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'More than a little sexy', 71-year-old Kintbury author's debut novel

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I think it’s a little unusual for a man to write a romantic novel,’ the Kintbury author of Beyond Understanding, John Stanforth, tells arts editor TRISH LEE. ‘I’ve known both the joy and the pain of close relationships, so can identify completely with the main character and his hopes and fears when he meets the love of his life’

JS GIBBS is the pen name of 71-year-old John Stanforth, from Kintbury, who has just published his debut novel Beyond Understanding – a Tale of Love and Loss.

“I think it’s a little unusual for a man to write a romantic novel,” he tells N2. “There have been some notable exceptions, of course, such as Nicholas Sparks who wrote The Notebook, but mostly it’s a female genre.

John Stanforth - JS Gibbs
John Stanforth - JS Gibbs

The novel has three main characters – Gavin who trained as an artist but was forced through circumstances to take a 9 to 5 job, Anna, who owns an art gallery, and Gavin’s son Peter. When Gavin meets Anna he falls head over heels in love with her. He decides to change his life and take up art as a career, and to put an end to his disastrous marriage. As a result he loses contact with Peter, and he spends the next 20 years trying to have a reconciliation with his son.

“I was also intrigued by the idea that a brief meeting between two people could so drastically change not just their lives, but the lives of those around them. It’s like the ripples from a tiny pebble which is thrown into a pond. In fact there are two such events in the novel; when Gavin meets Anna at a wedding, and then when Anna meets Peter at his father’s funeral.”

“I don’t deny that at heart I am a romantic. My favourite films are Life is Beautiful and Groundhog Day – which are comedies, but also pull acutely on your heartstrings. I’ve known both the joy and the pain of close relationships, so can identify completely with the main character and his hopes and fears when he meets the love of his life.”

Beyond Understanding
Beyond Understanding

The novel deals with some complex issues such as coping with bereavement and parental alienation.

“The topic of parental alienation was recently discussed on Woman’s Hour. It’s when one parent deliberately sets out to break the bond between a child and the other parent. Unfortunately it happens sometimes when couples split up. I was lucky, despite being divorced twice I’ve managed to keep in touch with all my children, but Gavin in Beyond Understanding wasn’t so fortunate.”

It’s been a long labour of love, taking John 10 years to write.

“I kept putting the story to one side and turning to other things. But I always came back to it, partly because it helped me to deal with some of the issues I was facing in my own life.

“The novel spans two decades, so in a way the time it took me to finish it mirrored what was happening to the main characters Gavin, Anna, and Peter.

“I think I also needed that time to fine-tune the plot, and to let the drama mature.

“A friend of mine who’s read my novel said that she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait as long for the sequel, and I assured her that it would definitely be published next year.”

In the meantime John plans to publish another love story (Lost Souls and Favourite Places) early in 2022. Like Beyond Understanding, this next novel is also set partly in Greece.

“I love Greece and Greek culture, and it was very special for me in Beyond Understanding to be able to relive my trip to the Valley of the Muses, which is a magical place north of Athens. And, of course, I share Gavin’s frustration and disbelief that the Greeks had muses for poetry, music, dance, even astronomy, but didn’t have a muse for art.”

“I really enjoy writing. It’s quite daunting at first, looking at the blank screen, with your fingers hovering over the keys. But once you get into it and the characters take on a life of their own then it becomes a truly fascinating process. I write mostly in the winter. Between Easter and October I want to be out and about enjoying the sun, walking the hills, and playing as much tennis as I can, rather than thinking about scenes and dialogue. Of course, sometimes the ideas come to me when I’m walking, and I have to scribble them down quickly when I get home.

“The local tennis club here in Kintbury is excellent. It’s amazing that such a small village should have so many good players. Having lived in Scotland for many years I think, for me, moving to West Berkshire was like retiring to the French Riviera. Scotland is very beautiful, but the climate is nowhere near as agreeable, and there’s a cold wind in Edinburgh which can cut through you like a knife.”

John has always been interested in people and their relationships – that’s why he studied behavioural science for his first degree and followed it up with a doctorate in social psychology.

For a while he lectured at Glasgow University, and then worked at a senior level in local government, before setting up his own mentoring and coaching company. “Trying to help people – students, those struggling to cope with their jobs, and others – has been a constant in my life. It’s why I now volunteer for Citizens Advice.”

Beyond Understanding has been described as “beautifully crafted, funny, poignant, and more than a little sexy!”. Copies are available (ISBN: 978-1-9169072-0-1) from Hungerford Bookshop or contact Shedload Books (shedloadbooks@gmail.com)

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