A little about myself
I’m half English, half American by birth, the American bit being of French Huguenot descent. My childhood was spent back and forth between England and the East Coast of America, though from my early teens I’ve lived permanently in Britain – now on the East Coast of Scotland. It seems I must have some kind of affinity with the east wind, certainly I have with the sea. I went up to Oxford on a classics scholarship, then switched to mathematics, also while at Oxford marrying a fellow student, historian David Swinfen, and taking a postgraduate maths degree. After the birth of our fifth child I took an honours degree and PhD in English Literature – you’ll begin to see a pattern here. What was I going to do when I grew up?
My husband’s income as an academic not being over-generous for rearing five children, I worked at a variety of jobs (often several at the same time): part-time academic, journalist, software designer, manager in the technical author division of an international computer company and so on. All of this very time-consuming and not allowing much space for creative writing, though I continued to be a voracious reader, as I had always been.
When the youngest children were launched at university, I walked away from all my jobs except the part-time academic teaching and said, ‘NOW I AM GOING TO WRITE!’ And that’s where I’ve been ever since. My first three novels were published by Random House, but I’ve now become an independent author-publisher and couldn’t be happier.
Why I write.
My sister was quite a bit older than I and loved playing school. Guess who was the teacher and who the pupil! In fact, she taught me to read when I was three, and I’ve been grateful to her ever since. Living in a world of stories, I felt it perfectly natural to make them up myself and in fact I still have a story I wrote, typed (!) and illustrated when I was five. There’s not much of a story arc, but the impulse was there.
At ten I was quite ill, had a long time in hospital and confined to bed, and missed a year of school. In the end this was no hardship, for I read and read, and made up more stories. When I went back to school I wasn’t kept back, but had a wonderful teacher who encouraged my writing. By this point I had become fascinated by history and by early writers like Chaucer and Langland, read the Renaissance dramatists and poets, dreamt of becoming a writer. When I was fourteen I remember that I wrote two stories which satisfied me. One was set in Britain at the time of the Roman invasions, the other during an exceptionally hard winter in fourteenth-century East Anglia.
Then in my later teens I became hyper-critical of all my prose writing and tore it up, though I did write poetry. At that age, I think one’s critical faculties leap ahead and one’s lack of self-confidence tends to undermine the creative faculty. Then came the demanding student years and early marriage. As a young mother with a large family and several jobs I was mentally and physically exhausted. Looking back, I’m glad now that I didn’t publish any novels in my twenties and thirties, because I’m sure I’d be embarrassed by them now!
So the impulse, the desire, was always there from an early age, just waiting for me to emerge from the manic years and have enough energy to sustain the long-term commitment to writing novels.
My interest in history is an intrinsic part of my life, for I feel that both individuals and society are fundamentally shaped by what has gone before us. We may think that we are smart, modern, technically savvy, twenty-first century people, but the millennia of human history saturate our being. Although my first three novels (The Anniversary, The Travellers, and A Running Tide) are superficially “contemporary”, in fact all three contain layers of history. The lives of my characters are profoundly affected by their own history and the history of their societies.
Since going independent, I have published five uncompromisingly historical novels. The Testament of Mariam is set in the first century and is narrated by a fictional sister of Jesus. It’s not a religious book, but an attempt to recreate the physical reality of that peasant family in Roman-occupied Galilee. Flood takes place in seventeenth century East Anglia, when the fenlanders had to fight against unscrupulous developers to save their lands and way of life. I am also writing a series set in the late sixteenth century featuring a young physician, Christoval Alvarez, who is coerced into becoming a code-breaker and agent in the Elizabethan secret service run by Sir Francis Walsingham. Published so far: The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, The Enterprise of England and The Portuguese Affair. At the moment I’m at work on the fourth book in the series.
So from those first attempts at historical fiction in my early teens I have moved on to full-length novels in which I try to explore not merely the lives of people in the past, but to view them as part of a long human continuum, of which we ourselves are also a part.
How writing impacted my life.
I suppose you could say that my life has always been moving towards this writing profession. My rather odd educational background isn’t quite so odd when viewed in the context of my writing. Study of the classics certainly contributed to the writing of Mariam. Christoval’s skill in code-breaking is not unrelated to my mathematical studies. And by writing historical fiction I am able to pursue my passion for history.
When I first had enough time and energy to devote to writing full-length novels, it was like the release of a head of steam which had been building up for a long time. Interestingly, my publisher at Random House said, after reading The Anniversary, that she could not believe it was a first novel. In a way, it wasn’t, since I’d been writing in my head all those years.
It was enormously exciting to be accepted as a novelist and published by a leading international publisher (though I had already published a non-fiction academic book). However, over the next couple of years I became somewhat disillusioned by the commercial publishing world – the delays, the lack of control, the offhand and sometimes downright rude behaviour meted out to authors. After a particularly infuriating case of this in the latter months of 2013, I decided to go independent. I set up an imprint name, bought my own ISBNs, and set out as an independent publisher. My agent had decided she wasn’t interested in historical fiction anymore, so I first published Flood, the book she had not only turned down – she hadn’t even bothered to read it. And it has proved very successful, with many readers demanding a sequel. Her somewhat high-handed assessment that “nobody reads historical fiction” has been sounded refuted. Once Flood was safely launched in paperback and Kindle, I turned my attention to reissuing my backlist (the rights had reverted to me) and publishing my other historical novels.
It has certainly had an impact! Since the beginning of this year I have published or reissued eight novels, finished one started last year and written one wholly new novel. They are all now available in paperback and Kindle. I’ve published five short stories in Kindle, some of which previously appeared in magazines or on the BBC. I designed the covers for these short stories myself, but used a couple of designers for the books until settling down with Jane Dixon-Smith. I am now writing the fourth book in the Christoval Alvarez series, which I hope to be able to publish before Christmas.
The joy of being an independent author-publisher is the fact that you are in control! You make the decisions not only about the content and format of the novel itself, but about cover design, blurb, publication date, pricing, any special offers, and so on. There is the obvious drawback that you have to do the promotion and marketing yourself, which is something I think most writers don’t much enjoy. However, another perk is being able to track your sales day-by-day (so you can see whether a promotion is working, for example). With traditional publishing you wait months and months before you have any clear idea of what is happening. Oh, and as an indie, you are paid every month! In that other publishing world you can wait up to two years. No advance, of course, but they were getting smaller and smaller anyway. Now I keep spreadsheets, plotting income against expenditure, keeping an eye on how the enterprise in developing. This is work, a profession, and has to be treated seriously.
One of the most exciting ways in which all of this has impacted on my life has been making the unabridged audiobook of The Testament of Mariam with Hollywood actress Serena Scott Thomas. It’s been a wonderful experience and Serena has become a good friend, loving the book and saying she didn’t want the recording to end. A year ago, could I have imagined something so extraordinary would happen? I don’t think so!
The advice I would give to beginner writers.
What I always say to beginner writers, including my students, is that the most important quality for a writer after talent and imagination is persistence. I have known so many people who manage to write a first chapter, or perhaps just a first scene, of a novel. They then go back over it and over it, editing, polishing, and despairing that it will never be perfect.
THIS IS FATAL!
It won’t ever be perfect. A first chapter is just a sketch, a first tentative step into your story. You absolutely must persist. Carry on until you reach the end of the story. Only then can you view it as a whole, understand what it is you have actually written. It may be that you will jettison that first chapter. Or you may need to rewrite it because of what occurs later in the story. Once you have the whole body of the novel to work on, the significance of the parts becomes clear.
The analogy I always use is that of a sculptor in marble. You start with your crude lump of stone – your basic idea for the novel. You then hew the first draft out of the stone, which gives you the rough overall appearance of the finished work. Each of your subsequent edits refines and polishes your “statue”, your novel, until it is revealed in all its glory! If you stop after the first few pages and struggle to make it perfect, it would be like a sculptor polishing and refining a big toe of his statue, before he had created the overall figure. Madness and a total waste of time.
Of course, it’s difficult to persuade beginner writers of this, but there you are. I speak from experience!
Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors
Member of The Historical Writers’ Association
Inspiring interview Stephanie and Ann. I couldn’t agree more about getting the first draft out of your head and then refining, honing and polishing it.
Thank you, Alison! And I couldn’t agree more about the first draft. So true! 🙂