Describe Netherwood, in a sentence.
A good old-fashioned story, in the best possible sense.
What inspired you to write a novel set in Yorkshire at the start of the 20th century?
My late Grandma, Nellie Sanderson, inspired the original idea. She was a miner’s widow and a wonderful cook. I set it in 1903 because I’d read about the eviction in January of that year of striking miners in a Yorkshire village called Denaby. It seemed to me to be a good place to start, if Netherwood was to reflect the turbulent industrial relations of the period.
Netherwood has multiple plots and multiple characters. How difficult is it to juggle so many different elements at once?
Jolly difficult at times! But I can’t moan, because I invented them. It was a deliberate strategy on my part: I wanted to write a book full of people, because those are the ones I enjoy reading.
TV dramas set around this period are hugely popular at the moment (e.g. Downton Abbey). Are there any particular TV dramas or films you’ve particularly enjoyed?
Well, like half the nation I watched Downton Abbey every Sunday evening, lulled into a pleasant stupor by the lovely set and costumes. I thought South Riding was absolutely terrific, though three episodes didn’t really do the story justice. Elizabeth Gaskell has done well for television adaptations: Cranford was fun, though I preferred the smouldering passion across the class divide of North and South. Back in 1994 there was a marvellous adaptation of Middlemarch and then, of course, there was Pride and Prejudice back in 1995 with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle – no one has done it better.
What’s the best thing about being a published author?
Knowing for sure that I haven’t been wasting my time.
Describe a typical writing day for you.
There’s no such thing. I’m trying to be more disciplined, now that Netherwood is published and I’m writing a sequel, but even so I don’t have a set time of day when I write. Country life – children, animals, holiday cottages – is never straightforward. I can sit down at the keyboard thinking I have a clear day, then the chickens escape or a child needs a lift to the station or guests arrive for one of the cottages, and it all goes to pot.
I’m also terribly easily distracted: I’ve wasted hours of my life playing Tetris on my phone or browsing The Archers message board. Anyway, I suppose it’s all research, in one way or another. I do, very occasionally, get up in the early hours and work for an uninterrupted stretch before the household wakes up. When I do get the bit between my teeth, I write fairly quickly. I think my years as a journalist help me to write efficiently with what little time I have.
What kind of books or authors do you like to read for pleasure?
Oh, all manner of things. I do have an abiding love of Jane Austen’s writing, and every few years I revisit her books. But there’s no real pattern to my reading choices generally. At the moment I’m immersed in Victorian Scotland with The Observations by Jane Harris – wonderful book. Prior to that it was Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen – again, terrific – and before that The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. I suppose the connection between them all, if anything, is a strong cast of characters, whose fate you come to really care about. That’s the key, for me. That, and lots of dialogue. I do love dialogue – always the best way to convey personality.
Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Stop prevaricating and get on with it. You can’t edit an empty page, so write something down and improve on it later. I also found it helped to give my book a title, right from the start. It made it a reality, even if only to me. Meanwhile, keep on reading – good authors to inspire you and lead the way, bad authors to convince yourself you can do better. And don’t pay too much heed to all those ‘How To Write Fiction’ books – they all end up contradicting each other, and there’s no perfect formula anyway. Start writing. Find your voice.