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Author Talk: Five minutes with Katie Fforde

Writing at home is never easy but Katie has found the perfect balance. The President of Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) talks to Mary Hogarth about her latest books, characters and setting up a bursary for new writers.


The inspiration for A Secret Garden came from?

Our open gardens, a group of us (all gardeners) have been opening our gardens for about four years and we have sculptures too. It’s much nicer if there is something else to look at besides plants.

The book had several sources of inspiration, one being when I was invited to meet the Master Mason at Gloucester Cathedral. He was a Frenchman on whom I based Jack’s character, although I made Jack a bit different and English.

Once I had the garden, I added a secret part and various elements. I also wanted to have an unlikely romance, so in came the lovely Irish car mechanic and a snooty lady to shake people up a bit.


How did you develop such complex characters?

I think myself into their heads, imagining where they come from and how the world appears to them. For example if you’ve come from Ireland, you might have escaped from an oppressive, but kindly family.

Of course I also need to understand a character’s foundation such as a past romantic life if they’ve had one, are they the youngest or eldest child of the family and do they have children?


Is researching your character’s trades difficult?

I find someone who has a particular job I want to include then talk to them about it. For A Secret Garden, my lovely gardener tracked down some wonderful nursery people to help me understand what their job involves.

Having a conversation is far better than researching a role online, that’s why I always like to talk to people if I can, especially if they are enthusiastic about their work. For me the hardest part is making an approach. Sometimes I’m reluctant as I’m a bit shy about approaching people, but when I do people are mostly delighted.


Your favourite time and place to write?

I like to write early in the morning before breakfast. I try to shut myself in my office, but actually I work better when away from home so I go on writing retreats mostly with friends. Although we work hard we enjoy each other’s company and a glass or two of wine.

There is also this element of competition between us that make one work harder.

Being away from all the usual distractions such as household chores and interruptions I do far more than I would at home. I turn up at breakfast having written 1,000 words, then when the group goes off to write for the rest of the morning, I do too, so those 1,000 words then becomes 2,000.


The hardest novel to write?

Highland Fling as it was the first time I set a book outside my local Cotswold area. Because, although I had been to Scotland every year since I got married, I didn’t know it that well.

I had a great deal more knowledge when writing A Summer At Sea, which was set on board a Puffer boat in the Western Isles of Scotland. I already knew a lot about the Puffer and the area was a familiar environment.


How did you get your first book published?

I was very lucky being a member of RNA. They have a scheme whereby members can send in their unpublished novel for critical feedback.

That year the organizer was a literary scout and she sent my unpublished novel, Living Dangerously, to literary agent. The agent liked it enough to meet me and give me a few pointers. She then asked me to send her my first three chapters by end of the year. As new agent she was enthusiastic and cleverly managed to find a publisher before I finished it.


Describe your role as President of RNA

My son describes it as ‘ming vase’ role, but I like to take quite an active approach.

I’m not on the committee anymore but I do like to oversee and support the chair. Being chairperson is a bit of thankless task as it’s an awful lot of work, so it’s nice to have some one supporting you who knows what the role entails.


What motivated you to set up The Katie Fforde Bursary?

I had so much help from RNA when I was close to getting published but kept missing a book deal that I wanted to give something back.

The bursary, consisting of membership fee and a place at our three-day RNA Conference, was my opportunity to help struggling writers. I always choose someone who is struggling financially, juggling a day job with many other commitments just to be able to write.

This year I gave out two bursaries as there two, equally deserving applications. One of the joys of setting up your own bursary is that you have the final say and can award two if the situation arises.


Three characteristics of a successful novel?

  1. An original idea. It’s always best if you are the first person to write about cupcakes not the 59th.
  2. Create realistic characters that people are able to warm to ­– likeable heroine for instance should not be perfect.
  3. Have a hero who is truly gorgeous, but believable. The reader needs to be left with a sense of hope that perhaps one day she might meet someone is handsome, decent, but like all of us has his flaws.


Your next book is?

Set around farming. I got the idea from TV series about farming set in Scotland, taking part were a couple, who had had their farm for years, but to their great sorrow they didn’t have any children so couldn’t pass it on.

I thought what if I were a younger relative and given the opportunity to take on that farm? Then idea began to evolve into an elderly aunt who asks her niece to take over the struggling farm when she goes into a home to see if she can make it work.

For more details about Katie and her work visit

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Author Talk: Five minutes with Lucy Dawson

Former magazine editor Lucy talks to Mary Hogarth about characters, lessons learned and inspiration for her latest novel, Everything You Told Me


Lucy-Dawson---photo-credit-Roddy-PaineSince her debut novel in 2008 Lucy has written five more books and is currently working on the seventh. Having read Psychology at Warwick she has an insight into human behavior, which is apparent in her work.


Her novels are dark, gritty and real – reflecting those personality traits many of us hope we never encounter for real.


What did you take from your experience as an editor of a children’s magazine?

That writing for children is something lots of people think is easy, and it’s actually incredibly hard. Give me psychological thrillers any day of the week.


You studied psychology at university, why didn’t you choose it as a career?

I wasn’t up for any more academic study, I only wanted to get out into the world and earn some money. It was absolutely the right decision. And I know that when I do go back to psychology (which I almost certainly will), I’ll be aiming for the specialism that is the best fit for me, which I’m certain I would have got wrong in my twenties.


How did your career as a novelist evolve?

I made the classic mistake of knowing I wanted to write, and getting into editing thinking it would lead to writing – and it didn’t. I had to make a conscious decision to career change, and re-trained as a Pilates instructor so I could teach morning and evening, then write during the day. I definitely used those editing skills and have no problem with viciously cutting my own work.


Everything-You-Told-MeTell us about your first book deal for His Other Lover

The only agent I sent His Other Lover to – because I really wanted her to represent me – offered to take me on straight away. It was sold very quickly to Sphere and they published it brilliantly.

It’s not always that easy, I was very lucky.


Your inspiration for Everything You Told Me?

I lost my phone and realized I had no idea how to contact anyone at all. I didn’t even know my husband’s number off by heart. So I imagined how it would feel to be miles away from home with no phone, no keys, no money . . . and no idea how you got there. It didn’t take long for that idea to snowball into a whole book.


When beginning a new book where do you start?

At the beginning with an opening scene. I don’t plan anything or make notes – I just sit down and write it from start to finish. I’ve never been someone who can write scenes out of sequence. For me discovering the story as I go along is the best bit about writing.


Which is more important character or plot?

Unless you have both – you’re doomed.


How do you develop your characters? 

I don’t consciously develop characters. I usually have a start point scenario that begins each book – and a character somehow just seems to tag along as part of that. In Everything You Told Me – I knew Sally had to be a normal, far from perfect mum, but hugely resilient and able to withstand the situations I was going to put her in, while vulnerable enough that you’d worry for her. The more I threw at her, the more her character emerged. I also knew I needed a character who was going to be Sally’s nemesis – enter Kelly, her future sister-in-law . . . who seems hard as her polished nails, and yet has secrets of her own.

They were a LOT of fun to write, and when I put them together, I could see exactly where the story was going to go.


Has the degree helped you shape your characters?

My degree was very science based, rather than social psychology, which is the study of what motivates behavior, so it wasn’t hugely helpful. However, anyone who studies psychology has, I think, a good sense of empathy – which is crucial for developing characters. If I don’t understand what is motivating a character, they always wind up feeling 2d, which is useless.

The part of my degree that probably helped me the most was psychopathology, which put crudely, is the study of mental disorders, and their causes, development and treatment. I found that fascinating and it’s probably what has influenced my writing most – the very fine line between what is considered normal mental health, and what is not.


Having written five books to-date, which is your favourite?

My favourite is always the one I’m writing at the time, because I get such a kick out of seeing the story emerge. That said, I’ll always have a soft spot for His Other Lover, because I had no expectations, I just enjoyed every minute of writing it.


Are you working on a new book, if so can you give us a preview?

I’m just about to finish my seventh book. It’s about a woman’s 10-second encounter with a stranger, and the devastating consequences of their meeting. . .


Is it hard to make a good living from fiction?

The thing most people struggle with is the irregularity of income from writing. You can have really good years and really bad ones. If you like the security of a regular monthly salary, then writing isn’t for you.


The three most important lessons you’ve learned about writing?

  • If you wait for the muse to strike you, you’ll be waiting a long time. It takes genuine discipline to be a writer.
  • If it’s not fun to write, it won’t be fun to read.
  • You can’t be precious about your writing if you want to be published. Be prepared to listen, and take advice. Editors and agents know what they’re talking about.

photo credit Roddy Paine

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Penelope Fitzgerald’s son-in-law and literary executor discusses her legacy to coincide with the 100th anniversary of her birth

Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels are now recognised as classics of the English literature of last century, and they have the added advantage of being extremely reader friendly: funny, witty, charming, quirky, beautiful and wise.

Her books are short but full of fascinating detail and observation. For those of us who were close to her, it sometimes seemed like she knew everything and had the gift of presenting it concisely, entertainingly, modestly. You can easily become addicted to her world (it’s at once peculiarly English and thoroughly European) and want to read and re-read all ten of her works of fiction, but a good place to start is with her first two novels: The Bookshop, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Offshore, which won.

The Bookshop is perhaps her best-loved book. Its enduring appeal comes from the much-shared dream of opening a shop, vividly described with much period ’50s detail, and from its depiction of the struggle of one idealistic woman against the ruthless powers that be. The film adaptation comes out next year, with Emily Mortimer as Florence, Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish, her champion, and Patricia Clarkson as the villainous Mrs Gamart.

Offshore is her most personal work. At first it appears to be a lyrical, mildly satirical watercolour study of houseboat dwellers on the Thames at Chelsea Reach, but we soon realise that this life is a temporary condition for these characters who are all in some way exiled from the land. Their troubles – Nenna is fighting to save her marriage, Maurice to evade his criminal connections – soon propel the novel forward to a dramatic conclusion.

One of the elements these two books have in common with Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Blue Flower is her convincing and delightful child characters, some of the most memorable in fiction. The blue flower is the symbol of Romantic yearning,
and this is the story of the love of the German poet, Novalis, a genius in embryo, for the inspiring but deeply ordinary Sophie, his ‘wisdom’. Published when Penelope was 78, and her last novel, it is extraordinarily young and vibrant, dealing with a large cast of brothers and sisters and friends full of passion and idealism, just embarking on their lives.
If you haven’t read Penelope Fitzgerald yet, you have a treat in store.

Terence Dooley

Penelope Fitzgerald’s son-in-law and literary executor

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Author Talk: Jackie Morris and Jon Boden discuss their book The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow

9781910862650Globally acclaimed artist and author Jackie Morris inspires us with an illustrated short story collection, The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow, inspired by music and musicians. This collection of interwoven illustrated stories for adults are also perfect to share with musically inclined children of all ages. Here Jackie shares her thoughts and then singer, composer and musician, Jon Boden also shares his.


Jackie Morris talks:

Jackie_Morris_picThe Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow is a book worked backwards. The illustrations were commissioned Christmas card designs for the charity Help Musicians, produced at a rate of one painting a year.


The brief was always the same: anything, so long as there were musical instruments or musicians in it. Even with the first card there was an unwritten narrative behind the image of three kings, three ships and a star.


After a few years the narrative widened; characters began to move between the paintings, sometimes missing for a year or two, but entering again into the next year’s card as if returning from a journey. As they gathered over the years, the stories flowed between the cards and the images became a window into a strange world.


Sometimes people would ask me if there was a story behind a piece of work, and what it was. I would reply, “you tell me.” My feeling was that the images all spoke a different story to different people.


Now, here, between the covers of this book there is a new gathering, of images and stories. The words tell only a small part of what can be found in the images. These stories ask more questions than they answer. Look at the paintings and find within them more answers. The book is a harbour in which to rest, a catalyst for the imagination, and the stories are a series of lullabies for grown-ups.


My hope is that the threads of stories will wrap around the dreams of others and spin fine gold threads to catch the imagination.



Jon Boden, Singer, Composer and Musician talks:

jon_bowden_smI first became aware of the beautiful imagination of Jackie Morris over ten years ago when I received a Christmas card with a panoramic vision of snow, patchwork balloons and music-making pilgrims entitled “Flight of Fancy”. The picture was so mysterious and enchanting that I immediately stuck it in a frame and placed it on our living room mantelpiece, and there it has remained ever since, centre-fold crease and all.


Morris’ sixteen-year “flight of fancy” in her work for Help Musicians UK (previously the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund) has been a slowly blossoming flower, each year yielding a tantalising glimpse into an enigmatic, free-flowing world with music at its heart. Each character, each landscape feels like the window into an unknowable story that is quietly carrying on its own time and space, untroubled by the inquisitive eyes of onlookers gazing up from beneath the mantelpiece. I must admit to a tinge of sadness every time I’ve immersed myself in these pictures, that the secrets of their private cosmos would never be revealed.


So thank goodness Jackie Morris has decided to throw open that window and invite us into the magical world of The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow.


The question of where folk tales have come from is one that has long occupied literary theorists and psychologists alike, but most agree that the strange, simple, twisted beauty of such stories must be a manifestation of the human subconscious itself. That being the case it follows that new fairy tales can only really be created if they are written sub-consciously. For most people that would presumably mean taking mind-altering drugs or hoping that a dream comes along at some point with narrative intact…


The brilliance of this book is that Morris has devised a far more interesting and fruitful method for tapping into the subconscious world of the folk tale. By letting her imagination run riot through her paintings over many years without any compulsion to provide a narrative context she has yielded the sign-posts for these stories. But since they have come bubbling up from her own sub-conscious it is only really possible for her to follow those markers and piece together the hidden stories of her own visual imaginings.


That she has managed to do so in such a compelling, lucid and bewitching way is not only immensely gratifying for readers and lovers of great illustrative art, but is also tremendously exciting for the future of artistic creation itself. Music, painting and words have long been close acquaintances, but in The Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow Morris has discovered a way of bringing the three art forms together in a truly organic, intuitive amalgam.


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Author Talk: Q&A with Christobel Kent author of The Loving Husband


9780751562415-2Did you have the whole plot for this book worked out before you started writing or did you change or review certain things as ideas came to you?

For this novel, as for my previous English-set thriller The Crooked House, and the one I have just finished – although not for any of my Italian books – I worked out the whole plot before I began writing the book in a scene by scene plan, much more than a synopsis, something around a hundred pages long. It doesn’t at all feel as though I ‘begin writing’ when I set out to write the novel itself, as an awful lot of quite developed writing has already happened. I do it this way because I need to understand the characters and develop them before the plot takes shape. Even a plan as detailed as this, though, allows for changes and digressions. One clue or plot twist or character can end up taking much more space and significance than another, for example and ideas can occur to me as I go along. But there are much less likely to be any big changes, such as who did it.

What is the most interesting thing you have learnt when creating your books? Do you learn new things about yourself?

You learn how dull and uninteresting you are, quite a lot of the time!  Putting your thoughts and yourself down on paper can be rather testing, when you only think ooofff how boring. I try very very hard not to be boring, that’s my idea of total failure as a novelist, so I suppose I set the bar very high.


Was Nathan a difficult character to research? He seemed to have a lot of psychological problems that gave him power to control people that should have known better?

I don’t really research characters, or indeed anything in my novels aside from some small specific technical details. I just sort of accumulate bits of information about criminal or unpleasant behaviour – about bad people whose quirks and characteristic behaviours can be given away in chance remarks or newspaper stories. Such as: when the infamous Rosemary and Fred West were tried, a neighbour said of Rose West that she was astonished she could have been capable of such terrible acts because ‘she kept her children’s hair so nice’. Small unexpected or telling details like that are gold dust, and they can come from all sorts of places – not least amongst one’s acquaintance; usually not from people one knows well but from passing encounters. I don’t seek them out or write them down, but once heard they are never forgotten. There are plenty of men a little bit like Nathan out there: men who need to control their wives or lovers or girlfriends, and disguise that control as loving care.


How did you feel when you heard your novel was going to be optioned for a three-part drama by ITV studios?

I was absolutely delighted, of course!  When you write – and I have written eleven novels now – practically the first thing anyone ever says is wouldn’t it be great if it was turned into a TV series/movie?  Of course I know quite well what the odds are even of being optioned, let alone the film or series actually getting made, so my heart always sank when the question was asked. But my books are all in their way cinematic, not least because I focus a lot on setting, and always have a very strong visual idea of what is happening and where. And trying to decide on one’s perfect cast list for one’s characters is every author’s favourite daydream (not least because it ends with us being rich and famous).

What does your usual writing day routine consist of?

My usual writing day routine consists of getting the children out of the house to school (this is easier than it used to be as I only have the last of five children at home now), sitting down at my computer (which is in my bedroom, facing the wall so as to present no opportunities for distraction) and writing for two hours, roughly. This was established when I started writing and I had a nine-year-old, a seven-year-old, a five-year-old and a three-year-old. When the last baby came along a couple of years later, two hours was an absolute maximum because that was how long she would sleep after I had wheeled her home in the pram from dropping the others at school. My husband makes me one cup of the best coffee in the world after about ten minutes, and I make myself a second (less perfect) one when I have got to five hundred words. I write a thousand words a day roughly, never less, occasionally more. When I started writing I used sometimes to go over it again in the evening for half an hour, with a glass of wine in my hand. I do that less now, but it works pretty well as a light self-editing technique. As long as you only ever do it on one glass of wine.


Have you ever written a scene that has scared you enough so you have had to walk away for a minute or two?

I don’t get scared exactly by my own writing, as generally I have a resolution worked out – though I have had the hairs rise on the back of my neck. For example, when in The Loving Husband Fran goes up into the attic of the grim old house she lives in: I hadn’t really worked out what it was she was going to find there when I began writing it so it was more about closing my eyes and thinking of what a dark spidery attic feels like, the space, the smell, the rafters, the quality of the shadows and that sense in many crowded attics that something might be waiting in there.


Where does the darkness in The Loving Husband come from?

I think the darkness in The Loving Husband comes from my understanding of the very risky business of motherhood, the fears and burdens it brings, and of committing yourself to another human being for life, very often when you know very little about them. People regularly turn out to be darker and more complicated than you first realise, when they present their sunniest, most upbeat face to you and the world; sometimes they conceal their true selves from you, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes they change with major life events such as having children. The thought of revealing your most vulnerable, needy self, your deepest self, to someone who then either rejects or abuses or manipulates you, is horrible to me. And if you add in the need – as in The Loving Husband – to protect small children, plus a hostile alien environment, what you get is terror.


Do your characters stay with you after you finish writing or do you leave them on the page?

Some of my characters stay with me long after I’ve written the novel in which they appear. The best ones do – and the ones you mine yourself most deeply for. In my Italian detective series, of course, (five novels so far) I have come to think of my principal characters as my own family. I know I am going to see them again, and look forward to it.


Have any authors or novels particularly shaped your writing style?

I don’t think I write like any other crime writer, if I am honest. I often wish I did – but those who have inspired me are Patricia Highsmith for her deep uncompromising darkness and understanding of the criminal urge, Daphne du Maurier for her wild imagination, her delight in bold drama and her intense involvement with landscape, and Georges Simenon for his fine cool economy with description and detail and characterisation, his understanding that what is really interesting in a crime story is human nature. I think Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine is really the mistress of the powerful hybrid that is the literary psychological thriller and she was the model who gave me confidence to write something more elaborate than a simple ‘mystery’ while not losing sight of the mission to entertain and excite and terrify.


Did you have a favourite bedtime read as a child? If so, what did you particularly love about it? 

I loved Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase series (though when I was a child I think she had only written the first four). Black Hearts in Battersea was my favourite, I think. I loved her fine eye for physical detail and her brilliant way with character – feisty misfit girls, evil governesses, lumbering sidekicks – and her strong sense of adventure, of what a child responds to, and beauty. There was a wonderful scene in Wolves of Willoughby Chase when the two main characters, young girls, escape in deep snowy winter from an orphanage by scaling the wall and are met by a friend driving a cart loaded with sheepskins where they can burrow down and stay warm even in the frosty night, safe from pursuing wolves.

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Author Talk: Unravelling by Thorne Moore

Author Thorne Moore answers a few questions from Lovereading about her book Unravelling 

9781909983489What were you like at school?

Academically bright, socially hopeless. It wasn’t my happiest time.

Were you good at English?

Yes, great at English Language, which involved grammar and what would now be called creative writing. My best O level grade was English Language. However, I very nearly failed English Literature, since it seemed to be about expressing the correct opinions about other people’s writing. I have never been short of my own opinions.

Which writers inspire you?

Iris Murdoch, Barbara Vine, Kate Atkinson – and Jane Austen in a very humble, kneeling-at-her-feet sort of way. I used to use milestones in her life to encourage me not to give up. She was 36 when she first got published. That encouraged me until I was 37. She died at 42, so I gave myself till 42. Seriously annoying when I turned 43. Now I reconcile myself with thinking that she took her time to get going.

So, what have you written?

Well, apart from the 20,000 novels written and discarded since I was about 14, I have three novels published by Honno – A Time For Silence, Motherlove and The Unravelling, which was published in July this year. My first published work was a short story, in a magazine, in 2010, which was voted 1st prize by the readers. It gave me the push I really needed to get over the finishing line.

What genre are your books?

A difficult question. Crime, but not whodunits. I am not interested in crime as a puzzle, with clues to be followed in order to reach a triumphant conclusion. I am not interested in a duel between goody and baddy, with a clever criminal carefully planning a crime and determined to mislead an even more brilliant detective. The crimes I am interested in are the unintended ones, the ones committed on the spur of the moment by people pushed into a corner, crimes that are just the fatally wrong choice at the wrong moment. The crimes they didn’t mean to commit and wish they hadn’t. It’s the psychological impact that interests me, and the long-term consequences. Even if I write about psychopaths, I am really interested in how it all came about and how people would cope with having a psychopath in their midst. Would they recognise the phenomenon or try to pretend it’s not true? And how would they cope with the aftermath? I could call my genre Psychological Mystery, but I quite like Domestic Noir.

How much research do you do?

Enough to make sure I get details right when necessary. I don’t want any reader to start screaming ‘She’s got that wrong!’although I expect some will, but I try to get dates, procedures, little details right. I don’t want to make any research too obvious, though. Sometimes, research uncovers details that I itch to include, because they are so astonishing and interesting, but if they are irrelevant to the theme or characters, I have to be firm with myself and put them to one side. So I put aside all the fascinating information I discovered about a local POW camp, when I was writing A Time For Silence, because it didn’t add to my theme, but I did read local newspapers and talk to local people in order to get the general background right. In my latest book, The Unravelling, I needed to check small things like the weather on very specific days, or TV schedules from years ago. The internet really is a godsend for that sort of research. Instant answers found at the click of a mouse. How did I manage before? On the other hand, it is about a girl who was 10 in 1966, and I didn’t have to research that. I just had to remember it.

Do you write on a typewriter, computer, dictate or longhand?

Any author worth her salt is supposed to say, ‘Oh I always write in longhand with my trusty Parker fountain pen,’ or ‘Call me old fashioned, but I still tap with two fingers on the Remington Standard 2 I inherited from my great-great-grandmother.’ Rubbish. The word processor, on my laptop, is the best thing since unsliced Granary bread. No more throwing reams of paper in the bin, no more illegible corrections scribbled in margins, and extra bits sellotaped in. No more realising that you’ve used the wrong name and wondering how many times you’ve done it in the previous 300 pages. Cut, paste, find and replace – brilliant.

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?

I have a loose outline and yes, I see where it takes me. I usually have very definite images of the locations, and of most of the characters but sometimes I think I know what they’re going to do and they surprise me. If they have developed in a realistic enough manner, who am I to argue with their choices?

What is the hardest thing about writing?

Writing isn’t hard. Deleting half of what you’ve written because it shouldn’t be there is the hard bit. All the editing – and the endless waiting. “Writer” is only one letter removed from “Waiter.” That’s the most agonising part of the process.

What are your thoughts on writing a book series?

I’ve never wanted to in the past, but a carrot has been dangled before my nose and I’m seriously thinking about it. I can see the appeal.

What are your thoughts on good/bad reviews?

My thoughts on bad reviews don’t bear repeating. But mostly, really bad reviews are by bad tempered people who got out of bed the wrong side, or who are simply the wrong audience for the book. I don’t write bad reviews, because if I think a book is really bad, I can’t be bothered to review it. If someone can be bothered, he or she is probably prompted by hidden issues. Good reviews, on the other hand, really lift the spirits. They don’t have to be five star reviews to be good. A good review, for me, is one that shows the reader has read my book and thought hard about it. That is very flattering.

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Author Talk with Holly Seddon

Author Holly Seddon talks to Lovereading about her Psychological Thriller Try Not to Breathe.

Author photo © James Seddon

Author photo © James Seddon

For how long have Alex and Amy from Try Not To Breathe been resident in your mind? Have they ever kept you up at night? 

Alex and Amy have kept me awake many nights! Amy came to me first and she’s the one that I worried about the most. I wanted to get her story and her voice just right, and do justice to her situation. Alex came to me second, once I’d started writing and needed a character to take up Amy’s story. At first she was fairly functional and then something happened, I pictured her pouring her drink and closing the curtains and I realised she was a whole, damaged person in her own right. But then I also thought endlessly about Jacob too!

When did you know that you had all of the jigsaw pieces ready to write your first novel? 

I’m not sure that I did know! It was more like a compulsion to write it, even when I really should have been doing other things. I’ve always written stories and always hoped to write a novel but, maybe like having a child, you never really know if you’re ready. And there’s a lot of trial and error in the first, messy draft.

Did Amy’s condition come first or Amy? How did you decide when artistic licence should take precedence over fact?

Amy’s condition came first. I was gripped by the idea of a patient in this state, but more from the point of view of the people left behind. How do you grieve when your loved one is still there? Should you grieve? How do you keep hopeful when the odds are so long? With fiction, I think you make a deal with a reader that you will be using imagination and artistic licence but within the framework of it being plausible. I hope!

How have your reading tastes changed as you’ve grown from child to teenager to adult? 

I have a lot less time to read now and that makes me very sad! It’s such a pleasure to just read and read for hours, to lose yourself in another world. I still read widely, just not for as long so I’m a lot more picky with that precious time. I’ve got a bit more soppy since having kids too, I can’t read anything about terrible things happening to children! I used to read supernatural nonsense and gore (like most kids and teens) but now I’m more interested in characters. Metaphorical skeletons in the closet rather than real ones!

9781782399452-2What is the best experience you’ve had since becoming an author?

When my mum sent me a photo of my dad holding my book in their local bookshop. I cried like a baby!

Do you have a strange book habit that you’d like to admit to?

When I wrote the chapters from Amy’s point of view in the hospital, I could only write them lying in my bed. Nice excuse, eh?

What is your writing routine? 

Shambolic! My idea of heaven is getting up about ten o’clock, going to the gym, and then having someone bring me endless tea while I spend the whole day writing. Maybe writing from a poolside lounger!

The reality is getting up about six and fumbling about, trying – and failing – to get the baby back to sleep and then writing in bursts whenever I can. I write during nap times, I write in the evening and I write two afternoons a week when I have childcare. I also stop in the middle of the pavement to make urgent notes on my phone about the current work in progress, I make notes while I’m at the gym and I’ve even got out of the swimming pool before and run, slipping and dripping, into the changing room to type out a bit of dialogue on my phone before it leaves my head. It must be very annoying to those around me but needs must!

What makes you smile?

I love comedies like Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Arrested Development. And having a really good roast dinner with my family. We live in Amsterdam now and I miss British roasts like you wouldn’t believe.

If you could write anywhere in the world, that you’ve not yet visited, where would it be and why? 

I’d love to go on a writing retreat anywhere quiet but especially somewhere in Ireland or Cornwall.

For years I’ve been obsessed with Skara Brae, a Neolithic village on one of the Orkney Islands. A whole slice of Neolithic life is preserved there and I find it fascinating. All those lost stories.

How did you feel when ‘Try Not To Breathe’ was ready to print, were you completely ready to release it to the world? 

I really trusted that everyone who had worked on the book – my agent, editors, proofreaders, copyeditors, designers and so on – were so passionate and so knowledgeable that even though I was a novice, it was in really safe hands. I was nervous, you feel very vulnerable putting something out there that you’ve created out of your own mind, but I was so happy to finally realise a lifelong ambition that my normal hyper-anxiety took a back seat!

How has your journalism career helped or hindered your novel writing one? 

I think it’s helped with discipline. I’m used to daily deadlines, so sitting down and writing every day feels normal. It also helped with research and some practicalities: I wrote some ‘clippings’ of news stories from different publications in Try Not to Breathe and of course one of the main characters is a journalist, so that felt comfortable.

But publishing books is a far slower process and I had to learn to slow myself down and also adjust my expectations of how long things would take. I also realised that I wasn’t expected to fly by the seat of my pants all the time, and could take time to get everything right. I learned so much with this first book, and that’s really helping with book two.

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Five minutes with Lisa Jewell

Juggling motherhood with writing is never easy but Lisa has it sussed. She talks to Mary Hogarth about starting her first novel for a bet, plus the trials and tribulations of being a writer.


Lisa-Jewell_smWhy writing?

I had always wanted to write a novel but thought I should wait until middle age when I’d had a child or two, experienced loss, illness and had some life-changing experiences. Reading High Fidelity back in 1996 changed that perception. Here was a young man writing about someone the same age doing nothing much but thinking about his ex girlfriends.

A friend made a bet with me to write three chapters of a novel. It was just meant as a bit of fun, but those three chapters evolved into my first novel, Ralph’s Party.


Was it hard getting Ralph’s Party published?

It was easy. My timing was good, Bridget Jones had been a huge success so publishers were desperate to sign up young women writing pithily about their lives. I found an agent from my first hit-list of 10 who advised me to rewrite the last third of the novel. She then submitted it to three big publishers and a top editor at Penguin snapped it up within five minutes of reading it.

It was favourably reviewed on a highbrow late night BBC review show on the day it was published, this sparked a snowball effect and for a while my book was everywhere. It was the highest selling debut novel of 1998.

Today publishers take far fewer punts. There are still fairy tales about debut novelists but they’re fewer and further between.


9780099559573You write in a café?

If I tried to write at home I would get distracted. There’s the Internet, biscuit tin and the pile of washing that needs to be hung. When I’m in a café I have no Internet and am surrounded by buzz and chatter of real people, which I really enjoy.

I don’t let myself leave until I’ve written 1,000 words so the longer I fart about the longer I’m stuck there for and after a couple of hours I usually really need the toilet.


How do you juggle writing with family life?

Ah, the age-old question men never get asked. Before I had kids I could not imagine how I could combine writing with having a child. And for the first few years there was a lot of juggling involved. I had unreliable childcare and often lost precious writing days due to logistical issues.

Now that both children are at school, my working day runs like clockwork. I write in the mornings, 1,000 words and I’m done. I get home for lunch, catch up on housework, email, social media, Q&As for blogs etc and then collect my youngest from school. Over the years I have somehow managed to structure my life so that there is virtually no overlap between writing and family life. I am very lucky.


Your biggest lesson as a writer?

Every book I read is a lesson, whether it’s in plotting or timing or a lesson in what never to do. I learn a lot from watching movies and box sets, too, anything that shows me how someone else has chosen to tell a story is informative. But my biggest lessons come from my own mistakes – there’s nothing like binning 50,000 words of a book in-progress to focus your mind on what should be done differently next time.


Which comes first characters or the plot?

My books start with a spark of interest, usually something quite loose and vague. I plant these little ideas in my head and let them grow. If it doesn’t grow I’ll ditch it.

The Making of Us, for example, started as an idea for a story about an older woman entering into an unlikely friendship with a younger person. I couldn’t grow this so I came up with the idea that my characters would be donor siblings. Suddenly the story had legs.


Ever written about people you know?

People occasionally land in my books from real life but mostly I’m barely aware I’m doing it. However, in my fifth novel, Vince & Joy, I wrote about an ill fated and controlling marriage, based on my own marriage in my 20s. It was something I’d wanted to write about since the day I left my husband – I’d just been waiting for the right time and book. But ‘George’ was still very much a fictionalised version of my ex and Joy’s marriage to him was different from my marriage in many ways.

The only time I’ve written about ‘real people’ was in Before I Met You where I used a real life all-black jazz ensemble called The Southern Syncopated Jazz Orchestra who took London society by storm in the 1910s. I found a copy of their 1919 UK tour dates online and used those to place the story. Many members of the orchestra drowned in a shipping disaster off the coast of Scotland later that year and I incorporated that tragedy into my story.


9780099599470Tell us about The Girls

It’s about a community of families who share a large, idyllic communal garden in north London. Many of the families have lived there for two generations so allegiances, secrets and histories run deep.

The book opens with 13-year-old Grace, who is fairly new to the garden, being found by her sister, Pip aged 12. She is unconscious and bloodied in a dark corner of the garden. We then travel back in time six months to watch how all the relationships developed and built up towards this inexplicable attack.


What’s inspired your latest novel?

Originally I wanted to write a story about two people who meet on a suicide pact forum but everyone I mentioned it to recoiled. So I backed away but was still left with this lingering connection to the female character I’d created, called Alice. She was chaotic, brusque and unconventional, with a brood of kids from different fathers, lots of untrained dogs and a cosy, messy cottage abutting the sea. I just couldn’t forget her so that’s how I Found You evolved.


Your most inspiring experience?

Every person I meet is a walking story and I love writing about people in all their incompleteness and randomness, making stories out of the beauty and futility of existence.

Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, I Found You, is published by Century and will be available from 14 July.

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Author Beatriz Williams discusses her latest book A Certain Age

9780008132613What was your inspiration for writing A Certain Age?

Growing up, we didn’t have much extra money—my father was a civil engineer, my mother a homemaker—but both parents were passionate operagoers and they basically steeped me in Verdi and Wagner from an early and completely inappropriate age. At five, I was entertaining dinner guests with a melodramatic rendition of Desdemona’s death scene, and I was crushing on Plácido Domingo as Des Grieux when my friends were into David Cassidy. (Although I think I just dated myself there.) So the idea of star-crossed love is sort of imprinted in my DNA, and one of my favourite moments in the entire canon arrives at the end of Richard Strauss’s marvellous masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier. I won’t reveal the spoiler for those who aren’t familiar with the work, but it’s just a singular act of grace performed by an extraordinary woman, and the more I thought about this opera and its themes – love and loss, class, youth versus age, romanticism versus realism—the more I thought that Manhattan in the 1920s would suit this story and this character beautifully. And luckily my editor was happy to go along with it!


All of your novels have been set in the first half of the twentieth century. What is it that draws you to write about this period?

As a storyteller, I’m drawn to conflict—it’s the fuel that drives the narrative along. And conflict arises out of change, and the transformation that took place in the first half of the twentieth century is probably unparalleled in written history. All the ingredients start falling into the pot as the century turns—scientific advancement, powerful artistic movements, economic and social unrest—and then the First World War just throws the whole mixture into a terrible oven and out comes the modern era. The culture changes irrevocably. There is massive cultural friction as this new world rises up from the old one, giving us the extraordinary electricity of the Jazz Age. Then on top of that we’re plunged into economic depression and then another cataclysmic war. You could write forever about this period and still not get close to making sense of it all.


Tell us about the research you do for your books.

Here’s my grand theory of historical fiction: I’m not here to teach you history. There’s some marvellous narrative nonfiction out there that will tell you everything you need to know about dates and battles and events and how it all fits together. My job is to describe what it’s like to be alive, what it means to be a human being navigating a lifetime during a period of cultural change, so I absorb old films and old books and diaries. I want to know how people talked and thought, the everyday details of their lives. When I do need historical facts I’ll look them up as I go, but I aim to weave these into dialogue and plot. I don’t give history lessons, because what person imagines herself in a historical setting as she’s living her life? Nobody! I’m not telling you what the Jazz Age was like; I’m showing you.


At the heart of A Certain Age is a very bittersweet love triangle. As such, did you find this hard to tie up satisfactorily?

Actually, this was the easiest part! I really started from the end, because that was the moment that captured me in Strauss’s opera—the tricky part was navigating the path to that ending, because you have to make each character sympathetic in order for the reader to care, to feel that bittersweet tug. And while all three characters travel through a terrible sea in this book, I think Theresa Marshall’s journey to redemption is the hardest and most moving, so writing those final scenes was—for me—one of those golden moments, where I felt I had done exactly what I wanted to do and brought all the ships to some kind of shore.


The nineteen-twenties was a period of great change both in America and Europe. What do you think were the most important things to come out of this decade, particularly for women?

When I think of the Twenties, I’m often reminded of my grandmother, who was a child of the British Empire and grew up in Kobe, Japan, before moving to Calcutta (where she met my grandfather) and finally to London after India’s independence. She used to say that this was a marvellous time to be a woman—we were taking jobs and contemplating careers and feeling our strength, we had the vote and the automobile and the freedom from chaperones, and if you look at the films of the period, they are absolutely chock full of vibrant, dashing, confident women who were nonetheless feminine and glorying in that femininity. And then—my grandmother says—after the war we FELL ASLEEP (I can still hear her indignant voice saying that) and we DIDN’T WAKE UP AGAIN until the Sixties! So while baby boomers love to think that they invented the sexual revolution, it really wasn’t so. And I would add that in America, the enactment of Prohibition at the start of the decade served in many ways to fire that hurtling toward freedom. Suddenly men and women were drinking together in clandestine establishments, flouting the law, and as we all know, once you start flouting one little law it becomes much easier to flout others!


You have a magical way of weaving in characters from your other novels into all your books, was this something you set out to do from the beginning? Or was it something that happened quite organically?

It was absolutely organic! My second book, A Hundred Summers, bore no relationship at all to my debut, Overseas, but in writing it I discovered I had a real affinity for America’s Eastern coast during the period between the wars. In particular, I loved the family I had created—the Schuylers, named deliberately to evoke old New York—because first of all, this fictional clan seemed to be producing some really interesting, assertive women, and secondly…well, the older the family, the more skeletons in the closet! So when I sat down to write The Secret Life of Violet Grant, I decided to incorporate the Schuylers back into the narrative, and while writing that book I realized I had to write about Vivian’s two sisters as well. And there you go. Family epic. That’s how it happens.


Further to the last question, Theresa’s story is left quite open ended – will we see her again do you think?

Oh, we certainly will! She turns up again in the book I’m writing now—out next summer—and I have a whole novel planned around the outcome of Theresa’s story in A Certain Age. She’s the kind of character who transforms every scene she walks into, and you can’t waste a character like that!


Can you tell us about your next novel?

It’s called Cocoa Beach, and it picks up the story of Sophie’s sister Virginia, who’s on a train to Florida at the end of A Certain Age, tracking down her missing husband, whom she first met as an ambulance driver during the war. The narrative alternates between the First World War and Florida in the 1920s, involving bootleggers and a ruined citrus plantation. It’s got a real Gothic flavour, which I’ve been wanting to try for some time!

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Five minutes with Tony Parsons

Despite leaving school at 16 – and after a few years of unskilled, low paid jobs – Tony Parsons got his first job in journalism at the New Musical Express (NME). For a few years he has juggled journalism with fiction achieving phenomenal success. Writing is, quite simply, his life.

Author Tony Parsons talks to Mary Hogarth about writing his first book while working the night shift at a distillery, those wild years at NME and his dog, Stan.

Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters[/caption]

How did you get that first job on NME?

By publishing a novel. It was called The Kids and it was not very good but when the NME advertised for new writers in the summer of 1976, they asked for a sample of work and I sent my novel. So that looked pretty impressive, I imagine.


Did this shape your work as a journalist?

I don’t think I was really shaped as a journalist by the NME. There was too much sex, drugs and Rock & Roll – too many nights when I didn’t go to bed.

We were a weekly publication the pace was relentless so there wasn’t much chance to learn more than the basics of journalism. It was only after I left the NME that I started to grow as a journalist and a writer.


Tell us about your first book, The Kids

I left school at 16 and worked in a series of low paid jobs. In my late teens I got a job on the night shift at Gordon’s Gin Distillery in Islington. They gave us free Gin and left us alone from 8pm to 8am. While my colleagues slept, I wrote my novel.

It took a year to write, another to find an agent, then a year to find a publisher. So that is how my first book evolved – by never giving up.

I think that is how every first book evolves.


Who has had the biggest influence on your writing?

Probably Ian Fleming because he taught me books can be more exciting than anything else in the world.


How did Max Wolfe’s latest investigation, The Hanging Club, evolve?

The idea came from spending a day at the Old Bailey. If you go down to the basement and then keep going, you can see the ruins of Newgate prison, which was London’s jail for 800 years.

Inspiration came from the idea of these two places co-existing. The Old Bailey, where justice is fair, enlightened and modern, then Newgate, where justice was brutal, vengeful and Biblical. That was the starting point for a story.

It’s about a group of vigilantes who decide to bring back capital punishment for evil people they believe haven’t been sufficiently punished by the system.


For you which comes first, the characters or the plot?

First comes the title. From that the plot develops, then come those characters who make that plot work. Although if you are writing a series like Max Wolfe, then a lot of the characters already exist, so you need to decide on the new faces you introduce.


The-Hanging-ClubHow do you keep pace with advancements in crime detection?

I try to make it as authentic as possible. I listen to police because they can always teach me something. Cops tend to like the Max Wolfe books, which of course is very pleasing. But I am also not afraid to make stuff up it serves the story. A novelist should never underestimate the power of imagination.

Sometimes you write something that comes from your imagination and then it happens in real life. A novelist should not only reflect life, but also anticipate it.


Your typical writing day?

The top floor of my house has an office. There’s a bedroom, a bathroom and a room for writing that contains everything I need – computer, TV, dog basket as my dog Stan joins me for my working day.

I get up early and go – either taking my dog for a walk or driving my daughter to school. And my wife Yuriko does the other thing – daughter or dog. And that’s all before breakfast.

After breakfast I like to start work because I feel that a writer’s energy levels are higher earlier in the day. Also there are fewer distractions before the world starts to intrude.

I give myself a daily task – either planning a chapter of maybe writing 1,000 to 1,500 words, or reworking a scene that just needs improving. Whatever it is, I do it. Then I knock off – walk my dog, go to the gym, read a book and don’t feel remotely guilty.

And then I get up the next day and do it again.


The most important lesson learned?

Write from the heart. It has to be real for you or it will never be real for anyone else.


Name three writers who have inspired you the most

Keith Waterhouse – author of Billy Liar, newspaper columnist and playwright. He taught me that you should never place limitations on what you do – it is all about telling a story – then you should attempt to master everything.

When I was 16, I wrote to 100 authors, publishers and agents for advice. Only Keith Waterhouse replied, he wrote: ‘Dear Tony, get an agent.’ It was good advice.

Ian Fleming – I have to return to Fleming. He was the first adult writer that I chose to read, that wasn’t given to me by teachers to improve my mind.

John Le Carre – taught me that thrillers can be as intelligent – or even more intelligent – than a Booker Prize winner. He showed me that even those exciting page-turners, can be written in beautiful language with vivid characters that seem very real.

Le Carre taught me to aim for the stars.


The Hanging Club by Tony Parsons is published by Century, £12.99.

Tony Parsons photograph © Bill Waters

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