Crooked Heart tells the story of a young boy and the woman he is evacuated to during World War Two; this is your second novel set during the period – what draws you to this particular time?
When I was a teenager, I read a book called ‘How We Lived Then’ by Norman Longmate. It’s about the home front during the Second World War, and uses the diaries and recollections of civilians to build up a detailed picture of the era. I re-read it many times. What fired my imagination was the idea of ordinary people, trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Life was tiring, tough, and makeshift, and people had to adapt to the most enormous changes, almost on a day-to-day basis. The era still fascinates me.
How did you go about your research for the book and what was the most surprising fact that you uncovered whilst writing?
I’ve written two books set during the Blitz. The first, ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’ is about the making of a feature film, and follows the story of a young woman writer, a washed-up old actor, and a seamstress from Madam Tussauds. I was able to research the background by ferreting around in various libraries – including those of the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum – and by talking to veterans of the industry. There were loads of sources and masses to read, and I was really able to immerse myself in the subject.
When it came to ‘Crooked Heart’, however, I was writing about the sort of people who don’t publish diaries, or have their recollections anthologised: petty crooks and people scrabbling on the breadline, the marginalised and the anonymous. My most helpful sources of information were local newspapers, which revealed snippets from the whole of society. I spent weeks trawling through the papers, reading about crimes and accidents and celebrations. The most surprising fact was one that became a key-stone of the book: large numbers of children from North London were evacuated only as far as St Albans, just twenty-five miles from the centre of the city…
Your main character Noel is ten years old; how did you get into the mind-set of a ten year old boy and did you find his character easier or harder to write than Vera’s?
When I was ten years old, my family moved house, and I had to start again in a new school in a new town in a new region of the country. As a result, I’ve retained a pin-sharp snap-shot of what it was like to be that age – the memory is far clearer to me than that of my subsequent teenage years. I was a very bookish child, with a rather elderly outlook and an enormous vocabulary, and all these elements meant that Noel was fairly easy for me to write. Vee, on the other hand, came to me fully-formed, as if she was just waiting for me to get started…
What was the hardest part of writing Crooked Heart?
The plot. I had a rough idea of the ending, but getting there took me a long, long time. I always start with the characters, and the story arises out of the relationships and conjunctions between them; doing it that way means (I hope) that the plot develops naturally, rather than being imposed on the book. The down-side is that it takes me ages.
Are you currently working on a new book? If so, are you able to tell us anything about it?
I’m writing a children’s book, but I’m also researching the sequel to ‘Crooked Heart.’
Can you tell us something about yourself that your readers don’t know?
I’m the voice of the sticky-tape dispenser in the episode of ‘Father Ted’ set on an aeroplane.
Do you have a designated writing room/space?
I don’t tend to work at home – too many distractions (kids, husband, dog, washing, bills, tidying, taking stuff to dump, doing something about the garden which looks like a bloody jungle etc etc) I usually go to The London Library, which is beautiful and peaceful, but I also use the British Library, the BFI library, and a café round the corner from where I live.
Which phase do your find the hardest during the writing/publishing process?
The whole middle section of the book, after the joy of writing the first couple of chapters has faded. Suddenly there’s a whole lot of plot to think of, and a long, long way to go….
Which writers inspire you?
I always think of George Orwell, who said that good prose should be like a window-pane; that sort of vivid clarity is what I’m always aiming for.
If you could do a writing collaboration with anyone, who would it be and why?
I think I’d find it easier to collaborate with an illustrator – Quentin Blake, ideally (although he writes marvellous books as well). His drawings peopled my childhood and shaped my whole view of comedy.
What’s the best writing advice anyone has ever given you?
You can’t re-write a blank page.
Where would your perfect writing retreat be?
An English country house in perpetual early summer, with someone else doing the housework.