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.
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…