Category Archives: Savidge Reads Grills…

Savidge Reads Grills… Charlotte Rogan

Yesterday I told you all about ‘The Lifeboat’ a truly accomplished debut novel with wonderful prose which also gripped me like a thriller, is narrated by a wonderfully unreliable narrator and amazingly also bowled me over considering as it was a book set on a boat – and I don’t normally like those at all. Well today its author, Charlotte Rogan, takes part in a Savidge Reads Grills to discuss the novel, the hidden manuscripts locked away in her drawers and her writing and reading habits. You can also quite possibly win a copy of the book yourself today, read on for more…

Firstly can you describe the story of ‘The Lifeboat’ in a single sentence without giving any plot spoilers?

Grace Winter survives three weeks in an overcrowded lifeboat only to be put on trial for her life, but is she telling the truth at her trial or is she merely saving herself again?

Where did the idea for ‘The Lifeboat’ come from?

The idea for the story came from my husband’s old criminal law text. I was particularly intrigued by two 19th century cases where shipwrecked sailors were put on trial after being rescued. At the time, sailors thought they were protected by something called the Custom of the Sea, which was an unwritten code of conduct meant to govern the actions of those who found themselves far beyond the reach of any civil authority. For instance, it held that the captain should be the last one to leave a sinking ship, that the women and children should be saved first, and that the ship’s crew owed a special duty to the passengers. It also held that the concept of necessity made it acceptable to kill other people in order to survive as long as the victims were chosen fairly by drawing lots. The moral issues involved in lifeboat situations are what hooked me—not only on an individual level, but on a social level, for lifeboats can be used as metaphors for all sorts of situations faced by society today. And the law is so interesting. It is a way of telling a story so we can judge it, but in order to do that, it leaves out the fraility of mind and body, the human will to surive, the nuance, and the fear. The left out bits are what I wanted my story to be about.

This year has obviously been the anniversary of the Titanic’s disaster, was this something that inspired the book at all? Did you use anything from that case for ‘The Lifeboat’?

I was obviously aware of the Titanic disaster, but I was not thinking about it as I started to write the book. Later on in the writing process, though, it proved to be an invaluable resource. The volume of information gathered and written about the Titanic made it easy for me to research elements that were important to my story, such as lifeboat sizes, launching mechanisms, wireless communication devices, and shipping routes, to name a few.

How much research did you have to do for the novel, obviously you couldn’t blow a dingy up and just ask friends or relatives to push you out into the middle of a lake etc? Was there a particular story in history?

Besides researching technical details and reading some non-fiction accounts of survival at sea, I tapped into my own experiences growing up in a family of sailors. My father was intense and competitive, which had the effect of turning a casual family outing into a high-stakes, all-hands-on-deck game. We children would be lured onto the boat with talk of cruising to some far-off shore and cooking marshmallows on the beach, but sooner or later we would find outselves racing with the other boats we saw. My sister and I were too little to be of any help in this endeavor, and it was our job to not fall overboard and to stay out of the way. The weather sometimes turned bad, but we were not quitters! It made us seasick to go into the boat’s cabin during a storm, so I know what it is to huddle in the rain for hours on end surrounded by people who are stonger than I am.

Now I am rather renowned through Savidge Reads for not being a fan of a books set on boats (though I was a fan of this one) as I instantly think that with minimal characters and nothing but ocean around this could limit a novel, this isn’t the case with ‘The Lifeboat’ though is it? What were the pro’s and con’s of writing a novel primarily set on a lifeboat lost at sea?

I, too, have had the experience of not being taken with the premise of a novel and then absolutely loving the book. I think the best novels defy expectations, whether it be through unusual characters or surprising language or intricate plots. I also think closed room novels can be both challenging and liberating. Just the way having their options and horizons severly curtailed forces the characters in the lifeboat to draw on deeper parts of themselves, the novelist, too, has to reach beyond setting and plot when she limits herself in this way.

One of the advantages of fiction is that it has so many dimensions: there is the surface of the words and sentences; there is the linear dimension of plot; and there is the depth, which encompasses the myriad things that are going on in a charater at any particular moment in time: motives and memories, hopes and fears, sensations and thoughts. So there can be a wonderful freedom in limits—freedom to dig and magnify and explore more than just the who did what of a linear plot.

Now Grace, our protagonist, is a very interesting character and we never know if she is reliable or not as a narrator. Did you have fun with this element?

I did. My characters take on a life of their own, and I remember the first time I realized: “Grace isn’t telling the truth!” But my very next thought was: “Well, who does?” I love how Grace is by turns calculating and honest and how we catch her in a truth the way we might catch other people in a lie. I also liked the chance to explore how a woman might use her innate talents in order to survive just the way a stong man would use his. Grace is a keen observer and highly attuned to social cues and nuance. Those are traits that help her in the lifeboat, and at her trial, they help her again.

There is a certain amount of mystery to the book, hence why we have to be rather cloak and dagger, how hard was it to come up with twists in order to leave the reader wondering and wanting to know more throughout the novel?

Plot for me is difficult—and, frankly, it is not the first thing I read for. More important for me are the language and the characters and an author’s attempt to hit on something universal. But I eventually realized that most readers read for plot and that if I was going to increase my chances of finding a publisher, I was going to have to pay attention to it.

The key to most aspects of writing is revision, which includes something I call layering—going back over and adding and refining and intentionally making more of whatever I find in the pages I have written. The first draft is little more that hints and impulses, with the twists and complications accruing over time.

‘The Lifeboat’ has been chosen as one of the Waterstones 11 and been praised all over the book world, how has this been for you?

I spent the first six weeks after publication in a state of heightened anxiety. I was being asked to do a lot of things I had never done before and wasn’t particularly good at, like giving interviews and speaking in front of groups. My publishing team had shown such faith in me that I didn’t want to let them down.

Another scary thing about sending a novel out into the world is that a lot of very smart and knowledgable literary people will not only see it, but will publicly comment on it. I have fairly ambitious ideas about what a novel can be, so I am happy and grateful that some of the people who know about these things have understood what I was trying to do.

An unexpected and wonderful aspect to being published has been the opportunity to connect with a lot of people who are just as passionate about books and writing as I am. I didn’t know a lot of book people before, and meeting them has been both eye-opening and fun.

I have heard that while ‘The Lifeboat’ is officially your debut novel, you actually had/have several novels locked away in your drawers. Why is ‘The Lifeboat’ the first one that got published? Did you know it had something special about it? Do you think any of those other novels will be published in the future?

As I said, I got better at plotting over the years, which I think is one of the things that made The Lifeboat appealing to the publishers. But it was also the manuscript I was working on when I was introduced to my literary agent. I actually sent him two manuscripts, and while he liked the other one, he thought The Lifeboat would be easier to sell.

Once I finish a project, I tend to move on. While I could imagine going back to one of my old manuscripts, I don’t spend a lot of time looking back or worrying about all those pages in the drawer.

Before we discuss books further, let us discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

At this point, I have been writing for 25 years. I did not always want to be a writer—I wanted to be an architect. When I was in my mid-thirties, I took a leave of absence from my job at a construction company, and it seemed an opportune time to try something new. I decided I would write a novel, and I was lucky enough to take an inspirational creative writing workshop with Harold Brodkey. He is the person who opened my eyes to the layered and multi-faceted thing that writing can be.

When I started writing, I started reading differently. I read and re-read with the aim of figuring out how my literary heroes did it. I was not content to write something that didn’t work on several levels at once, and I think that is why I didn’t really care if I got published early on. What I wanted was to get good at the writing itself—for a long time, getting published seemed very secondary to that.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

The key to fitting writing into life as a parent is to take advantage of the corners of time, wherever you might find them. I used to have a beautiful fountain pen, and I would sometimes spend a good bit of my writing time tracking it down or racing off to buy cartridges when I was out of ink. I got used to the weight of it, which made other pens seem to lack substance. When the pen broke, I went through a period of withdrawal, but I realized I was better off without it. I became very happy to write in waiting rooms and carpool lines, on the backs of envelopes and receipts—whenever and with whatever I had at hand in those precious bits of time. My first writing space was in a basement, where I sat at a workbench amid the tools, and my second space was a funny room off the garage. Now I have the luxury of time and a pretty desk, but I am trying not to get too used to it.

Back to reading now… What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

I recently read a Michael Connelly mystery and enjoyed it. While that is not the type of book I usually go for, I didn’t feel guilty about it. I like literary fiction, but some of the books I am drawn to can only be read in small chunks, like A Book of Memories by Peter Nádas, which I am reading now. I am also reading everything by Albert Camus and A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Reading choices are so personal, and I don’t have a favorite. How about if I suggest four books I read in the last year and found worthy of my Life List? They are Remainder by Tom McCarthy (a novel as remarkable for what the author leaves out—expostition and explanation—as for what he puts in), The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton (a strange and compelling novel of performers and voyeurs), Zone One by Colson Whitehead (astonishing language and powers of observation, no plot), and The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (another Waterstones 11 pick; gorgeous language and story that touches the heart). I can never describe what I look for in a book, because the books that knock my socks off do so by being completely unpredictable, which is one of the things I love about them.

What is next for Charlotte Rogan?

My biggest challenge now is to juggle my new responsibilities so I can get back to the novel I am working on. I am superstitious when it comes to talking about unfinished work, so the only thing I will say is that it is set in South Africa. My husband and I spent almost a year in Johannesburg and fell in love with the country and the people.

Huge thanks to Charlotte for taking time to answer all my questions. ‘The Lifeboat’ is a truly wonderful book, you really need to give it a read. Oh… as if by magic you might just be able to win one of five copies, for more details pop here. Don’t say I don’t always think of you all.

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Savidge Grills… Madeline Miller

Yesterday I told you about my current favourite book of 2012 ‘The Song of Achilles’ the debut novel by Madeline Miller. Well thanks to Madeline my love for classics, Greek myths and legends has been reignited (my Mum will be thrilled) and I am now keen to read ‘The Iliad’. Well, Madeline has kindly agreed to do a Savidge Reads Grills to talk about just those things, how being a debut novelist has been and how it feels to be short listed for The Orange Prize 2012…

Can you describe the story of ‘Song of Achilles’ in a single sentence?

The Song of Achilles retells the story of the Greek hero Achilles from the point of view of his best friend and lover Patroclus, beginning when the two are boys and following them through the events of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.

The story is about Patroclus and Achilles, whilst Achilles is a main character in The Iliad Patroclus isn’t.  What made you want to focus a whole story on the two of them? Was it the fact it was vaguer so you could do more with it?

I have always found myself gripped by that terrible moment in the Iliad when Patroclus is killed, and Achilles is overwhelmed by grief and rage.  It was fascinating and moving, and also mysterious because Patroclus has, up until then, been a fairly minor character.  I wanted to understand why he meant so much to Achilles, and who he was; I felt compelled to tell his story.  As it turned out, it was a wonderful form, allowing me all this freedom to invent within Homer’s grand structure.  But that wasn’t what made me tackle the story in the first place—it was about giving this forgotten, vital character a chance to speak.

Were you worried that with the heart of the story really being the love story between two men people might be put off by it?

There was a very small part of my brain that knew that some people might be discomfited, but I didn’t really think about them.  What was much more important to me was doing right by these two men, and the depth and complexity of their relationship.  Also, in terms of making them lovers, I felt like I was on pretty steady scholarly ground.  Though Homer never says one way or another, many ancient authors interpreted them that way.  If people didn’t like it, I figured they could take it up with Plato or Aeschylus.

You have such a love of classics how much fun was it to be able to write and include gods and goddesses, centaurs and the like?

A lot of fun!  I know that many modern retellings of ancient stories leave the gods out, but for me they were integral to the ancient worldview.  To be honest, I was a bit intimidated at first.  Though there are gods that act like clowns and fools in some of the ancient poems (ahem, Zeus),  both Thetis and Chiron are very serious characters.  I wanted to be sure that I was doing justice to the terror and awe that they would have evoked, as well as the ancient sense of how profoundly alien they were.

Where did your love of classics and ancient Greek history come from?

My mother.  She used to read me the Iliad and other Greek myths as bedtime stories, and the stories about the Trojan War were my particular favourites.  I loved that the heroes weren’t just cardboard perfection, but filled with rage and pride and grief.  Even with all the gods and centaurs, it felt more real than a lot of the other stories out there.  I felt like I was being let in on the secrets of the adult world: it was messy and violent and unfair, but also beautiful.

What would you say to recommend the Iliad to anyone who hasn’t yet read it (like me though don’t tell my mother as she is a Classics teacher, oops) for whatever reason? 

I promise not to tell!  I would absolutely recommend these stories to anyone.  One of the things that I find sad is how Homer has gotten a reputation for being high-brow, fusty and intimidating.  When these works were composed, they were intended for everyone, not just an elite, educated audience, and most of all, they were intended to be gripping—entertaining, funny (at times), and moving.

I think the key to enjoying them is two-fold: first find a translation you like.  Everyone has different taste, and what feels grand and solemn for one person might be creaky to another. If Fagles or Lattimore doesn’t appeal, try Lombardo; he’s less literal, but I love the fast-paced poetics of his translation.

The other thing I would recommend is listening to them rather than reading them.  After all, that’s how these great poems were meant to be experienced, and I think it really brings them to life in a way that the page sometimes doesn’t.

Why do you think the Greeks were so fascinated by the gods and goddesses and myths? Why the need for the marvellous stories? Would they have been like our modern day soap operas maybe?

There were absolutely versions of the stories that were like our modern day soap operas; there were also versions that were more like great novels, and others that were like great, mega-musicals, and others still that would been mini-series on the BBC.  These stories—just like the stories we tell today—are ultimately about human experience and human emotion.  Some of them have more bells and whistles, some are more literary, but it’s the same impulse: understanding ourselves and our place in the world, entertaining, debating and connecting with each other.

The book has now been shortlisted for The Orange Prize 2012 and is getting praise here there and everywhere, being your debut novel does this all feel quite bizarre?

It is absolutely surreal.  I am so honoured and awed to be in the company of the other short-listees, and honestly keep waiting to wake up. Especially after ten years of writing alone, it is wonderful and head-spinning to have the book suddenly be so public.  One of my favourite parts has been getting to connect with readers and other writers.

Before we discuss books further, let us discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pen.  In second grade, I was obsessed with telling stories.  They were totally absurd of course, filled with dinosaurs and explosions and leopards, but I can still remember that giddy joy of pure invention whenever I opened my notebook.  Unfortunately, I was not as passionate about editing.  After you wrote a story, you were supposed to get it edited by the teacher, then copy it out nicely.  Instead, I would just go back and write another story.  Everyone else had dozens of pages copied out and pinned to the walls, and I had maybe one or two.   Luckily, I’ve gotten better about revising since then!

As for being a writer, that was something that I found much harder to claim, because it felt so presumptuous.  It was easier to think: I want to write.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I tend to be a binge-writer, which I think comes from all those years of fitting my writing into my teaching and directing.  I’m not one of those people who can sit down every day and write x amount of words.  Instead, I’ll take days off here or there, then find myself writing round the clock for a week.  I keep meaning to try the other way, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Also, going for walks is a huge part of my writing process.  Whenever I find myself really stuck I know it’s time to go for a good long turn through the neighbourhood.  There’s something about the motion that seems to shake things loose.

Right, back to books… Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

There are a lot, enough that I hesitate to say any.  I’m sure that as soon as I list one, I’ll immediately feel bad for leaving someone else out.  But, if you twist my arm: the amazing Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett and James Baldwin (I know, it’s probably cheating because he’s dead, but I just read Giovanni’s Room for the first time, and I’m still reeling from it, so I’m saying it anyway).  Also, Ian McEwan, Lorrie Moore and David Mitchell, Anne Carson and Toni Morrison.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

There are books I read that could definitely be classed as guilty pleasures, but I honestly try not to think of them that way.  Why should I ever feel guilty about immersing myself in stories?  As a reader, as long as I am loving the book, I think it should be embraced.  And as a writer there is always something to learn, no matter what.

For example, I have always loved to read fantasy, which is a genre that a lot of people look down on.  But some of our great modern masters are fantasy authors (Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, or Tolkien).  And, if we’re really being honest, Homer’s stories would be on the fantasy shelf if they were published today.  So up with pleasures, I say, and down with guilt!

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Phew, this might be an even harder question than the one about authors!  Okay, can I cheat and name three?  The first is Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson which is gorgeous and amazing and indescribable and you should go read it right now.  The second is any book by David Mitchell, but especially Cloud Atlas or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.  That man is simply a marvel.  The third is Watership Down, which is a book that I have reread probably a hundred times.  Maybe more.  People always laugh at me when I recommend it, but truly it’s a first-rate adventure story, and Richard Adams was wonderfully clever about making it a true Homeric-style epic.

Can I add one more?  I absolutely LOVED The Sisters Brothers.

What is next for Madeline Miller?

More teaching, more reading, more writing.  Although I don’t think I will stay in the ancient world forever, I would like to stay there for one more novel.  One of the characters I most enjoyed writing was Odysseus, and I would love the chance to finish his story.  I have also always been interested in the women of the Odyssey (Penelope, Circe), so I am looking forward to exploring their stories as well.

On another note, I would like to start directing Shakespeare plays again.  The hours I have spent doing that are some of the most rewarding, intellectually stimulating and enjoyable of my life. I have learned so much from it, both as a story-teller and a person.  In particular, I’m feeling the itch to take on Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s dark, angry, and hilarious Trojan War play. I’ve done it twice already, but I never get tired of it.

A huge thank you to Madeline for taking time out in her bonkers schedule to take part in Savidge Reads Grills. I have everything crossed for her with the Orange Prize. If you haven’t read ‘The Song of Achilles’ then you should… in fact you can win it here today! Simply leave a comment below saying what your favourite myth, legend or fairytale is and why and five of you will be pulled out of a hat at random next Saturday. Good luck!

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Savidge Reads Grills… Val McDermid

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting up with the lovely Val McDermid for a good long coffee and catch up thanks to the joys of twitter and knowing she was in the vicinity. I hadn’t seen her since she came and talked at Bookmarked Literary Salon last year, so we had much to discuss. When I got back I suddenly thought ‘hang on, didn’t I do a Savidge Reads Grills… with Val?’ It turned out I had last year when her latest novel ‘The Retribution’ came out and then very naughtily hadn’t used it, probably because I had done an interview with her for We Love This Book. Well ‘The Retribution’ is out in paperback now, you can see my review here, and so I thought that I would post it today as it seemed timely.

For those crazy people who haven’t read a Tony Hill novel yet, how would you describe the series of books he features in?

The Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novels are dark psychological thrillers that explore the extremes of what human beings are capable of doing to each other.  Tony is a psychologist who profiles for the police, Carol is a senior detective. Tony explores crimes by worming his way into the head of the killer; Carol uses more traditional detective techniques. He is motivated by compassion and empathy, she is motivated by justice. And at the heart of the books is the relationship between them, a relationship that is complicated by the damage they have both sustained in the cases they have worked.

Do you think people can come into the series at any point, especially with ‘The Retribution’ which sees one of Tony Hill’s old adversaries’s returning to the scene?

Each book in the series can stand alone but if you start at the beginning and read them in order, it will be a richer and more complete experience.

Have you ever liked one of you criminal characters, you see I think Jacko Vance is a brilliant psychopath… though that might say more about me as a reader maybe?

I don’t like them in the sense of wanting to go out for a beer with any of them. But I feel a sense of satisfaction when I think I’ve achieved a villain that feels like a three-dimensional character. Even if all three of those dimensions are pretty dark!

Each of your books is very different, be they in a series or a standalone, where do the ideas generate from? Does the murder come first or the story itself?

Occasionally it will be the murder, in the sense of a scenario for the crime or even an unusual method (such as the murder of the footballer in Beneath The Bleeding). But mostly it’s a situation or an interesting piece of information that sets me off on the ‘what if?’ game.  Sometimes it’s an anecdote told by a friend, or a throwaway line in a radio programme or a magazine article. It could be anything, as long as it piques my interest.

And how do you know if the story is one for a series or one that needs to simply standalone?

I can tell from the shape of the story, pretty early on. Rule of thumb – if it’s a serial killer, it’s probably Tony & Carol. If not, it’s going to need a whole new cast of characters.

Do you think Lindsey Gordon or Kate Brannigan will be coming back soon? Is there another series waiting in the wings?

I don’t know. And I don’t know. It depends what shouts loudest inside my head. I know the next two books will be a standalone followed by another Tony & Carol, and that’s all I can say right now.

How did it feel when Wire in the Blood the series was made, is it hard to see your work adapted?

I was very well served by the adaptation. I thought we ended up with excellent TV that felt like it occupied the same fictional landscape as the books. Coastal Productions took an unusually collaborative approach in the development and making of the show, and that is a large part of the reason it ended up being something I was very comfortable with.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your books or is it something you avoid at all costs?

It’s a great way of getting the word out about books that excite and fulfill readers. There are so many books out there and relatively few are reviewed in the traditional media. There’ s a huge range of bloggers but once you find a few who are in tune with your own tastes, it can be a fast track to finding new writers to enjoy. I have my own personal preferences, and yes, it’s gratifying to read good things about my work.

When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was it an easy thing for you to do?

I first knew I wanted to be a writer when reading the Chalet School books revealed that being a writer was a proper, paid job, not just something people did out of the goodness of their hearts! I came from a very non-traditional background for a writer – I grew up in a working class family in a mining community. But I was always encouraged to read, to educate myself and to work hard. All of which came in very handy. I had a couple of false starts in my creative writing career – including enough rejection letters to paper the bathroom — but once I began to write crime fiction, it all came together.

Is there anything you wish you hadn’t written in a book?

Nothing I can think of except maybe one dedication! And no, I’m not going to tell you which one.

You have always loved crime fiction, what is it that you love so much about the genre?

I love that it gives me the opportunity to put characters under pressure and see what that makes them do. I love that moment of delight when I finally get the plot to make sense so that all the other elements of the book can fall into place. I love that there’s room to write decent prose while still moving the story along. And I love that crime writers take their work but not themselves seriously.

Do you ever think a crime book will win the Booker Prize?

Why does it matter? Really, crime writers and readers need to stop being so chippy about this. We know the quality of the best of our genre. We don’t need the imprimatur of the Booker or any other prize to justify ourselves.

Which books and authors inspired you to write?

Elinor M Brent Dyer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Norman MacCaig, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Sarah Paretsky. And many, many others.

Are there any books you wish you had written yourself?

Treasure Island.

Which contemporary authors do you turn to?

Margaret Atwood. Ali Smith. Reginald Hill. James Sallis. James Lee Burke. Kate Atkinson. Michael Robotham.  Andrea Camilleri. And many, many others.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I get out of bed, I shower, and I drink two cups of coffee. I eat bacon and beans and a portion of fruit. I go out to the office, turn on the music and start the writing day revising what I wrote the day before.  That’s pretty much it.

Which one book must all Savidge Readers run out and buy right now, which is your very favourite?

I don’t have a favourite. I really don’t.

What is next for Val McDermid?

A standalone called The Vanishing Point. Then another Tony & Carol. And maybe another radio drama serial, because I really enjoyed the one I did this spring.

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A big thanks to Val for doing this. If you want to see any of the other previous Savidge Reads Grills then do pop and have a look. Reading this interview back and seeing Val last week has reminded me I must read ‘Wire in the Blood’ very soon. Which of Val’s books have you read? Have you stuck with the series, the standalones or both?

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Savidge Reads Grills… Rebecca Makkai

With my Savidge Reads Grills guests I like to have authors, and their books, that I am really passionate about. Rebecca Makkai has become such an author since I read her delightful debut ‘The Borrower’ a few weeks ago. Easily in my top five books of the year, if you haven’t read ‘The Borrower’ then you should (and I am giving some copies away today – one of the answers is in today’s post) because if you are visiting Savidge Reads you are most likely a book lover and ‘The Borrower’ is a book lovers book, no question. Anyway, I managed to catch up with Rebecca for a nice bookish natter, I hope you’ll enjoy…

Can you describe the story of ‘The Borrower’ in a single sentence?

A Midwestern librarian with Russian-revolutionary genes inadvertently kidnaps (or maybe is kidnapped by) a ten-year-old boy who’s been forced into anti-gay classes by his fundamentalist parents.

How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?

About ten years ago, I first heard of the phenomenon euphemistically known as “reparative therapy” – in other words, the classes designed to turn gay adults and adolescents straight, or to keep children from turning out gay. Apart from my private political reaction, which was… let’s just say “quietly violent”… I was fascinated by the fictional possibilities of those dynamics. I could have taken a closer view of that situation, of course, but what spoke to me was an outsider’s narrative, one where we see not the therapy but its results.

It’s a road trip tale of sorts isn’t it? What made you decide to take the story in that direction?

For one thing, Lucy, the librarian, lives in world of literary references – there are the more obvious riffs on young children’s books, but she also just thinks in terms of literary tropes and quotations – and so the fact that she launches out on a skewed version of the classic American road trip seems fitting. She’s escaping town, but not the literary prison of her own brain. I had fun playing with echoes of the road trips of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lolita and Huckleberry Finn, and even a little bit with the wandering around in Ulysses. Trips give a story an extrinsic structure, which is a nice thing to have, but it turns out they’re also incredibly hard to pull off because you’re at the mercy of the map and the speed limit. There were times I wished I’d kept them home, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell and in the end I loved giving them that journey.

There is so much that ‘The Borrower’ is about, you have the ‘anti-gay camp’, the history of a Russia we don’t hear so much of, religion and all it can do, both good and bad… How did you fit this all in together and also manage to make it entertaining rather than tragic, though it has highly emotional moments in it too?

I always think about building an echo chamber for every story and novel I work on. You put certain elements in the room together, and if you keep them there long enough and play around with them, they’ll start to echo off each other, speak to each other, and enhance each other.

Some of my short stories have been quite a lot darker than this novel, but there was something that was fundamentally amusing to me about the way the pieces of The Borrower were relating to each other. I suppose I could say that I found they were having a rather raucous party in the echo chamber.

Ian is a wonderful character, and he is the drive of the novel. If he hadn’t been a child at Lucy’s library she wouldn’t end up in the scenario she does. How hard was it to make Ian so utterly precocious and yet adorable in one?

I do teach elementary school, and so even though Ian isn’t based in the slightest on any particular child I’ve known, I have logged an enormous number of hours with ten-year-old boys. I believe they’re the funniest people on the planet, and I had a ball creating a fictional one. Yet although Ian is funny and bright, he’s also incredibly manipulative and doesn’t quite live in the real world. It was important to me that he not just be some angel child we’re all feeling sorry for, but a complex and damaged and hard-headed person. The paradox of Ian is that some of his more irritating traits are the same ones that will probably see him through childhood intact.

There is an assumption by most people in the town of Hannibal that Ian will be gay, his parents want to ‘straighten’ him out, how hard was writing about a boy who is prepubescent and yet is ‘already headed up the yellow brick road’?

The strange thing about Ian’s situation is that his parents are responding not to his sexual proclivities (he’s ten, after all) but to his effeminacy and bookishness. Lucy herself is not fully convinced that Ian will turn out gay, but I did as the writer have a lot of fun showing some of those very traits that led his family to be concerned (though to me those quirks were endearing, not alarming). My only struggle was to resist putting more of those moments in the book. I never worried about what he should do next as a character, because he always just showed up and did it, quite insistently.

Lucy is an accidental heroine, and an accidental librarian but by no means a stereotypical one. Where did she come from? Was there anyone you were basing her on?

I’ve only ever based one character on a real person, someone in an as-yet-unpublished story. Beyond that one instance, my characters are pure invention; and it’s the invention of character and plot that are the most appealing things to me about writing fiction. I have a few things in common with Lucy (I’m a second-generation American, and I work with children), but a lot of her character (her haplessness, for instance, and her lack of ambition) stands in direction opposition to mine.

Actually, in the interest of accuracy, I should admit that I’ve also based a dog in my novel-in-progress on a real dog. I didn’t do much to disguise his identity, but I’m not worried as I’m fairly sure the dog can’t read.

‘The Borrower’ is definitely a book for people who love books. I was taken back to my childhood and visits to the library and how it was a world of wonder. Was that feeling of nostalgia something you wanted to plant in the reader? Were you a devourer of books as a child?

It was, and I was. I did have to make a decision, in writing the scenes where Lucy recommends books to Ian, of whether I’d keep her recommendations very up-to-date (and thus more realistic for a modern librarian) or bring up some of the old classics that would take readers back to their own childhoods. I chose the latter, making Lucy a devoted pusher of those timeless old chapter books like The Egypt Game and The Hobbit. On my tour I’ve been reading the part of the book where Lucy fills Ian’s backpack with contraband books, and it’s been wonderful seeing the audience react to those titles. In some cases they’ve run to the bookstore’s children’s section after my reading and gone home with five old favorites stacked on top of The Borrower.

Before we discuss books further, lets discuss writing! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I started writing stories when I was three, as soon as I could hold a pencil and make letters. Both of my parents were college professors, and my father was additionally a poet, so the typewriters were constantly going in our house and I just assumed that writing was something people did about as regularly as eating. I was around thirteen when I realized it wasn’t a bodily function but a potential career.

Right, back to books… Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

This is such a hard question, and my answer changes every time I’m asked. As of today… They’re not exactly  my contemporaries, but  they’re in their writing prime, and if I had three Nobels to hand out tomorrow they’d go to Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

I wish I had time for one! I have two very young children, so I’m under pressure to make my reading time count. My guilty pleasure right now is showering.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I really have to get out of the house if I want to get anything done, or I’ll end up with someone small in my lap. Beyond that, I just sit there and plug away. My grandmother was a writer (the Hungarian novelist Rozsa Ignacz), and I’ve seen a picture of her working at an outdoor desk at a summer house with a typewriter and a coffee pot on the table, a cardigan over the back of the chair, and a cigarette in her mouth. Apparently she worked like that all summer, chain smoking and drinking coffee. I deeply envy that setup, and I envy her living in the time before they knew what cigarettes did to you. Caffeine gives me hives, cigarettes are out, and my computer screen would glare in the sun… So I guess I’m down to the cardigan.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

I wish I could say I’d had the fortitude to avoid online reviews, but I’ll see them occasionally if they pop up on my Google Alerts.  For any author, there’s a lot of frustration and unhealthiness involved with the crowd sourcing of reviews, if only because there are so many and a certain percentage will inevitably be cranky, and a certain percentage will praise you in ways you don’t deserve. In my case, I think I’ve gotten a bit of a magnified effect on the reactions simply because it’s such a politically charged book. A few of the “reviews” out there online aren’t really reviews at all, but arguments about homosexuality and religion. The longer the book has been out, and the greater the volume of stuff out there, the more I’ve been able to turn my back on all that. As an author you want to be focused on your next book, not obsessing over the last one.

I was quite heartened, though, to learn the sheer number of book blogs out there, and to see the sharing of reviews on sites like Goodreads. So many of the changes going on in the literary landscape are scary or frustrating, but this is a genuinely good one: a shift from reading in isolation to reading and discussing together, around the virtual campfire. 

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Well, being American I really wouldn’t call anything my “favourite,” as we’re rather biased against the letter U over here. But picking a sadly U-less favorite from the book shelf opposite me, I’d say that anyone who hasn’t read Fun Home, the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, ought to find it immediately.

What is next for Rebecca Makkai?

I’m putting together a story collection, at long last. It’s called Music for Wartime, and the stories are linked thematically by… well, music and war. Or, more specifically, the response of the artist to a world at war. And I’m about a third of the way into my second novel, which is tentatively called The Happensack. It’s set at a defunct artists’ colony, and the narration moves backwards in time from 1999 to 1900. I’m having way too much fun with it right now.

A big thanks to Rebecca for taking the time to do an interview when she is very busy with young children and writing a new book. Please pick up ‘The Borrower’, or try and win a copy, because honestly it is wonderful.

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Savidge Reads Grills… Sofi Oksanen

Someone was asking me the other day how I choose the authors for my ‘Savidge Reads Grills…’ and my response is that because this is a blog that’s about my personal reading life I only want the authors whose books have meant a lot to me in some way to be those that I grill. ‘Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen was a book I read last year and raved about. I thought it was incredible and wanted everyone I knew to read it, its one of those books you by for everyone you know and then realise you might have bought someone it twice. ‘Purge’ is still a book that I think about a lot, it’s never quite let me go, so naturally I wanted to Grill the mind that created it. As luck would have it I managed to catch up with its author over a virtual coffee in an airport…

Picture by Toni Härkönen

Can you explain the story of ‘Purge’ in a single sentence without giving anything too much away?

Not really, sorry 🙂 What is most important theme in the book depends on the reader and their personal background… For some it’s a book about betrayal or obsession, for some about the envy between sisters, for others it’s a book about repression in general or about the history of Estonia. Or history of any occupied country.

How did the story come about? Was it a series of subjects you had always wanted to write about? Where did you create Aliide and Zara from or did they just create themselves?

Well there were several different reasons on the background. I wanted to write about passive resistance by women – as a child I had heard lots of legends about forest brothers, the members of the resistance movement in occupied Estonia, but they wouldn’t have managed without the help of women and children and I wanted to write about what it meant for women and children, the helping.

Then there was another story in the family, about a girl who was taken to be questioned and she did came back home and looked like she was physically ok, but she never spoke since. So I started to thinking, what does it take to make someone that silent? I had just read books by Slavenca Drakulic, a Croation author I value highly – she has written about the Balkan war and it was shocking and appalling to realize there were rape concentration camps practically in the middle of Europe in 90s. It’s something that doesn´t really fit with the image we have about modern Europe. But it did happen. So how can we be sure it won´t happen again? Rape wasn´t defined as a war crime until lately (by European Union). So there´s lots of work to be done.

And another point: Soviet narrative has been defining the Eastern European countries for decades – also in the West. So there are plenty of Eastern European stories and voices who deserve to have their own voice.

‘Purge’ is a book that has really haunted me ever since I read it, how did you work out how to put the reader through all that without making it clichéd or emotionally manipulative?

Well this is quite difficult question – I just try to write as well as possible 🙂

I also think its one of those rare books that you live through with the characters; you really experience it which can be quite hard to read. How hard was it to write a book that so emotive and harrowing, how did you stop yourself from becoming an emotional wreck?

Writing is easy, always 🙂 I’m afraid it would be more difficult for me not to write.

‘Purge’ has been turned into a play in America, how did that come about and how involved were you? Will it be coming to the UK? Are there plans for a film?

Purge is just about to have its premier in Washington DC; the first production in US was in New York City. I haven’t yet heard about confirmed productions in UK, but hopefully the play will be staged in UK as well. The rights for the film have been sold, but I don’t know when the film is coming out.

I’m pretty busy with all the translations coming out all over the world and that means lots of travelling as well so I don’t have really time to get involved with the stage productions as well. I trust the professionals know what to do 🙂

The success of ‘Purge’ has been phenomenal; you’ve won awards and been read by hundreds and thousands of people. Does that put pressure on you for the next book, or are you just enjoying this all at the moment and not thinking down that route?

Well I’m afraid I don’t really have to think about this success, there’s so much work to do and so many productions on the way.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I started writing when I learned to write and that was at the age of six.

Which books and authors inspired you?

Marguerite Duras, Anna Ahmatova, Sylvia Plath, Arto Salminen, Asko Sahlberg, the Brontë-sisters, Aleksandr Solzenitsyn. As a child I really loved adventures of Angelique, by Serge Anne Golon.

Are there any Finnish authors that you really wish were translated into English but haven’t been yet?

Plenty! Let’s say Arto Salminen and Asko Sahlberg. Rosa Liksom and Aino Kallas are Finnish authors I rate but there are translations in English available.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

Not really. My daily routine is so irregular nowadays and has been since I published my first novel. I can write everywhere, but prefer solitude, and let’s say it’s always good to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

Well book blogging is not too active in Finland, but it’s very important for example in Lithuania where people don’t trust media (too much corruption), but they trust bloggers 🙂 And I guess the influence of book blogging is especially essential in the countries with limited freedom of speech and corrupted media.

In Finland book bloggers can push the attention to books that are ‘old’ or marginal and besides it diminishes the influence of big papers, or their critics, and that is a good thing. New, fresh voices are always a good thing. However due to my profession I make my personal reading list on the basis of the catalogues publishers are sending me 🙂 And also on the basis of my work in process.

You have two other novels prior to ‘Purge’ please say these are soon to be translated into English?

Depends on the publisher 🙂

Which contemporary authors do you rate at the moment?

Oh, there are plenty of them! So I cannot pick up just one. But my favourites from the past few years are books by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sarah Waters and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

My all time favourites are for example Nightwood by Djuna Barnes and L´Amant by Marguerite Duras. And very important is also The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Soltzenitsyn. I just bought the Finnish rights for the book (for my company) and I’m publishing it in Finland 2012-2013. It will be the first time when the book will be completely published in Finland – for example the first volume was published in Finnish in 70s, but in Sweden… Finnish publishers didn’t want to risk their business with Soviets so they didn’t dare to take the book.

What is next for Sofi Oksanen?

The new novel coming out in Finland 2012 fall. It’s the third part of the Quartet, 4-novel serious about separation of the Europe and its consequences. And this fall there’s also coming out a book including my lyrics. And plenty of translations.

A big thank you to Sofi for taking time out to be grilled, you can find her website here. You can also win a copy of ‘Purge’ in the post below.

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Savidge Reads Grills… Jane Harris

The wonder of the internet means that you can do an interview anywhere in the world. So today we are whizzing up through the countryside with Jane Harris, author of ‘The Observations’ and ‘Gillespie and I’ which has become my latest favourite book, with Glasgow as the destination. Whilst sipping on cups of tea, from a flask of course not that train dishwater, and maybe munching on a cupcake or two. Discussing ‘Victorian sensation novels’, second book syndrome, reading, writing and books. So grab yourself a cup of tea too and join us for a natter…

Can you explain the story of ‘Gillespie & I’ in a single sentence?

Thinking of a single sentence to describe this book is quite difficult. I’m tempted to take the Hollywood route and say that it’s “Jaws” meets “The Turn of the Screw” – but with a heart. (Simon can confirm that without their being any sharks or boats he actually knows what Jane means here.)

How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?

When I was thinking about what to write after ‘The Observations’ I went back to the box in the attic where I’d kept a number of unfinished ideas for short stories (which is where I discovered the beginnings of ‘The Observations’). On one scrap of paper, I found something I’d scribbled years ago: “Artist, 19th century, Glasgow.” This appealed to me – although I’d wanted, after my first novel, to write something contemporary and short. But this historical idea was the one that grabbed me so. . . I went with it. Initially, I had thought of writing something quite feminist, perhaps featuring one of the Glasgow Girls (a group of Scottish female artists of the time) and her struggles to be taken seriously as an artist, but once I began doing my research the story changed direction. It was particularly when I read about a particular court case that the beginnings of a psychological thriller plot began to form in my mind.

It’s a book that you don’t want to give too much away with, so that makes reviewing it and questioning you rather difficult. I think it’s safe to say that the narrator Harriet Baxter is quite a complex lead figure, how did you create her?

You’re right, she is complex and also flawed (as are most, if not all, of my characters). I like flawed characters. I had a lot of fun with Bessy, the narrator of ‘The Observations’, but I knew that in my second novel I wanted a new challenge and so I picked a character who was quite different from Bessy. Instead of an almost illiterate (though clever) Irish girl who is quite garrulous and uncontrolled in some ways, and who doesn’t know the first thing about punctuation, I came up with Harriet who, as narrator, is a highly-educated, very controlled Englishwoman, who is completely anal and who over-punctuates and uses long sentences. I had in mind one or two old ladies of my acquaintance, apparently charming, girlish-voiced old dears, whose polite manners and polish conceal a viper-like wit.

As ‘Gillespie & I’ goes on there are lots and lots of twists and turns, which of course we don’t want to spoil. Yet when reading it there are the subtlest of hints which cause the reader to become engrossed and also rather uneasy, was that a difficult situation to create? How do you know when you are sewing the right, or indeed wrong red herring, seeds of doubt in a readers mind as you write the book?

I was learning all about that sort of technique as I wrote this book and I’m still not quite sure what the answer is. I think partly it’s down to instinct. Of course, I plan everything beforehand, the major twists and turns, but I tended to seed the red herrings and clues as I went along, and kept checking that I wasn’t overdoing it by reading everything aloud. It’s only when the manuscript is finished that you can really tell whether you’ve over or under-done it. I also had a lot of help in this respect from my editor and a handful of trusted readers. As it turned out, in the initial draft, I had been too subtle, so it was a question of going back and making a few things a bit clearer.

I think it’s fair to say that both ‘Gillespie & I’ and your debut novel ‘The Observations’ are quite gothic and have the Victorian ‘sensational’ feel about them, were books by the likes of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon books that you have always loved or is this just the sort of books you naturally write?

I’m an indiscriminate reader in that I will read almost anything that is set in front of me. As a child, I would read cereal packets if there was nothing else to hand. So I devoured all kinds of books: contemporary, pre-20th century, all the novels my parents left lying around, and everything I could carry home from the library. To be honest, I think it’s an accident that I’m writing this kind of novel. When I started writing, I was coming up with contemporary short stories about my boyfriends and family. It was only in desperation (after almost giving up writing) that I decided to try and write a novel set in the 19th Century, based on an unfinished, lengthy short story which seemed to hold some promise. Luckily for me, that book caught the attention of a publisher. However, having said that, as a child I loved 19th Century novels like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Water Babies etc, and as an adult I still love Henry James, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins. However, I do wonder if I’ll return to writing about the contemporary. One strand of ‘Gillespie and I’ is set in the early 1930s, which pleases me, because at least I have a toehold in the 20th century.

After the success of ‘The Observations’ did you ever worry about that ‘second book syndrome’ or feel any additional pressure about ‘Gillespie & I’? Was this why there was such a gap between the two?

The only thing that worried me about ‘second book syndrome’ was the fact that, even before I had begun book two, I knew for certain I’d be asked this question by journalists and bloggers and it would be an effort not to betray my irritation. Ha ha! (but true).

Here’s the long answer. I don’t think I felt any additional pressure for the second book. I think writing books is hard enough anyway. The first one was hard. The second one was hard. They’ll all be hard, in different ways. My first novel took me 12 or 13 years -four years in total of writing with about nine years of just lying in a box (that’s the novel, not me), so I’ve done the second book in less than half the time. The gap between the two was four years (The Observations was published in 2006 in the UK, and I submitted ‘Gillespie and I’ at the end of 2010). Both these novels are 500 pages long: that’s twice as long as the average novel, so it follows that it should take twice as long to write them. Four years divided by two is two years. The received wisdom is that a writer should be turning out a book every two years. If you look simply at page count, I’ve done that. Besides, I could have produced a book within two years, but it would have been a much worse book. In my opinion, the book is everything; some arbitrary deadline is nothing. Better to have a book that I’m proud of – a book that gets reviews like the one you gave ‘Gillespie and I’ yesterday (for which MANY thanks) – than a book which is undercooked or less ambitious.

Both of your novels seem perfect for adaptation, have there been any discussions of this, can we look forward to them on the screen?

‘The Observations’ was optioned for television but nothing has come of that so far and I believe the option may now have expired so it’s available again. I’d love to see an adaptation of ‘Gillespie and I’. I was particularly impressed by the recent TV adaptation of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. I had been dreading the series as it’s a favourite book of mine and I was worried they’d make a hash of it but I think they did a fine job. So, we’ll see what happens.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I always enjoyed writing compositions at school, but nobody in my family was a writer, I didn’t know any writers and it just didn’t seem like a career option. In my secondary school the careers guidance woman told me that hairdressing was a safe bet. I had to take my exam results to the assistant head and ask him if they were good enough to go to university, because nobody was pointing me in that direction. It turned out my results were good enough, and so I went to university and took English and Drama as my main subjects. I loved reading literature, but got rather sidetracked into theatre and drama (the English Department at Glasgow was so dry and old-fashioned in those days that it put me off reading for years). So it wasn’t until years later, when I was 29, that I began writing in earnest, and that only happened because I was stranded in a country where I didn’t speak the language, knew virtually nobody, and had no TV and hardly any books and no money, nothing to distract me, apart from a pen and some pieces of paper.

Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

Anne Tyler. William Boyd. Jonathan Franzen. Sarah Waters. Michel Faber. Barbara Vine.

What is your favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ read?

Well, I do love leafing through my collection of back-copies of “Hustler”. Not really. Seriously though, I don’t think I have a guilty pleasure read. I love reading Victorian ‘true crime’ stories, such as the Madeleine Smith trial – perhaps that counts?

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I begin work early, as soon as I wake up, which can be anything (under normal circumstances) from 6am onwards. I work all day, that is, I sit at my computer all day, although sometimes I’ll delete more words than I write. For the last novel, I tended to begin the day by editing what I’d done the previous day. I always read the work aloud as I write. Every few paragraphs, I’ll pause and read it back. Sometimes, I go outside and look at the garden for a breath of fresh air, but I hardly ever leave the house. I like things to be neat, so tend to tidy up the room if it’s looking too disorganised. I read a book during lunch or, if my husband is working at home, we eat together, chortling, while watching an episode of Seinfeld. Laughter is important. A chuckle at lunchtime and a chuckle to end the day (night-time chuckle is currently the fabulous “The Trip” with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). I rarely work beyond 6pm, though I will sit at the computer fiddling about on Facebook and Twitter in between bouts of writing and at the end of the day. When writing a novel, I require satisfaction-guaranteed TV in the evening, in order to cleanse my brain, so am a fan of all the most wonderful shows like The Apprentice, Masterchef, Great British Menu and America’s Next Top Model. Having spent all day in the 19th Century, trying to juggle plot and characterisation and voice and sentences, I require something to take me into a different world entirely. Plus, I can’t really go out much while writing as I find it too distracting, with the result that I’m a bit of a happy hermit.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

Book blogging seems to me to be increasingly important. I think that readers and book-lovers have found a real community online in sites such as yours, a place to share opinion and hear about what people whose opinions they respect are reading. I am as much of a book fan as anybody, so I do surf sites to track various books (but after I’ve read them – I hate knowing too much about a book or film before I experience it for myself). As for my own books, I can’t help but read reviews. I know that it’s possible not to (which is the route my husband takes, as a film-maker) so I do believe those people who say they don’t read reviews, but I, for one, can’t help it.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Gosh, that’s a hard question as I’m not sure I have a single favourite book. I’m assuming that all Savidge Readers will have read Great Expectations, so I might have to plump for The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, which is still up there for me as a work of genius. (Simon is slightly embarrased to say he has not read Great Expectations, Dickens escapes him – oops!)

What is next for Jane Harris?

I’m reaching the end of writing some short stories, a bit of a break from writing novels, and about to turn my thoughts to a new book. Don’t want to say too much now as I believe you can talk a book away.

***

A big thank you goes out to Jane Harris for taking part in this. I was very excited and interestingly so was she, there is mutual appreciation in the air. You can visit Jane’s website here to find out more. Oh and if you fancy winning a copy of ‘Gillespie and I’ then simply scroll a little further down… after having left a nice comment here of course.

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Savidge Reads Grills… Natasha Solomons

I haven’t done a ‘Savidge Reads Grills…’ post in quite some time (which is interesting as I have quite a lot of them planned in the next two months) but after reading ‘The Novel in the Viola’ by Natasha Solomons and being as charmed by it as I was, and want all you to be, I had to rush off some emails and see if she would take part. With it having just been chosen as a Richard and Judy title I wasnt sure she would have time, but hoorah she did and so we sat down with a virtual cup of tea or two (and possibly one of her freshly baked pies) and had a natter…

Can you explain the story of ‘The Novel in the Viola’ in a single sentence without giving too much away?

One sentence? Are you kidding? I’m a novelist — it takes me 100,000 words to say anything… (That’s why I’m rubbish on twitter).  Someone described the book succinctly in a review, so I shall steal that: ‘The Novel in the Viola’ is both a love story set during the Second World War, and an elegy to the English Country House.’

How did the story come about? Was there anything in particular that inspired you with this novel?

I’d always wanted to write a story set in the Dorset ‘ghost village’ of Tyneham, a place I’ve been haunted by since I was a kid. During the Second World War, the War Office requisitioned Tyneham for military occupation. Churchill promised that the village would be returned at the end of the war. The departing villagers pinned this note to the church door:

‘Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.’

But the villagers never returned. After the war, Churchill reneged on his promise and the village was requisitioned permanently. I wanted to tell the story of Tyneford/ Tyneham through the eyes of an outsider, a young refugee maid.

Elise is a character that really lives and breathes through the pages of the book, where did she come from? Is she based on anyone you know? How hard is it to create a heroine?

Elise Landau is inspired by my great-aunt Gabi Landau, who, with the help of my grandmother, managed to escape Nazi Europe by becoming a ‘mother’s help’ in England. Many refugees escaped this way on a ‘domestic service visa’ – swapping cosseted lives for the harsh existence of English servants. I read a series of articles by Austrian and German women who had been domestic servants in Britain, and also spoke to several ladies in London. One woman I spoke to had never even on put on her own stockings before she came to England – she had a maid to do it for her. In London she became a char.

I’m glad you called Elise a heroine – she’d like that. It would make her want to stand very tall and flick her hair. Elise was so easy to write, an absolute pleasure. When I started writing ‘Viola’, I realised that she wanted me to get out of the way and let her tell her own story. I think in this instance I felt rather like I was the reader.

The opening line ‘when I close my eyes I see Tyneford House’ instantly made me think of Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ and I was wondering if this was intentional or just a coincidence?  There were flavours of other books here and there which I found really comforting, was that something you wanted to create? It’s a lovely nostalgic reading experience either way.

Absolutely. I’ll never forget the first time I read Rebecca. The Novel in the Viola is a modern take on the 1930s novel. It’s inspired by Stevie Smith’s The Novel on Yellow Paper, A House in the Country, Marianna and so on. I also remember the pleasure of those long adolescent summers spent reading books like Jane Eyre, Moon Tiger and A Room with A View. I lost days and weeks to those novels – I was far more interested in those worlds than I was in the real one. With The Novel in the Viola I wanted to recreate that feeling in an adult reader; return them to those summers where they had to read on, had to find out what happened to the girl in the story.

Tyneford is as much a lead character as the wonderful, wonderful Elise, well I thought so anyway, was it hard to make Tyneford’s story and Elise’s coexist without one taking over the other?

I didn’t really think of the stories as separate – Elise is telling the story of Tyneford, and it is all filtered through her memories. She loves the Tyneford coast, and now that she’s in exile, it’s even more precious.

‘The Novel in the Viola’ has recently been chosen as one of the next Richard and Judy reads, congratulations you must be thrilled, how did you find out, do authors have any input in the process or do your publishers keep it hush, hush? How much effect do you think being in that bunch of books will have on ‘The Novel in the Viola’?

Thank you – it’s really exciting. There are lot of great books out there and as a reader it’s really hard to know what to choose. So, I think it’s fantastic to have an endorsement from Richard and Judy – it’s like a recommendation from a friend, and I think that does make a difference for people. They do really choose the books themselves. These are the ones they enjoyed reading – it’s actually very genuine.

Have you read any of the other Richard and Judy recommendations you’re amongst and can you give us any recommendations?

I haven’t yet. But I’m really looking forward to all of them – the fun is that they’re all so different. I’m going to take ‘The Poison Tree’ on holiday with me, and Lizzie Speller’s ‘The Return of Captain John Emmett’ is on my bedside.

After the success of Mr Rosenblum’s List’ did you ever worry about that ‘second book syndrome’ or feel any additional pressure about ‘The Novel in the Viola’?

I had a bit of panic and then spoke to a great friend of mine, a composer called Jeff Rona (who composed the music for ‘The Novel in the Viola’). Jeff told me a story that I found really helpful. When he was a young flibbertigibbet of a composer, he thought about his music as ‘important’. He knew he was creating pieces of art, and this thought often made writing music difficult. Nothing was good enough – what would posterity think? Sometimes it wasn’t even fun. Then, one day he was in the studio trying some stuff out when he ran into a well known RnB artist. This guy was recording and having a great time, and he and Jeff got chatting. ‘The problem is,’ said RnB guy to Jeff, ‘You think of your music as fine china while I think of mine as paper plates.’

From that moment, Jeff resolved on only ever making paper plates. He sits in the studio and plays about, experiments, tries stuff out, has fun and doesn’t worry about the significance of his composition. And believe me, his music is amazing (it’s the staple of my playlist when I’m writing).

While Jeff is talking about composing music, I think the metaphor holds for writing fiction too. I don’t think of my writing as either important or significant. I like to have fun when I write. It’s not always enjoyable – some days it’s just hard and I feel that everything I do is nonsense. But, when I don’t worry and try stuff out, play with words and see what works and what doesn’t, good things happen. I can always cut the mistakes. Throw stuff away. After all, I only write on paper plates.

When are we going to finally see the film of ‘Mr Rosenblum’s List’?

We’re just starting to think about directors. That’s super-fast for the film business!

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing for?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m a story monster. But I’m dyslexic so learning to write was really hard for me. As is spelling the word dyslexic. It’s a really mean word to give to people who struggle with spelling.

Which current contemporary authors do you really rate?

Ian McEwan, Andrea Levy, David Mitchell, Nathan Englander, Penelope Lively, Siri Hustvedt, Michael Chabon, Aaron Sorkin, David Chase, David Simon. I think that some of the best writing at the moment is in long-form tv.

How relevant do you think book blogging is to the publishing industry? Do you ever pop and see what people have thought of your book or is it something you avoid at all costs?

I think anything which promotes reading and books is a great thing, especially with the ever shrinking arts pages in newspapers. It’s lovely to have a place where people can chat about books whether it’s online, in a living room or coffee shop. I don’t tend to read reviews. I try to focus on what I’m reading and what story I want to tell next.

Which book, apart from your own, would you demand Savidge Reads and readers run out and buy right this instant, a book you would call your favourite?

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. I read it first as a teenager – actually, that’s not true – I listened to it on story tape travelling around France with my parents. For once, I never wanted the driving to end. I re-read it again last year terrified that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered. It wasn’t. It was better.

Describe your typical writing routine, do you have any writers quirks or any writing rituals?

I like to start the morning with a good walk. It’s both a great way to procrastinate and also gets the mind moving —  When it’s raining like it was this morning, I feel very discombobulated. I liked to work in the summerhouse at the bottom of the garden. There is no phone and no internet. I have to avoid the internet or I get nothing done.

 What is next for Natasha Solomons?

I’m just starting book 3, which instead of ‘Untitled 3’, I’m referring to as ‘Ethel’. It won’t be called Ethel. There is no Ethel in the book. Unless someone gets a dog. The dog could be called Ethel.

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A big thank you to Natasha for taking the time out of her, rather ridiculously, busy schedule and doing a Savidge Reads Grills. You can read her blog here and visit her website here. Also a big thank you to her publishers, Sceptre, who have kindly said they will give four copies of ‘The Novel in the Viola’ away, you can see how you can be in with a chance here. Also if you have any questions for Natasha you might just want to pop them in the commemts and she just might pop by and answer them…

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