Women of let­ters

A group of Suf­folk school­girls’ cor­re­spon­dence with a fa­mous Dan­ish ar­chae­ol­o­gist in­spired Anne Young­son’s de­but novel

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Cather­ine Larner

Ann Young­son’s novel be­gan with Bury St Ed­munds

For years the pic­ture had been pinned above her desk. The ex­tra­or­di­nary im­age of a man who lived 2,000 years ago had long fas­ci­nated Anne Young­son, his face un­earthed, per­fectly pre­served, from the peaty soil of Den­mark in the 1960s.

Strug­gling for in­spi­ra­tion for a short story for her cre­ative writ­ing PhD stud­ies, Anne won­dered where the photograph might lead her if she ex­plored it fur­ther. “I was never go­ing to write a story set in the Iron Age,” she says. In­stead she stum­bled across a sur­pris­ing con­nec­tion be­tween the Dan­ish ar­chae­ol­o­gist re­spon­si­ble for the ex­ca­va­tion of Tol­lund Man, and a group of school­girls from Bury St Ed­munds who had been fol­low­ing news of the find. Pro­fes­sor Glob had ded­i­cated his book, The Bog Peo­ple, to the girls, apol­o­gis­ing for tak­ing so long to re­spond to a letter they had writ­ten him. “It was a de­light­ful thing to do,” says Anne. “I re­alised that those school­girls would now be of a cer­tain age, sim­i­lar to me, with more of their lives be­hind them than ahead of them. They would con­sider that time in their child­hood very sig­nif­i­cant and, as they sought to make sense of what their lives had be­come, they might want to re­new that con­nec­tion.”

Meet Me at the Mu­seum is the de­but novel that has re­sulted from Anne’s dis­cov­ery. Writ­ten as a cor­re­spon­dence be­tween two imag­ined strangers, a farmer’s wife in Suf­folk and a mu­seum cu­ra­tor in Den­mark, it ex­plores re­gret, loss, dis­ap­point­ment and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties. It is also a cel­e­bra­tion of love, friend­ship, con­so­la­tion and hope.

“There was no way this was go­ing to be a short story,” Anne says. “Each letter trig­gered the next. It’s an ac­count of two peo­ple get­ting to know each other. The story could al­most have been told as a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween two peo­ple on a train, but by writ­ing to each other, and in let­ters not emails, they’re think­ing care­fully about what they are go­ing to say and ex­press­ing it care­fully.

“There is some­thing about let­ters, some­thing about the slow­ness,” Anne says. “They’re say­ing, ‘let’s be care­ful about record­ing what we feel in the sort of way we are do­ing it’. Record­ing it slowly and thought­fully in a way you can hold on to.”

Anne wrote the book in 18 months, pick­ing rasp­ber­ries and buy­ing Christ­mas presents just as the char­ac­ters in the story were do­ing. Pub­li­ca­tion fol­lowed quickly and she knows she has been in­cred­i­bly lucky to have had this suc­cess.

“I think it’s per­fect tim­ing,” she says, of be­ing pub­lished at this point in her life, aged 70. “I had a suc­cess­ful, ful­fill­ing and de­mand­ing ca­reer in en­gi­neer­ing project man­age­ment, in­volv­ing a great deal of cre­ativ­ity. I en­joyed my job but I al­ways thought of my­self as a writer.

“I had ideas for sto­ries, and I’d write them down, but I never did any­thing with them. I al­ways thought that if I ended up go­ing to my grave not hav­ing writ­ten some­thing sub­stan­tial, I would have short­changed my­self.”

Early re­tire­ment from her post in the mo­tor in­dus­try al­lowed Anne the op­por­tu­nity to take her writ­ing more se­ri­ously. She joined a cre­ative writ­ing course, pur­sued an MA, and now has em­barked on a PhD. She has also sup­ported many char­i­ties in governance roles, in­clud­ing chair of the Writ­ers in Prison Net­work.

“I don’t have a mind­set for re­tire­ment. I’ve been handed an­other ca­reer which is not de­pen­dent on dex­ter­ity or stamina. I’ve learned that it’s im­por­tant to have a vi­sion. Ev­ery minute of your life is just time, and you should use ev­ery minute.” Her goal is to live to 100. “If I have that at­ti­tude then it’s never too late. It’s never too late to learn an­other lan­guage or to stop wear­ing jeans.” Or to write a novel.

“This is a book that it’s ap­pro­pri­ate I’ve writ­ten at my age,” she says. “The longer you live the more you read, and the more you read the more you learn. I would like some of the thoughts ex­pressed in the book to res­onate. I hope that they will stay with peo­ple and lead them to be more hope­ful and op­ti­mistic and to take a view of their own life.” N

Meet Me at the Mu­seum is pub­lished by Dou­ble­day

‘I’ve learned that it’s im­por­tant to have a vi­sion. Ev­ery minute of your life is just time’

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