Judith: On imagination, research, & her novels


The biggest influence on my writing has without doubt been my reading, and, to some extent, my childhood, because that's when my love of words began, and when my imagination was first ignited. I grew up in Warkworth, a village on the coast of north Northumberland. Warkworth's drenched in history, visually dramatic - dominated by its ancient castle, and though it's a busy place now, when I was growing up it was a quiet, insular place, and I had a huge amount of freedom to roam about and creating imaginary worlds - and I had this extraordinary and powerful backdrop. Later, I went to a boarding school in the Lake District. The Brontë sisters had once been pupils and it was Charlotte's inspiration for the school in Jane Eyre. It was miles from anywhere, surrounded by hills and usually shrouded in mist, so there was a sense of isolation, again, and quite a lot of day dreaming.


The Last Summer

Seriously, honestly, The Last Summer was borne of frustration. And - initially, at least - written only for myself. I needed an escape, wanted to indulge myself, use my research... capture a voice and a sense of time.

I’d been working on another novel, had reached a stalemate and decided to take some time out from writing. In fact my confidence at that time was so low, I wasn't sure if I'd ever write anything again. But a month or two later, on a particularly miserable morning in January, and as I was driving home from my school run, a few things came together. I’d recently reread Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, and I'd been quietly thinking about attempting a first person narrative. That morning, driving home, a voice came to me. As soon as I arrived home, I sat down at my laptop and wrote the first two or three chapters. Those opening chapters remain pretty much as they came to me that day.

At first I wasn't sure if I liked Clarissa, but as the book evolved so did she. I wanted her to be fallible, but not entirely a victim. I wanted her perspective and voice to be authentic but not alienate the twenty-first century reader. Creating an understandable, simpatico character whilst maintaining that authenticity wasn’t easy. By comparison to the attitudes and behaviour of today, Clarissa at first appears very naive; she is frustratingly passive, unable to stand up for herself, unable to operate outside convention. But she is true of her time and background, and that was important to me.


The Memory of Lost Senses

The Memory of Lost Senses is a tale about obsession and love: requited and unrequited love. It's a multi-layered story, told from a multiple point of view, and a more complex read than my first novel, The Last Summer. Prejudice, ambition, duplicity, the vagaries of memory and the power of the senses are all themes in the novel, which was inspired by a woman I discovered when I researched the history of my home. It took me years to research and piece together her story, because she'd moved around Europe so much, been married a number of times, changed names, and told so many lies! 

On one level, The Memory of Lost Senses is a journey through memories, but I think all memories are unreliable, because we all - to some extent - rewrite our history. Consciously or unconsciously, we distill, filter, fill in gaps, and delete or edit what's too painful. And we do this in order to be kind - to ourselves and others; and we do this in order to forgive, and have some sense of resolution and peace.

In The Memory of Lost Senses, we get to see inside - and perhaps understand - the once innocent, later duplicitous and now troubled mind of a woman nearing the end of her life. For decades she has lived with the inherited fear of exposure, and now her past has caught up with her. She can't escape her memories... but which are real and which are invented?


The Snow Globe

My US editor called The Snow Globe 'a comedy of manners'. I'm not sure whether it is or not, but I do know it's a lighter and, sometimes, more humorous read than my first two novels. Unlike my first two books, The Snow Globe isn't set during a time of war, and I think that allowed me a lighter touch, and to have some fun with my characters. But there are serious themes in the novel, too: infidelity, betrayal, grief and loss - of children, of youth, of love and status.

However, there's certainly a comedy of manners at the start of the novel, when Agatha Christie's disappearance is national news, and gossip suggests she has possibly killed herself as a result of discovering her husband's infidelity. My character Mabel also discovers her husband has a mistress, but - and unlike Agatha - she doesn't disappear, and deals with it in a completely different way. 

For me, the 1920s' are a particularly fascinating period, and its dynamism - its noise and dance and rage to live - a wholly understandable reaction to what came before. 


The Echo of Twilight

I think The Echo of Twilight is comparable to my début The Last Summer in so far as it's a first person narrative set in the time of the First World War, but it's a different story, told from a different perspective.

Much of the novel is set in my home county, Northumberland, and in a part of Scotland I also know very well. So, along with The Memory of lost Senses - and for completely different reasons, it's a novel that's very personal to me. And I felt a deep connection with my character Pearl. Like her, I've been transient, displaced, and, as a young woman, had to survive a long way from home.  


Advice to aspiring writers

Firstly, read as much as you can by writers you admire. Sometimes they’ll make you feel wretched, because they’re better than you and I will ever be. But there’ll be an unconscious filtering – of technique and rhythm and style – that will help you find your own voice. My second bit of advice is to be patient. When the ideas begin to come hold off from writing for as long as possible. Wait until you know exactly what it is you want to say and through whom. Only by knowing who the story belongs to will the voice come and the words flow. I think Virginia Woolf expressed the writer’s need to wait perfectly when she said, “As for my next book, I won’t write it till it has grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear.”


Insights from selected author interviews.