What’s been the biggest influence on your writing?
My reading. Books have been such an important part of my life and from as far back as I’m able to remember. I grew up in the village of Warkworth, in Northumberland, and at a time long before mobile phones and social media; so there was little to do other than read and invent stories. And my imagination had a powerful backdrop because Warkworth’s so visually dramatic and drenched in history. Shimmying up the castle’s antiquated sewers at dusk to play ‘Murder in the Dark’ – in the dark, or hanging out in Harry Hotspur’s ancient cave with a picnic were normal activities. Later, I went to a boarding school in the Lake District where the Bronte sisters had once been pupils. It had been Charlotte’s inspiration for the school in Jane Eyre and was miles from anywhere, and surrounded by hills and usually shrouded in mist, so there was that sense of isolation again. Not surprisingly, as soon as I left school I headed straight for the bright lights of London.
Where did the idea for your début The Last Summer come from?
To be honest it was borne of frustration and, initially, written only for myself. I’d been working on another novel, had reached a stalemate and decided to take some time out from writing. But a few weeks later, one miserable January morning 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 realised what I really wanted to do was write a first person narrative. I wanted to try and capture a particular voice, create a sense of time and place. By the time I drew up outside my house, I knew I was going to write a love story set in the First World War. But I had no plan – no plot or narrative arc; just a voice and some imagery in my head.
Is Deyning Park based on a real place?
The location is real and local to me, but the house doesn’t exist. I think it’s an amalgamation of places I’ve seen or visited, or read about.
How would you sum up The Last Summer in one line?
It’s a story about changing fortunes, survival, and the endurance of love.
What drew you to the period in which you have set The Last Summer?
It had never been in my plans to write a novel set during the First World War, but as I say, a few things came together and the story sort of found me. In a way, I trace its incubation all the way back to when I researched the history of my home. That research immersed me in the mid to late nineteenth century, in Italy and France, so it really was a very long and convoluted path that led me back to England and 1914. But I think my knowledge of the before offered me a different perspective and better understanding of the war and its aftermath.
How did the character of Clarissa take shape for you?
Her voice was clear and distinctive and there from the start; her character emerged more slowly. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked her, but as the book evolved so did she. I wanted her to be fallible, sometimes fragile, 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.
Tell us about The Memory of Lost Senses. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
The Memory of Lost Senses is a tale about duplicity, the vagaries of memory and the power of the senses. And at its heart, there’s a love story – or two. The novel was inspired by someone I discovered when I researched the history of my home: a woman who had lived in self-imposed exile overseas for over sixty years and returned to this country only at the end of her life. It took me years to research and piece together this woman’s story, because she’d been married a number of times, changed names and moved about Europe so much. It also became apparent that she had not been honest – about her background, marriages, or even her age; which made my research incredibly time-consuming and difficult, but made her all the more compelling! By the time she returned to this country in 1911, she’d not only acquired a title and a grand-sounding, unusual name, but was also on intimate terms with members of the establishment and royalty. Bearing in mind the era in which she lived, and the fact that she’d been born into abject rural poverty in 1833, her life had been quite an extraordinary journey, and one worthy of a novel, I decided.
The Memory of Lost Senses is a more complex read than your first novel, The Last Summer. It’s multi-layered with a multiple point of view and moves back and forth in time. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?
I wanted to take the reader on a journey through memories, unreliable memories. I think we all rewrite our history to some extent. Consciously and unconsciously, we distill and filter, fill in gaps and edit those memories that are painful. And perhaps we have to, in order to forgive and allow ourselves some sort of resolution and peace.
With The Memory of Lost Senses I had to get inside the head of a very duplicitous old lady, one who had lived under the shadow of fear for decades. I had to imagine what it must have been like to live at that time, to cope with the prejudices prevalent then. If I had told the story from only Cora’s point of view, the reader would never have learned the truth. I had to have another viewpoint, and from someone who had also been there and witnessed events. Then, later, I decided I needed another – younger – viewpoint as well: one who would serve as a more objective and innocent pair of eyes. And the story moves back and forth in time because that’s Cora’s mind. Her past has caught up with her, and she can’t escape her memories. But which are real and which are invented?
What did you read growing up, and who are your favourite writers?
So far as novels go, I tend to read more female writers than male. But I hate listing names, because I read so much and always seem to miss out a few. However, my long time favourites include Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamund Lehmann and Edith Wharton. I called them my literary goddesses in a blog post, but actually there could have been at least another ten on that list.
As a child, I was a bit of a precocious reader and read most of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at about eleven (before my mother took it from me, and no doubt replaced it with another Noel Streatfeild or Moomin book). At boarding school, and as an escape from the likes of Chaucer, I turned to Georgette Heyer, and to Nancy Mitford, Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse. I later studied nineteenth century Russian literature and, after the arm-aching tomes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the slender beauty of Ivan Turgenev was bliss. I also began collecting Virago titles as a student, and around the same time discovered the likes of Sylvia Plath, Edna O’Brien, Francoise Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir, Stefan Zweig, James Baldwin.… and oh, so many others. The discovery of a great writer is always the start of a great love affair for me. I binge on them, read everything they’ve written and then everything written about them. One book always leads to another, so it really is a love affair that never ends.
What puts a smile on your face?
A lot. When the words flow and I know I’ve written some good stuff I’m usually smiling. And then really simple things… a bright morning, a pink sunset; kindness, humour… people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
Where do you like to write?
I’m lucky enough to have my own room. It’s very quiet and overlooks my garden, and it’s filled with allsorts of treasures: books, photographs, my children’s artwork from when they were young, and some of my collection of crystals. My lucky talisman include a photograph of Jean Rhys and a framed postcard from Daphne du Maurier to one of her fans (unfortunately, not to me). It’s a room with a very distinctive atmosphere and it’s seen a bit of history. I know I’m not the first to claim it as my own and I like that.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
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. Wait until you can bear it no longer. 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.”