Gill Hornby is no stranger to the publishing world – her brother is novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby and her husband is bestselling author Robert Harris – but with her debut published just last year, she says she is proof that it’s never too late to start writing. Gill joins us this morning to talk about her latest book, All Together Now, as well as her own unplotted journey to becoming an author.
It is the story of a small community choir with the big ambition to win the County Choir Championships and try and bring back some civic pride to their rather downbeat town. The trouble is, the choir is as downbeat as the town it belongs to, so first it needs to find a lot of new members and a whole new sound. In comes Tracey, one of life’s soloists with a hidden past; Bennett – a church choir refugee who struggles with the modern world; and Jazzy, who wants to use her talent to get on and up and out of there. Can they all learn to work together and in the process find their own true voices?
Where do you find inspiration for your books?
All around me. I don’t go very far … The first one was about the parents’ association of a primary school – inspired by having four children – and this one is about a choir and a collection of characters all facing the challenge of the empty nest – inspired by the challenge of an empty nest and belonging to a choir.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
It is the same, more or less, as the school day. Once the breakfast chaos is over, I muck about and procrastinate and look around for every displacement activity I can find, then I see the clock, realise how little time there is left and write like a mad thing until the children come home again. I know I’m doing it, but somehow I can never change……
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. It’s funny, kind, romantic and very intelligent, which is what the best women’s fiction should be.
What female writer has inspired you?
Jane Austen: the proof, if proof is needed, that you don’t have to look far to find material for a novel; that even if you base it in your own backyard, the whole world can still respond.
As long as you do it completely brilliantly, of course.
What books have you been recommending recently?
The new Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, is quite beautiful – she’s brilliant at writing about families, and the extraordinary ordinariness of them all. So funny and gentle and wise and true.
I don’t really plan it in great detail. The fun of it is seeing what happens once you get going, and so much of that you can never begin to anticipate. With both books, I have come up with the ending first, then pulled everyone back a respectable distance, let go and watched them get themselves there. It is endlessly amusing. The trouble with having an ensemble cast of characters – a handicap I have given myself twice now – is that everyone must have their space and moment. So this time I did work in two drafts: the first a skeleton, of plot and protagonists, and the second fleshed out with the minor characters too.
What was your journey to being a published author?
Rather haphazard and unplotted, really. I read History at university and always rather thought that if I did write a book – which was by no means the main ambition – then it would be biography. But when I graduated, I went into TV, and worked for years in Current Affairs at the BBC. Then, when I took a career break from that to have my four children, I started freelancing in the press, doing book reviews and the occasional feature. Out of the blue, over ten years ago, Short Book asked me to write a biography of Jane Austen in a series they were doing for children which I loved, and followed up with one on Mozart, too. Then I started writing a weekly column for The Telegraph and I thought that is what I would do – it fitted in nicely with having bigger children and was great fun. Then they sacked me and I thought: help, now what? So I wrote The Hive. So it took me a long time to get round to it. I think I’m just a late developer.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Well, first of all; it’s never too late (see above). And second: get on with it. That is all I have to say. It is so easy to sit around twisting one’s hair and thinking I’d like to write a novel. Really, the only thing for it is to give it a bash. And when you’re stuck, just sit down and do something anyway. Someone once said to me “writing brings down writing” and it is completely true. If you just make yourself write 300 words, you will find that they turn into something you did not know you wanted to say or even knew that you thought. It’s like alchemy. But it doesn’t happen without, as they say, affixing seat of pants to seat of chair.
What are you working on at the moment?
It is at very early stages, but is set to be a three generational family saga, with a bit of a twist.