You spent five years working in advertising before concentrating on writing, had you always wanted to publish a book?
I always wrote a lot as a child, and went on to study Literature at university, but I didn’t summon the courage to start writing a novel until I was in my late-twenties. Rightly or wrongly, I felt I needed to know a bit more about the world before I could write about it. I also had more confidence in my voice by that time, and more possessed of the courage to say ‘this is how I see things’ – even if that ‘how’ is beneath a veil of fiction. Now I’d probably say that the only world you need to know about is the one you’re creating, and if you waited until you felt inspired enough, or smart enough, or ‘ready,’ it might never happen.
Having grown up in Devon with a Hungarian mother there are some strong similarities between yourself and the protagonist; was that a conscious decision you made?
The novel undoubtedly stems from personal experience, but at first glance it probably appears more autobiographical than it really is. I spent childhood holidays in Hungary, and I really treasured evoking such memories. And while my mother is Hungarian, and certainly feels a strong pull towards the country, she’d never have left us for it. I asked myself ‘what if?’ a lot throughout the writing of the novel, exaggerating and reversing my personal experiences to create the fiction. The Devon setting is coincidental, originally the UK parts were set in Oxford, and then one day I thought no, I want to make it Devon. I’m proud to be a Devon girl and I suppose I wanted to include it in the novel somehow. That said, I don’t paint a particularly favourable portrait of the county, not in comparison to Hungary anyway. Maybe that was deliberate – keep the grockels away!
What were your main influences when writing The Book of Summers?
My greatest influences came from memory, and imagining fiercer, deeper, more poignant circumstances than my own. I looked at a lot of old holiday photographs, and really enjoyed losing myself in my childhood again. I love listening to music as I work, and there were particular songs by the likes of Sean Hayes, Beth Orton, Portishead and Au Revoir Simone that seemed to speak to me and the book I was writing, and I’d pretty much play on repeat.
Are there any writers from whom you drew inspiration?
I love coming-of-age stories, and always cite Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud, The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden and I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith as my favourites. I also really admire the writing of Susan Fletcher – the author of Eve Green, Oystercatchers and Witch Light – for the way she captures childhood, and how well she describes the delicate relationships between people and the natural world.
Were there any aspects of the writing process that you struggled with?
I learned a lot throughout the process of writing The Book of Summers – and I know I’m still learning. I first began working on the novel nearly four years ago and I think I developed as a writer in that time, recognising the kind of mistakes I’m apt to make, and spotting them more quickly when they happen. In many ways it was my training ground. For all the reworks I put the manuscript through, the heart of the story always remained the same, and the spirit I wanted for it when I first set out was still intact when I got to the end.
Do you think that in order set a book somewhere, you must have been there yourself? Is research ever enough?
I believe that nothing replaces first hand experience. I think it’s possible to create a perfectly convincing portrait of a place from desk research, but it’s much more satisfying to explore and discover it for yourself. Spending time in a place I’m writing about is, for me, one of the most pleasurable and inspiring, not to mention productive, parts of the process. My second novel is set in Switzerland and I’ve already made the first of hopefully several research trips over there.
What tips do you have for aspiring writers like yourself?
Write about something you really believe in and feel passionate about, because it needs to keep you interested as a writer before it comes close to interesting anybody as a reader. Choosing to write to meet the expectations of a certain genre or perceived zeitgeist is all very well, but if your motives are purely cynical then your writing experience will be less enriching, and the final result less meaningful.
What are the benefits of doing an Arvon course and would you recommend them to other writers?
I had an incredible Arvon experience, it buoyed my creative spirit for months, if not years, afterwards. It was the first time I’d taken any kind of writing course, so it was also the first time I’d immersed myself wholly in writing, talking to people about writing, meeting other writers, reading my work aloud to a room. It was intense and exhilarating and gave me some life-long friends. I’d recommend Arvon to anyone.
Will you ever revisit The Book of Summers?
Do you mean as a story? I don’t think so. I like to wonder how the lives of the people in the book might run on, but that’s purely for the imagination, and not for the page.
What is it about the Tudor-era that fascinates you so much?
I first took an interest when I was a teenager. I think the outsize drama of the royals intrigued me: the king and all his wives, the virgin queen. Later on, as I read more deeply, I was drawn to the shift in the 16th century—I think it’s when the medieval age melted into the modern age. The writing in Tudor times is more accessible to us than earlier writing, from the works of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More to the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. The Tudors also draw us in because we can “see” them. Contrast the lifelike portraiture of Hans Holbein the Younger with the paintings done in late medieval times. Huge difference.
What was the main form of research you used when writing The Crown?
I relied on the books I own about the period—lots of biographies and nonfiction about the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace. Then I read all I could find about monastic life in the medieval age. I also corresponded with people in Malmesbury and Dartford, and at the Tower of London. I visited Dartford and London to do research.
Did you face any obstacles writing a fictitious novel against a factual backdrop?
The only problem I had was timeframe. In my book I try to adhere to events that took place during 1537 and early 1538: the rebels are executed, Jane Seymour gives birth, the monasteries are dissolved. But my book is a thriller and most thrillers take place during a short time. Sometimes a 350-page book takes place during a single week! So I told a story over a longer-than-usual time period for a thriller while trying to keep the tension high.
Were there any writers you took inspiration from when writing The Crown?
Katherine Neville, who wrote The Eight, has influenced me. Definitely Daphne du Maurier. I also like Mary Renault and Robert Graves. I find A.S. Byatt and E.L. Doctorow very inspiring. Among the classic authors, I read the Brontes and Jane Austen and Henry James over and over. I’m not sure everyone considers Bram Stoker a classic writer, but I think he has wonderful descriptive passages in Dracula.
What are the benefits and drawbacks to setting your novel in a bygone era?
When you write historical fiction, you lose a little respect, which I’ve never quite understood. From Tolstoy to Umberto Eco, some of our greatest writers have chosen earlier times for their stories. The benefit for me is I find the 16th century fascinating and I get to indulge my curiosity with all this research, and then share my passion with readers.
You’ve written for a number of publications as well as a couple of screenplays, was writing a novel always a dream of yours?
When I was eight years old, I wrote my first little stories. I shifted to journalism when I was at university and worked for magazines. About seven years ago I felt this hunger to tell my own stories, to create characters.