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.
Today on Vulpes Libris, we’re pleased to welcome Liz Fenwick, the award-winning author of The Cornish House, A Cornish Affair, A Cornish Stranger and Under A Cornish Sky. After ten international moves, she now lives in Cornwall.
Under a Cornish Sky has just been released in paperback and her next book – The Returning Tide is due out in January 2017.
Thanks to the magic of the internet we caught up with her while she was en route to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s annual conference.
VL: You’re an American – from Massachusetts originally, I think – but your books are set in Cornwall. You don’t write with an American ‘voice’ and there are no obvious Americanisms in your work: is that by design, or simply because you’ve been married to an Englishman for 25 years – and now live here – and have absorbed British English by a sort of osmosis?
LF: You certainly have me thinking. It’s not by conscious design. I hope it comes from the point. of view of my characters and being immersed in their personalities. With the risk of sounding insane the characters are alive in my head and their voices are very clear.
As a writer I spend most of my time watching people and 25 years married to an Englishman has coloured my world and given me insights into the British mindset. It has also supposedly made my books ‘too English’ for the US market.
I must confess I have a dear friend who is an early reader and she spots an Americanism a mile away and if not appropriate her pencil has provided the correct phrase.
VL: I’d no idea it was possible to be ‘too English’ for the US market … And in any case, I’ve always found your books to be quite – how can I put this? Language-neutral? By which I mean that I couldn’t – going on your written style alone – tell what nationality you were if I didn’t already know. And speaking of language … you’ve never made any secret of the fact that you’re dyslexic – which is at least partially responsible, I suspect, for your nicely pared-down and clean writing style. But does being dyslexic cause you problems when you try to transfer those characters you see and hear so clearly in your head to paper?
LF: My dyslexia keeps my written language simple and makes me shy away from complex sentences. I find it frustrating that a word I can say I cannot spell. In fact most times the block will not even allow me to look up the correct spelling if spellcheck doesn’t correctly desylhet it … there is an example where I have tried five ways of spelling one word: decipher…
I also rely heavily on text-to-voice software. My ears are far better than my eyes at detecting problems. However I still die a bit that the proofs of The Cornish House went out with a ‘bowl of muscles’ and a ‘canon ball’!
Some characters have easy voices like Hannah but I struggled with Jude in A Cornish Affair as she’s an academic – hence many many rewrites.
I hope that the simpler language in my books makes them more accessible and that the stories are what comes through …
You’re developing a bit of a track record of writing slightly unusual female characters … Jude was one example, and in Under a Cornish Sky you took it one step forward with Victoria, who is an extraordinary creation for a central character … middle-aged, unlikeable and obsessed with her garden. She’s a real blast of fresh air. Did you have a hard time selling that concept to your editor?
LF: Interestingly, no. Victoria was a hit with her from the start. I loved writing her. She was so real to me and such fun. What I’ve really enjoyed is reader reaction to her: there is no in between. It’s wonderful when a character provokes strong emotions.
VL: Yes, I can see that she’d be a real marmite character with very few people in the ‘meh’ camp, and actually, continuing that train of thought … your characterization in general is a bit off-centre – if ‘centre’ is the standard romantic novel plot of boy-meets-girl, there is a problem / misunderstanding / separation – yada, yada, yada … In Under a Cornish Sky (reviewed by us here), I genuinely couldn’t second guess where and how it would all end. Your ‘heroes’ don’t have great flashing neon signs over their heads (figuratively speaking), and yet, they’re often there all the time, lurking just under the reader’s radar. Is that deliberate plotting, or is it just where your characters take you? Which leads me on to a second question … how much resemblance does your finished story bear to your original plot outline?
LF: I guess to answer the first part, I don’t see my books as traditional romances. The central story for me is rarely the love story. I am fascinated by women being confronted by problems and how they manage them and hopefully come out the other side stronger. I am a huge fan of love and love stories so that will always be integral to my stories but rarely is it the reason for the story. This could be why the stories feel ‘off-centre’.
Having said that I have to fall in love with all of my heroes … but they will never be the ‘thing’ that solves the heroine’s problem. That has to come or not come from within her. So the love story/hero will always be there but rarely is it the focus of the book.
I normally have a good idea of where I want the story to go but there is a lot of room for it to surprise me along the way. So my themes will normally remain and the beginning and endings do – but the middles can change. Having said that The Returning Tide, which comes out in January, has surprised me in many ways.
Oh and I don’t plot ahead – or not more than my editor needs to feel reassured that there really is a story there. I’ve just begun book six. I know the setting, four main characters and a general idea of what my theme is … and now the fun begins as I write a very messy first draft and get to know these people as I throw things at them!
VL: That sounds like huge fun and a great way to write a book. But I know success didn’t come easily to you. I believe you wrote – and ditched – several books before The Cornish House was finally accepted and published … and that the New Writers’ Scheme at the Romantic Novelists’ Association played a huge part in your finally getting published. As someone who has laboured long and hard at the coal face, what advice would you give an aspiring writer, apart from developing a hide like a rhino?
LF: I think it’s hugely important to be open to change and advice but at the same time trust your inner voice. When I began writing fiction again in 2004 I thought I would have a light voice and write feel good romance. But the more books I wrote I realised that my voice was darker and I had to learn to trust my writing voice and follow it. Thankfully I had wonderful readers in the New Writer’s Scheme who encouraged me. It took me until 2010 to realise I was trying to write Du Maurier meets Picoult or ‘Cornwall with issues’. In the end that’s not quite where I landed: it’s somewhere with Mary Wesley, Rosamunde Pilcher and Mary Stewart thrown in….
Also to try and remember that it’s not a race. I look on those years from 2004 until The Cornish House came out in 2012 as my apprenticeship. They were years spent learning about the publishing world, building a social media presence and watching how the best sellers worked. Mind you I haven’t stopped learning. You don’t get a book published and stop striving to be better. It’s a journey and there is so much to learn – including learning by failure.
VL: ‘Cornwall with issues’ … I like that. And Cornwall, of course, is front and centre of all of your books. It’s always been a popular setting for novels, and now it’s very much back in vogue since that unfeasibly good-looking dwarf from The Hobbit took his shirt off … Would you ever consider setting a book somewhere else? Dubai, for instance? I know you love the desert.
LF: The Returning Tide is set in Portland, Weymouth, Cape Cod and Cornwall … so in a way yes. But at the moment I can’t see me leaving Cornwall completely. I do love the desert but I can’t see or feel and stories there. I could write more about the Cape or Maine maybe but for the present it’s Cornwall. It does play the role of muse for me. I just have to look out of the window of our home and the magic begins to happen.
I’m hoping that all these books being set in Cornwall will mean the American market may yet open up for me! After all they love Rosamunde Pilcher…
VL: Well, the way Poldark has apparently been embraced around the world, your moment may have come. Fingers crossed …
Finally, it’s customary for us to ask our guests to name their five favourite/most influential novels (or poems or plays) – giving reasons. The floor is yours.
LF: I always hate choosing favourites firstly because they change and secondly because it’s so hard.
Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. It has the best opening sentence ever and it opened my eyes to a different view of the Middle East where I was living when I read it. ‘I, Hassan the son of Muhammad the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptised at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia.’
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I don’t know how many times I read this book as a child but I loved the adventures and that love of adventure has stayed with me. I remember reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn almost immediately after and being disappointed because it wasn’t the same. It took a few years before I saw the brilliance of that book and began to appreciate it too.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd. This book blew me away. This is a strange confession to make but for the first time I felt as if I was seeing into the male mind and heart and realised just what a different creature a man is.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I was given this book by a friend. It was her favourite book. I can’t say enough wonderful things about it. I too have bought many copies and given them away.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I never imaged that a book about hawks and grief could be so beautiful and so uplifting. I also found her descriptions of grief similar to the writing process as well … yes, I know I’m weird!
Having said how hard it is I could go on – like my favourite comfort read Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice … but I’ll stop. Or poems – Emily Dickinson. She attended Mount Holyoke where I did my degree and I was lucky enough to take a seminar devoted entirely to her work. I’ll stop now!