Author interview

Judith was born in Northumberland and later lived in London where she worked in media, publishing and graduate recruitment. She was nominated a Woman of the Year and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts before moving to Hampshire with her family. Judith's acclaimed début The Last Summer was published in the UK, Canada and British Commonwealth countries in 2012, in the USA in 2013, and has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Italian.

What’s been the biggest influence on your writing?

My reading, and probably my childhood. I grew up in the village of Warkworth, in Northumberland, and - long before mobile phones and social media - had to rely on an imaginary world for most of my entertainment. But because Warkworth's so visually dramatic and drenched in history, it offered a powerful backdrop. The village castle was painted by JMW Turner and featured in Shakespeare's Henry IV, but for me and my friends it was simply part of a large playground; one that incorporated a vast, empty beach, fields, river, ancient churchyard and other ruins. That setting, and having the space and freedom to roam and create what seemed at the time infinite worlds, definitely ignited and fuelled my imagination. 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 the need to escape into an imaginary world!

Where did the idea for your début The Last Summer come from?

Initially, it was borne of frustration and written only for myself. 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 got 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.

How would you sum up The Last Summer in one line?

It’s a story about changing fortunes, survival, and the endurance of love.

How did the character of Clarissa take shape for you?

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 – which made my research incredibly time-consuming and difficult, and made her all the more compelling! 

The Memory of Lost Senses has 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. If I had told the story from only her point of view, the reader would never have learned the truth. I had to have another viewpoint from someone who had witnessed events. And the story moves back and forth in time because that’s Cora’s mind. Her past has caught up with her; she can’t escape her memories. But which are real and which are invented?

Your third novel, The Snow Globe, has been described as a comedy of manners. Do you agree with that description?

I agree insofar as it's a lighter and more humorous read than my first two novels. But there are serious themes in the story too: infidelity and betrayal; grief and loss - of children, of youth, of love, and status. Unlike my first two novels, 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. 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 (She was later discovered at a Harrogate spa where she had checked in under the name of her husband's mistress). My character Mabel also discovers her husband has a mistress... But unlike Agatha, Mabel doesn't disappear. Instead, she decides to invite her husband's mistress for Christmas. And I enjoyed Mabel's polite revenge as much as I enjoyed her daughter Daisy's misguided assumptions. And I loved writing about the 1920s. For me, it's a particularly fascinating period, and its dynamism, its noise and dance and rage to live, a wholly understandable reaction to what came before. 

In The Echo of Twilight you return to the time of war...

Yes, and for the last time! The novel is comparable to The Last Summer in so far as it's another first person narrative and has a love story set in the time of the First World War. But it's a story told in a different voice and from a very different perspective; this time chronicling the trajectory of servant to woman of independent means. In a way it completes a circle and encompasses each of my novels that came before. It begins the year the war starts and ends in the 1920s.  Much of the story is set in my home county, Northumberland, and in a part of Scotland I also know very well. So I suppose it's the novel that's most 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 and make a life a long way from home.    

What do you like to read, and who are your favourite writers?

My long time literary pin-ups include Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamund Lehmann, Edith Wharton and Anita Brookner. In my teens - and as an escape from Chaucer, the War Poets and the Metaphysical Poets, I turned to Georgette Heyer, and to writers like Nancy Mitford, Edna O'Brien, Daphne du Maurier and PG Wodehouse. Now I read a lot of non fiction - historical biographies, memoirs and letters (I can recommend The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, and In Tearing Haste; Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor). As far as fiction goes, it's hard to know where to begin; I've loved novels by writers like Shirley Hazzard, Flora Mayor, Molly Keane and Elizabeth Jane Howard (The Cazalet Chronicles), and historical fiction by Jane Harris, Sarah Waters, Katie Hickman and Katherine Webb. These are just a few; I could go on and on, and on.

What puts a smile on your face?

A lot. When the words flow and I think 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 all sorts 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 signed photograph of Jean Rhys and a 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 any 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.”