I've set up this blog so that all my friends, relations and colleagues in the world of writing can keep up to speed with what I'm doing - from now on, I'll never have to say sorry for not keeping in touch.

Or anyway, that's the plan.

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You can find my novels as digital downloads on Apple iTunes, Kobo, Kindle and Nook, and most are available as print paperbacks, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Madness and mystery in Naples and Devon - chatting to Cathie Hartigan about her debut novel Secret of the Song

Hello, Cathie - welcome to my blog on this rainy morning! 

I'm delighted you've agreed to chat to me about your debut novel Secret of the Song, a time slip story set in Renaissance Naples and 21st century Devon.

MJ: What was the original inspiration for this novel?

CH: A few years ago when I was in a small choir we were given a song to sing by Carlo Gesualdo, one of the main characters in my book. I’d never heard of him. The music was difficult and we all got very grumpy. Although the music was written back in the 16th century, it sounded very discordant, almost avant garde. The choirmaster then told us about Gesualdo’s notoriety. When I did some research into his life, I was hooked.

MJ: What particularly attracted you to writing a time slip story?

CH: It was at the same rehearsal that I first wondered whether madness could be somehow transmitted in music such that it affected the musicians who performed it. When I think of those ‘maddening’ tunes that seem to go round and round in the head for days on end, earworms they’re called, then it seems quite likely. I thought I would write a contemporary novel about a singer finding out about Gesualdo and then wondering if a piece of music could be cursed, but when I read the witness statement by young Silvia Albana, I was so taken by her plight, that I decided to interweave her story. She was the seamstress and confidant to Gesualdo’s wife, a princess who behaved so recklessly that she endangered both herself and poor Silvia.

MJ: How do you work – are you a planner and are you most definitely in charge, or do you let your characters guide you into their stories and do you take your cues from them?

CH: I have a plan but it isn’t very exact, although I do know what the big questions are that I’m trying to answer. Writing a few chapters in order to really immerse myself in the world helps me too, and I get to know the characters more thoroughly. That’s usually when I pause and tighten up the plan.

MJ: As a classical musician and singer yourself, do you feel you have a mission to encourage more people to take an interest in classical music and – if so – was this one of your motives for writing this novel?

CH: I certainly felt I had a mission when I trained to be a music teacher but that was quite a long time ago. Now I think the best way to encourage anyone to do or enjoy anything is to be passionate about it. I absolutely love singing the sort of music I have written about and if I can enthuse my readers to go and listen to (or better still, sing) any Italian or English songs written during Tudor times, it would be fantastic.

MJ: Who is your favourite character in Secret of the Song?

CH: That’s very difficult because I’m so fond of several, but I think it’s got to be Mollie. She’s the precocious ten year-old daughter of Lisa, my contemporary heroine. There’s considerable negotiation that goes on between mother and daughter. There’s one particular scene I’m fond of where Mollie has a secret and Lisa is trying to find out what it is, even though she’s always told Mollie that secrets shouldn’t be revealed.

MJ: Do you have any tips for people starting to write a first novel?

CH: Ask yourself what your novel is about and keep asking until you can answer with confidence when someone asks you. Try practising on already published novels.
Think about your plot in terms of scenes. Start each one with intrigue and end with sufficient jeopardy (not necessarily life-threatening) to make your reader want to turn over.

Five quick questions

Do you feel more at home in a town or in the countryside?

I’ve lived in both and while I’m now more at home in a city, I do miss having the breathtaking beauty of the Devon countryside on my doorstep.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I love Devon so it would have be here, and I’m not a great traveller, but a small pad in London and perhaps the Dordogne, and somewhere near Florence, and maybe by the Med…

Who are your favourite composers?

I keep coming back to Bach when I play the piano, but I have a very eclectic mix of music on my phone. All sorts from the Renaissance period, but I also have Mozart, Brahms, Puccini, and quite a few albums by Pat Methany, the jazz guitarist.

Do you feel any other writers particularly influence your work?

I think all my reading has influenced me, but I remember loving a book by Barbara Trapido and thinking, she can turn the emotion on a pin. She could do funny and serious equally quickly and yet it didn’t jar. Could I do that?

What’s next on the writing agenda for you?

I have notes and a few chapters for two novels. One is a historical novel in which I revisit Renaissance Italy and it features one of the Catholic plots against Elizabeth I, and the other is a contemporary story about a restoring an old property in the face of considerable opposition. I’m not sure which novel will come first in my affection yet.

Thank you, Cathie - it was good to talk.  Many congratulations on the publication of this lovely novel, and here's to great sales now and in the future! 


Friday, October 9, 2015

Sophie Duffy talks about her latest novel

Bright Stars is Sophie Duffy's new novel, out this month and already twinkling in the Amazon skies! I caught up with Sophie yesterday when we had a coffee in the Debenham's cafe overlooking Exeter Cathedral, and we had a lovely chat about Sophie's story. It features four friends who were at university together and whose later lives don't quite work out in the way they might have expected - or planned. 

MJ: I see this novel is partly set at Lancaster University.  So were you a student there yourself and is this story based on any of your own experiences?

SD: Yes, I studied English there from 1986 to 1989 and I borrowed heavily from the landscape there at that time, both geographical and political. But the story and characters are most definitely fiction. I later got an MA in Creative Writing which I studied for by distance learning. It was strange going back for summer school and revisiting old haunts. Lancaster University is going from strength to strength and I think it’s quite a unique place to study. As long as you don’t mind wind and rain.

MJ: Where did the character of Cameron come from – did he walk into your head and say write about me, is he based on anyone you know?

SD: I wrote the first draft of Bright Stars in the third person from four points of view - Bex's, Tommo's, Christie's and Cameron’s. I wanted to show how four completely different people can become friends when they are thrown together in a confined space. But something didn’t quite work. Someone asked me whose story it was and that made me realise it was indeed Cameron’s story. So I didn’t set out to write in a Scottish man’s voice but that’s how it ended up.

MJ: How did you get into the mindset of a man?

SD: Cameron’s not a testosterone-fuelled man. He’s a sensitive soul. Doesn’t like sport or beer. He’s a little quirky and different and that’s the kind of character I like writing about, so I just went with it.

MJ: What’s your favourite part of the creative writing process?

SD: The last quarter of writing a novel, when it all starts to come together and makes a whole. I love it when that happens but it is a slog getting there.

MJ: Who are your own favourite authors and have any of them influenced your own writing?

SD: I love the Thomas Hardy and George Eliot – their use of flawed, complex characters has definitely informed my writing. I also love writers who use a sense of humour to show the extraordinary in the ordinary – David Lodge, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Pym are my favourites.

MJ: You’re a very successful contemporary novelist. Do you have any ambitions to write historical fiction?

SD: I would love to write an historical novel. In fact, my current work-in-progress begins in the 1920s, so I am creeping backwards… I would also love to write a ghost story and am mulling over some ideas.

MJ: What are you working on now?

SD: I’m writing about the life of a female undertaker – a profession that has always fascinated me. Not that I am morbid or anything.

MJ: As a prize-winning author who is also involved in mentoring and judging the work of other creative writers, do you have any tips for people just setting out on their creative writing journeys?

  • Do a writing class or join a writing group.
  • Read lots of current books.
  • Just write. Anything and everything. You have to write a lot of rubbish until something good bubbles up. 

MJ: Thank you, Sophie - it was good to chat!