Allison's Book Bag

A Life Cut Short

Posted on: December 4, 2014

In May 2007, Siobhan Dowd was named one of 25 ‘authors of the future’. She died of breast cancer three months later. Both Bog Child and Solace of the Road were published after her death. I reviewed Bog Child last year. Tomorrow I’ll review Solace of the Road. Save the date: December 5!


SiobhanDowdSiobhan Dowd was the youngest of four daughters of an Irish nurse and older doctor husband. Though she was born in London, from an early age Dowd was Irish at heart. She spent much of her youth visiting the family cottage in County Waterford and later the family home in Wicklow Town. Throughout her life, The Guardian reports, Dowd manifested Celtic spontaneity, bursting into song when an accordion played,or leaping up to dance to a favorite tune.

After attending a Roman Catholic grammar school in south London, Dowd earned a Bachelor of Arts Honors in Classics from Oxford University. According to The Guardian, Dowd empathized with the condition and cultures of marginalized peoples, including Irish travelers and the Roma, and so decided to co-edit an anthology of Romany poems and short prose pieces. When she decided to do postgraduate work in gender and ethnic studies at Greenwich University in London, she focused on how Roma relate to their community’s narratives and stereotypes. She was awarded a Master of Arts Distinction in Gender and Ethnic Studies from Greenwich University.

After a short stint in publishing, Dowd joined the writer’s organization PEN in 1984, initially as a researcher for its Writers in Prison Committee. While there, she edited collections of writings by authors and journalists imprisoned for their work.

The Guardian notes that these skills enabled her to move on to spend seven years in New York, carrying out similar work for American PEN. She went on to be Program Director of PEN American Center’s Freedom-to-Write Committee in New York City. Her work here included founding and leading the Rushdie Defense Committee USA and travelling to Indonesia and Guatemala to investigate local human rights conditions for writers. She was prolific in the production of reports and articles. During her seven-year spell in New York, Siobhan was named one of the “top 100 Irish-Americans” for her global anti-censorship work.

In 1997, Dowd returned to London to spend more time with her family. A few years later, she met her second husband, a librarian at Oxford Brookes University. They married in March 2001 in Wales.

On her return to the UK, Dowd also co-founded the English PEN’s readers and writers program. The program takes authors into schools in socially deprived areas, young offender’s institutions, and community projects. Dowd also became increasingly interested in children, leading to her appointment in 2004 as deputy commissioner for children’s rights in Oxfordshire. In this position, Dowd working with local authorities to ensure that statutory services affecting children conformed to UN protocols.

The Guardian reports that Dowd settled happily in west Oxford, before receiving the diagnosis of breast cancer. Her second husband, Geoff Morgan, is quoted by The Independent as always intending to settle down to write, but also having so many other things to do: “She always felt that she needed to experience life first in order to write to the standard that she aspired to. What she hadn’t expected, when she finally got round to writing, was that she would have so little time left.”


DowdBooksAn invitation to contribute a story to a collection of short stories for children about racism, Skin Deep, led to a new career for Dowd as an author of children’s books. Wikipedia states that Dowd was inspired by this success to continue writing for children and developed close friendships with two established children’s authors, with whom she would meet regularly to chat about their work and discuss children’s literature.

In 2003, Dowd began writing a children’s book about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome who solves a mystery. She was halfway through writing it when Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, with its similar theme, made its debut. According to The Guardian this caused Dowd to put aside for a while what would later become her second published novel, The London Eye Mystery.

Dowd had been writing both The London Eye Mystery and A Swift Pure Cry before her diagnosis. The chemotherapy made it hard for her to write but she kept with it. Her husband, Morgan, is quoted by The Independent as saying, “We always tried to brainwash ourselves that she would live forever. It was the only way we could approach her illness–to grab every strand of hope.”

A Swift Pure Cry was based on events in Ireland in the early 1980s, in which a 15-year-old girl struggles to survive in a world of poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and moral hypocrisy, and was Dowd’s first novel to appear in print. Dowd wrote it in three months in the autumn of 2004. Children’s publisher David Fickling, who runs his own imprint within Random House is quoted by The Independent as saying, “What I remember most clearly about A Swift Pure Cry was that it was extraordinarily well written for a first novel. So much so, in fact, that it didn’t really read like a first novel at all. It was as if it had sprung fully fledged from Siobhan’s imagination. Her prose style was very simple, but always pertinent and poetic.” A Swift Pure Cry was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

The Independent says that at first, Dowd made no mention of her illness to her publisher. Even when she told him of her battle with cancer, she insisted that it be kept secret in case it distracted from the books. When her publisher, Fickling, asked her if she felt her brush with death had played some part in the extraordinary outpouring of creativity in those last two and a half years of her life,” Dowd denied it. “She simply said that she had always wanted to write but hadn’t got round to it. It was a straightforward reply, but perhaps there was an element of not even wanting to contemplate the alternative in case it got in the way–like all those clichés about an electric light bulb burning brightest just before it goes. Siobhan wasn’t the sort of person who wanted to think like that.”

In the last year of her life, Dowd developed a friendship with the children’s author Meg Rosoff, who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. The two shared a platform at the London Book Fair in 2005. The Independent quotes Rosoff as saying, “I had just finished having treatment for breast cancer and talked about that to the audience and how it had impacted on my writing. Siobhan talked only about the thrill of publishing her first novel. Afterwards, as we sat together on the stage, she leant over and whispered, ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have breast cancer too.’ My memory is that the diagnosis was already clear, that it had spread. I’m certain that she knew she wasn’t going to live a long time, and that must have played a part in the urgency that she felt, writing as if her life depended on it.”

I found myself forgetting very quickly she was ill, which is I think what she wanted me to do. So when she died, I was profoundly shocked by it. She never evinced illness. She never talked about it. And I have an abiding sense of how much more she had to do, where she might have flown.

–David Fickling, The Independent

Siobhan didn’t wear illness on her sleeve. As far as I knew, she was doing all right and then suddenly, out of the blue, I got a text from her, saying her chemo had gone wrong and she was in a hospice. At first I thought I was misunderstanding what a hospice was for. She couldn’t be dying, I thought, but the next day she did.

–Meg Rosoff, The Independent

Before her death, the Siobhan Dowd Trust was established. The proceeds from Dowd’s literary work are being used to assist, fund, and support disadvantaged young readers where there is no funding or support.

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