Juggling fruit with fiction has been a quite a journey for Kathryn Evans whose talent and persistence has seen her name catapult way beyond the farmgate. Sue Scott finds out more.
It has been quite a year for soft fruit grower Kathryn Evans.
First came her debut novel, followed by rave reviews, invitations to literary festivals and promotional tours and then she won a major award.
Next year she will be off to New York, promoting a book which was inspired in part by the transformations that go on in the glasshouses she can see from her farm office in Sidlesham, West Sussex, every day.
“You could say it’s been life-changing. I’ve had to rejig my farm work quite a bit,” says Kathryn, who grows 400 tonnes of soft fruit a year with husband Nick.
“I’m not ready to step back from the business yet, though. I’ve handed over the payroll but I still do all the accounts and the staff communicate by radio through a base station in my office – so I know exactly what’s going on out there.”
She and Nick began their horticultural careers with a £10,000 overdraft on a smallholding, living in a ‘crappy caravan’ and surviving off ‘salad leaves, cake and loads of hot tea’.
But neither farming nor writing was quite how Kathryn had originally seen her life panning out. In fact, she’d trained as an actress when she met agricultural student Nick, and continued to balance theatre and farmwork until the children – Emily and Archie – came along.
“Acting doesn’t fit very well with farming. You can’t tour for a start, but I missed being in the theatre. I missed creating lots of characters, so I started by telling stories to my daughter and then I wrote a picture book.
“The first editor I sent it to got back to me, basically suggesting I learned how to write.”
She and Nick set up Haygrove Sidlesham 16 years ago and they now run nine owned and rented sites on the productive coastal plain of the Manhood Peninsular, cropping strawberries, virtually year-round raspberries and, from this summer, blackberries, all exclusively for the multiples and mostly under glass.
During the height of the season, 130 predominantly Bulgarian and Romanian workers take up residence in a community of caravans beside the polytunnels and troop past the office where Kathryn wrote More Of Me over a period of six months – mainly at night since it was the only time Kathryn could spare time from the business.
She cannot pinpoint where the idea for the story came, but a lifelong addiction to sci-fi stories, an interest in child psychology and a working knowledge of biological pest control all contributed to create the story, a fast-paced, sci-fi thriller.
“We try to run the farm with as little pesticide use as possible – indeed, this year we are almost insecticide free,” says Kathryn.
“Obviously, when you use an integrated pest management system, beneficial insects are critical.
“We work with bugs a lot and I was particularly fascinated by how some plant lice reproduced, with one body inside another body inside another – all perfect little copies of themselves.
“Aphids might be a nuisance in the strawberries but I’ve probably got them to thank for sowing the seed for this book.”
And there lies the inspiration for the novel’s plot. The story revolves round 16-year-old Teva who replicates herself once a year and has to cope with a houseful of ‘siblings’ – all of them previous versions of herself still living and hidden at home. That is, until one of them decides not to be.
“I’ve written bits and pieces all my life, but it took a while to find my style,” says Kathryn, who spent 15 years being rejected by editors until she sent a manuscript to one of the best agents in the children’s book business who replied with the confirmation, ‘I like it.’
Four years later, after several rewrites, More of Me was released.
“People in the village have been amazing,” she says. “Even my post office lady has bought the book and our Eastern European staff have been taking copies back home with them.”
Editions are now being prepared for German, American and Korean audiences and there are more on the way.
Winner of the Edinburgh International Book Award in October – the first ever young adult fiction novel to take the prize – More of Me has recently also been nominated for the 2017 Carnegie Medal.
“Even though I am just one out of 100 nominations on the list, that was the high point of the year as you are chosen by librarians,” says Kathryn.
“I grew up haunting libraries. They saved my sanity at least twice in my life – when I was growing up and again when I was a young mum – so the nomination is special to me.”
When she isn’t signing books, delivering workshops and packing bookshops with other debut children’s authors on their #lostandfound tour, Kathryn’s still filling in the paperwork for farm assurance and working out how the business keeps up with a 12 per cent increase in demand for British strawberries.
She is also making sure it responds to the remarkable 25-30 per cent surge in the market for other soft fruit.
Despite the shock of Brexit and the uncertainty it creates for their workforce, it has been a better year on-farm than expected.
Yields and prices have held up well and they are now pushing forward, planning to move out of main crop tunnel production to concentrate on early and late season fruit under glass.
The success of her first book means she can now justify devoting daylight hours to writing.
“It’s wonderful to be able to write every day and not feel I’m stealing time from my family,” she says. “Although it still feels like an indulgence.”
Now Kathryn’s waiting anxiously for the publisher’s verdict on her second novel, a tale about two young victims of a broken welfare state who wake up from an overlong stay in cryostasis to save on benefit bills.
After so many years describing herself as a ‘practising author’ she’s at last beginning to know what it’s like to be one.
“After my book came out, I spent the first few weeks going into every book shop to look for it,” she confesses. “I eventually found it in Heffers in Cambridge. It was such an amazing moment my daughter took a picture of me with it.”
She resists the temptation to move copies on to the recommended reads table every time she visits a book store, although Kathryn is not able to say the same of her mother.
“Mum’s terrible,” she says. “Wherever she is, she goes into Waterstones and if they haven’t got in she insists on asking them why. But then she’s been doing the same with our strawberries and raspberries in the supermarkets for years.”