertise over the years and I know where to go looking for research. What I do first of all is read around my subject, using specialist material, and make an initial synopsis. Then I go looking for the research. To some extent it’s a matter of common sense. The Imperial War Museum has rich archive resources, as well as sound archives: they interviewed around 100 conscientious objectors for instance. The National Archives contains all the personal files of the women sent to France for the SOE during the Second World War and so on. Local resources are invaluable too: I’ve gone though most of the Hastings Observer on microfiche for the Second World War, finding stuff on land girls.

For interviews, I usually start by putting something in the local paper asking if there is anyone out there who is prepared to be interviewed: I managed to meet 12 wonderful former land girls that way and they introduced me to others. Also, I use personal networks. For conscientious objectors I emailed everyone I could think in the peace movement and came up with leads both locally and right up to North Wales. Once you start looking, it’s amazing what you can uncover and one contact usually leads to another.  I never rely on the net for anything, other than contact details and names of possible archive sites or organisations.

Once you have your research together, how do you weave it together for a general audience?

That’s down to knowing how to write for that audience and I guess it’s also down to having done it for years. Partly the key to this is to have a good structure and to be well organised. Also knowing how to structure paragraphs and pitch vocabulary. Because I start with a synopsis and outline, I organise my material accordingly and write systematically chapter by chapter. I usually do one provisional draft through to the end and then go all the way back to the beginning again and tidy everything up.  This doesn’t mean I don’t change my original plan, or exclude interesting material that comes my way — I don’t. But I do think good writing is about being systematic and focused. I can’t pick up and put down my work: I have to be very focused and stay at my desk. As I get deeply into a book it sits into my head, so I’ll be doing something and think ‘ah, that would be a better way to say that’, or ‘maybe I’ll switch those two paragraphs around’  Also I think all writing has its own ‘voice’ and that varies according to the writer and knowing how to pitch to the audience who will read the book.

You told me that Women Wartime Spies, which you will be discussing at rG’s next female author series, was one of your favourite books to write – tell us how it came about & why it was so enjoyable to produce.

Women Wartime Spies

Women Wartime Spies, Ann Kramer

My last four books have been commissioned by Pen & Sword and they tend to sign up 2 books at a time. I was signed up for land girls and women spies. Each of them 60,000 words. When I finished land girls, I was completely exhausted and couldn’t face doing women spies – in fact I wasn’t that interested. It wasn’t a title I was very interested in, so I tried to hand it back. Pen & Sword weren’t having that but said they’d take it when I was ready. So I forgot about it until the October when they rang me and asked if it was finished because they were planning a publication date. Whoops. I was quite honest, said I hadn’t even started it, asked for 3 months to do it – and panicked. As it happens once I started writing the book I became totally involved in the subject; I had no idea just how remarkable and moving were some of the stories and women I encountered. A writer has to be involved in her or his subject, but this particular book was an absolute joy to research and write – mainly perhaps because I just had not realised how wonderful the subject was and how brave the women were that I encountered. It was a wonderful journey of discovery for me.

Would you describe yourself as a feminist? If so, what impact does this have on your work as a writer?

Yes I would – and I think its main impact is my concern to ensure that I include and give full space to women in my books even where, as in the case of World War 1 conscientious objectors, their contributions may not be immediately obvious.

Ann Kramer will be talking about her work as a writer at riart Grrrls’ fourth in their female author series at 7.30pm on Thursday 1st August at Claremont Studios, 48 Kings Road, St Leonards TN37 6DY. All welcome – £3 entrance.


Posted 07:36 Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 In: Literature

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