What’s been the biggest influence on your writing?
My reading, and probably my childhood, because it's when my imagination was first ignited. I grew up in the village of Warkworth, in Northumberland, and (long before mobile phones and social media, x boxes and hundreds of TV channels) mostly relied on an imaginary world for entertainment. And because Warkworth's so visually dramatic and drenched in history, it offered a powerful backdrop.
Warkworth castle was painted by JMW Turner and featured in Shakespeare's Henry IV; but for me and my friends it was simply a playground, a venue for Murder in the Dark or Hide and Seek, or a game of our own invention. At that time it was very easy for small people to gain free access to the castle by shimmying up the antiquated sewers; easy to persuade Jimmy the boatman into allowing you take one of his black and green rowing boats upriver to Harry Hotspur's deserted cave, without paying the usual 25p. That setting, that sense of freedom, being able to roam and create - what seemed at the time - infinite worlds, fuelled my imagination. Whatever my friends and I didn't have, we simply invented, and - for me, at least - what we invented was as vivid and real as anything else.
Later, I attended a boarding school in the Lake District. The Brontë sisters had once been pupils and it was universally accepted that the place must have been Charlotte’s inspiration for the school in Jane Eyre. It was miles from anywhere, surrounded by hills and usually shrouded in mist, and, as with most girls' boarding schools of that time, there was little to no freedom. Consequently, I spent a lot of my time staring out of windows at the snow-covered fells, imaging poor Charlotte and her sisters, years before. But it's also where I began writing, and where I became a voracious reader.
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, if I'm honest, my confidence was so low I really wasn't sure if I'd ever write anything again. But a month or two 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 had been quietly thinking about having a go at a first person narrative, mainly as an exercise and challenge to myself. 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 three chapters. Those opening chapters remain 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?
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 do you like to read, and who are your favourite writers?
So far as novels go, I tend to read more female writers than male. My long time literary pin-ups include Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamund Lehmann and Edith Wharton. 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 confiscated it!). In my teens, 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 Sylvia Plath, Edna O’Brien, Francoise Sagan, Simone de Beauvoir, Stefan Zweig, James Baldwin, Anita Brookner.… and so many others. The discovery of a great writer is like 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's a love affair that never ends.
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. I like to laugh.
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 do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Getting published is high up there. And before that, I had a successful career in a very male-dominated world and that's something I consider an achievement.
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.”