Meet Helena Harper: Teacher, Poet, Translator

Helena Harper is a native of England, but she grew up in a household that did things somewhat differently to other English households, because her mother was German (her mother had met her father in Hamburg at the end of WWII, when as a British soldier he had been stationed there). This mixed background has had a profound influence on Helena and her understanding of so-called national divisions and whom we call an ‘enemy’ and whom we call a ‘friend’.

From an early age she loved to read and write, particularly fantasy stories, and later she enjoyed studying foreign languages. At Surrey University she studied German, Russian and International Relations and spent considerable periods of time in Germany, Austria and Russia as part of the course. After university she went into banking, but soon realised that was a big mistake. “I felt like I was being suffocated,” she says of the experience.

She then spent a year teaching languages at a private school in London, and enjoyed it so much she decided she would get properly trained. She did a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Exeter University and then started her career as a modern languages teacher, a career which has lasted twenty years. During that time she has continued to write, concentrating primarily on fantasy stories for young children. However, in the past few years she has also discovered the joys of writing poetry for adults, and her first two books are poetry collections: It’s a Teacher’s Life…! and Family and More – Enemies or Friends?, which have been inspired by her professional and personal life.

Helena is now a private tutor and translator. She is continuing to write children’s stories, and illustrations for her first children’s picture book are now being done. Her aim is to see the book in print before the year is out. Many people ask Helena why she likes to write. She feels she can best express it like this:

The blank page calls,

the heart responds,

imagination spreads wide its wings

and launches into infinity…

Fingers dance,

words flow,

the page fills,

the soul takes flight

and the spirit sings.

Copyright © Helena Harper

Have you always been interested in writing poetry?

Actually, no!  I’ve always loved to write, but my first love has always been writing fantasy stories for young children.  I wrote poetry atschool, of course, and every so often when I was on holiday, but it wasn’t a regular thing.

So, what prompted you to write your first book, It’s a Teacher’s Life…!

Well, I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and about three years ago, when I was having a lovely holiday at a beautiful place in the country, I was inspired to write some poetry, and when I came home, I then had the idea to write some more poems about my life as a teacher. Each poem would concentrate on a different aspect of school life, such as the lessons, what went on in the staffroom, school trips, exams, report writing, and so on. I also wanted to pay tribute to some of the support staff who do so much to keep a school running, but are often forgotten about e.g. the cook, the caretaker/janitor, the nurse, the school secretary – the unsung heroes of life is what I call them.

What prompted you to write your book Family and More – Enemies or Friends?

I had the idea one day whilst driving to work. I was just thinking about my family and other people in my life who’ve had a big influence on me, one way or the other, and suddenly the idea popped into my head that I could write a second collection of poems about them and the lessons I’ve learnt from them.

Why is it called Enemies or Friends?

That’s got a lot to do with the fact that my mother is German and my father was English, and I just couldn’t get my head round the fact that, had I been born a few years earlier, all my German relatives would have been my ‘enemies’. To me they could never have been ‘enemies’, just ‘family’. It got me thinking about how futile it is to talk about so-called national divisions.

What’s the attraction of writing poetry as opposed to writing children’s stories? When I write poetry, I can concentrate on the rhythm and sound of the words and use vocabulary I wouldn’t be able to use in my children’s stories. It’s a marvellous linguistic challenge – the sound of words has always been something that’s fascinated me. It’s one of the reasons I studied modern languages. When I write my children’s stories, it’s more about escaping into a wonderful world of fantasy, leaving the mundane ‘real’ world behind – I find it wonderfully exciting and liberating.

When you’re not writing, what are you doing?

Tutoring, translating, reading, walking, playing tennis or dancing, doing Pilates, spending time with my niece and nephew.

What are your future writing goals?

The illustrations for my first children’s picture book are being done at the moment and I will then get the illustrations done for my second picture book. I’m really looking forward to having my children’s books published and going into schools to talk about them. Having been a school teacher for 20 years, I’m no stranger to the school environment, although it will perhaps be a little strange that I will be going into schools first and foremost as a writer rather than a teacher, although everyone can learn something useful, I hope, from my stories.

Helena’s books are available in paperback from all major online retailers. Can be ordered through any bookstore. Stocked by Haslemere Bookshop and Weybridge Books in the UK.  It’s a Teacher’s Life is available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and through Google Products

Family and Moreis available as an ebook from Eloquent Books and is due to be published as a paperback by Pen Press Publishers soon.

Helena’s author’s website: http://www.helenaharper.com/
Authorsden website: http://www.authorsden.com/helenaharper
Blog: http://helenaharpersblog.blogspot.com/
Follow Helena on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/helenaharper

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29 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great interview. I enjoy Helena’s poetry. Good luck with the new picture book!

    • Thank you, Nancy! The picture book illustrations are done, it’s now a question of finalising the cover. As for “Family & More” – I’ve given the go-ahead to my publisher today for printing, after lots of stops and starts!

  2. Wonderful interview. It’s a teachers life is a great book to give as a gift to all of those teachers in your life.
    Good luck with all of your endeavors.
    Martha Swirzinski

    • Thank you, Martha, from one teacher to another! How is the 4th book progressing?

  3. Helena, I love your poem describing why you write. I hope you have much success in your writing career!

  4. So interesting to learn the inspiration behind your writing. It’s great to expose children to poetry so they can learn other ways to express themselves.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Brigitte. Although my book “It’s a Teacher’s Life…!” is actually designed for adults (though I know of several teenagers who’ve enjoyed reading it!). My picture book, by the way, is actually written in prose, not rhyme – I haven’t yet been inspired to write rhyming picture books, but who knows?

  5. Heidi, thank you so much for hosting me today on your blog. Quite often I get asked how I went about writing the book. In case any of your readers are wondering about this, I’ll say a bit about it here.

    Once I had jotted down ideas for possible topics (and I had a list of about thirty or so topics), I just started to work my way through them. ‘The Cook’ was the first poem I wrote, as that was just a question of adapting a poem I had already written for someone else, then I went on to ‘The Workplace’, ‘The Staffroom’ and ‘The Lessons’.

    As I wrote, I found out that I was sometimes combining more than one topic into a poem. So, for example, I originally thought I could write a separate poem about the school uniform, but I found that I was already talking about the uniform in the poem about the lessons. And separate poems about the pupils, the school day and the bells didn’t materialise either, as elements of all of these were incorporated into ‘The Staffroom’, ‘The Lessons’, ‘The Duties’ and ‘The Trips.’ So, out of a list of thirty or so topics, twenty poems eventually materialised. Ironically, the very first poem in the book, called ‘The School Ethos’, was the last poem I wrote. I was inspired to write this after a particular incident had happened (once again) at the school and one morning, whilst driving to work, the first two sentences just popped into my head!

  6. Great feature. Thanks, Helena and Heidi.

    As one who does not write poetry – I had one poem published in high school and that was it – it fascinates me what goes on in the poet’s mind. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Helena, when I read your book of poetry, I didn’t see the cover! Lovely!
    Best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson
    Blogging writers’ resources at Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites pick http://www.sharingwithwriters.blogspot.com

    • That’s true, Carolyn. The cover was separate, which I should have sent to you! The cover for the paperback edition is similar in style with roses and letters and photos, but the photos are much clearer and are of people whom I actually write about in the book (my mother, maternal grandmother and adopted aunt). The photos on the ebook cover were just provided by the publisher, they have no connection to the people in the book, but they gave me the idea to use ‘real’ photos on the cover for the paperback edition and in the actual book itself. Also, the cover for the paperback is overall slightly warmer in colour.

      Helena

  8. It’s fun learning what inspires other writers. Also I think your poem really captures the joy of writing.

  9. “Family & More” sounds so interesting! I loved this interview. Keep up the great work, Helena!

  10. Wow, what an impressive resume! I’m glad that you haven’t given up writing fantasy for children. My book, Guardian, is a middle grade urban fantasy, and I love to read them as much as I like writing them. Good luck with your writing endeavors.

    • No, Katie, I haven’t given up on my fantasy writing for children. But it’s been hard work getting all the illustrations done! Like you, I love to read the same kind of books that I write – I’m still just a young child at heart. And a good picture book story just really helps you escape into a wonderful world of make-believe. How is your 2nd book coming along?

      Helena

  11. Great interview. It was nice getting to know you better Helena. I also shared this on my other accounts so other writers may get to know you better and your work as well.

    • Thank you, Virginia, that was very kind of you. I was very interested to read about the marketing process for your latest picture book – and how you manage to write and look after 3 children is amazing!

  12. Lovely interview Helena – I like what you say about the challenge of rhythm that poetry provides and the way in which you change hats.

    • Poetry is certainly a challenge, Maggie, you’re right there – but it is very satisfying when you find just the right way to express something, don’t you think?

  13. This is great! Helena, you are getting lots of visitors and wonderful comments. Thanks for being a guest on my blog today!

    • You’re welcome, Heidi. Thank you for hosting me!

  14. Helena, I love the poem also. What a wonderful expression of why you (and I’m sure many of us) write.
    Having reviewed Family and More, I know how talented you are.

    And, congratulations on the progress of your children’s book.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Karen. As and when my children’s book is actually published, I would love to send you a pdf copy to get your opinion. After all, you were kind enough to send me a copy of yours! I think you’re working on a 2nd one with your daughter? How is that coming along?

  15. Helena sounds like a wonderful writer. Her book of poetry for teachers would make a great gift for an appreciated teacher at the end of the school year.

    • Thank you, Janet, for taking the time to stop by and comment. I know that teachers have very much appreciated my book as a gift at any time of the year, so if anyone is looking for something, then it would certainly be something to consider. However, there are plenty more teacher appreciation ideas on my website if that isn’t quite right. Just go to http://www.helenaharper.com/teacher-appreciation-links.php


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