How a Glastonbury Childhood Inspired Author Isabella May

Glastonbury High Street has a Magical Cocktail Bar – in Isabella May’s Foodie Fiction

Writer Isabella May was brought up in Glastonbury, she now lives in Spain but sets some of her fiction in her old Somerset hometown. I came across her novels ‘The Cocktail Bar’ and ‘Oh! What a Pavlova’ whilst browsing Glastonbury authors and I was excited to get the opportunity to chat to her on Skype about the influence of Glastonbury on her writing.

What was it like growing up in Glastonbury?

Author Isabella May

Isabella May is a pen name, she’ll be better known to old school friends as Sam Caswell. She tells me she named herself after her two feisty grandmothers – May lived in Meare while Isabella was from Bristol. She really couldn’t be more local – she was born in Yeovil hospital and lived in Glastonbury between the ages of four to twenty-seven. She went to West Pennard Primary, where she was at school with Emily Eavis, then St Dunstans and finally Strode College before studying French and German at UWE, Bristol.

Isabella tells me her parents were ‘typical locals’, from Meare and Bristol. It was a fairly mainstream household, “they weren’t too enamoured with anything hippyish!” Although open-minded and a bit rebellious she didn’t worry them too much.

“When I was 12 or so I’d go to Margaret Kimber’s and buy yin yang earrings, baggy trousers and incense. I was a quiet rebel”.

Glastonbury Festival

Despite living so close by she only went to Glastonbury Festival a couple of times.

“It always clashed with exam time sadly, my sensible side always took over and studying came first. But I was there in the years that Bjork, The Spin Doctors, M People and Chrissie Hynde performed and then again the year of Muse, Scissor Sisters, Snow Patrol, Keane and Amy Winehouse, which definitely inspired the festival’s appearances in both books. I love everything about the festival – everyone rubbing shoulders with each other regardless of backgrounds, the lack of divide, love ebbing and flowing in all its crazy formats, noodles and Ben & Jerry’s vans, fringe stages and the iconic custard yellow and navy rave tent (is it a rave tent?). And the font of the signs is so iconic. They need to trademark that….”

Although Isabella has been living abroad for seven years she frequently finds herself talking about the town. She’s been doing some ‘meet the author’ Facebook live videos and finds that most of the hour online is spent talking about Glastonbury.

“Everyone I’ve ever met who’s been to Glastonbury feels like they own a piece of it. It’s a great icebreaker when I say I spent my childhood there”.

I ask Isabella what growing up here taught her that she might not have learned somewhere else: 

“I think if I’d grown up elsewhere I wouldn’t be as open-minded as I am, I always wanted to try different things, go to different places. Glastonbury has perhaps made me less materialistic, I went through a phase of wanting ‘stuff’, but then I realised all that wasn’t important”.

“I’m a huge Law of Attraction junkie, although I didn’t know anything about it when I lived in Glastonbury. I discovered it when I was 36 and had already moved to Spain. I’ve studied as a Pranic Healer too, but again, that’s only since I left the town. I think when you have spent so much time on the leylines, even when you go somewhere else, you can’t shake it off!”

The Power of Glastonbury

I’ve often pondered on the ‘otherness’ of Glastonbury. Is it something intrinsic – a fundamental ‘spirit of place’ enshrined in the landscape itself, independent of its residents, or simply wishing thinking by the more cosmically inclined incomers? Isabella’s acknowledgement of the continued powerful influence of the town on her thinking, perhaps confirms that Glastonbury itself exerts an enduring influence on people who are receptive – both ‘Locals’ and those who feel drawn here.

Perhaps it’s the Law of Attraction that explains how Isabella keeps meeting other people who live in the town or have a strong connection with it, as she says: “I’m constantly meeting new people that turn out to be healers and we inevitably end up talking about Glastonbury”.

Isabella started writing in 2011 when her youngest son was a baby and she’d recently moved to Spain. Her husband had got a job there, so they found a house in between Marbella and Gibraltar, in a small town. “It’s proper working class Spain, no bucket-and-spade tourists or Glitterati”. She started to write bits and pieces, then sewed them together in a book, it was way too big. Realising she needed to hone her skills and learn to edit her work she joined writing groups, went on a course and then did some writing for a lifestyle blog. She told me she still doesn’t plan her books methodically.

Her house in Spain is on the beach, with a view of the mountains, she finds the view and the environment very creatively stimulating.

The Cocktail Bar

The Cocktail Bar is Isabella’s most recently published book, the blurb on the cover reads: “Rockstar, River Jackson, is back in his hometown of Glastonbury to open a cocktail bar… and the locals aren’t impressed.

Seductive Georgina is proving too hot to handle; bandmate, Angelic Alice, is messing with his heart and his head; his mum is a hippie-dippy liability; his school friends have resorted to violence – oh, and his band manager, Lennie, AND the media are on his trail.

But River is armed with a magical Mexican elixir which will change the lives of the Three Chosen Ones. Once the Mexican wave of joy takes a hold of the town, he’s glad he didn’t lose his proverbial bottle.

Pity he hasn’t taken better care of the real one…”

I wonder if Glastonbury locals might find anyone familiar in her books but she tells me they aren’t based on real people, “They are just from my imagination going wild, but I look back on some of my characters and realise that they’ve got elements of people I know. A friend went around Florida and is really into unconventional cocktails, that gave me the seed of the idea for ‘The Cocktail Bar’”.

“Growing up in Glastonbury I really wanted to go to cocktail bars, but there wasn’t anything like that around here. It was either ‘old man’ pubs or Envy nightclub in Street – that was as good as it got. If there had been a cocktail bar I wouldn’t have been able to afford the cocktails, but I’d have tried to persuade other people to buy me them!”

I loved the idea that she had written a cocktail bar into Glastonbury’s High Street as a type of wish fulfilment, as that was what she fantasized about when she was younger. If she’s right about the Law of Attraction I wonder how many of us will need to read the book before a cocktail bar manifests in the High Street. Naturally, as this is her fantasy cocktail bar it isn’t just any old cocktail bar “I wanted it to become a hub in the book, to create ripples, make everything a bit more magical” Consequently the book features a magical Mexican elixir and the fictional venue is the setting for lots of meetings that instigate new developments in the town.

Oh! What a Pavlova

I ask Isabella what genre she sees her writing fitting into “It’s contemporary fiction, I’m very anti the term ‘chick-lit’, I don’t like being judged because I’m a female writer”. I was surprised by the realistic domestic violence thread running through her first book ‘Oh! What a Pavlova’, she explained that she’d experienced it herself:

“I wanted to dispel the myth that it just affects poor, uneducated people from a certain background. I wanted to help ring some alarm bells, it was the book I wish I’d read when I was going through it, because it would have helped wake me up. I don’t like to pigeonhole the way I write when I subbed that one (I was a literary agent at the time) big publishers didn’t like the mix of satire and serious subjects , but thankfully, indie publisher, Crooked Cat Books ‘got it’ and signed me up. Life is a whole range of things going on at once, and I wanted to reflect that”.

Besides, she points out, “Chick-lit doesn’t have swearing in it, real life does and so do my books. I’m not just a ‘women’s writer’, men have enjoyed my books too. I always have foodie, spiritual, romance, travel and comedy themes running through them, some people have said I write magical realism, but I haven’t read a huge amount of that so I can’t say”.

I ask Isabella how it was being a ‘foodie’ in Glastonbury, before all the artisan food that has become popular lately, she tells me she never really had the foodie thing growing up. An ice-cream sundae in the Mocha Berry was the culinary highlight of her week. “At the moment I’m working on another foodie book, it might have a bit of ice cream in it, it’s set in Capri and Bath. It’s a bit of a foodie tour. It’s lots of fun to write, gives me an excuse to go to the local Italian ice-cream parlour. I’d like to write foodie guides to cities, they are usually based around savoury food but I would like to focus on sweets, ice-cream, vegan cake…….. ”.

The conversation moves from Isabella’s obvious obsession with ice-cream to eggs, or more specifically popular local character Wilf ‘The Egg Man’ Peddle, keeper of hens and supplier of free-range eggs to the town, delivered in his ancient but beautifully kept Morris Minor. “Wilf doesn’t age, it’s amazing. Every Saturday, if we were going to be out, Mum would leave a pyrex bowl on the doorstep for the eggs, If we were in we’d have a chat. He’s got the most glorious Somerset accent”.

Isabella mentions her friend Lisa Tenzin Dolma, who I too was friends with over 20 years ago when she was living in Glastonbury. Lisa is a writer and an artist and created the Glastonbury Tarot, painting her friends as the archetypal characters in the pack. The cards are presently out of print, but they do feature in Isabella’s book, ‘Pavlova’ when Kate Clothier goes for a tarot reading. Lisa told me at the time she was creating the pack that she was choosing subjects who she felt embodied the qualities of each card. I appeared as The Queen of Pentacles, Lisa told me this was about abundance, having a store cupboard full of great things to share. At the time I was living in a tiny house in Victoria Buildings, not feeling very abundant at all, but shortly after the pack was published I moved to a beautiful shared house ‘The Glastonbury Institute of Gracious Living’ in Wells Road. It strikes me that the Law of Attraction worked out very well for me, albeit inadvertently. Isabella tells me she might write a non-fiction Law of Attraction book one day, but at the moment she’s enjoying letting her imagination get carried away in fiction.

I ask Isabella the inevitable question – does she miss Glastonbury?

“I do, although we do go back, we were there in February. I love my life here, but I have wondered what it would be like if I’d stayed. I don’t have the lengthy friendships I would have if I was still there. I’m a bit like the main character, River Jackson, from The Cocktail Bar in that respect. People come and go in Spain, you make friends and they move away again to other countries, but you get used to it”.

I enjoyed chatting with Isabella and learning more about her writing, she’d like more people in the town to read her books and I hope this article makes you curious about her work. If the books look familiar it might be thanks to a Book Fairy. The Book Fairies movement was set up by Emma Watson, it inspired Isabella to arrange for books to be dropped off in secret in random locations, for others to enjoy. Her niece walked up the Tor and did a drop and her parents did them all over the town, in Wells, Weston-Super-Mare and Clarks Village.

Both books are available in Gothic Image and Glastonbury Library, as well as online via Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions. Click on the pictures to find out more and order online (Normal For Glastonbury will earn a small commission if you order using these links).

Do you have a favourite book set in Glastonbury? Let me know in the comments.

This post was kindly commissioned and sponsored by Isabella May.

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All photographs copyright Isabella May and Paige Davis. Text copyright Vicki Steward.

9 thoughts on “How a Glastonbury Childhood Inspired Author Isabella May”

  1. Good stuff as usual here; cheers! I generally have a go at any Glastonbury fiction and will check this out forthwith. In the mean time (since you ask, Vicki) my two contenders for the Glastonbury Fiction Award are currently Phil Rickman for The Chalice and John Cowper Powys for A Glastonbury Romance. About seventy years separate them and that itself adds greatly to interesting comparisons. Rickman’s book is snappy; you could blast your way through it in a couple of sunny afternoons in the Chalice Well Gardens; Powys meanders and muses his way through a doorstep of a volume which takes a couple of hundred pages just to warm up. Stay in the town for a leisurely week and do it justice !

    • The Chalice is a brilliant book, really well observed and funny too. I have to confess I didn’t get further than the first chapter of A Glastonbury Romance, it could be a great cure for insomnia I reckon. I might have another go when I’m a bit more grown up….

      • I do think so ! Like yourself, my first attempt at it (back in ’73) stalled after only a few pages. It seemed turgid and slow and also featured literary and philosophical references which, at the time, went straight over my head. Returning to it earlier this year (and disciplining myself to hold steady and keep on with it) has, however, paid off. Once you’ve established who’s who and what motivates them, it all starts to fall into place. Of course, you’ve still got to handle Powys’ meandering and musing in between, but then that didn’t do the likes of Dickens or Mervyn Peake any harm – and some of his musing is quite beautiful. Also, the parallels between then (the 1920’s) and now, with certain locals wanting new bypasses and the like while others want to preserve Glastonbury’s mystic appeal, are most interesting. G’warn, give it a whirl !

  2. Thank you SO much for such an inspired interview, Vicki! Some great questions which really got me thinking. Any other creatives out there who maybe (like me) no longer live in the town but credit it for their creativity? Would be great to get some banter going about that on this thread! Isabella xx

  3. Really interesting, thanks, and more books to add to my reading list 🙂 I too have a part-read copy of “A Glastonbury Romance” by my bed! xx


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