Welcome back, Margaret! I was amazed when I realised that you were my first guest in 2013!
I was amazed, too! My goodness, doesn’t time fly? Perhaps this is because writing a novel is such a long process and sometimes another year goes by without us really noticing? It’s very good to be back. I see that since we were last in contact you’ve had several of your books published by Endeavour Press. Many congratulations!
Thank you! I love the cover of your new novel ‘Girl in Red Velvet’, which is book 6 in the Charton Minster Series. What inspired you to create this series?
The inspiration for the Charton Minster stories was driving past a country house in Dorset at least a decade ago. I wondered who lived there and later that evening my imagination started to run riot, conjuring up a whole family and their descendents. The first novel in the series is The Silver Locket, which is Rose Courtenay’s story. The subsequent five novels are about Rose’s children and grandchildren and even her great grandchildren.
The girl in Girl in Red Velvet is Rose Courtenay’s granddaughter Lily Denham, who goes to university in the 1960s and meets two men who become her friends, the three of them have some great fun together, but then Lily finds she is falling in love with both of them. She makes a choice which looks as if it will turn out to be a very bad choice indeed. Or will it? What do all three of these people want and how will they get it? I hope I’ve given them plenty of challenges but that I’ve also given all their stories satisfying endings.
Do you remember the 60s with fondness?
I do because I was young and at university myself and having a lovely time living away from home. It’s quite difficult for younger people alive today to realise what a huge place the world was then. I went from living in a small rural community where I never met anyone who wasn’t British and white to living in a big city where I met and made friends with people from all over the world.
What is next for Creative Writing Matters?
We’re expanding our range of writing-related services all the time. We run two major international competitions (The Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize which incorporates the Trisha Ashley Award for a humorous story) and we offer mentoring and various shorter courses and smaller competitions, too. We’ve found that offering feedback on competition entries has proved very popular so next year we will be doing more in that respect by offering feedback on some of our short story competitions as well as on entries for the Exeter Novel Prize.
What is next for Margaret?
It’s reading the entries for this year’s Exeter Story Prize, which closed on 30 April. We’re constantly astonished and impressed by the range and quality of entries, so although this is a pleasurable task it’s always quite demanding, too.
I could read before I started school so as long as I can remember I’ve loved books. Mum or Dad read to me every night and once they’d tucked me up, I would hide under the bedclothes with a torch, up late (a notoriously bad sleeper all my life), with a heap of books, looking at the pictures and making up stories until I could make out the text. I loved Ladybird books (which I still have on my bookshelves), Enid Blyton, especially Mr Pink-Whistle and Amelia Jane, and ‘Twinkle’, the comic I got every week as we lived above the newsagent’s run by my parents in Torquay.
When did you decide that you wanted to write your own?
I wrote a lot of stories when I was a child but that fizzled out by the time I reached secondary school when I was more concerned with Wham! and boys. At university I studied English and wrote bad poetry. It wasn’t until my children were small that I went to a creative writing class at the adult education college. By the end of that first lesson I was hooked, and knew I wanted to be a writer. I was 33. It was another ten years before I had my debut novel published.
What can a reader expect from a Sophie Duffy novel?
The reader can expect a nostalgia-fest with a few tears and laughs along the way. They will get a blended, dysfunctional family or group of friends, and a main character trying to negotiate their hazardous journey through the world with all its ups and downs.
Change and facing the difficulties that this presents is a strong theme in your novels. How much of an influence has change in your own life experience driven the empathy you create for your own protagonists?
The one certainty in life is that we will face change. It’s how we adapt to change that marks us as individuals. Sometimes we resist change, sometimes we embrace it. We might make bad decisions. We probably will. And it’s the repercussions of these decisions that echo down the years that I am interested in as a writer.
The award winning The Generation Game (The Yeovil Literary Prize 2006 and Luke Bitmead Bursary 2010) confronts many issues including childhood abandonment and buried secrets. Where did the idea for this acclaimed novel come from?
The idea for ‘The Generation Game’ came from a short story wot I wrote. The idea for the story came from my early childhood when we lived above the newsagent’s (also a sweetshop/tobacconist’s) in the early 70s. Sadly, my father took his own life when I was ten which I suppose counts as abandonment of sorts, so maybe that is why I am drawn to this as a theme. Love and loss go hand in hand but I truly believe that love – often from unexpected places – conquers all. I have bitter sweet memories (if you’ll pardon the pun) from this era, as do most of Generation X who grew up in the golden years of Saturday night television. We have seen several of our childhood icons fall by the wayside in the wake of Operation Yewtree. Thank goodness for Sir Brucie is all I can say.
This Holey Life (runner up of The Harry Bowling Prize 2008) is another successful novel that looks at change and faith with humour, yet balanced reality. What was the greatest challenge this project posed?
I was worried that readers might be put off by a vicar’s wife as a main character but felt encouraged when I saw ‘Rev’ on the television, a sitcom which looks at life in the church and all the eccentric characters that make up a spiritual community. It’s not a ‘Christian’ book as such but a story that embraces life with all its flaws and imperfections.
You are part of the Creative Writing Matters team. How much do you enjoy sharing what you have learned with new writers?
It’s brilliant! I know how much I have learned and continue to learn from other writers. I know that being a writer is a life long process and that I receive more from my students than they get from me. Administering the Exeter Novel Prize and the Exeter Story Prize has also been a revelation. Having read hundreds of thousands of words over the years, I understand more about what makes good writing and good storytelling. I hope this feeds into my own work!
What key piece of advice would you give to an, as yet, unpublished author?
If it’s what you really want, then keep trying. Don’t give up. Enter competitions where your writing will be both read and considered. Keep writing. Read a lot. Listen to feedback, sit on it, and when it rings true, rewrite, edit, submit.
What is next for Sophie?
I have just signed a contract for the next book. All I can say for now is the novel involves two ninety year old ladies, one of whom is the queen. Watch this space…
Did your partnership form and grow through the collaboration as writers or did your published work evolve as a result of your friendship?
A bit of both! In 1999, we had co-authored two books of non-fiction, published by Radcliffe Medical Press (‘Facilitating Groups in Primary Care’, and ‘Facilitating Organisational Change in Primary Care’), while employed by The University of Dundee. That activity, along with several years of co-tutoring and joint research and consultancy, developed our working relationship and eventually led to our being friends as well as boss and junior!
Our fiction writing partnership – and ongoing friendship – is something newer and different, as we are no longer in a formal work situation. We’ve been writing and working together for 16 years in total and are still great friends, despite now living 500 miles apart.
Please tell us something about ‘Eight of Cups’?
The novel is certainly not chic-lit, and is not intended to be literary; rather it fits the genre of well-written contemporary women’s fiction, although many male readers have told us they’ve enjoyed reading it and learnt a lot about women’s minds in the process! It’s a saga spanning over thirty years, beginning in 1972, as the six main characters arrive at Edinburgh as new undergraduates. After leaving university, their roads lead to England, Wales, Ireland, America and the Middle East; lives intertwine and paths cross.
The story is told from two perspectives. One, from the first-person narrative of the primary character, the rather too selfless (as becomes evident) Scottish lass Diane. The other, third person narrative interlocks all six characters in a brindled strand of narrative priorities. The women are all very different personalities: Nancy, the risk-taking country-loving girl from Yorkshire, Alix, the hedonist from Aberdeen, Carys, the studious one from the depths of West Wales, the quietly anxious Lesley, from Cardiff, and bossy, religious Patricia from Dundee.
The book explores the effects of the various attachments each character possesses on their lives: dreams, ambitions, pleasures, plans, obsessions and fears, and asks the question, “What will it take to set them free?”
Where or who did the inspiration and desire to write the novel come from initially?
Marion (Mirren) describes the impetus as being a combination of challenge and opportunity, with a significant event in her social life providing the seed for the story. She was moving to live part-time on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland when her husband took up a post there in the island dental services. He was concerned that she would be bored (does he really know her??) and challenged her to ‘write that novel you’ve been banging on about for years’. Co-incidentally, she attended a reunion of old university friends where one of her old pals divulged a shocking secret to the group. That set her thinking of how life affects plans and attitudes. On hearing of Mirren’s novel-writing plans, Jones was very keen to join in, making a strong case that if we were able to write non-fiction successfully then we ought to be able to do the same with fiction! So after discussion and negotiation, Mirren Jones was born and ‘Eight of Cups’ quickly began to take shape.
Do you split tasks when you approach producing a novel or do you write alternate chapters, swap them and then smooth out the writing style in redrafting?
We work in a highly iterative way – creating, structuring, planning, revising, over and over again until we are happy with the product. Interestingly, we always sit down together and read through all the dialogue before signing off the final draft – this does give unique insights. In the end, the finished work is an amalgam of our ideas, plot lines, character development and physical writing (Mirren’s straight on to computer, and Jones on paper first), critiqued and then polished according to our own standards and preferences, as well as feedback from selected trusted reviewers.
You both have had careers dealing with people within the health sector. Do you think this experience has helped you to feel deeper empathy for the characters you create?
Our work in the NHS, in academia and as organisational development consultants has required us to be attentive listeners, adept at interpreting information from others via all our senses, able to feedback sensitively and imagine ourselves in others’ shoes. We have gained experience over many years of the effects of ill-health on people, and how life impacts on well-being. Hopefully our innate vein of empathy has been enhanced by our real-life experiences which then give us insight that we can apply to our characterisation. Perhaps being co-writers has an advantage over writing solo, in that with our combined life and work experiences we are able to bring a very wide range of knowledges and contexts to our writing, thus giving credibility to our characters and their settings.
How do you keep up the much needed energy and momentum for the projects you start when living so far apart and having such varied commitments and interests?
We put no pressure on each other in terms of deadlines and accept that life will get in the way, as it has done since we became Mirren Jones. We try to fulfil our promises to each other, and to ourselves as best we can, and both would love to have more time to write. Neither of us are the kind of writers who can squeeze in an hour before bedtime, or get up early and write before going to work. But what does help is if one progresses the story and reignites the flame for the next chapter to be written.
Please tell us something about your next novel, ‘Never Do Harm’.
It is a psychological drama about two doctors, friends since childhood, living in the same part of Scotland, but operating in very different settings. Alan is a GP in a busy medical practice, Hugh is a senior hospital consultant in a big teaching hospital. Professional in their working lives, they are rivals as well as friends in their personal life. Alan’s French wife Simone, a sculptress, is the third player in their relationship. Her presence will generate the potential for harm, something the two men promise never to do in their role as doctors, but which doesn’t of course apply outside of work. Our old NHS colleagues will be more than a little worried that we’ve used some real-life experiences to fuel our writing of this novel – and they may well be right!
What is next for Mirren Jones?
Finishing ‘Never Do Harm’ is our immediate aim – we are committed to reaching this goal before the end of the year. Then we have to navigate the world of Indie publishing which has changed considerably since we produced ‘Eight of Cups’, with the advent of digital books on multiple platforms, and embrace marketing with renewed enthusiasm!
As for the future – we have no problem generating ideas for stories, so when we decide to work on a third novel, it will probably progress much as this one has – in a stop-start fashion, with many twists and turns in both the writing and the lives of the writers. Given our personal experiences to date, we can anticipate unexpected changes which might throw up a range of other possibilities. In the meantime, Mirren continues in her role as Practice Manager in her local health centre, and Jones with her work as an Energy Psychology practitioner (humans and horses) / MD of CareandCompare.com – a charitable insurance price comparison website.