Tell us about yourself and the books you’ve written
I write romantic historical fiction with a dark heart. There is often a mystery, a horrible family trauma, a secret uncovered, an unexplained death or a disappearance, but beneath it all, an enduring love story and not always a happy ending. While writing my first published book, I was tempted to stitch it all neatly into place at the end and my agent told me not to and to think of Gone With The Wind, or Doctor Zhivago, which have looser, more ambiguous and therefore more memorable endings.
All four of my published books have been set during either the First or Second World War, while the fifth book (to be published August 2017) is set between the wars, as I fancied a change! I feel constantly inspired by these fascinating eras which are, to a certain extent, still living in the memory of parents and grandparents.
As long as I can remember, I have always written. As a child, I’d create little books out of bits of paper stapled together, and progressed on to gothic bodice rippers (that were bound for the shredder!) when I reached my teens, tapping away on a manual typewriter I saved up for. I have to write. I feel myself, I feel alive, when I am creating worlds and scenes and characters and lives. In my early twenties, I became a magazine sub editor, so worked with words constantly and in my spare time, I wrote various novels (mainly contemporary) and submitted them to agents and publishers. Rejection followed rejection, until my agent Judith Murdoch took me on. She mentored me, encouraged me, built my confidence and told me to keep going. My first book A Season of Leaves was published in 2008 when I was 42, so it was quite a long apprenticeship, but one I suspect to be pretty normal.
What kind of books do you like to read and who are your favourite authors?
I mainly read 20th century or contemporary novels, and try to include a modern classic every so often – I have recently read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Go Between by LP Hartley. Looking at my bookshelf is like a treasure map of my formative years. One or two books have really stuck with me and changed me, such as Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I cut my teeth on the Bronte sisters, but I’d say my favourite author is Mary Wesley, followed by Elizabeth Jane Howard, who have both inspired me with their intelligence and wit to write and keep on writing.
What sparked your interest in the First and Second World War and inspired you to write novels set in those periods of our history.
Before I began the book, which was to become my first published novel, I was scouting around for a story to tell and remembered, suddenly in one of those eureka moments, that we had a wonderful story already in our own family – that of my great-auntie Ginge who had been a Land Girl in the Second World War, married a Czech soldier, left for Prague when peace was declared but then had to escape the Communists. My interviews with her and my research took me down many roads into the lives of ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things, their bravery and sacrifice in times of great danger and hardship and I was intrigued by the stories I uncovered. I was fascinated by the fact that the two major conflicts were less than twenty years apart and that the effect on these generations continues and is still relevant today.
Who or what would go in your Room 101?
Silly videos that people watch on their phones. I find them distracting, time-wasting, energy-sapping and intrusive. Having said that, I do love social media and know how important it is for linking with readers, other authors and sharing thoughts. I love to see what other booklovers are up to, and to post on Facebook and Twitter about my own relevant bookish stuff. But when I hear the tinny laughter and shouting of complete strangers coming from a phone, my hair stands on end and my toes begin to curl.
Apart from editors and perhaps Beta readers, does anyone close to you, either a friend or family member, read through the first draft of your books
I must say that I am a very private, almost secretive writer, which probably comes from my teens and twenties when I did not tell a soul that I was tapping away at novels. So, up until recently, no one saw my drafts until they were ready for my agent (and her trusted reader). But I have begun to let my new partner have a look – perhaps just a quick glimpse – every now and then. I think I have a desire to have my stories all perfect before I inflict them on anyone else!
Tell us a fact about yourself that isn’t widely known.
I love the Alien anthology of films, particularly the second (and most horrifically psychological) one, the dialogue of which I can pretty much quote verbatim.
Who owes you an apology
No one. If anyone has ever upset me, crossed me or let me down, I just feel that I will learn from the bad experience – perhaps use it in a novel! – and move on. Even the girl on my course at journalism college who, while on work experience at a magazine to which I had just applied for a job on, threw my CV in the bin. I’d actually like to say thank you to her because she perhaps changed the course of my life and I accept that the direction it ultimately went in, with me having not got that job, was the way it was meant to go. Just thinking of all the people I would not have met if my path had been different is pretty mind-blowing!
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time.
Writing, of course! I should by then, all being well, be on my tenth book. That would be marvellous. I also hope that I can be doing mostly novel writing, and not have to do anything that resembles a ‘proper’ job.
Do you have a special preferred place in your home that you use for writing?
I have a lovely peaceful office at the back of the house with a large window which overlooks a venerable old sycamore tree. I have set up my desk here and can watch the tree changing with the seasons and the famous Margate sunsets. I recently decorated it, for it had been previously a little girl’s room and was painted shocking pink. It is now a haven of soft blues and neutrals, but also a magnet for my two cats who like to walk occasionally over the keyboard.
If you could choose anywhere in the world that you could visit for a peaceful holiday to just spend writing, where would it be?
About six years ago, I took myself off alone to a little cottage on a farm in Cornwall for a week and I would go there again tomorrow. The peace and seclusion was profound. I went out walking every day into deep pine woods, down to a little cove, to the local fishing village. I went horse riding and ate cream teas and drank local bitter. Half of the thrill was being totally alone (although the people who owned the farm were close by). It was the area we used to go to on childhood holidays and I felt so at home. I don’t remember writing a great deal, but inspiration dripped out of me and I did a huge amount of thinking, which is where my writing starts.
Thank you Catherine for visiting my blog today, that was all very interesting. I particularly liked the sound of your writing room and the farm cottage in Cornwall.