You grew up in Massachusetts, moved to the UK and now commute between London and Cornwall. Did you ever think that you would travel so broadly?
I grew up with an inbuilt wanderlust. My father had travelled a fair bit and I would spend hours looking at his slides and dreaming of a time when I too could venture forth. I hadn’t quite imagined that I would lead the travelling life I did for so long. I moved to the UK when I was 26 and that was when it truly began. I met the man who is now my husband of almost 28 years two weeks after I arrived in the UK. We married two years later and that was when moving about began in earnest. We’ve lived in Canada, Moscow, Houston, Indonesia and Dubai. While in those locations we explored as much as was feasible with three small children in tow. But of course there is still more travelling I want to do!
The variety of cross-cultural experience that this life-style has given you is amazing, but the love of Cornwall shines through each of the books you have set there. When did this love affair begin?
It began with my first trip there one hot weekend in June 1989. My boyfriend of just a few months took me to meet his parents…or so I thought. It was in fact the ‘Cornwall Test’. If I hadn’t fallen in love with Cornwall then we wouldn’t have married. I’m certain of it. But how could I not fall in love with bright blue skies punctuated with foxgloves, cliffs falling into the sea and hidden creeks caressed by low tree branches. Cornwall stole my heart and has never let go…even when the sky feels low and the mizzle is so dense I can’t see the bottom of my garden.
Could you explain how and when your first breakthrough as a published writer happened?
My first breakthrough was finding an agent. I had met Carole Blake on line first via Twitter then in person through a TweetUp. We hit it off on a social level and became friends over our love of wine, shoes and books. I was still in the process of finding my writer’s voice. Finally two years after we became friends I knew what my voice was and what I was aiming for. This coincided with me attending the first York Festival of Writing. There I was to pitch to someone else in her agency. I knew this person wasn’t the right agent for me but I also knew the book wasn’t ready…so it was more for the feedback. During our session he asked me why I hadn’t pitched to Carole…fear was the first thing in my mind. She was Carole Blake but in my heart I knew The Cornish House wasn’t what it could be. So I emailed her…knowing her colleague would feed info back to her, saying the book wasn’t ready but I was aiming for Daphne du Maurier meets Jodi Picoult or Cornwall with issues. She told me to send it to her when it was ready. That was April and in February I sent The Cornish House off to four agents, all who I had met through the Romantic Novelists’ Association. By lunch time I had my first request for a full…but I hadn’t heard from Carole. So I emailed her asking as a friend what should I do because her book From Pitch to Publication didn’t say. She emailed saying as a friend you inform the other agents. Three requested the full and by Saturday Carole had offered me representation. By St Patrick’s Day I had my first publishing deal with The Netherlands and in April I signed with Orion. That was the beginning.
Of all the impeccable research you have completed, is there one project that has intrigued or surprised you more than you expected?
I loved researching The Returning Tide. I was terrified as growing up in the States the knowledge that people in the UK have is different and I was terrified of getting it wrong…I lost sleep over it. But I love research and my favourite part of the research for this book was interviewing four people who served during WWII. One of them lent me her diary from 1945 and I was able to see first hand how little everyone knew. This was my biggest struggle in the end. Today if a bomb falls we know minutes later. Then they knew only their part and nothing more….
You are a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association – what does the organisation mean to you?
The RNA is my tribe. I learned so much there during my pre-published days, my apprenticeship. The published novelists were and are so generous with their knowledge. I know that this cut my time waiting for publication. I also know they have my back as I have theirs.
What was the most important piece of advice that you were given that you would like to pass on to as yet unpublished writers?
Don’t rush to publication. I wish I knew who gave me the advice but I am grateful. I would add to it take that time to learn about the industry…because once you are published it all becomes harder!
Each author has their own favoured way of working – would you share yours with us?
Ideally the idea for the story will have been in my head for a year or more. It will slowly build and then I will brain storm with my editor…I love this part. If research is required I will then do the minimum – just enough to write a fast and dirty first draft. This I learned the hard way. I love research and for A Cornish Stranger I thought the historical thread of the story would be about the SOE so I read extensively. I then wrote the story…it’s not about the SOE. So I wasted key time. Now I leave XXXX directly in the text to indicate that more is needed and fly on with the story. What I have discovered is in this more targeted research I have found things that enrich and twist the story…especially since by then I know my characters. Once I have the dirty first draft the real work begins. I write many drafts…not as many as I used to but by the time I send it to my editor this first time it will normally have been through four to six drafts. The final one of these edits will be having my computer read the story to me. Believe me you can’t hide from a clunky sentence, missed word or lack of transition when there is no emotion in the reading voice.
I used to dread the editing process but now I embrace it. With my editor’s input and my own (obtained from stepping back from the book for even as short as two weeks) I can see how to make the story better, stronger and more emotionally charged. So I will normally have two to three rounds of edits with editor then there is the copy edit (hate this bit…when I’m forced to look at the small stuff) and the final proof reading edit is always a bit lost on me…I can’t see a spelling mistake for love nor money. I’m dyslexic.
You are an inspiration to many as you have dyslexia. How much of a challenge has it been to write your lovely novels and overcome the difficulties that this may have presented?
Dyslexia has presented many challenges along the road to writing my novels. Not being able to spell has created two problems one of which has become a blessing. I cannot see a spelling mistake so I need to have someone proof read and a very understanding editor. This is a nightmare. My dyslexia can be so bad sometimes that I can’t look it up in a dictionary or spell it enough for spell check to even offer a possible spelling. This is so frustrating. It has made me many times select a different word, a simpler word. And this has been the bonus. My writing is simple which has brought me many readers who struggle with reading. Unless it is a necessary technical word or the character absolutely would say the simple word the vocabulary used in the books is basic. This means the story can be read by a larger audience. I never thought that my struggles with dyslexia would help others to access stories, but it has.
I was fortunate enough to interview the amazing Carole Blake shortly before her tragically early death. How much of an influence did Carole have on your career?
She was the ideal guide through my first years as a published author. Despite my time pre-published learning as much as I could there is so much to take on board and understand. She answered every question, went to battle for me, reprimanded me if I took a wrong step and laughed with me. She taught me to enjoy every step of the journey, toast every success no matter how small and not to sell myself or my work short. With each and every book she had to sell it back to me because I hated it by the time all the editing was done! She excelled at selling.
Do you embrace technology and social media with enthusiasm?
Yes! As I mentioned earlier it was through Twitter that Carole and I became friends. I also love interacting with readers through the various platforms. It is also where I interact with other writers…making the work process less lonely.
What has been the highlight of your writing career to date?
There are two…the first was when a reader stayed behind at a talk and told me how a story I’d written had helped her. I stood there in shock. I had never imagined reaching someone so deeply. And the second was when The Returning Tide made the short list for the Winston Graham Historical Novel Prize.
What project are you working on now?
I’m doing the preliminary research on a novel that is located on both sides of the Tamar (yes leaving Cornwall briefly) and is set in WWI and the current day. More sleepless nights hoping I don’t mess up the historical details!!
What is next for Liz Fenwick?
The Path to the Sea is out on 6 June 2019. It is a story of three generations of the Trewin women all with secrets. At Boskenna a large rambling house perched on a cliff above a Cornish beach on a hot August weekend in 2018 the past comes closer to the present. The youngest Trewin, Lottie, tries to keep her own secrets hidden as she searches for answers. But once she uncovers what happened in 1962 what is she going to do?