Alice Thomas Ellis
ALICE Thomas Ellis has a forthright yet comforting presence. In her newly published account of growing up in Wales, she tells of the "lost souls" who seek her out at her remote home, and talking to her you can see why they do.
She is a woman who has suffered tragedy and loss, particularly in regard of her large family. While pregnant, she fell down the stairs when carrying one of her sons. Both were fine, but later the baby was born prematurely and died. The place on earth where Alice Thomas Ellis feels most at peace is in the local graveyard where another of her children is buried. Joshua died aged 19 after a fall.
Asked about coping with bereavement, she says with heartfelt honesty that she does not know how people contain their pain. But she has.
Married at 23, Alice Thomas Ellis had seven children, five sons and two daughters, and raised them in Wales, her homeland.
She only began writing 11 years ago but has already become a household name writing her "Home Life". column for the Spectator and several novels which have been praised for their humour, vivacity and elegance.
Alice Thomas Ellis is in fact a pen-name that Anna Haycraft insisted on at first to avoid attention. "I am a real back room person," she explains. "I would feel totally idiotic if people started making a fuss of me."
Part of this private side comes out in her love of Wales, her home throughout the 34 years of her marriage. She lives in a remote valley, but would prefer to be even more secluded. Her relationship with the land is a mystical, spiritual one.
"I don't feel English, and I've never felt at home in London," she confesses. Growing up amongst the soft shapes of a Welsh landscape she believes has encouraged her writing and creative gifts.
"It's a magical place with a strong sense of holiness," she smiles. Her book on Wales, an autobiography, has been one of the most enjoyable to research and write. "I met many old school friends who elaborated on stories and legends, and I remembered tales from early days when teachers proudly passed on our history."
This curiosity for the mystical and historical led her to Catholicism. Her parents belonged to a humanist church, but she remembers vividly early trips to a Catholic church with cousins in Liverpool.
At 19 she joined the novitiate with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. "I have never known such good times as I had there," she recalls. "We really laughed a lot."
A problem with her back, however, cut short her time in the convent. She was advised that it was the will of God that religious life was not for her. Her faith remains strong, though she is not keen on some of the manifestations of the modern church. "I don't want to go to a ceremony of reconciliation instead of confession," she grins. New churches do not get a good write-up in her book on Wales.
She married Colin Haycraft, a publisher, at 23, and had four sons by the time she was 30.
Yet she feels that not everyone is cut out for marriage, and believes that people put "too much store on human relationships".
Aside from her writing, Alice Thomas Ellis has plans for a children's clothes business. "A son and his wife are going to set up with me and we'll use local materials and expertise." She attended Liverpool School of Art and has a drawer full of clothes designs from when her children were youne.
A Welsh Childhood is published by Michael Joseph (f15.99). A new novel The Inn at the Edge of the World is published by Viking (£12.99).