Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


6 Comments

Tis Christmas and the Season for …

… single writer binges.

I have just emerged from a six-book Liane Moriarty feeding frenzy. Why had I never heard of her before? Anyway, I hadn’t and then serendipitously, she turned up in both my real life and my online book clubs – in the same week. Moriarty is an Australian writer whose novel Big Little Lies (I read it) just debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And I can tell you why: her novels are strongly crafted, but not too artsy; her characters are warm and witty and full of foibles that make you want to be friends with them; her plots are intriguing without being full of red herrings and obvious tropes. My only criticism, and it is a mild one, is that they are the most middle-class books I have ever read. Joanna Trollope has been ousted from the pillar of middle-classery. There is nary a poor person, nor a homeless one, nor one of colour in any of the novels. It’s a world of yummy mummies, intrigue at the school gates and shenanigans in the Sydney suburbs. However, and this is what rescues the novels and I’m sure what has shot Moriarty to the top of the bestseller lists, she writes with such teasing wit that her characters laugh at themselves being middle-class at the gates of Sydney schools – and you laugh with them. Comfort reading at its absolute best.

So having sadly finished Moriarty’s entire oeuvre, I wrote to an Australian friend asking if she knew her. She didn’t but she did recommend the next writer into whose work I am now diving – Elena Ferrantes. An Italian whose work was first translated into English in 2012, Ferrantes has become a writing sensation. Described as an angry Jane Austen (you had me at that), Ferrantes has caught the public’s imagination as she refuses to do any publicity or put a face to her name (and she writes superbly). According to Wikipedia, she has admitted that she is a mother, which means she probably is female. I am reading the first of her Neapolitan novels My Brilliant Friend, and have the second and third ready to go on my e-reader. Things are dark and dreary in Ferrante’s work, there is relentless poverty but there are souls that shine out of the darkness. There will be a binge, I can predict it.

Since it is Christmas and things come in trios (wise men, etc), I have a third writer in mind. Both my mother and brother have devoured the Patrick O’ Brian novels, and he has named his Lab puppy Jack Aubrey. In honour of the less famous Jack, I plan to read these next.

Do you have any writers upon whose work you binge?


Leave a comment

Conversations with Writers: Talking to Susie Nott-Bower

Susie Nott-Bower is the author of The Making of Her, published by Linen Press in 2012 and described on their website as “a blackly funny novel about women who feel unwanted and irrelevant when they reach fifty.” When Susie and I were on the same online writers’ forum, I watched Susie’s progress to publication with interest and marked The Making of Her in my mental TBR pile. After the forum caved, I lost contact with Susie, but when I finished reading the novel, I tweeted Susie to tell her how much I had loved it. She graciously agreed to an interview.JPEG OF FINAL TMOH COVER ONLY

Here’s our chat:

Susie, I have just finished reading The Making of Her, which I thought was superb. I suspect there is a germ of autobiography in there. Could you talk about how aspects of your life sparked the premise of the book?

Susie Nott-Bower: So glad you enjoyed it, Charlotte.  And yes, there’s more than a germ of autobiography there! The Making of Her is the story of three middle-aged people (and I’m definitely middle-aged) whose lives are transformed during the production of a tawdry television makeover show.  I worked as a director/producer for the BBC and Channel 4 for many years, and have written just about all my life.  The two women – Clara, a driven, impatient television producer – and Jo, a sensitive, introverted writer – are two sides of myself.  Clara, a feminist, has lost her femininity along the way, and Jo is increasingly losing her spirit, married as she is to the dreadful Iain.  Pete, the reclusive rock star, has barricaded himself into a too-small life.  All these are tendencies of mine, under pressure.  While many of the events in The Making of Her are not autobiographical – I’ve never had plastic surgery, for instance – the themes definitely are.

What I loved about TMOH, is that although the themes of love, loss, self-esteem and relationships are chick-littish, for want of a better word, your style is quiet and literary. This really surprised me, as I expected a Bridget Jones of a book. How did you reconcile your theme and your style? Which came first?

The Making of Her was rejected by one agent on these very grounds – that the tone seemed at odds with the content of the novel.  My style has always been quiet and reflective, and I went on a How To Write A Novel course at University College, Falmouth clutching the beginning of a ‘literary’ novel.  The course leader – who wrote historical romance – advised us to put aside anything we’d brought and start from scratch.  I wrote my first ever step sheet that evening, which turned out to be The Making of Her.  The course – which was excellent – basically focused on how to tell a good story.  I’ve since realised that both accessibility and depth are important to me:  I want readers to be involved, and also for there to be levels of depth and resonance.  After all, The Making of Her is about superficiality in the worlds of television and plastic surgery – yet beneath that surface lie questions about culture, the feminine, and individuality.

So, let’s talk about your writing process. How did you move from a step sheet to a fully fledged novel? Are you a planner, a pantser or something in between? 

The Making of Her was planned and I was quite regimented about it:  I set myself a target of just 2,000 words a week and worked from my step sheet.  It was comforting to have a structure, a map of the terrain.  And 2,000 words a week was doable, and meant I’d have a first draft in 9 months or so.  But these days I am a planter – something between planner and pantser, with gardening allusions.   I start with the seed of an idea, plant it on paper and watch it grow into … whatever it becomes.  How successful this is remains to be seen!

Love the idea of being a planter! I think having pantsed my first book, that’s what I’m probably doing now. So, let’s talk about working with a small indie press. How is that working for you?

Linen Press has been built over seven years by Lynn Michell, who is passionate about what she does.  She brings out two to three books a year, which means that as a writer you receive a great deal of personal attention – a fabulous gift, since Lynn is a superb editor. Pre-publication is a collaborative process and as well as working through The Making of Her chapter by chapter with Lynn, I was involved in every aspect of the book, including  choosing the cover design.  Linen Press is rightly proud of its books as beautiful objects as well as thoughtful and page-turning stories.  The down side of this is that, because the print-run is relatively small, costs tend to be high.  The Making of Her is now available as an e-book, which means it can compete.

What have you done for The Making of Her in terms of publicity?

Publicity and distribution for small indie presses are a challenge.  Writers have to be willing and able to put in a lot of time and effort on their books’ behalf.  I wrote to every women’s magazine and newspaper – in some cases twice over – and most never replied.  Book bloggers have been fabulous.  And Cheltenham Waterstones gave me a day’s signing – although I understand they no longer do so.  But the Linen Press’s reputation is growing and hopefully this will help.  They’ve just published Maureen Freely’s latest novel, Sailing Through Byzantium, which has been chosen as one of the Sunday Times’ Books of the Year.

What are you working on now?

Urgh.  The question I dread!  Because I’m not working on anything – I’m in a long-drawn-out fallow/barren period.  Wasteland.  Waiting for spring are three projects – an almost-completed first draft of a non-fiction book about creativity and personal development; 30,000 words of a novel; and the seeds of a new one – a few scenes, a few ideas, some backstory…

What were your top three reads in 2013?

I have regressed to comfort reading, and spent last year reading and re-reading Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions and Isabel Dalhousie novels, together with some Mavis Cheek and quite a bit of chicklit.  There are three novels waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf – Rosy Thornton’s Ninepins, Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist and Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky. 

You can find The Making of Her on the Linen Press website.


6 Comments

Conversations with Writers – Talking to Patricia Dusenbury

perfect victimPatricia Dusenbury is my publication day sister. Our debut crime novels launched on the same day – mine in German and in print, hers in ebook form to the world. Pat’s novel, A Perfect Victim, is an elegant crime thriller that tells the story of Claire Marshall, a professional house restorer who is caught in a web of deceit, lies and fear when one of her clients dies. Still coping with the untimely and tragic death of her husband in a house fire, Claire is emotionally bereft and struggles to cope with daily life, let alone becoming prime suspect in a murder case. Set in the suburbs of New Orleans, A Perfect Victim is spare and evocative. It is also the first in a trilogy featuring Claire Marshall.

I asked Pat some questions about her writing process and the route to publication.

1. Pat, thanks for joining me at Charlotte’s Web. Uncial Press just published A Perfect Victim. Is this your first novel or do you have a couple of manuscripts under the bed?

APV is my first novel and I have about one and a half more written.  Together they are a trilogy, following Claire Marshall, my protagonist as she recovers from the shock of her husband’s sudden death and builds a full life for herself.  Each book is also a murder mystery, and the last two include elements of romance.

2. How long did APV take you to write? And are you a planner or a pantser?

I wrote APV  on and off for ages and as a total pantser with no idea what I was doing. About five years ago, I finished it, wrote off to lots of agents, and started writing a sequel.  I went back and forth with an agent for almost a year, meanwhile working on book #2.  The agent eventually lost interest, but by that time I had two books and parts of the third.

By then, I’d learned a bit; for example, you probably should put your first novel in a drawer and leave it there. It’s a learning experience.  But I didn’t want to put two and a half books in a drawer, so I went back and totally rewrote APV. This version was accepted for publication by Uncial Press. APV has changed a lot since that first version. My approach to writing also has changed, and now I’m more of a planner.

3. What is your relationship with writing? It is something you came to late, or have you always loved it?

I enjoy writing, and have always written something. Over the years, work required me to write lots of reports, analyses, even an occasional political speech. After completing an especially dry document, I would joke about owing the world a poem, but when the time came I decided to write a mystery because I’ve always read mysteries. This turned out to be  a lot harder than expected. The difficulty plus the vast room for improvement keeps me engaged.

4. Writers tend to be avid readers. Which are your top five books?

My all time favorite book is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Other favorites change over time. Today the next four would be Bel Canto, To Kill a Mockingbird,  A Prayer for Owen Meany, and In the Lake of the Woods. My favorite genre is mysteries, and I’m a huge fan of Donna Leon, Dennis Lehane, Michael Dibdin, John LeCarre and Kate Atkinson to name my current favorites.

5. I love Kate Atkinson too! You talk about many rewrites with APV. Where do you find the energy, the resource inside yourself to keep going?

I have a head like a rock, perhaps from beating it against brick walls until the walls crack. My husband assures me this can be very annoying. However, it kept me going through the multiple rewrites.

6. What are your top tips to aspiring writers?

I would advise aspiring writers, myself included because I aspire to get better, to listen to what people you respect say about your writing and think about the best way to use their advice.

Find out more about Pat and her books on her blog:  patriciadusenbury.com. As an economist, she was responsible for writing numerous dry reports and is now trying to atone for that by writing novels that amuse and engage the reader.  She has been married to the same man for about a million years and lives with him and two Alaskan Malamutes in Atlanta, Georgia. They met on a blind date. Pat is not on Twitter, as she is busy hoping it is a passing fad.


5 Comments

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by my new friend, writer JJ Marsh, to do this meme.

The idea of this is that a writer puts up a post on his or her own blog answering ten questions about his/her work in progress, and then “tags” three writers to do the same. Then, the writer posts a link to his/her “tagger” and to the people he/she is “tagging” so that readers who are interested can visit those pages and perhaps discover some new authors whose work they’d like to read.

I’ve chosen to focus on my completed – and soon to be debut – novel Balthasar’s Gift, rather than my work-in-progress, because the latter is still in bits and nowhere near being a coherent, pleasing whole of which I can speak in sensible sentences. It’s still at the stage of being a feeling, a synopsis and a few thousand words on my laptop. However, when I do think about it, I feel little short shards of joy that are painful and pleasing at the same time – but it’s too close to talk about.

So, herewith, I give you The Next Big Thing meme:

What is the working title of your book?

Balthasar’s Gift. It was always so. My German publisher has indicated that it will need a different title in German, which is probably sensible as Balthasars Geschenk doesn’t have much of a ring.

Where did the idea come from for this book?

Two places. First, a huge feeling of rage that Thabo Mbeki’s government were denying that HIV caused AIDS and thus killing people with their lack of action. Second, an image of a juggler. I put the two together.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s crime. The first draft was literary fiction, but luckily I woke up to the fact that this story needed to be told in a very specific way, and by a very specific character who I needed to create specifically for the purpose.

Which actors do you have in mind to play in the movie of your book?

I wrote this role for Charlize Theron. But if she turns it down, my other choice is Jodie Foster, circa The Accused. As for the love interest, Spike, I spotted him on the street in Heidelberg a few weeks ago but I’m not sure if acting’s his gig.

What’s the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Oh bloody howl. This is so difficult. Here’s a little something I wrote last night but it’s by no means the final version:

Journalist Maggie Cloete has no idea what she’s in for when she investigates the murder of Balthasar Meiring, an AIDS activist, and discovers that the family of AIDS orphans he’s taken in are being targeted by a dubious local politician and a posse of vengeful gangsters.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have an agent, who has sold the German rights to a publisher in Hamburg. We are still looking to nail down the English rights. However, if we don’t succeed in selling BG into the English market, I have not discounted self-publishing. It’s a lot more respectable nowadays, especially if authors are happy to be both professional and entrepreneurial.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the novel?

Fifteen long months. This baby has been slow in the making: four years, in fact. However, I think by writing a novel I have learned how to write a novel and with better planning, Karkloof Blue will take less than half that time.

Which other books in this genre would you compare to your novel?

It’s Nadime Gordimer (South Africa, politics, pain, race, redemption) meets Janet Evanovich (gritty, acerbic, tart).

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Inequality – the unfair deal some people get and the privilege others get just by dint of birth – and how people challenge their birth-right to make a new world for themselves.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

It’s feminist crime fiction. I believe in turning over stereotypes – men as warriors, women as victims – and giving power to the disempowered. Writing that was a lot of fun, but it was also a challenge to me, as I had to keep to keep questioning my own filters and biases and trying to break through those. Whether I’ve succeeded fully still remains to be seen.

Who to tag?

Well this meme has been around some, but how about these favourite writer friends of mine?

Melissa Romo

Christine Lee Zilke

Nicole Doherty

Nova Ren Suma

Liz Fenwick

If I haven’t tagged you, please feel free to play!


9 Comments

Cool Things from WriteCon Zurich

Living on a small English island in the sea of Germany means I don’t often get to hang out in person with other English writers. So when WriteCon Zurich organiser Jill Prewett pinged me to say there was a space free and would I like to come, I was all like get me to the station right now, James, and don’t spare those horses goddamnit.

I am now heading home after a deliciously writerly weekend, but I wanted to summarise the highlights before real life kicks in again and I am too tired to think:

  • Being amongst writers. Writers care. This is a lovely and wonderful thing. I made a whole heap of new friends.
  • Emma Darwin’s fiction masterclass. I finally understand psychic distance and – this is a big and – how this relates to telling and showing. I plugged the result of some exercises from the class into chapter one of Karkloof Blue and it is now rocking.
  • The enthusiasm and drive of independent author Joanna Penn, who blogs here and writes here. I learnt for the first time how self-publishing can be a very good thing. Thanks, Jo, for explaining the hybrid model to me.
  • Vegetarian restaurant Hiltl. The best food. I went there twice.
  • Snow.
  • Finding my favourite hat and gloves again after losing them.
  • The fact that being amongst writers and talking and thinking about writing has had an immediate effect on getting me writing again. I am re-inspired and re-energised, and that is the best thing of all.

Now I have a four-hour train journey back to Heidelberg and more than enough time to a write a minimum of 2,000 words.

Crack the whip, James!


16 Comments

More on Voice

While reading to the creative writing students about voice this weekend, I found myself getting a little choked up. It’s embarrassing at the best of times to cry in public, but to well up and start snuffling while teaching is a bit much.

It was these words of Holly’s about fear that did it:

If your heart is beating fast and your palms are sweating and your mouth is dry, you’re writing from the part of yourself that has something to say that will be worth hearing. Persevere. I’ve never written anything that I’ve really loved that didn’t have me, during many portions of the manuscript, on the edge of my seat from nerves, certain that I couldn’t carry off what I was trying to do, certain that if I did I would so embarrass myself that I’d never be able to show my face in public again — and I kept writing anyway.

At the heart of everything that you’ve ever read that moved you, touched you, changed your life, there was a writer’s fear. And a writer’s determination to say what he had to say in spite of that fear.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. And then thank your fear for telling you that what you’re doing, you’re doing right.

Voice is born from a lot of words and a lot of work — but not just any words or any work will do. You have to bleed a little. You have to shiver a little. You have to love a lot — love your writing, love your failures, love your courage in going on in spite of them, love every small triumph that points toward eventual success. You already have a voice. It’s beautiful, it’s unique, it’s the voice of a best-seller. Your job is to lead it from the darkest of the dark places and the deepest of the deep waters into the light of day.

I know that fear. Only too well. When I first started blogging, I used to shake. When I first started writing, it was as terrifying for me as it is for a novice skier pushing off down a black slope. It was scary because I was putting myself on the line, because I was saying the things I’d always wanted to say, because I was finally self-identifying as a “writer”.

And I credit blogging with getting me there. All the posts I’ve written here, all the playing around with memes and lists and making friends and writing about writing, have helped me develop confidence  as a writer and a voice. It’s been my playground.

What I so wanted to impress on the creative writers at the weekend workshop is that our voices – the part that makes us all unique – are already right there. Voice is not something to fight or search for. It’s a matter of being oneself. There was an amazing moment during the workshop when the individual voices really shone out. We did an exercise on point of view and they had to rewrite Cinderella in third person from the point of view of one of the Ugly Sisters, or Snow White from the POV of one of the dwarves. Plot was a given. The outline was already there. The characters were fully formed. All the writers had to do was give them a voice. And they did it brilliantly. Even though nine of them chose to write Grumpy’s story, each Grumpy was fabulous and unique.

As Holly says, it’s just a matter of harnessing that voice and leading it out into the light of day.

No matter how damn scary that can be.

P.S. Although I’m deep in revisions, I’m joining my friend Melissa from The Book or Bust in her Month of Making Things Up. Let us know if you want to play.


9 Comments

Five Lessons from a Rock Band

My favourite South African rock band, The Parlotones, are on tour again and, happily for me, will be playing in Karlsruhe in the spring. I went to their Stuttgart show and it was fabulous. In South Africa, The Parlotones usually play in football stadiums to crowds of 40,000, but because they are a little less well-known in Europe and the USA they tend to play in clubs where the audiences seldom veer over 300. This means fans like me can get up close and personal with the band.

It dawned on me from observing them closely that there are five  things The Parlotones do incredibly well that writers can learn from. 

1. They have great sound. They write and play big anthemic sing-along tunes. It’s bounce on the balls of your feet and punch the air music, rather than flick on your cigarette lighter and sway music. Best of all, their live sound is identical to their recorded sound. If you’ve learnt to love certain songs by listening to a CD over and over again, it’s gratifying when you splash out the money to hear that band live, that they sound good.

Lesson for writers: Know your craft and use it to the very, very best of your ability.

2. They write great lyrics. You wouldn’t identify the Parlotones as South African on first listen as they have a big rocky sound similar to Radiohead and Coldplay. They don’t use any South African slang or any other South African languages (of which we have many) in their lyrics. However, when you have time to listen, you find that their preoccupations are deeply South African: a bleeding city, people escaping from reality through ‘happy pills’ and partying, a  ‘messiah from the Transkei, born to inspire’, living on ‘the brighter side of hell’. It’s not obvious, but it’s there.

Lesson for writers: be authentic. Write about your preoccupations and your passions.

3. They give a great show. The Parlotones crossed my radar for the first time when they played the concert at Soccer City that opened the 2010 World Cup. They only played one song – the utterly fabulous Push Me to the Floor – but they were gripping. Lead singer Kahn Morbee’s glam-rock styling, combined with his powerful, melancholy voice, and the band’s big, stadium-filling sound makes for an entrancing show. Live, they are ten times better.

Lesson for writers: Don’t be mediocre. Be fabulous. Be extreme. Push your creativity to its limits.

4. They turn up later, wearing smiles. After the show, the band members clustered around their merchandise stand, posing for photographs with fans, signing autographs and chatting. They were relaxed and friendly, if a bit sweaty. This wasn’t just a once-off for Stuttgart: Germany’s Top Husband had seen them in Seattle a few weeks before where they did just the same.

Lesson for writers: Be professional. Reward your audience by turning up in person and not being a creep.

5. Doing the other stuff. The Parlotones are on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube. They have  released a red wine called ‘Giant Mistake’ and a white wine called ‘Push Me to the Floor’. They have embraced the work of publicity. Their Wikipedia page quotes Kahn as saying, ‘We’ve always had the attitude to just do anything, because everything counts. We’ve done it all; from having kids throwing water bombs at us, to waxing each other’s legs on national television and eating tripe in Soweto. And it really does all count; soon the whole country knows who you are. (Well not ‘soon’, rather ‘eventually.’)’.

Lesson for writers: Maximise your brand. Do the social networking. Embrace your tribe. Be open to opportunities.

Here are our heroes giving Johannesburg a dose of  ‘Should We Fight Back?’, a song inspired by the struggle against apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom:


1 Comment

The De Lacy Inheritance, Book Review and Author Interview

After a brief blast of sunshine this weekend, German weather has returned to form: cold, wet, Novemberish. With the last few autumn leaves lashing the windows, this is perfect snuggle under the covers and read weather, and luckily I have a piles of lovely books to do just that.

One book I have just finished is Elizabeth Ashworth’s debut novel The De Lacy Inheritance. Set in 1192, the year Richard the Lionheart was captured in Austria, its central character is Richard FitzEustace, an aristocractic soldier who has returned to Lancashire from the Crusades with a damning disease – leprosy. His family cast him out, but at the same time, place him under obligation to seek out their relation, Sir Robert de Lacy, rumoured to be near his deathbed, and press the family’s claim to his estate.

Roger, his headstrong bully of a younger brother, is now head of the family and is determined to marry off their sister Joanna to a wealthy and unattractive old landowner. Joanna takes matters into her own hands and follows Richard on his quest, where, to complicate things, she falls in love with Geoffrey whose father, the arrogant Dean of Wallei, is the other claimant to the De Lacy Inheritance.

Richard is a fascinating character, who, despite his leprosy and the fact that he has been cast aside by society, still manages to secure his family’s future without wanting the rewards for himself. It is quite odd to read a book where the main male protagonist is a hermit and outcast, but Ashworth makes him appealing by recalling his lost love in the Holy Land and showing his deep warmth towards his younger sister. At the end he is offered a chance to rehabilitate himself, to claim his land and his birth-right, but he chooses a spiritual path. He is an unlikely hero, but all the more admirable in contrast to the venial Roger and Dean of Wallei.

The De Lacy Inheritance is a delicious, complex web which Elizabeth Ashworth deftly weaves for our reading pleasure. As a historian with a special focus on Lancashire, her writing is lit from within by the acuteness of her historical detail and her love for the county and its history makes the novel all the more vivid. This is definitely one for the Christmas list.

Elizabeth kindly agreed to answer some questions about The De Lacy Inheritance and her writing process. Many thanks, Elizabeth!

Charlotte: The De Lacy Inheritance is your fourth book, but your first novel. After writing three history books, how different did you find the novel-writing process?

Elizabeth: I think the important word that’s missing there is first ‘published’ novel.  It isn’t the first one I’ve written.  When I was a child I used to churn them out relentlessly, and a few years ago I wrote a modern day novel but never pursued publication because it was too personal in content.  I’ve always been a story-teller, though my fiction work has been mostly short stories.  I used to think that a novel would be much harder than a short story, but surprisingly I found it easier.  I find that I can swap from non-fiction to fiction fairly easily because my non-fiction work does tend to have a narrative style and the historical fiction does include facts – so the books overlap rather than being distinctly different.

C: Part of The De Lacy Inheritance is based on fact. How did that come about and how did you weave fact and fiction together?

E: It began when I was writing Tales of Old Lancashire.  I discovered a legend about a Holy Hermit who lived in a cave under the castle at Clitheroe and the legend says that he was a member of the de Lacy family who was a leper.  I was fascinated by the idea and went off to dig deeper into the factual history.  After writing a short account for the book I kept thinking about this man who was a leper and who could have inherited a fortune except for his disease.  I felt compelled to tell his story.  So, using the facts as a backbone, I began to add detail which was fictional.  I found that I liked having a ready-made story to build on although it was also a challenge because I had to write within those facts rather than letting my imagination take over completely.

 C: Although TDLI is set in 1192, I thought it had a modern sensibility, espoused by the main female character Johanna FitzEustace. Could you talk about how Johanna’s feistiness and refusal to kow-tow to family pressure is essential to the novel?

E: I don’t think Johanna was the only girl in 1192 to refuse to give in to family pressure.  In medieval literature there are girls just like her.  One named Christina, for example, who was determined to become a nun and refused to marry no matter how much her parents tried to persuade her.  I don’t think Johanna was typical, but I hope that she is believable and although she is ‘modern’ in some ways I tried to keep her contemporary to the times in which she lived.  How essential she is to the storyline is an interesting question because for me this was always Richard’s story and Johanna wasn’t in the original version.  It was only when I realised that the novel was far too short, and that I probably needed a female character and some romance if I was to interest a publisher, that I threaded her story around Richard’s.  It’s reassuring that the join doesn’t show and that she is seen to play an important part in the eventual outcome.

C: Your central male character, Richard FitzEustace, is a leper who is condemned to live alone for the rest of his life. He is, however, a very appealing character. How did you manage to strike that balance?

E: I don’t think of Richard as a leper.  To me, he is the handsome and attractive man that people saw before he contracted the disease.  As a leper he is viewed differently because of his outward appearance, but that does not change who he is – only how he is perceived and how people treat him.

 C: You are now writing your fourth novel. Can you tell us anything about it? What is the status of novels two and three?

E:  I’m currently wrestling with a novel about a later member of the family, Alice de Lacy.  The factual history that surrounds it is very complex with barons and earls changing allegiances more often than their underlinen – and it’s proving challenging to explain the necessary facts without becoming boring.  It’s very much a work in progress at the moment and I’m enjoying stretching myself but some days I cross out more than I add to it.

Novels two and three are currently with my publisher and I’m hoping to share some news about one or both of them quite soon.  One is based on another Lancashire story about Sir William and Lady Mabel de Haigh.  The other centres around a little known fact about Richard III and identifies a possible identity for the mother of his two illegitimate children.  Perhaps I should have people vote on which one they want next, though I hope that both will make it into print eventually!

 C: What is your writing process? Do you have any particular routines or methods that help you write?

E: I’m not sure I have a writing process.  I have scenes that run in my mind like a film and when I’ve imagined them for a while I try to write them down, though what I write often has no resemblance to what I was thinking.  It’s rather like going into a trance and it all comes tumbling out.  I try to sit down to write whenever I can find the time.  It can be hard to begin, but it’s even harder to finish and if I can’t write I become very frustrated.

 C: As a much-published author, do you have any tips for apprentice novelists? Any pitfalls that we might avoid in our writing, or in our approach to agents and publishers?

E: Persevere: lots of people give up after a few rejections.

Write: the more you write the better you will become.

Read: you can learn a lot from seeing how other people do it.

Be lucky: try to be in the right place at the right time.  It helps.

Make your own luck:  seek the opportunities that will ensure you are in the right place at the right time.   

C: You have been writing since you were 11, when you had your first article published in Diana magazine. What are the aspects of storytelling that particularly appeal to you?

E: I enjoy making a connection with readers.  I want them to come and share my fictional world and enjoy themselves there.  I want them to meet my characters and get to know them, and I like to send them away with something new to think about.

 C: Are you a keen reader? Do you have any favourite authors? What is the best book you’ve read this year? 

E: Do you want to see my groaning bookshelves?  Yes, I love to read.  I read fiction and non-fiction.  I’ll try anything and I like to challenge myself by reading books that wouldn’t always be my natural choice.  Best book this year?  It’s hard to pick one, so I’m going to pick two that complement each other:  Agincourt by Juliet Barker (non-fiction) and Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell (the fiction version).

C: When you are not reading and writing, what do you do?

E: If I’m not either reading or writing I’m often in a state of frustration wanting to do either one or the other.  The only things that distract me are old castles and bookshops – though I do quite like eating as well.


6 Comments

The Tapestry of Love, Review and Author Interview

Two posts ago, I noted my summer wish list. Ask and ye shall receive, friends. Germany’s Top Husband came home with a copy of The Slap and Rosy Thornton pinged me and offered me a review copy of The Tapestry of Love (TTOL), an offer which I did not refuse. A couple of days later, a lovely hardcover arrived in the post from England and I read it immediately.

Here’s my review:

Rosy’s fourth book is a slight departure for her as it is set in France rather than her native England. It tells the story of Catherine Parkstone, who decamps to the Cevennes valley to start a new life. She buys a house called Les Fenils, one side of which is carved out of the grey cevenol granite of the local mountains and she retreats there, to nature, silence, a few friendly neighbours and her great passion in life: needlework.

While TTOL celebrates the joy of the French countryside, it’s not just a bucolic paean. A few things arrive to disrupt Catherine’s peace: scary admin letters from the French authorities, her sister Bryony, on sabbatical from her hectic City job, and a handsome and mysterious neighbour, Patrick Castagnol. When Bryony strikes up a relationship with Patrick, Catherine’s heart is a little stabbed, but she focuses instead on growing her sewing business by day and needle-pointing exquisite tapestries by night. Then, when her mother dies, Catherine returns to England for the funeral and to sort out her belongings. She is faced with a choice: does she stay in England where her two children are or does she return to Les Fenils, the community she has built there – and Patrick?

TTOL is a delicious read. I fell into its pages as into a cool stream on a hot day. Thornton’s sense of place is impeccable, as are her descriptions of the art of needlepoint and the journey of a woman going inside herself to find the strengths that lie there. It is lilting and lovely, and just the thing to read when one has escape in mind.

After I read the book, Rosy Thornton kindly agreed to answer some questions about it and about writing in general. Here’s the interview:

Charlotte: The main protagonist of The Tapestry of Love, Catherine Parkstone, leaves England to start a new life in France. What do you think is the attraction of starting over and what qualities does Catherine have that especially enable her to tackle her new life?

Rosy: I think the attraction of escaping to a new life is probably there in all of us – certainly in me. There are those days when life just seems so complicated: when the web of demands and obligations – work and family, financial and practical – seems almost overwhelming. But actually acting on the urge is a different matter. I am far too risk-averse, I think. I like the safety of the familiar. Plus, Catherine starts her new life on her own. I don’t think I would ever have the courage to do that; I’m too fond of talking and not fond enough of my own company.

C: TToL includes some beautiful descriptions of nature and the passing of the seasons in the Cevennes valley. You clearly have spent some time there. What drew you to the area and inspired you to write about it?

R: To confess the truth, I only ever spent a fortnight’s family holiday in the area, and in high summer. But we did speak to local people while we were there, about the life, and about the rain in autumn, the winter winds. The rest I’ve pieced together from books and from the internet. But it is true that the place made a huge impact on me. My holiday was twenty years ago, but it still retains a very special place in my heart.

C: Catherine is a talented seamstress, but as the novel progresses it becomes evident that she is an artist. How did you research the art of tapestry-making and have you ever been tempted to try it? (I speak as someone who once needle-pointed a cushion cover and loved the contemplative nature of working with needle and thread, but wasn’t patient enough to continue.)

R: Again, I’m afraid I’m no needlewoman – I can barely sew on a button. Nor did I engage in in-depth research. But my mother designs and stitches tapestries (simple ones – nothing on the scale of Catherine’s work). Check out the amazing work some people produce.

C: I have read all your novels and you write about your characters with such affection. When each book is finished, do you find it difficult to say farewell to those characters and would you ever be tempted to bring any back to life in a new novel?

R: It is difficult, sometimes, when I finish a book and have to try to begin the next one, with half my mind – and heart – still caught up in the previous characters and their world. I think it was especially true of TTOL. The house I had built for Catherine to live in, up her secluded French mountain, was my secret bolthole as well. For the nine months or so I was working on the book, I could escape there at the keyboard any time I liked. I really missed that when I finished writing it.

As for sequels, or revisiting the same characters … I don’t think I’d ever want to do that, no. I think each book, when it’s completed to the author’s satisfaction, leaves it inhabitants in the place and time which feels right. Even books which have a slightly open-textured ending (like TTOL) and leave the reader wondering about things … well, those are things I want still to be wondering about, too – not things I want tied down and resolved.

C: Your novels are often about tightly-knit communities (a Cambridge college in Hearts and Minds, a tiny Cevennes hamlet in TTOL, a women’s shelter in More Than Love Letters, a call centre in Crossed Wires). What is it about small communities that lends itself to fiction?

R: I suppose that small communities – closed worlds – lend themselves well to the world of a novel. It limits the scope of what the author has to imagine, allowing that world to be conveyed in depth and detail, and I enjoy doing that. Plus the interactions tend to be intense, where the community is close-knit; everything is amplified, somehow. The political back-stabbing of the dons in Hearts and Minds is a good example, if not necessarily a positive one! But in TTOL the community element is entirely positive. I wanted to explore the process by which people come to belong in a place – how we forge connections and put down roots.

C: You have a busy day job as a Cambridge law lecturer and you are a parent of two. How do you combine that with your writing? Do you ever long to write fulltime?

R: By getting up ridiculously early! I do all my writing (of fiction, that is) before the rest of the family are up: typically from 5.30 to 7am daily. After that, my job and family have my attention for the rest of the day – but the early mornings are my ‘me’ time, my escape to the invented world of my stories.

C: Having ‘met’ you on Litopia, I know that you are especially encouraging to aspiring novelists like myself. Do you have any mentors who have helped you on the path to becoming a novelist?

R: I have also been helped hugely by other authors, published and unpublished, whom I’ve ‘met’ on the internet: on Litopia (though I only discovered it after I was published), but also on WriteWords and in the fanfiction community. And I have a pair of real life friends who have given me great advice: a biographer married to a crime fiction writer. But I’d say my main mentor is my agent, the wonderful Robert Dudley, who turned my first novel from a complete shambles into something publishable, and whose editorial help with every book, and general support, encouragement and hand-holding, is utterly invaluable.

C: People often say to me that one of the ways to train as a novelist is to read, read, read. Who are your favourite authors and what are you reading at the moment?

My favourite authors tend to be women, either classic (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell), ‘period’ (Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald) or contemporary (Barbara Trapido, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, Pat Barker, Salley Vickers, Jane Smiley, E Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, AS Byatt, Anita Desai, Rose Tremain, Ali Smith …) All people who write the kind of books I can only dream of! But I think that’s how we improve as writers. I’m not a big believer in reading only, or even mainly, in one’s own genre. I also like crime fiction – the golden age stuff (Dorothy L Sayers, especially) and now PD James and Donna Leon.

Reading now? Rose Tremain’s Trespass – curiously, also set in ‘my’ Cevennes.