Were the main characters inspired by real people or are they entirely fictional?
They’re all fictional, but I collate character aspects from people I meet in real life – I’m like a magpie or stamp collector – hoovering up lines of dialogue, turns of phrase, dress sense, appearance.. that kind of thing. So for example, there are aspects of my mum in Grace – her groundedness and ‘make do and mend’ attitude to life; Soozi’s positivity and ambition (and Cardiff accent) was inspired by a friend’s daughter – there’s also a tiny bit of Nessa in her. And my niece and nephew both worked in a pizza take-out, so I got some details from them. Often it’s the smaller characters who’ve been inspired by real people – for example, Lolly and the solicitor Maxine. But generally all the people in my novels come straight out of my head!
What comes first, the plot or the characters?
That’s a very good question – to which I don’t really know the answer… I would say that mostly my writing tends to be character driven – although Never Greener was more plot driven: ‘woman meets man she had affair with seventeen years previously. Will the old flame be re-ignited?’ But with Us Three and Love Untold, the starting point was more about relationships rather than plot. When I first started thinking about Love Untold, it came from my contemplation of how when we’re young, we think ‘older’ people know nothing about life. But this couldn’t be further from the truth – we were all young once! The social landscape may be different but our fears and joys are the same – we love, we hurt, we cry and laugh, we rejoice, we despair.. once I knew that this was the sentiment I wanted to explore, it was a case of finding characters to people the story and illustrate it. Four women from different generations of the same family seemed to be the best way forward.
How well do you know your characters’ back stories before you begin writing, or do they evolve as your story evolves?
Oh I’d say a lot of it comes evolves as I write. A good example of this, is in John’s back story. My friend Nicola read the proof copy of Love Untold, and said she felt she didn’t really know John as well as she might and wondered what had happened to him in the intervening years. This was really helpful feedback, and in the finalized copy of the novel, I added for John a whole backstory involving a rather unsympathetic ex-wife called Doreen Cuttle. It added a layer to his relationship with Grace, and yet it hadn’t been something I’d originally planned on writing. Similarly with Elin, I hadn’t originally thought I’d explore how she and Greg got together. But in my first draft, I felt Elin was quite hard and I realised I needed to show a softer side to her. I thought a river cruise up the Danube seemed like a good idea – Vienna seemed very romantic. Also, at the time, I was considering taking part in a ‘literary cruise’ so my head was quite full of the Danube!
When visualising your characters do you have in mind an actor who could potentially play them?
No I don’t actually. I think it’s a bit of a shame that books have to be automatically thought of in terms of screen adaptations. One of the joys of literature is that the characters come alive in the minds of the reader, making every individual reader’s idea of how a character would look and sound, completely unique. Of course, there have been some amazing adaptations and long may it continue – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how some of my favourite books are realized on screen – like When the Crawdads Sing, or Lessons in Chemistry and Chris Witaker’s amazing novel, We Begin at the End. But I’m a bit like Elin in Love Untold, who belongs to a book club and gets annoyed that her fellow members instantly start casting the month’s set book rather than discussing it!
What is the best and worst thing about being an author?
One of the best things is that I can write in my pyjamas with no make-up on and do it anywhere in the house! But on a serious note, I love the creative freedom – having licence to go pretty much anywhere my imagination allows, as long as it makes some sort of sense and is relevant to the story. One of the worst things is writer’s block – there have been times when I literally don’t know where I’m going to take the story next, or how to resolve a particular character problem. What I’ve learned though now that I’m on book three, is that things always DO get resolved in the end. And sometimes the old saying about there being a ‘gift in a problem’ is true. Writing can also be quite a solitary business when you feel that only you can progress the whole process. This isn’t strictly true of course – I have a wonderful editor and agent and husband, all of whom have helped me when I get stuck. And of course a massive positive to being an author, is the joy you get when the book is well received. It’s quite scary handing it over to someone to read for the first time – will they like it or not? And if and when they do – and you succeed in making them cry (and laugh) it is SO satisfying.