A Magnificent Obsession
"The odd thing is that the subject of time does keep cropping up in whatever I write..."
The book is peopled by a number of remarkably-drawn figures. We feel we have met these people somewhere in our own life. We even sometimes recognize ourselves in them. How do you achieve this degree of authenticity?
“Sometimes a character refuses to obey my carefully devised plot…”You can probably tell from some of my other answers that characterization is a bit of a mysterious process, as I’m sure it is for many writers. Before I start a novel, I do a lot of work on all the characters: getting to know their likes, dislikes, backgrounds, beliefs, looks, and so on. At that stage, I quite often take aspects of people I know, or have seen, or read about in newspapers or biographies – and then change them, or combine them or take them to extremes. But after that, when I start writing the novel, things start to get interesting, because sometimes a given character refuses to obey my carefully devised plot, which then has to change as a result…
The book brims with imaginative abandon as you roam with a great gusto through geographical and chronological boundaries. Are you as bold in real life as you are in your writing?
I don’t know what my friends would say about this, but personally, I don’t think I’m anything like as bold in real life! I loathe confrontation, and tend to be much more of an observer than an actor. But I suppose one might say the same of a lot of writers.
One of the most engaging characters is Modge, a little girl whose presence enlivens the book. Yet she is more than just a vehicle of comic relief. Her feelings and impressions are conveyed with remarkable authenticity and immediacy – she offers a sobering perspective on the world of adult passions, the world that almost engulfs her in the end. How much in her character is autobiographical?
I’m afraid an awful lot about Modge is autobiographical, particularly when she’s growing up as a thoroughly difficult, unlovely, yet desperately romantic teenager. But fiction and real life diverge in one respect, in that during my own teens, I didn’t encounter anyone like Patrick, so I had to make do with Mr Darcy, and Rhett Butler, and Aragorn…
The book boils with unexpected twists and surprising revelations which keep the reader on edge until the final page. How do you go about constructing your story lines? Do you know what will happen before you begin writing the first page or do things develop as you go along?
I’m a typical Virgoan, that is to say, extremely orderly, with a passion for planning and lists – so yes, I do spend a lot of time planning the story lines, once I’ve acquired a reasonable understanding of my characters, and done some basic research. Then I do more research, and more planning…Then I start writing the story. Often there will come a point when I have to change the plot because the characters are acting up… and so it goes on.
A Place in the Hills offers a wealth of historical and archaeological detail. How did you conduct your research? What were your sources? Have you actually travelled to the sites you describe in the book?
For the historical research, I find that the gold standard is the wonderful British Library, where you can unearth the most amazing contemporary sources if you know where to look. For example, for Without Charity, I found the privately published memoirs of a British field surgeon from the Boer War, which contained a wonderfully vivid (and very funny) account of a small field hospital in the veldt, with lots of unexpected detail.As regards what you might call the `location’ research, there’s no substitute for actually going there. For A Place in the Hills, this included a freezing week spent in a rented cottage in a tiny French Pyrenean village. I can say with my hand on my heart that much of the account of Antonia’s arrival at the mill – including the horrible wine she accidentally buys, and her near-asphyxiation from a very smoky fire – comes straight from my own experience. Maybe that’s why my next book is set in Jamaica…
You have been called a new Daphne du Maurier, and it is not difficult to see why. Your output clearly testifies to your exceptional talent. How did you get to this stage and what advice you would give to aspiring authors?
“The main thing is to keep writing, preferably every day, no matter how busy you are …”Flattery aside, I think the main thing is to keep writing, preferably every day, no matter how busy you are with your job, children, etc. Reading some `How to write a novel’ books can help too, as it avoids having to reinvent the wheel. But there’s no substitute for keeping writing – despite rejection letters, frequent bouts of `I’ll never get there in a million years’, and well-meaning friends’ suggestions that maybe you should try something else in the interests of sanity. One other thing: I don’t think it’s a great idea to talk about your work in detail to other people; just get on with it. I’ve noticed that people who tell me the plot of their novel-in-progress or screenplay or whatever in fascinating and exhaustive detail tend not to be the ones who ever get it finished.
What was most difficult about writing A Place in the Hills? Did you go through a period when you just felt like giving up? If so, what helped you to get through?
When I was about halfway through the book, I was also preparing to move house, and as a result I think I lost touch with some of my characters. I only realised this afterwards, when I was horrified to find that I’d written seven totally unconvincing chapters. That was rather unnerving. What helped me get back on track? I took a break for a few days, went up to say hallo to Cassius at the British Museum, and then realised where I’d gone wrong with Patrick: I’d completely misunderstood how he would have developed over the years. So I re-wrote all seven chapters from scratch.
What did you enjoy most while working on this book?
Reading all that wonderful Latin poetry (in translation!), and generally becoming steeped in things Roman. I also loved the archaeological research. When it came to the writing, I particularly enjoyed the scene when Patrick finds the kántharos, probably because it was pure wish-fulfilment on my part. Imagine finding an unimaginably beautiful artefact which provides a tangible link with a named individual from the past, whose innermost thoughts and feelings one knows from his poetry! If I were an archaeologist, that would be my ultimate dream. Which probably shows that I’m far too much of a romantic to make a good archaeologist.
How long did it take you to write A Place in the Hills? A writer must experience a great sense of accomplishment on completing such a work.
It took a solid year, working between 6-8 hours a day. And no, I didn’t have a sense of accomplishment when I’d finished, I just wanted to sit down and howl! I missed my characters. I missed ancient Rome. It took a while to get over that – but luckily, a few months later, Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator came out, which helped a lot. I went to see it an embarrassing number of times.
You are obviously not merely another commercial writer. In addition to being a thrilling read, your works have a recognizable literary value which has been confirmed by the critical response you’ve received. Are you hoping to be remembered as a literary figure rather than just a best-selling author?
More flattery! As I said before, I simply want to write good, evocative stories which sweep people away. (On reflection, perhaps I should delete the `simply’, as that’s a pretty tall order.)
How do you go about looking for material for new projects? Where do you draw inspiration?
For me, inspiration for a story often comes from a particular place. For Without Charity it was a chance sighting of an amazingly overblown gothic mansion, while A Place in the Hills was partly inspired by a very vivid childhood memory of exploring a sacred spring in Greece, where it was said that Pegasus used to come to drink. After I’ve begun to get interested in a place, I concentrate on the kind of feelings which that place evokes, and on what sort of people might be connected with it, what might happen to them, and so on – although not necessarily in that order. It develops from there.
What do you do in your free time? Do you have hobbies?
I don’t have an awful lot of free time, but when I’m not writing, I love watching films – old, modern, foreign-language, silents, whatever. I also love travelling to remote places on my own, particularly in the USA, because it’s so easy to hire a car there and get around, the people are really friendly, and the scenery is so amazing. I’m also enjoying having my own (small) garden for the first time. I currently have eight different kinds of bamboo in it – which is probably about all it can take!
Are there times when you are so absorbed in your story that you have a hard time relating to the ‘real’ world?
I find that’s the case most of the time, but it doesn’t usually bother me. It occurred to me the other day that, what with writing, watching television, going to the cinema and day-dreaming, I probably only spend a small fraction of every day in the `real’ world. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy traveling so much: suddenly I’m catapulted into the `real’ world for whole days at a time, which makes a refreshing change.
Can you mention a couple of your favourite writers and tell us why you like them?
I’ve always loved the nineteenth century writers – Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Edith Wharton, to name some of my favourites. They were so sharp and honest about human nature, and they really knew how to keep a reader hooked. I also relish the ghost stories of MR James and Sheridan Le Fanu. And I love Homer, but I have to be careful about when I read him, because if I approach the Iliad when I’m feeling less than confident, I end up asking myself why I ever bothered to pick up a pen. Well, wouldn’t anyone?
What is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of being a writer?
Two things. First, when (very occasionally) a scene comes alive the first time you put pen to paper. This happened in the scene when Patrick finds the kántharos, and in a couple of scenes with Cassius. That’s what I write for: that rare buzz when it’s really going well. The second reason has to do with when I receive a letter from a reader, saying how much my novel meant to her. It’s an exhilarating feeling, as well as a privilege, to know that you have moved someone whom you’ve never met.