Why did you leave it so late to become a writer?
I didn't suddenly become a writer at the age of 63. I started to write as a child, and I've never stopped using my imagination to create stories in my head. But as a young adult I channelled a lot of my creative energies into drama, and then into child-rearing and home-building (almost literally). I was also preoccupied with a time-consuming job in social work. It was only in my forties when I took stock and joined a writers' group that I started to write seriously again. It was another twenty years before I got my novel published, but I was writing all the time.
Do you think your social work experiences helped you as a writer?
Only in an oblique way. So much of my work was gruelling and repetitive that I wrote to get away from it all. But of course, all your experiences feed into your writing, and some of my short stories do draw more directly on my experiences. But my interest in people — and in conflict — is common to both parts of my life.
Why did you choose to write about Charles Dickens?
He was a passion of mine from childhood. However, I always found it hard to reconcile the writer (and man) I admired with the man who behaved so shabbily and even cruelly to his wife at the end of their marriage. I was interested in trying to make sense of this, and particularly to give a voice (albeit fictional) to his largely silent wife.
Do you do a lot of research?
Not as much as people imagine. Having read a great deal of nineteenth-century fiction and living all my life in nineteenth-century houses, and with a story-telling grandmother who was born in 1877, I've always felt instinctively connected to that period. Knowing so much about Dickens already, I found that my main 'research' was fact-checking afterwards. I found knowing the right prices for things the most difficult part as values haven't gone up consistently between then and now. And of course, I had to look up details of dress, type of transport and so on. I love history, but I don't want the research to be too intrusive; I prefer to rely on my 'feel' for how things were. But as a preparation to my current novel, I did read about the Oxford Movement and some of the major Church figures of the time, including Kingsley.
Will you go on writing historical fiction?
I have a problem with the label 'historical' as I've always thought it consists of swashbuckling and bodice-ripping and I've not read a lot of it. However, I am drawn to books and plays dealing with the nineteenth-century. I really don't see it as all that 'historical' — just as a period in the recent past that still speaks to me, and to which I still feel connected. I clearly feel at home there, as I have chosen another nineteenth-century topic for my next book, 'After Such Kindness', partly inspired by Lewis Carroll and Alice. But I don't want to be confined to any particular period of time. I'll write whatever appeals to me.
Do you have any special advice for writers hoping to finish and publish their first novel?
Well, that's really two questions. Finishing is difficult and I certainly struggled with the last few chapters in both my novels and did quite a few re-writes. You also need to be aware that you may be asked to make further changes by your publisher, if you get one.
I sense the publishing bit is the real nub of the question, and there is no easy answer. I was writing seriously for about twenty years before 'Girl in a Blue Dress' was published and during that time I would have liked some one to give me a 'three easy steps' guide to publishing success, but of course, no one could. In my case an editor at Tindal Street Press had seen some of my novel in manuscript and invited me to submit the whole thing. I was then just lucky that they liked it enough to publish it.
Generally, it helps to get an agent, and you can find literary agents listed in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. Use an up-to-date copy and see what the various agents specialise in, or whether the authors they represent write the kind of thing you like. The usual thing after that is to send a synopsis of your novel and first three chapters and see whether an agent is interested. You can go direct to a publisher (synopsis and chapters again) but it could be some time before your book is read - if it is - and it may be declined even then. Again choose the publishers that most closely correspond to your particular type of fiction.
I find 'Mslexia' magazine a good source of information on many writing issues, and there are articles by agents and publishers that might give you some insight into the process. Other than that it's a case of try, try, and try again. And if you believe in your novel, don't give up. You only need one person in one publishing house to like it, and you are half way there.
These days, many writers are self-publishing online, or using an online publisher. I don't know much about this, but E.L.James started out that way, so it's not to be sniffed at.
Lastly, you have to be prepared for the fact that the first novel you write may not be your best. My first novel, written around 1990, has never been published. So get on with the second one while trying to sell the first.
Why are your books not in translation? Many of my friends won't read books in English.
Sorry, Zoe, I inadvertently deleted your email address, so I'm answering this online. I don't know which languages you and your friends speak, but 'Girl in a Blue Dress' has been translated into Portuguese, Turkish, Polish, Serbian, Romanian and perhaps a few other languages. As yet, 'After Such Kindness' is only available in English, but there is an audiobook!
Thank you for letting me know how much you enjoyed my writing and if you'd like to email me again, I'll try not to delete you this time.
What is the best way to get in touch with you regarding attending an event?
If you want to know more details about an event I'm already doing, the best thing is to contact the organisers of the event.
I don't have a question, I just want to say that I totally enjoyed Girl in A Blue Dress! It was witty, informative, sad, beautiful, I was sad when I came to the end, it was such a beautifully written story. I am the Chair of the Friends of Innisfil Public Library (Ontario, Canada) and I will certainly be recommending this book to everyone! If you are ever planning a trip to Canada, the Friends support author visits which are gaining much support, I would love to put forth a proposal for you to be one of our authors. I really really enjoyed the book, can't wait to read another! Thank you for sharing your talents with us.
Thank you so much for your appreciation of my book. I don't think my other ones have been published in Canada but they are available on Kindle so you can probably download them from Amazon.
Thank you also for your kind invitation to come and talk to you, should I ever be in Canada. I do have a very good friend who lives in Ottawa and I have visited her once, so it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that I may do so again. I will certainly let you know if so. I very much enjoy meeting my fans and talking about my books. In the meantime, carry on with the recommendations!