Fun visit to the home of Booktopia recently to discuss Dressing the Dearloves with John Purcell and Sarah McDuling, and take the tour. Listen here if it takes your fancy. Love Booktopia!
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Another problem was that I would find my mind wandering to my own unpublished work, and how it needed so much more before I could feel any sense of accomplishment.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.
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.
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.