Author interview

What’s been the biggest influence on your writing?

My reading, and probably my childhood, when my imagination was first ignited. I grew up in the village of Warkworth, in Northumberland, and - long before mobile phones and social media - relied on books and an imaginary world for most of my entertainment. Warkworth's drenched in history, and visually dramatic, dominated by its ruined castle; so I had this powerful backdrop fuelling 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 that sense of isolation once again, and the desire to escape into an imaginary world. Not surprisingly, as soon as I finished school I headed straight for bright lights of London!

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 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.

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. 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'd been less than honest about the facts of her life, 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?

It's a lighter and perhaps more humorous read than my first two novels, but there are serious themes too: infidelity and betrayal; grief and loss - of children, of youth, of love, and status. 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. 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. 

The Echo of Twilight is similar to The Last Summer, do you agree?

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. 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, I devoured Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, and then moved on to writers like Nancy Mitford, Edna O'Brien, Muriel Spark and Daphne du Maurier. I began collecting Virago titles as a student, and many of them remain my all time favourite books. Now, I read a lot of non fiction - historical biographies, memoirs and letters - and as far as fiction goes, it's hard to know where to begin; I've loved novels by Shirley Hazzard, Flora Mayor, Molly Keane, Barbara Comyns 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. I'm a voracious reader - and a great re-reader.

What puts a smile on your face?

Simple things… a big sky, a pink sunset, the sound of an owl at night; 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, overlooks my garden, and is filled with all sorts of treasures: books, photographs, my children’s pottery and 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.”