Interview with Theresa Smith

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Blogger and historical fiction enthusiast Theresa Smith recently interviewed me for her site – I thought I’d share the post here. Thank you so much, Theresa! x

Behind the Pen with Kelly Doust

small kelly doust - credit amanda prior & ruby star traders1074011420..jpgI recently read the most gorgeous novel, Dressing the Dearloves, and is often the way, I absolutely had to dig deeper and ask the author for an interview. So today, I have great pleasure in welcoming Kelly Doust to Behind the Pen.

 

I really loved the style in which you told Dressing the Dearloves, with the different forms of writing providing an alternate context and/or perspective for the characters. What inspired you to tell the story in this multi-media way?

Thanks Tessa. Writing in different voices can be really fun and seems to bring a fresh energy to the story. Minette Walters sometimes used this device in her crime fiction, and I always thought it was a clever way to illustrate the story from various viewpoints. It’s tricky, because you need to not go overboard, but whenever I was feeling stuck in the writing of Dressing the Dearloves I wrote one of these intersecting pieces and it seemed to help the story flow again. Some did get cut in the final edit, though.

 

Do you have a favourite scene from Dressing the Dearloves? One that was more fun, or more emotional, or even more challenging, to write?

I enjoyed writing the scene between Sylvie and her friends in the bar at the beginning – it was exciting to bring the cast of characters together for the first time and create their relationships from scratch, because they were riffing off each other from the get-go. I also really loved writing the scenes between Sylvie and Nick, and teared up when writing a later part of the story where Sylvie has a long-overdue conversation with her dad. Sometimes the writer is surprised, too, by how the story plays out.

 

Dressing the Dearloves has such a wonderful bunch of characters in it. Were they all already a firm picture in your mind before you started writing or did some of them develop a personality of their own as the story progressed?

Not all of them – Lizzie, Victoria, Rose and Gigi were always going to be there and were part of my original plotting, but Sylvie, her parents and her friends evolved around them, and helped me to fall in love with the writing of it when Sylvie and Tabs became a big part of the present-day thread.

There’s lots of different ways to write a novel but with my first one, Precious Things, I actually wrote so much from a place of inspiration, but it made it difficult to wrangle the story when I had all these separate threads. With Dressing the Dearloves I started out with an overarching plotline, but the inspiration didn’t really come until I’d set up that framework and built all the characters’ interactions in layers over it, if that makes sense.

 

Now, let’s talk fashion. How did you come up with all of the amazing outfits and pieces that were described throughout the novel? What sort of research was involved in this creative process?

From years of obsession and too much shopping! Also, an almost scientific approach to what people are wearing. I just adore clothes, and I have to stop myself from letting descriptions of them take over the story.

In 2012 I published a book on vintage fashion called Minxy Vintage: how to customise and wear vintage clothes, and undertook a huge amount of research (and shopping) for that, learning all about the different eras of the twentieth century and how social change affected what people were wearing. So I drew from that, and all my visits to the Victoria & Albert museum in London, and the magazines I’ve been reading since I was twelve.

 

Moving on to my other area of interest from Dressing the Dearloves, to that of the ‘old English estate’. Did you tour any of these newly rebuilt estates for inspiration? Any favourites that stood out?

Lots. My family are members of the National Trust in the UK, and when I lived there (and whenever I visit every few years) we spend a good portion of time exploring old homes and estates. Last year we went to Montacute House in South Somerset, and that was brilliant. They have a needlework gallery and an outpost of the National Portrait Gallery London featuring Tudor artists in the style of Holbein… it’s absolute heaven. The gardens are gorgeous, too.

 

Where do you normally write? Is it in the same place every day or are you an all over the place writer?

All over the place and whenever I can. Usually at the kitchen table or in a café – yes, I’m that person sitting on a cup of tea for too long, tapping away at their laptop in the corner.

 

Are you balancing a different career with your writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?

I also work as a book publisher, so I slot in my writing around that, but I work four days so tend to write on my day off and over the weekend. Also very early in the morning or late in the evening if need be… it’s not always easy to fit it in, but I’m a mum as well so very used to juggling.

 

How far has your writing career evolved from when you first began to write to what it is today? Is this in line with your initial expectations?

I don’t know about expectations, but it was always a dream to write full-time. I did that for maybe seven years, but I actually missed the day-to-day interactions with colleagues and was feeling too isolated and stuck inside my own head after a while. I’m always thinking about balance. Writing and working is good, and feels more fulfilling than the dream of being a full-time writer actually was in reality. Overall, my writing career hasn’t turned out the way I expected it to, but I’m content with the way it’s played out so far.

 

To finish up with, let’s keep it all about the fashion. If you could wear one pair of shoes for the rest of your life, what type are they and what colour?

Oh my goodness, just one?!? At the moment I’ve fallen completely in lust with a pair of pink leather Chloe boots with gold studs. But they wouldn’t be terribly practical for my entire life, would they? Probably my white Puma Baskets… I hope that’s not too much of a disappointment 😊

 

Thank you so much for joining me today Kelly!

You’re very welcome.


About Dressing the Dearloves:

y648 (9)2070598949..jpgOne crumbling grand manor house, a family in decline, five generations of women, and an attic full of beautiful clothes with secrets and lies hidden in their folds. Kelly Doust, author of Precious Things, spins another warm, glamorous and romantic mystery of secrets, love, fashion, families – and how we have to trust in ourselves, even in our darkest of days. One for lovers of Kate Morton, Belinda Alexandra, Fiona McIntosh and Lucy Foley.

Failed fashion designer Sylvie Dearlove is coming home to England – broke, ashamed and in disgrace – only to be told her parents are finally selling their once-grand, now crumbling country house, Bledesford, the ancestral home of the Dearlove family for countless generations.

Sylvie has spent her whole life trying to escape being a Dearlove, and the pressure of belonging to a family of such headstrong, charismatic and successful women. Beset by self-doubt, she starts helping her parents prepare Bledesford for sale, when she finds in a forgotten attic a thrilling cache of old steamer trunks and tea chests full of elaborate dresses and accessories acquired from across the globe by five generations of fashionable Dearlove women. Sifting through the past, she also stumbles across a secret which has been hidden – in plain sight – for decades, a secret that will change the way she thinks about herself, her family, and her future.

Romantic, warm, and glamorous, moving from Edwardian England to the London Blitz to present day London, Dressing the Dearloves is a story of corrosiveness of family secrets, the insecurities that can sabotage our best efforts, and the seductive power of dressing up.

Read my review here

Fictional women

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header1Part of the process I went through with writing female protagonists in both novels was that they had to be made more ‘likeable’ through various drafts. Yep. Because the standard in commercial fiction is to create warm, likeable female leads… whaa?

I was recounting this to a male friend recently and suddenly felt embarrassed. Why the pressure to be so likeable and, well, soft around the edges? Especially when I don’t think we put men under the same scrutiny. Kathleen Turner says something similar in this excellent interview here, but it’s not uncommon: when a woman’s firm and knows what she wants, there’s a certain element of wariness surrounding her, an idea that she might be difficult. Words like ‘ambition’ are bandied about, and not positively. Whereas a man will be called decisive or powerful for exhibiting the same behaviour. Things are certainly changing, but we’re not there yet.

Maggie, my lead in Precious Things is a busy working mum juggling a multitude of balls in the air. Sometimes, that makes her more blunt than other characters who aren’t dealing with the same pressures, and less patient with her loved ones. And yet, I felt that need to soften her up and sway the readers’ empathy towards her at all times. Similarly, in my second novel, Dressing the Dearloves, Sylvie suffers a massive career failure and loss of confidence. It makes her self-absorbed and prickly at times, but I worried there was a danger that readers would turn against her, rather than feeling on her side if I let it happen too often. I was more comfortable this time making her irritable when the situation called for it.

My characters aren’t perfect people; they’re flawed. Of course they’re not, otherwise what would be the point of telling their stories and going on a journey with them for the duration of a novel? And besides, who’s ever really good 100% of the time? Perfect, polite characters would make for very boring reading indeed. Instead, these women are grappling with doubt and harsh, critical self-judgement. They’re still learning how to be in the world, in one way or another. They’re not Manic Pixie Dream Girls. They’re grown women with real problems that need to be fixed, and while one point of fiction is certainly escapism, these stories are rooted in the real world. I genuinely hope they speak to the women reading them, and writing overly sweet, unrealistic female characters would probably make real women feel frustrated and potentially even worse about themselves. So I walk that line.

Part of my own journey in life has been to gravitate towards the upbeat when I’m feeling sad or down. That’s not just me; it’s science. We know that harsh, jangly music puts us in a fractured state. And that watching the news or a particularly violent film can do more harm than good. What we feed ourselves with – in books or in film, in what we watch or listen to and the people we surround ourselves with – matters. But I don’t want to write shallow stories, or light and fluffy characters who are simply there to be enjoyed. I want complex narratives and characters that stay with you. Who sometime help readers come to a better understanding of themselves or the world. What do they say? You teach what you most need to learn, and I’m learning just as much as the reader is.

So I want to write women I can be proud of. Flawed and striving to be better and sometimes socially awkward or messy at times, but strong, potently powerful women who drive their own destiny rather than waiting for things to happen. Not perfect, but perfectly good role models.

Because to fail and fail again, and still keep trying – that’s true beauty, right? I think we need to allow people a little leeway as they make their way in life. Whether they’re overwhelmingly likeable or not.

Abstinence of a promiscuous reader

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While Dressing the Dearloves is largely set in a familiar world, it features some historical strands which offer a richer view of what’s going on and help develop some of the characters. But unfortunately, this has meant that one of my great pleasures in life – reading historical fiction – has been lost on me over the past five years while I’ve been working on it and my previous novel, Precious Things.

I’ve often told anyone who’s starting to write that the best thing they can do is read, read, and read some more from the best and worst in their chosen genre. For much of my life I’ve indulged in historical or classic fiction like a greedy connoisseur, but soon discovered as I deep-dived into writing the past that I needed a complete break from it myself. I was afraid of picking up the narrative voice of my favourite authors, or stealing their plots by accident, and – quite honestly – felt impatient with reading about the past when I was living it each day as I wrote. Just as my favourite café no longer felt like a sanctuary when I started waiting tables there during university, so too did the pleasure of reading historical fiction curdle any feeling of escape when I turned to it.

Another problem was that I would find my mind wandering to my own unpublished work, and how it needed so much more before I could feel any sense of accomplishment. And that kind of thinking is death to creativity. Not, perhaps, if comparisons spur and motivate you onwards, but certainly if they have the effect of making you freeze up, stop, and start judging yourself too harshly. That was my experience. The one exception was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See because, well, who isn’t blown away by that virtuosic performance? The man is clearly in a league of his own and thank you, Book Group, for forcing my hand.

So, what have I been reading instead? The answer is, everything else. Particularly non-fiction and literary fiction – all modern, some even speculative – and books, essays and articles as dissimilar to the worlds I’m creating as humanly possible.

As a child I would devour whatever was put in my hands. I felt towards our local library like a kid who’d been given access to a toy factory and told to take home whatever they liked, borrowing as much as I could carry and moving seamlessly from the children’s to the adult’s section at around age thirteen. No surprises then that I wasn’t born with scoliosis, but now have a curvature of the spine that will plague me for life.

I’ve always read widely. It didn’t start with any great desire to expand my knowledge or show off how well-read I am, but came about because I couldn’t help myself. I will literally read the ad copy on a box of cereal if it’s sitting in front of me, so I’ve always been a little nervous about not having decent reading material to hand, in the event of idle moments. The love wheat farmers have for their crops or finding out that Tim Cahill takes his morning bowl with lashings of milk, honey and fresh strawberries can only be read so many times.

My years of backpacking and living overseas were great for introducing me to writers I may never have stumbled upon otherwise. Some of the books I picked up in youth hostels or secondhand and new bookstores changed my life, expanding my horizons well beyond what was currently popular. Cold Comfort Farm gave me something to talk about with my future husband (he was reading it himself when we met, and our shared amusement at Stella Gibbons’ clever prose helped us bond) and John Simpson’s Strange Places, Questionable People gave me a thirst for travel and travel writing which has yet to be slaked. I am that person who reads abandoned novels on park benches and in holiday rentals, and sometimes prefers browsing friends’ bookshelves because of all the quirky, forgotten books on offer. I may not have discovered Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, or Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack otherwise.

As Dressing the Dearloves hits bookstore shelves this week, I am allowing myself a little break from writing fiction. Thankfully, this means that I’m re-acquainting myself with historical novels and immersing again in my favourite authors. I’ve started reading Hannah Richell’s The Peacock Summer and a proof version of Belinda Alexandra’s new book, The Invitation, both of which are absolutely captivating for their rich historical detail and elegant plotting. 1950s England in a great, sprawling mansion (The Peacock Summer – sign me up) and Paris and New York during the Belle Epoque (The Invitation… pure heaven!) Next, I will move on to Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter and consume it like a box of Godiva chocolate truffles.

Being a promiscuous reader has been endlessly instructive, but hopping back into bed with my familiars is always the ultimate comfort.

And the new novel is… Dressing the Dearloves

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Excited to finally share with you the cover and blurb for my new novel, out in September with HarperCollins (what did I say here? PINK! Bisous, HarperCollins, and bisous to Belinda Alexandra for the kind cover quote).

About the book

Failed fashion designer Sylvie Dearlove is coming home to England – broke, ashamed and in disgrace – only to be told her parents are finally selling their once-grand, now crumbling country house, Bledesford, the ancestral home of the Dearlove family for countless generations.

Sylvie has spent her whole life trying to escape being a Dearlove, and the pressure of belonging to a family of such headstrong, charismatic and successful women. Beset by self-doubt, she starts helping her parents prepare Bledesford for sale, when she finds in a forgotten attic a thrilling cache of old steamer trunks and tea chests full of elaborate dresses and accessories acquired from across the globe by five generations of fashionable Dearlove women. Sifting through the past, she also stumbles across a secret which has been hidden – in plain sight – for decades, a secret that will change the way she thinks about herself, her family, and her future.

Romantic, warm, and glamorous, moving from Edwardian England to the London Blitz to present day London, Dressing the Dearloves is a story about the corrosiveness of family secrets, the insecurities that can sabotage our best efforts, and the seductive power of dressing up.

Kelly Doust, author of Precious Things, spins another warm, glamorous and romantic mystery of secrets, love, fashion, families – and how we have to trust in ourselves, even in our darkest of days. One for lovers of Kate Morton, Belinda Alexandra, Fiona McIntosh and Lucy Foley.

You can pre-order a copy here.

Go on, judge a book by its cover

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We all do it. I’ve bought books on the strength of a good title and gorgeous cover alone – of course I have. But the content has to deliver on its promise as well.

I have an idea of how I want my books to look when I’m writing them, and was dreaming about this new one long before I finished it. So when HarperCollins asked me to come up with a few suggestions, I jumped at the opportunity.

You might remember I wrote a post about the mood board and process I went through for Precious Things here. This book has a completely different vibe. It’s lighter and less anxious (as I was saying here). It’s very girly and gossipy and younger in feel (not just the characters, but the subject matter as well – less about a mid-life course correction and more about a mid-to-late twenties meltdown (which is kind of hilarious and a rite of passage… I’ve been there).

I loved the look HCP came up with for Precious Things; the title and the font and (ego speaking here) my name glowing in large gold font… But I’m not sure it’s right for novel two. Here’s how I briefed the cover concept for my new book:

“Catherine,” I said to my publisher, “can we make it more frothy, please… Can it be pink? Or baby blue?”

You might think I’m being horribly reductive here, but here’s some of my favourite books. Take a look at the covers. I’d be honoured to be considered in the same league with any of these authors. So I’m pushing for pink, I’m pushing for illustrations, and I’m pushing for whimsical font and a picture of a dress or a handbag or a couple of champagne flutes.

I’ll let you know how I go, but fingers crossed I haven’t completely missed the mark.

Because I wrote this book to provide comfort. It’s not literary with a capital ‘L’. It’s not going to win any awards and it’s not going to change the world, but it might just give someone a pleasant afternoon or two, and a place to escape to when life seems a bit ‘meh’. Pink says that in spades. And I love those reads myself. Books about friendship and fashion and worrying you’re a bit of a lightweight. This next novel, in particular, is about coming home with your tail between your legs, licking your wounds and then brushing yourself off to start again. My heroine – Sylvie, her name is – is the poster child for that.

So, Sylvie, here’s to you. I hope you end up pretty in pink.

*Artist Jeff Delgado created this magnificent artwork exclusively for Fandango capturing Andie and Duckie in their triumphant moment at the prom.

 

 

 

Better Reading Book Club Live

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We read and reviewed this beautiful novel about grief, loss and forgiveness recently for Better Reading Book Club.

Jesse Blackadder’s Sixty Seconds tells the story of a child drowning in a backyard swimming pool, and the family left behind. As older brother Jarrah, father Finn and mother Brigit make sense of what has happened, we see them question who they are to each other when everything changes. A moving and ultimately hopeful novel with a wonderful coming-of-age story woven through its pages. Four stars.

For our full review, please see here:

Tackling that second novel

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cecil-beaton-miss-nancy-beaton_0

Famous photograph of Nancy Beaton, taken by Cecil Beaton in 1929

Sigh. Of. Relief. The second novel’s been handed in – about a month ago, actually – and I feel lighter already. Not quite, but almost, ready to consider writing another one(!)

A while back I wrote about the pathway to publication for my first novel, Precious Things, which appeared in The Collective Hub’s online magazine here. You’d be forgiven for asking why I’d ever want to go through that again. But the truth is, I’ve felt fairly relaxed throughout the process of writing this second book. It’s been easier from the start, and I really let myself enjoy the journey for a change, despite all the false beginnings, re-working of the plot (essential) and the moments of self-doubt (unavoidable).

The thing is, writing fiction for the first time can be such a fearful process. With Precious Things, I had such big hopes for bringing that story into being because I felt like I’d been dreaming it for so long. But a niggling voice kept on inside my head throughout those years, telling me I was wasting my time. That my book might never make it into print. And what was the point, if it wouldn’t ever be read? I was petrified of people laughing at me. I almost had to grit my teeth to get through it. In a lot of ways, I think I embedded all that fear and anxiety into the writing of Precious Things.

But something’s shifted with book two. I knew that I could do it again because of the simple fact that I already did it once. And I genuinely stopped caring about how it would be received. I had so much fun working on novel two (which I’ll share the title of soon), and it’s with the editor now after a massive structural edit.

This is what I did differently:
One thing I decided early on was that I wasn’t going to waste as much time as I did with Precious Things. I sat down with my writing partner (we bounce ideas off each other and share our work) and told her my idea first. I’d seen a TV series in the UK about a crumbling old manor and the penniless aristocrats who lived there – cobbled together in two rooms of a hundred-room mansion to save cash on the heating bills – and I wondered, what would it be like to inherit a place like that? And what if, over the centuries, your ancestors and relatives had built really famous reputations for themselves by being fabulous and glamorous and generally a hundred times more successful than you in the current day? That was the seed of my idea.

Belton House, England, post-restoration

Together we bashed out the rough plotline, starring someone who found herself in this predicament. We mapped out a chapter-by-chapter story following her journey from angsty young woman into something else, and quite clinically placed a number of obstacles in her way, giving the plot its fair share of ups and downs and inserting a mystery to drive the reader through.

In those early days, I wrote in a really paint-by-numbers way, starting at page one (rather than bouncing around to whichever part of the book took my fancy, like I had before) and thought of it like getting in the car to drive the shortest distance I could from A to B. I didn’t feel much love for the characters, but the real thing spurring me on was the confidence that I could get through to the end if I just put one word in front of the other. I remembered that moment in the writing of Precious Things – the one where I really started to believe in my characters. When they were no longer just something I’d made up but people who felt alive inside my head, clamouring to deliver dialogue and do all those clever things you just don’t expect… I had faith the love would come.

Life got in the way for a bit. We started renovations on our house and moved into a friends’ while the back part of our home was demolished to make way for a new kitchen, bathroom, living area and courtyard. Project managing the build every day, I stopped writing for six months. But when I finally got back to the manuscript, it was quite clear what was working and what wasn’t. I had the bare bones of my manuscript, and when I finally sat down to write again, it felt a little like re-reading someone else’s work (which is always easier than reading your own).

There’s been a few periods like this throughout the writing of book two. I took a maternity leave cover position at an audiobook company, acquiring print titles to turn into audio. We went overseas for the English summer. We had some ups and downs on the home front. But each time I returned to the manuscript fresh, with a clear idea of how to make improvements.

This novel is still very much in the works – it won’t be out until sometime in mid-2018. I have another big edit coming my way, I know, but I can honestly say I feel good about how it’s tracking, and I never really had that conviction during the writing of Precious Things.

If you’re feeling the way I did during Precious Things, stay strong. You can do it. One word in front of the other, remember. I’m cheering you on – it gets easier from here!

More to follow soon.

xx

Poem

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Dawn on the bay

Can you remember the last time you read a poem? When I heard this I realised it’s been too long. My yoga teacher shared this during savasana (corpse pose; the relax-at-the-end-bit of yoga practice) today and it so moved me:

In the end
you won’t be known
for the things you did,
or what you built,
or what you said.
 
You won’t even be known
for the love given
or the hearts saved,
 
because in the end you won’t be known.
 
You won’t be asked, by a vast creator full of light:
What did you do to be known?
 
You will be asked: Did you know it,
this place, this journey?
 
What there is to know can’t be written.
Something between the crispness of air
and the glint in her eye
and the texture of the orange peel.
 
What you’ll want a thousand years from now is this:
a memory that beats like a heart–
a travel memory, of what it was to walk here,
alive and warm and textured within.
 
Sweet brightness, aliveness, take-me-now-ness that is life.
 
You are here to pay attention. That is enough.

– Tara Sophia Mohr

You can read more about Tara and her work here.