Rising from the ashes

Sue Hepworth, with the grandfather clock that she managed to rescue from the fire at Caudles storage warehouse in Sheffield.
Sue Hepworth, with the grandfather clock that she managed to rescue from the fire at Caudles storage warehouse in Sheffield.

A terrible fire that claimed Sue Hepworth’s possessions proved the spark for her new career as a writer, as Lesley Draper reports...

STANDING amid the burnt-out remains of her possessions was one of Sue Hepworth’s lowest moments.

The fire that ripped through a Sheffield storage warehouse 15 years ago engulfed the contents of her Ranmoor home, reducing furniture, books and photos to little more than a pile of ash.

But the blaze at Caudles in Queens Road was the catalyst for a new career that led to numerous national newspaper articles and three novels – the latest of which is published this week.

“I went once to look through the remains,” she recalls. “The roof had gone; there were girders bowed down and it was knee-deep in black sludge, with burnt-out washing machines sticking out of the detritus. It was awful; devastating.”

A month later she was diagnosed with cancer: “But I was more upset about the fire. Dave, my husband, suggested I wrote about it to help me come to terms with what we’d lost.”

Her first attempt was taken up by The Times and, spurred on by her success, Sue went on to embark on her first novel:Plotting for Beginners (with Jane Linfoot), which was published in 2006.

In 2008 her second novel Zuzu’s Petals, a comedy drama about dealing with grief, was also published.

Several years later, she has turned again to the Caudles blaze in her latest book, But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You.

“It was a useful plot point – and why not write about things that are real?

“I know I plunder my life more than other authors do but it’s easier to describe what I know. I like to keep readers guessing about which bits are true and which bits aren’t.”

Her description of the fire clearly owes much to reality.

The protagonists dig through the ‘sodden, disgusting, ashes’ but find only a few traces of their former life: a handful of marbles, a couple of dolls and the mangled brass face and workings of a grandfather clock.

“That bit’s certainly true,” agrees Sue. “We brought it home in a cardboard box and never imagined anyone could fix it.”

But that episode at least had a happy ending. A local clockmaker soaked the remains for 18 months and managed to get them working again. Then Sue searched eBay until she found a case that would fit it.

The restored clock now ticks steadily in a corner of her home in the Peak village of Great Longstone.

Another frequent inspiration for her writing is her husband Dave, a former headteacher and education consultant who bears a remarkable similarity to all three of her storybook heroes.

“He doesn’t mind what I write about him but I do feel a bit protective,” she admits.

The new book draws heavily on Dave’s eccentricities – “the truth is that he says lots of really funny things and I keep a notebook of them” – but it emerges that, like Dave, the character suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.

“We only realised a couple of years ago. I don’t think there’s very much understanding about Asperger’s,” says Sue, a former research psychologist.

“There’s certainly no support for adults, which is one of the things that prompted me to write about it.”

The new book tells the tale of a middle-aged couple at a crossroads in their lives. The man is eccentric and difficult to live with; his wife finds him funny and endearing.

“He’s much worse than Dave but Dave is happy for people to know that he has an autism spectrum disorder. He says he’ll do anything to sell the book except modelling in his underpants!”

Sue has set up her own publishing company to market this book, allowing her to retain control over both content and cover. It was published on Thursday by Delicately Nuanced and is available from local bookshops and Amazon, priced £7.99.

lSue will be signing books at Waterstones in Sheffield on Saturday from 11am to 3pm.