East Knoyle’s Lesley Webb on grief, loss and her debut novel

THE hapless Louise grapples with grief, loss and self-discovery in the debut novel from East Knoyle author, Lesley Webb.

“Louise sighed but carried on preparing the birthday lunch alone… she was stuck in the kitchen whilst the celebration continued in the sitting room.”

Trapped within the rhythm of her own life, the protagonist is suddenly widowed and given the freedom to contemplate the life she’s lived – and what she wants from it.

And while writer Lesley’s marriage is anything but claustrophobic – zooming around the countryside with motorcyclist husband, John – the plot mirrors the author’s 50-year journey to publishing her debut novel.

Her first work, published at the age of just 15, was a poem about heartbreak entitled, It’s Not All Roses and Chocolates.

What came next for such a creative teen? 45 years of writing IT manuals.

Lesley Webb with her debut novel, Millie & Louise. Photo: The New Blackmore Vale.

Lesley Webb with her debut novel, Millie & Louise. Photo: The New Blackmore Vale.

“It was just work,” the 68-year-old said. “Obviously, it was important to have them well-written, but that was solely to ensure people thought they made sense.”

It was only after retiring from a career teaching thousands of schools to use their management information systems that Lesley made the transition into writing fiction.

“It was a skill I had to actively stop doing,” she said. “I took a writing course in Devizes, and they said they liked my work but it read like a step-by-step guide.”

But she persevered and now, with a short story collection and her new novel – Millie & Louise – to her name, Lesley is finding what matters to her, in a similar vein to her character, Louise.

We’re sitting in the open-plan kitchen of the home she shares with John, in East Knoyle.

Decorating the walls are photographs and artwork, all nodding to the place at the heart of Millie & Louise: France.

“It’s easy to get lost in,” she said, reminiscing on the dozens of trips she’s made across the channel.

“But what it shows Louise is that there’s no place like home. Anywhere is beautiful if you want it to be.”

Lesley finds more inspiration in places she visits than personal experiences.

A notable exception is the character of Millie; the unreliable caravan Louise drives across France.

Lesley Webb's Bibliography. Photo: The New Blackmore Vale.

Lesley Webb’s Bibliography. Photo: The New Blackmore Vale.

It mirrors her own Citroën; she painfully recalls how it forced her to learn “démarreur” means “starter motor”.

The other similarity between Lesley and Louise is their common experience of losing a child.

“We lost our second child at the delivery, he was a breech and it all went horribly, horribly wrong,” she said. 

“You never get over it, but you do get past it. One child doesn’t replace another, you just have to learn to deal with that grief.”

Memories of the trauma are triggered by situations, for Lesley this is maternity scandals, which she can’t bring herself to hear discussed on the news.

For Louise, her visceral reaction manifests into the most powerful moment of the book, with her sudden stiffening to the cry of a baby: “The shrill noise reminded her of a time when she’d longed to hear the sound, but had been deafened by silence instead.”

The character remembers screeching: “Give me my baby. Why won’t she cry?”

Although self-published, Millie & Louise is anything but a solo endeavour.

Lesley regularly meets with a writing group at Gillingham Library, where members bring a piece of work for their peers to critique.

“Writing is quite a lonely furrow to plough,” she said. “You must read, read, read, write, write, write, and then talk to other people about it.”

Millie & Louise in Wrens Shop East Knoyle. Photo: The New Blackmore Vale.

Millie & Louise in Wrens Shop East Knoyle. Photo: The New Blackmore Vale.

After finishing her manuscript, she sent it off to literary agents who were impressed by the quality of its prose, but said they couldn’t market it.

Undeterred, she saw an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing advertised at Bournemouth University, and took the plunge.

Alongside practical lessons about designing front covers, they were taught about the broader industry and reaped the benefits of regularly sharing their work with others.

She’s even been invited back to lead a session discussing her debut novel. 

“[To send your work to publishers,] you must have a very thick skin,” she said.

“You are going to get rejected, every writer does. But I’m not trying to be Tolstoy – I just want people to enjoy what I write.”

As a result, she hired an award-winning editor from Cornerstones Literary Agency and used her education to self-publish Millie & Louise.

“My editor was such a sensible voice. She made sure I wasn’t being too melodramatic – you need to work with voices who understand the process,” she said. 

Enjoying the creative freedom she’s found in later life, Lesley has already begun working on her next project.

“During the Second World War, 2,000 babies were born to white mothers and Black American GI soldiers in Britain,” she said. 

“They were known as ‘Brown Babies’ and quite a few were cared for in East Knoyle.”


In an interview with the subject’s leading historian, Professor Lucy Bland, one of these babies – now in his 70s – said: “I felt like tumbleweed, I was just rolling around and didn’t belong anywhere.”

This stuck with Lesley, who soon started work on The Tumbleweed Child, her second novel which will chart the journey of one such ‘Brown Baby’.

Another book, another character study, her work continues to tell the stories of those people discovering who they are, after a lifetime of feeling without a home.

It comes as Lesley transitions from a working life of putting herself second – providing for her family through a career where she provided for the technologically illiterate – and introspects on her own identity as an individual and as a writer,

She believes “you’re never too old” to write, and through her writing (and her life), shows you’re never too old to try new things.

Whether it’s a widow struggling to accept her marriage was claustrophobic; a mixed-race Briton seeking answers to their conflicted identity; or a retired mum of four fulfilling a lifetime desire to pursue her literary dreams – it’s never too late to change.

READ MORE: Dorset photographer David Bailey on celebrities, books – and hares 

Millie & Louise is available to purchase at Wren’s Shop in East Knoyle, or by sending an enquiry to lesleywebbwrites@proton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *