A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of Vulpes Valentine’s Week…Shhhhhhhh
Despite general dispute in the den about the pros and cons of Valentine’s Day and whether our reader’s stomachs could take a whole week of Lurve VL-style, and despite the rather eccentric placement of a Gerald Durrell piece right in the middle of the whole thing…it is – secretly – Valentines Week on Vulpes. So, Rosy to Rosy, I decided to have a chat with fellow writer, Rosy Thornton, about spaniels, fanfiction and Ipswich FC. (Oh yes and a bit of that love stuff might creep into it too, but never mind about that…)
Keep an eye out on Friday when Moira will be reviewing Rosy Thornton’s latest novel, Crossed Wires.
Your first book, More Than Love Letters, is an unusual format primarily consisting of letters from a young woman to her MP – but also emails and committee meeting minutes and the other written paraphernalia of modern life. I wondered what it was that made you decide to write in this way and what difficulties are encountered by writing an epistolary novel?
The suggestion came from an agent, actually – in one of my extensive collection of rejection letters. My first attempt at a novel was a Victorian pastiche, and this agent (I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten who it was) said that the letters I had worked into the narrative worked well, and had I considered writing a novel entirely in epistolary form? I gave it a whirl for my next attempt – which turned into More Than Love Letters.
I didn’t find it difficult at all – in fact it is a great format for a rookie novelist. There is no difficult connecting narrative to write, no tricky ‘point of view’ issues to navigate: everything comes straight across in the unmediated voices of the characters themselves. That gives it a lovely immediacy, as a way of writing. The construction of plot is made simpler because it can be broken down into separate, manageable little building blocks, which can be added, subtracted and moved about without the whole thing unravelling like knitting, the way conventional narrative can. And best of all – absolutely no dialogue! (I find dialogue hard.)
I know More Than Love Letters is connected to North and South. Could you tell us more what draws you to Gaskell and – perhaps as pertinently – to the dark and brooding Richard Armitage?
Yes. The Victorian novel I’ve mentioned was a pastiche sequel to North and South (the hubris! – I know), originally written and posted on the web chapter by chapter as fanfic. That was my first ever attempt at writing fiction. When I’d finished it I carried straight on and wrote More Than Love Letters, in which the main female character is essentially just Margaret Hale from North and South – a Victorian heroine transplanted into twenty-first century Ipswich, completely with dark curls, translucent skin and burning moral zeal.
It had always been one of my favourite books as a teenager – I was (and remain) a sucker for Gaskell’s unique combination of simmering emotion and a keen sense of wrongs to be righted. And then Richard Armitage turned up on my TV screen at the end of 2004 and made me fall in love with the book and its hero all over again. He did more than anybody else could to banish my ten year obsession with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy.
Can you tell us more about the fanfic scene – something I would love to investigate more on Vulpes some day.
I had never even heard of fanfic before I joined the North and South messageboards in 2004 to compare notes about Richard Armitage. But fans of the book and of the BBC adaptation were posting their own versions of the story – continuations, prequels, modern retellings – and the quality was very high. I thought I’d try my hand and post a chapter or two in January 2005 – and I’ve been writing one novel or another ever since.
Fanfic is a perfect training ground for the novice author. The characters are there, the setting is there, the loose threads of the plot are there, just waiting for you to pick them up and set to work. And the support and feedback is something pretty special, too. Writing can be an isolating business, but for the fanfic author an audience is out there, ready and waiting: they share your obsession and are thus perfectly primed to be receptive to your story.
Your second novel, Hearts and Minds, was a favourite amongst bookbloggers, including some of the foxes themselves. It is a gentle, yet intricate, exploration of some of the moral and ideological issues at the heart of an all-female Cambridge college – and indeed at the heart of education. How do you balance the issues in your work with the personal and emotional strands in your stories?
Well, I suppose that in commercial women’s fiction it’s imperative that the characters’ ’emotional journey’, as they say, is very much in the forefront. But I can’t imagine writing about people’s lives without political and social issues being a part of the mix as well – whether it’s party politics (as in More Than Love Letters) or more abstracted community values (as in Crossed Wires). Or even (as in Hearts and Minds) the micro-politics of higher education funding!
Would you say there is a particular theme or themes that unites all your work?
I’m interested in how people (and perhaps especially women) interact, both at the level of family and personal relationships and at the level of community and institution. It’s probably no coincidence that my first two published novels both centred on women’s institutions: a feminist collective in More Than Love Letters and a women’s college in Hearts and Minds. Another novel about the Greenham Common peace camps hit the editorial skids and has been put in a drawer. But even when I’m not writing about ‘institutions’ as such, I think I’m always writing about how people fit into a community.
Your new work Crossed Wires is out in paperback in April. The theme of responsibility – parental and sibling – jumped out at me. Can you talk a little more about this?
The ‘responsibility’ thing may be part of what I was trying to say just now about community – in this case scaled down to the level of the family. But the children in Crossed Wires are there in a central role simply because I have daughters of about that age at home and wanted to attempt the challenge of writing about kids – and about parenting.
I was struck by the portrayal of the subsidiary characters – particularly a gay couple Jeremy and Martin, whose relationship – it is implied – is more complex and intriguing than might appear. You also had a range of wonderful characters in Hearts and Minds including the intriguing named Dr Ros Clarke. Tell us a bit more about your supporting casts. Who are your favourite subsidiary characters and how do you set about making them real without letting them take over the story?
Ah, you see that’s the joy of subsidiary characters. It’s easy as pie to imply that they are complex and intriguing – without ever having to deliver on the promise! It’s main characters that are so flipping difficult. Much harder to bluff.
I’m fond of Jeremy and Martin, too – and still have a soft spot for Darren the geeky Dean in Hearts and Minds.
Crossed Wires also contains an intriguing depiction of twins. Do you have any experience of twins and how did you research this aspect?
I’m rubbish at bothering to do any research for my fiction – I have enough of that in my day job. I do have a friend who has identical twin girls, though, and I suppose I may have drawn a little on her experience. Her two stayed awake in relays for the first four years of their lives, and shared an ocean of constantly evolving cold viruses. We co-teach a course on Women and Law and at one time there seemed always to be at least one of her twins in the middle of the carpet during seminars, with a dribbly nose and a colouring book. Good for the students, I always thought – a tangible demonstration of what it’s like trying to be a woman and a lawyer, or a teacher, or pretty much anything else for that matter. (Er, sorry, rambled off there for a minute – what was the question again?)
Something I have noticed in both Hearts and Minds and Crossed Wires is your inclusion of the main characters’ pets! I know you have two spaniels of your own – is it important to include animal characters in your work?
It began as a sort of bet, really. I was writing my Gaskell fanfic at the time, and the conversation went something like this.
My partner (on settee with springer spaniel on lap): So, this book. Are there any springer spaniels in it?
Me: Er, no.
Partner: What’s the point of that, then?
Me: Perhaps I could add one…
I suppose my own family consists of a fairly undifferentiated muddle of four humans and two canines and when I think of families that’s just how I tend to imagine them.
We have some pretty obsessive pet owners amongst the foxes who I’m sure will be nodding along at that. But I can’t interview Rosy Thornton without asking her about her famous, and unwavering, devotion to Ipswich Town Football Club…Tell us more!
Sad but true – season ticket holder since the age of nine.
There’s a bet going on there, too. I have to work some mention of Ipswich Town FC into all my novels. With More Than Love Letters it was easy, as it was set in Ipswich; there are several references, and Sir Bobby Robson even plays a small but crucial part in the story. In Hearts and Minds it was just about possible, Cambridge being only an hour from Ipswich up the A14; two of the main characters drive to Portman Road for an evening game in chapter 13 for no discernible plot reason. In Crossed Wires it had to be much subtler, because sooner or later my editor may notice. But for the eagle-eyed, it’s still definitely in there.
To round-off, in long-held Vulpes tradition, give us your five favourite books with a wee sentence why:
North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell (for obvious reasons)
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (nothing to do with Colin Firth at all)
Gaudy Night – Dorothy L Sayers (well, it’s about an Oxbridge women’s college, isn’t it?)
Less Than Angels – Barbara Pym (for the minute social observation)
The Travelling Hornplayer – Barbara Trapido (I just love the way she writes)
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.