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Who do we think we are? Discovering my Brighton roots …

Ashdown Family CropAn early writing tutor of mine once ran a lecture on fascinations – speaking of the way in which our obsessions can develop and take shape if we pursue them, to harness them creatively. I’ve always had a great interest in genealogy and identity, and I guess my fascination with matters of family shows itself through the stories I write today. Over the years, I’ve never missed an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? or Long Lost Family, not to mention the many documentaries charting the British workhouses and the Irish Magdalene Institutions for ‘fallen women’. I still think about the Channel 4 show 100% English, which mapped ancestral DNA across the globe and presented it back to a surprised (and in some cases defiant) sample group. I love this stuff! Many of us think we know where we come from, but can we ever be sure, completely?

West Sussex beachI grew up in a seaside village on the south coast and I have to confess that I never really felt it was my place. I was born in London, my parents were from Dorset and Leicestershire – and within the village there was a strong sense of pride amongst those families who could boast a long history there. Some of my school friends could count endless lines of great-great-great-grandparents in the village records – to the Domesday Book, no doubt. I wasn’t even born there, so it was little wonder I felt somewhat rootless in the grand scheme of things. That said, my seaside childhood was a happy one which cultivated in me a deep connection with coastal places and a powerful desire to be near the sea. Today I still live just a few miles from the coast, and wherever I travel in the world I’m always eager to seek out the shoreline, to smell the salt and spray. It’s fair to say I’m not a fan of the city break, not unless it’s somewhere located close to the sea.

Brighton 2013Brighton is a place of particular significance to me. As children we often found ourselves in the ‘kids’ room’ at parties there, and I think of Brighton as a place synonymous with my parents having a good time. By my late teens, it was the place to go for a hip night out – just an hour away from home, and yet so different, so full of possibilities. During my twenties I spent 12 months working in Brighton and for several years my brother lived there, providing a welcome B&B for our regular weekend jaunts. More recently I found my UK publisher Myriad Editions there, who launched my debut Glasshopper, a novel partly set in the city – and last year I held the post of Writer in Residence at the University of Brighton. It’s fair to say Brighton has played an important role in the backdrop of my life.

Durdle Door 2012For a long time I have meant to explore my own family tree, particularly on my father’s side – the Ashdown side – since he died when I was a teenager, leaving no direct relatives to interview. All I knew for certain was that the family hailed from Dorset, where both he and his father were born. During my recent records search I unearthed all sorts of interesting family stories – from poverty to good fortune, from fire stokers to dental surgeons, from the big house to the workhouse. But perhaps most surprising of all, I discovered that from my great-grandfather backwards, the Ashdowns were a Brighton family, born and bred. I phoned my mum to ask her if she or my father had known – no, she said, even when she had moved from Loughborough to Brighton Art School in their early days of courting, he had no notion of his Brighton heritage. I wonder what he would have made of it; I think like me, he would have been thrilled.

Devil's Dyke, 2011 picThe roads my ancestors lived on are names I recognise from the Preston Park area of town – Scarborough Road, Florence Road, Vere Road, Lewes Road – the list goes on. So far, I’ve traced back six generations, and we’re still firmly located in Brighton (albeit a much more rural version called Brighthelmstone). I’ve now had to park my research for a while, as I get to grips with my next writing project – but as soon as I have some time to spare, I plan to continue following the trail.

Windy beachWhat wonderful discoveries we make when we follow our fascinations. To find out that I don’t just carry Brighton in my heart, but also in my history, is a happy thing.

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Writer in Residence – latest news

I can hardly believe it, but a full academic year has passed and the time has come for me to hang up my Writer in Residence hat.

It’s been a fabulous year, full of literary salons, writing masterclasses, one-to-ones and competition celebrations – and I think I speak for everyone when I say it’s been a rewarding and creative year.  My particular thanks to Dr Jess Moriarty, and everyone else who welcomed me so warmly into the University of Brighton community.  Wishing the very best of luck to the new writing residents, who we will hear more about before too long – here’s to another exciting academic year ahead!

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eBook Offers in the Kindle Summer Sale

All three of Isabel Ashdown’s books have been selected for discounts in the Kindle Summer Sale.  So if you’re looking for some inspiration for your summer reading, just click on the links below!

SUMMER OF '76 by Isabel Ashdown, COVER, April 2013(£1.99)
‘A fabulous coming-of-age novel that’s saturated in ’70s nostalgia’
- Glamour magazine

‘Summer of ’76 did not disappoint.  Evocative of that hot, dry summer … book groups will have a lot to discuss’ – New Books Magazine

Hurry Up and Wait Cover Image 2 Dec 2010(99p)
‘This vivid evocation of life in 1985 is a fine second book from a writer who first won The Mail On Sunday novel competition” – Daily Mail

‘Funny, insightful and often tragic’ – New Books magazine

Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown MASTER cover(99p)
‘Disturbing, thought-provoking … guarantees laughter at the uncomfortable familiarity of it all’ – London Evening Standard Best Books of the Year

‘Intelligent, understated and sensitive’ – Observer Best Debuts of the Year

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Guest Blog: Big Secrets in Small Places

Isle of Wight Stepping Stones

“Little islands are all large prisons; one cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow” – Sir Richard Francis Bacon, explorer

This month I’ve been chatting with author Jane Rusbridge in her series of blog features on the subject of ‘place’, and exploring the role of secrets in my latest novel Summer of ’76.  Here’s a short extract – please click the link to read on:

‘As a writer – and as a reader – I’ve always had a preoccupation with the idea of the outsider, and of the large dramas that play out in small places.  After all, who hasn’t, at some point, felt like the outsider, or felt trapped in some way?  I think we’re interested in everyday stories of life because we can all relate to them on some level – and in many ways, small communities offer a concentrated backdrop against which these stories can show themselves.’  Read more …

Summer of ’76 is currently in the Amazon Kindle Summer Sale.

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Trip Fiction’s Top Summer Holiday Reads

SUMMER OF '76 by Isabel Ashdown, COVER, April 2013If you like to read books set in real places, you should check out the Trip Fiction website – simply plug in the location and it throws up suggestions for that area.  Wonderful for planning your holiday reading!

This month they share their Top Summer Holiday Reads, including amongst others Isabel Ashdown’s Summer of ’76, which is currently on offer on Amazon Kindle, Kobo and eBooks at Sainsbury’s.

To view their full recommendations, click on the link here.

Etc East Sussex, June 2014
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Writing a First Novel at the Festival of Chichester

Writing a first novel Book CoverThis June as part of the Festival of Chichester, join writer Karen Stevens for the launch of her inspiring book, Writing a First Novel – Reflections on the Journey (Palgrave, 2013) – a collection of essays offering unique insight into the experience of writing and publishing a first novel.

Isabel will be among the contributing writers speaking at the event, alongside Jane Rusbridge, David Swann and Booker Prize nominated author Alison MacLeod, as they discuss the anxieties and discoveries that shaped their first novels.

The event will take place on Monday 23rd June at Waterstones in Chichester and tickets cost £3.00, which is redeemable against a purchase of the book.  Follow this link for more details.


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Writer in Residence Blog – ‘From Writing Competitions to Publication’

Following on from our recent ‘Joy of Writing Competitions’ salon at the University of Brighton, this month’s Writers in Residence blog focuses on that subject, in the hope of encouraging all you writers with work languishing in your bottom drawers – to get it out there!

As well as sharing my own experiences, four writers – Lisa Cutts, Nina de la Mer, Gabrielle Kimm and Juliet West – share their stories of competition success, and describe the ways in which those successes led to agent representation and ultimately, publication.  Read more on the University of Brighton blog …

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