This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
INTERVIEWED BY CESCA MARTIN
Who is the inspiration behind the central character Major Pettigrew?
When I sat down to imagine a simple story – just for me – the Major just appeared at his rose covered door, wearing his dead wife’s floral housecoat. There are many inspirations for such a character in my own life, including my old English teacher who loved Kipling and three piece brown suits. I also have a curmudgeonly pug, Sir JJ, who has the crankiest frown but most loving heart. I think I was trying also to take the old stereotype of an English army man (does anyone remember Colonel Mustard from Cluedo? Dr. Who’s Brigadier? Captain Mannnering?), and peel away the layers to show that even we English are not stereotypes, but individuals to the core.
He's quite prickly, why do you think people warmed to him?
Major Pettigrew appears prickly, but underneath he is decent, fair, compassionate and, most importantly, he doesn’t go through life thinking he’s right all the time. It has been amazing to me how many people, who have lost someone, have written to tell me how he reminds them of their own father, brother, husband… it has been a humbling experience to hear from such readers.
You are currently living in America, but the book is set in England, why is that?
Kipling left India at twenty five and never returned, yet many of his most evocative Indian stories were written later in life. India always remained in his imagination. Similarly, I am an ex-pat, yet England, and especially the Sussex countryside, remains right behind my eyeballs! I don’t spend as much time at ‘home’ in Sussex as I would like and this book was a way to spend further hours up on the South Downs – at least in my imagination.
How did you secure that first book deal?
Everyone who is struggling to write wants to know that one secret to getting published. I have to agree with my professors (I did a masters degree in creative writing) that it is all about the work. Some people may have more contacts in the industry than others – and maybe that gets you a sympathetic read – but good work is what sells. I sent my finished manuscript to an agent I had met completely outside of my writing program – and she loved my book. The difference between this book and my earlier unsuccessful stories was that I wrote this just for me, putting in exactly what I would love to read; trying not to think about it being ‘marketable’. I think it helped make the book authentically my own voice and therefore different from other books.
I joke that I love the flying around to readings and events, the hotel stays, the free room service! I loved having movie producers and directors calling me about options. But the most exciting thing has to be the old friends and colleagues who read my ‘acknowledgements’ page and reconnected with our family, in some cases after thirty years! It has been especially joyful for my husband and me to see our parents find lost friends through this little book.
What are you working on next?
My next book will be set in Sussex and, just to make life interesting, I’ve added an historical angle. Writers make terrible researchers and I am currently pursuing all kinds of loose connections and odd segues in history books and source materials from the right period. It’s huge fun but it is like trying to wrestle with an ever-expanding universe.
Are you a planner or do you dive right in?
Definitely a diver-in (is that a word?). I hate all planning, in both writing and regular life. Unfortunately this means my family sometimes runs out of toilet paper at odd hours and I am liable to double book the parent-teacher coffee and a trip out of town. In my writing, I like to follow my characters around and wait for them to tell me where they are going next. Sometimes I had to have a chat with the Major, since he could be slow to make decisions, but my best writing days are those when new scenes and new ideas come flooding in to be added to my growing stack of pages.
Do you have any advice for writers?
It is hard to keep going all alone, facing the blank page and wondering whether it would not be easier to audition to be Britain’s next top model, or to open a restaurant and then get a cooking show on the telly? I advise finding other struggling writers with whom to commiserate (and go to the pub). Misery loves company! Also, treat your writing seriously and make time for it (this sounds like planning, I know!). Most of all, stop trying to be Ian McEwan (you’ll never get the ears right anyway). Instead of working to be a competent but pale imitation of that writer you admire, spend your energy on locating your own unique voice. It is your best chance of differentiating your work and selling your book.