It’s a while since I had a guest on the blog and it’s lovely to be joined today by my friend, Sue Hepworth. Sue’s new book EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW YOU was published in May. It’s full of acutely observed detail, thoughtful, touching, funny and poignant. It’s been described by one reader on Amazon as “Celebrating friendship, nature, love and lust for the over 50s.”
I asked Sue to tell us :
What is the book about?
On the face of it, it’s about a woman grieving over the death of her best friend and trying to find solace through her other friends, a relationship with a man she meets, and through paying close attention to nature and the changing seasons. But there are other themes, one of which is an exploration of how much of our history we need to share with others with whom we have meaningful relationships.
How much of the book is based on your own experience?
The book is set on and around the Monsal Trail in the Derbyshire Peak District, and the Trail is just half a mile from my home. Just like Jane, the main character, I walk or cycle on the Trail several times a week, and I notice the changes in the trees and vegetation as the seasons turn. The other crossover with my own life is that my closest friend died four years ago, and I have mined my experience of that to use in the book.
What is your comfort reading?
If I’m very upset I turn to poetry, often to Lifesaving Poems, published by Bloodaxe. When I have the winter blues I read The Secret Garden, or The Enchanted April. When I’m ill I read 84 Charing Cross Road or Mary Wesley’s Part of the Furniture. But the book that lives on my bedtime table and provides comfort in every circumstance is Garrison Keillor’s Leaving Home. This is quite a list, isn’t it? I find the world a dark and desperate place right now.
What is the book you first remember reading on your own?
A picture book called Tell Me A Story.
And the first ‘chapter’ book I read was an Enid Blyton Secret Seven book.
What single thing would improve your writing life?
For my retired husband to be out of the house from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Describe the room where you write.
The room is filled with light. There is a window facing north over fields and a limestone edge beyond, and a south facing window, which looks over the front garden and then to pastures. The walls are painted pale turquoise and the wall above my desk is filled with paintings and prints of Wensleydale. Behind me are the bookshelves. There are photographs of my family everywhere. My husband makes stained glass, and a beautiful panel he made for me rests against the back window. My desk is usually littered with papers, and is only tidy when I have just finished writing a book.
Sue writes an entertaining blog at Suehepworth.com. Do check it out.
It’s always a thrill when publication day arrives. All the hard work and waiting is over and here at last is the book! Plans for a launch are in progress, but meanwhile, I’m a guest today on Sue Hepworth’s splendid blog, Fragments from a Writer’s Life, and you can go to http://SueHepworth.com to hear about what I’m reading at the moment, the book I wish I had written, the book I am most embarrassed at not having read and more.
Sue and I are having a lunch together today and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a glass will be raised . . .
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.
Today Moira at ClothesinBooks.com and I are posting our list of books that have made us laugh. Mine are, in no particular order:
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. A classic. I particularly love the part where they try to open a tin of pineapple without a tin-opener, and Uncle Podger hanging a picture, and then there’s . . . but read it yourself, if you haven’t already.
The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. I was twenty-five when I first read this, and have lost time of how many times I have read it. Romantic and touching as well as funny.
The Harpole Report, which I blogged about a couple of posts ago.
P. G. Wodehouse, Summer Lightning. Difficult to chose just one, but many years ago when I was living alone in a bedsit in Birmingham this was read by Ian Carmichael as a Book at Bedtime. Sheer bliss.
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals. A teenage favourite that has endured.
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta Sees It Through. Again, mentioned before as a favourite on the blog. I wish it was twice as long. There is another volume, but it’s not enough.
Michael Simkins, What’s My Motivation? Michael Simkins is one of those decent, jobbing actors who often plays the main character’s boss, as in he does in Foyle’s War, but he is also a wonderful comic writer, writing frankly about the up and downs (mostly downs) of the actor’s life.
Kate Dunn, Exit Through the Fireplace: The Great Days of Rep. Another theatrical offering drawing on actors’ memories of door handles jamming on flimsy sets and fluffed lines (‘It’s Marple, Miss Murder!’). I nearly fell out of bed laughing.
Sue Hepworth, But I Told You Last Year That I Love You. One of the funniest writers that I know – and a great friend, maybe because we make each other laugh.
Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid. Not only very funny, but contains some startling insights into the America of the fifties and sixties.
Another day it might be another choice, though most of these didn’t really need thinking about, they are such old favourites. I’m longing to see what Moira has chosen.
Ps. I have now, and it is fascinating. Hardly any overlap, so lots more for my reading list.
. . . than J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country? Earlier this week I took my friend Sue Hepworth (writer of excellent romcom novels) out for a birthday treat. We went to see an adaptation of A Month in the Country performed in the upstairs room of a local hotel by North Country Theatre. This magnificent little company performs a different play every autumn in village halls, arts centres and the odd theatre all over the north of England. It is run on a shoestring. Nobby Dimon is the artistic director, writing, adapting, acting and directing. On this occasion the small cast were fed and accommodated by one of my neighbours. Sue and I sat on the front row and lapped it up. It was so skilfully adapted, so well acted and there was something magical in being so close to the actors.
Afterwards I went home and reread the novella. In the summer of 1920 two men meet in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside. Tom Birkin is a shell-shocked survivor of WWI, who has come to uncover a medieval wall-painting in the church. Charles Moon, also a ex-soldier, traumatised in a different way, is engaged in an archeological dig in the neighbouring field. It’s a story then about the effects of war, but also about love, memory, community, religion, the power of art and of landscape and the changing seasons. It is a little bit Hardyesque, but it’s funny, too, and all in around 100 pages.
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.