My writing life – in fact, my life generally – would be so much poorer without my friend and fellow-writer, Sue Hepworth. Since we first met around fifteen years ago, we have each read and commented on everything the other has written and been each other’s staunch supporters in the vicissitudes of the writing life. It is lovely to have her as my guest on the blog today. I began by asking her:
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
Theme and characters arrive together, and the characters bring along snippets of dialogue with them. I’m in the habit of collecting interesting bits of conversation that I overhear. I write them in my journal word for word, and then when I start a new book, I look at these notes and decide who is going to say what. It helps me to develop my characters. Take as an example this comment my husband made when I was getting over the flu – “Well, you look a tad less corpse-like this morning. You look as if you might be climbing out of the pit of illness, not cavorting in the bottom.”
The plot comes after theme and characters. It’s less interesting to me but I know it’s vital: it’s plot which grips people from the outset and keeps them turning the pages.
What’s your writing routine?
My best writing days are when I start writing in bed, any time after 6 a.m., as soon as I’ve had my first mug of Yorkshire tea. Then after a couple of hours, I have a quick breakfast and get up and go to my study. I like to write until one o’clock. Then my brain is fried and I need fresh air, practical activity or company.
BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU is about a long term marriage where the husband has Asperger syndrome. What drew you to that subject?
My husband and grandson have Asperger syndrome (now simply termed autism) and although there are currently a lot of fictional characters in popular culture with it, there is a lot of caricature which is unhelpful to a true understanding of the syndrome. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that whilst there are basic characteristics which all people with autism share, there is huge variation in specifics and in degree. On first meeting my husband or grandson you would have no idea they were autistic. They are both charming, polite, articulate, and friendly, with a firm handshake and able to look you in the eye. They also have a great sense of humour. Only after spending a day with them would you begin to see their different way of looking at what we take for granted, and also begin to appreciate and understand some of the stresses they experience just by being in the social and sensual world.
I am making the ebook of BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU free this weekend (27th-30th March) to support World Autism Awareness Week.
A favourite bookshop?
The Tattered Cover in Denver, which I go to when I visit my son in Colorado. It has a wonderful selection of adults and children’s books, friendly knowledgeable staff, and plenty of comfortable places to sit. I once read a huge chunk of Graham Swift’s Light of Day in there when it was too hot to be outside and I had some time to spare. Yes – I did buy the book!
What single thing would make your writing life easier?
Constant rain – day in day out – would help. I am an outdoorsy kind of person, and if it’s a warm, sunny day I have to fight the urge to go out and garden, or more likely, go for a ride on my bike.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am adapting But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You for television – four one hour episodes. It’s been challenging as well as huge fun to learn a new way of telling a story. I’ve enjoyed it so much, I may go straight to a screenplay for my next project and bypass the novel stage entirely.
As well as a reading life, I do of course have a writing life and it would be a lonely place at times without Sue Hepworth. She reads and comments on everything I write, sometimes several times as my work goes through successive drafts – and I do the same for her. I won’t say too much about her new novel except that, although I have read it several times in different versions, as soon as Sue gave me my own copy, I started reading it all over again and found it funnier and more touching and perceptive than ever. To mark the launch of BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU (Scarthin Books, Cromford, Thursday 9th June, 6.00, all welcome) I’ve interviewed her for my blog. So over to Sue . .
Sue, how would you describe your new novel?
BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU is the portrait of a mature marriage at a crossroads. Intimate, funny, tender and honest. It’s intelligent holiday reading with a serious side.
What are the three things you like best about writing novels?
I love writing dialogue.
I take delight in loading my own unpleasant characteristics, and those of people I find annoying, onto my characters.
Lastly, I love it when I am half way through writing a novel and the story has built up some momentum. When I get to that stage, I am living in the world of the story. I wake up in the morning and can’t wait to get back into it.
What are the three things you like least about it?
I hate starting a new novel. I loathe writing the first few chapters. It’s a chore setting the scene and kicking off the story, and I always have to rewrite those first few chapters many times.
I don’t like trying to get agents and publishers interested in my work. It takes up huge amounts of emotional energy, and the whole process takes so long.
That’s it. There isn’t a third.
How important is a sense of place for you?
I need to have a real place in mind when I write my novels as it helps me to imagine my characters if I think of them somewhere real and specific. I can’t dream places up out of thin air: I don’t have that kind of imagination. So far my novels have been set in Derbyshire (where I live) or Sheffield (where I used to live) or Northumberland (where I go on holiday) or Wensleydale (where my parents used to live.)
Setting my novels in the Midlands and the North is a conscious choice in another way. I am striking a blow for the provinces. British writers are always setting contemporary novels in London. Why should that be the default setting? There are more people who live outside the capital than live in it.
Describe the room that you write in.
I love my study. One window faces north over the back garden. One faces south over the front garden and lets in loads of sunshine. I over-winter pink and pale purple geraniums on my windowsills, but then I don’t like putting them outside again in the summer because I love the colour. Favourite pieces of stained glass that my husband has made also lean against the windows. My walls are painted pale turquoise, and I have prints and paintings of Wensleydale on the wall above my desk, and posters on the opposite wall. My favourite is a giant poster for the film, It’s a Wonderful Life. The tops of my bookshelves are loaded family photographs. I’ve just bought a small secondhand sofa in eau-de-nil velvet which I adore, but it’s probably a mistake, because it encourages members of the family to come in and sit down and talk to me when I want to work.
Who is your ideal reader?
My ideal reader really likes people, they have a sense of humour (possibly a dry one), and they are not interested in shopping or designer labels.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
Garrison Keillor for his wry humour and his humanity, Carol Shields because she writes beautifully and intelligently about real people and ordinary situations, Maggie O’Farrell, because she combines believable characters with emotional drama in a compelling way. Helen Dunmore writes moving stories, her characters are sympathetic, her writing is very sensual, and reflects what is going on in the natural world and in the seasons.
What are your future writing plans?
I have a new novel plotted in outline, plus the characters who live in it. I have 90 letters which my grandfather wrote to my grandmother in 1907 and 1908 when they were engaged, and I want to do something with them – either use them in fiction, or edit them and publish them as they are. I’d love to write a sequel to Plotting for Beginners with Jane
But all of these are going to have to wait for now. My publishing and marketing have been taking up all my time since Christmas, and I’d like to catch up on my real life, which is crying out to me – my garden, my saxophone, my slackline, my grandchildren.