What is your new novel Life Class about?
The life class meets once a week to draw the human figure. For four of its members, life hasn’t lived up to expectations. All have failed to achieve what they thought they wanted. They gradually come to realise that it’s not just the naked model they need to study and understand. Their stories are very different, but they all have secrets they hide from the world and from themselves. By uncovering and coming to terms with the past, maybe they can move on to a different and unimagined future.
Dory says she works in the sex trade, the clean-up end. As a part-time lab technician in a local STI clinic she’s confronted everyday by the damage sex can cause. Her job has given her a jaundiced view of men, an attitude confirmed by the disintegration of her own relationship. Dory has returned to her home town. She questions why she’s allowed her sister, Fran, to push her into joining the life class. The time seems right to make up her mind about what she does really want in life. Love doesn’t figure in her view of the future – she’s always been a clear eyed realist – and yet she finds herself chasing a dream.
Stefan is a single-minded loner. His only and overriding ambition is to make a living from his sculpture. To supplement his income he’s taken a job as a part-time art teacher. He finds himself facing a class of adults who want their old teacher back. Although love is an emotion he long ago closed off - it only leads to regret and shame - it creeps up on him from more than one direction. Is it time to admit that letting others into his life is not defeat?
Fran - Dory’s older sister - is a wife and a stay-at-home mother without enough to keep her occupied. She studied art as a girl but the life class is her only creative outlet now. On a collision course with her mid-life crisis, Fran craves the romance and excitement of her youth. An on-line flirtation with an old boyfriend becomes scarily obsessive, putting everything she really loves at risk.
Dominic is a damaged child. He has lived his life knowing all about sex but nothing about love. If he can only find his mother perhaps he can make sense of his past. But perhaps it is a doomed quest and it’s time to look to the future? By accepting the help and love that’s on offer here and now, he has a chance to transform his life.
As a novelist, what subjects and themes excite and inspire you?
When I was young I read every variety of fiction voraciously. Fantasy, sci fi, romance and historical novels were hoovered-up alongside the rest, but I rarely read those genres these days. What interests me now, to read and to write, is contemporary fiction which is rooted in a reality I recognise. I want to explore characters I can identify with. I want them to have the regrets, the problems and the obstacles to their ambitions any of us might have. After all, real life is not a fairy tale; it can rarely be wrapped up neatly.
Looking back over my books to date, I can see that creative people often figure in my plots. Maybe this is because I am an artist as well as a writer and I instinctively have sympathy and understanding for creative types. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy, and know a bit more about the arts than I do about other subjects. The idea of having to research an aeronautics engineer is daunting!
You're not a "lipsticked mouths, hearts and flowers, and bare, muscled chests" type novelist. How would you describe your kind of writing, and what do you set out to do?
I’ll answer the last part of the question first. I very much enjoy subverting the ‘romance’ stereo-types. Though I wouldn’t claim I ‘set out’ to do this, it is a recurring element in my writing. As I said in the previous answer, I try to create believable scenarios, peopled by real individuals. Reality, in my view extends to their appearance. I don’t go so far as to make my characters plug-ugly, but I am determined not to have drop-dead gorgeous heroines. Maybe I’m peculiar, but the heroine who is described as having a figure that any man would lust over, emerald eyes and ‘creamy blonde curls falling like whipped cream to her shoulders’ (I read that once and it stuck in my mind!) immediately loses my sympathy! Why on earth is this woman having trouble finding a man?
I am equally determined not to create archetypal tall, dark, handsome, rich and successful heroes. The only hero of mine who conformed to the above description was in my first novel, Just Before Dawn, which I was aiming at HM&B, but HM&B didn’t want it. I might have created an appropriate hero but I was unable to keep the rest of the plot on the straight and narrow!
To answer the first part of the question is a little harder to explain. I freely admit I am speaking from a position of almost complete ignorance of modern romance fiction, so feel free to shoot me down! But I am very put-off by the kind of jacket design the quote describes. The models are always impossibly beautiful and honed individuals, whose trials and tribulations I’m not interested in for all the aforementioned reasons. And the implication behind the inevitable clinch on the cover is that love and sex is going to be the total focus of the story. Of course love is important. It’s the engine of the plot in the books I write, but it is never the be all and end all of the story.
I have no problem with sex in the books I read (or write). Sex is fine. But if there’s too much and it’s too raunchy, I don’t want to continue reading - I want to do it - so in my view, it distracts from the story. But most of all, I dislike reading books in which sex is always awesome and never has any consequences, apart from ‘falling in love’! Sex can be awkward and embarrassing, even if you think you’re in love. And, apart from the potential of disease and pregnancy, sex outside of a committed partnership very often has deep and troubling emotional and psychological fallout.
Who are your own favourite novelists?
I have to confess I don’t read much within the romantic fiction genre. I can never switch off my inner editor, relax into a story and just enjoy it. So my usual reading is crime fiction. For many years Ruth Rendell (also writing as Barbara Vine) was my favourite author, and more specifically, her psychological ‘chillers’. They keep your heart in your mouth - you know something awful is going to happen, but you don’t know what. Nor are you sure who is going to be the perpetrator or who the victim.
These days Ruth has rivals. Other contemporary crime writers I enjoy are Mark Billingham and Sophie Hannah - the latter is a peerless plotter. And, having said I don’t read historical fiction, the exception proves the rule. I absolutely adore C J Sansom who writes crime fiction set in the reign of Henry VIII.
An author who uses the crime genre to explore the human condition, and who does so with wit and style, is Kate Atkinson - her ‘Jackson Brodie’ novels are to be treasured. All these are authors whose next book I impatiently wait for.
Do you have any hints and tips for other would be novelists?