This morning I'm joined on my blog by Juliet Greenwood, the latest author who's agreed to be interrogated, I mean interviewed, to enable us to get to know more about herself and her books. So I'll hand you over to Juliet...
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I did – although it took me a long time to really get going! I always had my nose in a book as a child, and I studied English at university. I started trying to write in the 1980s, when I was in my twenties. The thing I hadn’t thought of was that you need to have lived a bit before you can understand your fellow human beings – which is where most books begin! I took myself terribly seriously and was a horrible failure. After a while I gave up and tried to follow a proper career, but my heart was never quite in it. I started writing seriously again in my forties, after a severe bout of glandular fever left me with M.E. for several years. I suppose I realised that it was now or never, and I had nothing to lose. This time I didn’t tell anyone until I had my first short story published. Just in case.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book We That Are Left and when it’s likely to be published?
We That Are Left is set in Cornwall, Anglesey and France during The First World War. It was finished with the help of a three-month Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary, and will be published by Honno Press on January 13th 2014. It tells the story of women during wartime, both those who kept the country going at home and those working on the front line, and the ways in which their lives were changed forever. Elin, the heroine, uses her passion for baking to make the most of the produce from her kitchen garden, so the book also includes genuine recipes from WW1.
Elin lives a luxurious but lonely life at Hiram Hall. Her husband Hugo loves her but never recovered from the Boer War. Now another war threatens to destroy everything she knows. With Hugo at the front, and her cousin Alice and friend Mouse working for the war effort, Elin has to learn to run the estate in Cornwall, making new friends - and enemies. But when Mouse is in danger, Elin must face up to the horrors in France herself. And when the Great War is finally over, Elin's battles prove to have only just begun.
What inspired you to set the story during the First World War?
I was inspired by reading about the role of women during the war. I’d heard of women’s role as nurses, but women played many more roles as well. They set up field and ran hospitals, drove ambulances and collected the dead and the dying from the battlefields. Before 1914 women were seen too fragile to work, or even to study, but at home they took over from the men, driving trams, working in factories and on the land, taking over the running of businesses and family estates, learning new skills and new strengths. Although many returned home when the men came back, a change had taken place. Women could no longer be seen as fragile things incapable of managing on their own and who might shrivel up or go mad if they had careers or took degrees. I feel we still owe a huge amount to those pioneering women, who weren’t even allowed to vote at the time.
What research did you have to do to make the story authentic?
I read as many books as I could and also newspapers from the time. I’ve family in France, so I’ve visited the trenches and the war graves several times. I wanted to try and capture what it must have felt like as a civilian to suddenly find a war erupting around you. For that I also drew on living memories from WW2, and particularly from my mum’s experience as a teenager of being in France on the day war was declared in 1939 and her traumatic journey home, including having to remain absolutely silent while the boat she was on was being stalked by a submarine in the middle of the English Channel. It was one of those family legends you are never quite sure has been embroidered over time. Then recently we found the pencil-written postcard she sent when she finally arrived in Dover, describing it all. I don’t think my blood has ever run that cold. It made the experience real, all right, along with all the terrible scenes of chaos and grief as families were torn apart that she had witnessed along the way.
Are you currently working on a new novel, if so are able to give us a hint as to what it is about?
My new novel is not a sequel to ‘We That Are Left’, but it follows the lives of women after the First World War when there weren’t enough men to go round. For the first time many women had to earn their own living, forging the careers and opportunities we take for granted today. And there’s a touch of my own family history in there too. The sort ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ would just die for. But that would be telling…
How long did it take you to get your first book published?
After my attempts in the 1980s I began writing seriously again in 2000. I had lots of rejections and plenty of insulting comments, but this time I was older and stronger and deep down I knew I could do it, so I kept doggedly on. I built up with short stories for magazines, then novellas. My first book, Elissa’s Castle, was published in 2005 by small imprint Transita. That was great and a huge confidence boost, but I was still finding my feet as a writer and I wasn’t quite sure where to go next. Often being published is just the start of the journey! So I struggled for several years. The turning point came in 2010, when Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press, liked the book that eventually became Eden’s Garden and gave me the live-changing opportunity to work intensively with an editor to bring the novel up to a publishable standard. It was the most challenging experience of my life, and the hardest work I’ve ever done. And I’ve never looked back. Now I think of Eden’s Garden as my first book. So whichever way you look at it, that is one long journey! And I’m still learning.
Quick cheeky plug: Eden’s Garden is in the running for The People’s Book Prize this autumn. If anyone has enjoyed it and would like to vote for it, this is the link: http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/book.php?id=994
Do you have a set daily writing routine?
I have a part time day job, but on my writing days I get up early, walk my dog for about an hour and a half (my thinking time) and then work through until around 4ish. I try and do reading and admin in the evenings. I had a wonderful three months earlier this year when I became a full-time writer, thanks to a Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary. I could really settle to a routine then, and it was great having free time when I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t catching up with everything I neglect when I’m on a roll (or a deadline looms). Things like housework. Catching up with friends. I even got round to painting the outside of my house!
Have you ever had writer’s block?
Yes, especially in the dreaded flabby middle of a novel, but I just write through it. I find the trick is to not care what you write, just go for it, and eventually inspiration returns. For me it’s a matter of getting the little grey cells to focus and stopping panic from setting in!
If you weren’t a writer, what career path would you have chosen to follow?
An archaeologist. I think that’s where my love of stories began. When I was about twelve the family were hauled off round Greece in an ancient campervan (1970s, say no more) that kept on breaking down. My most vivid memory is visiting the ruins of Mycenae. I’d loved the Greek myths and the story of Troy and I loved the grandeur of it all. Then I saw a large clay pot by the side of the path. You could still make out the thumbprint of the man or woman who had made it. Forget the Kings and Queens and armies beating the hell out of each other: that was a real human being reaching out through the ages. The memory still sends shivers down the spine.
Where do you get the inspiration from for your stories?
The lives of women are the ones that inspire me. Growing up in the 60s and 70s women were still largely invisible, both in the media, and especially in history books (unless they were being married or having their heads chopped off). I knew deep in my bones this was not the real story. Which of course it isn’t. Women have been explorers, inventors, scientists, writers and artists throughout time. It’s just that their stories have been marginalised. And yes, most women didn’t have to opportunity to do amazing things, but then neither did most men. I love telling the real stories of women, and there are so many indomitable, courageous and inspiring women out there – time to shout it out loud!
Would you say that any of your characters are like you? If so, which one(s)?
I think they are all aspects of me, as well as off people I know or have met. And yes, that includes the wicked ones!
If you could write another style of genre, what would it be and why?
Police procedurals would be my choice. I love all that tracking down and working out and psychological profiling. Only I’m horribly squeamish, so I’m afraid I’d spend my life traumatised. I’m a proud member of the Crime Writers’ Association – but that’s for Victorian ‘cosies’, written under my pen name of Heather Pardoe!
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
Keep reading, keep learning, and never give up.
Being a writer appears to be such a solitary lifestyle, especially when you’re in the midst of writing, so do you consider the influence of social Media, Facebook and Twitter, a blessing or a hindrance?
I love all my friends on Facebook and Twitter, and the chance to meet people from all over the world. And I get a real buzz from being able to connect with my readers. But I do find social media addictive and I have to restrict myself firmly to get any work done. But it’s also nice to have them there to be able to dip in when I grind to a halt and start crawling up the walls and all my real life friends are busy doing their real life jobs and so can’t be pestered. Oh, and I’m a sucker for anything to do with cats. Or dogs. Or, in fact, anything fluffy. I have to be very severe with myself or those videos would take over my life...
Do you prefer to read physical copies of books or e-books?
Much of my day job is in front of a computer screen, so I prefer to read physical books as a change. Although I do love being able to download instantly and being able to take so many books with me when I’m travelling.
When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
Sleep! I usually go into a perfect frenzy for the last few weeks, so just crash afterwards. Then I meet a friend for coffee and the gooiest, most calorific and cholesterol-laden cake I can find. After that I try and be a tourist for a week or so. I live in Snowdonia, so even if I can’t get away there are still plenty of beautiful places to visit.
Where would be your idyllic location for a writing retreat?
The totally spoilt, no holds barred, cost no object retreat would be a cottage in Portmeirion village. With room service. Gorgeous views, magical atmosphere, delicious food with no cooking. Solitude, yet able to pop out and see weddings and reunions and visitors from all over the world enjoying a truly special pace. The one I really use when I can is my dad’s cottage in the middle of an isolated valley in Coed y Brenin, in southern Snowdonia. No light pollution, no mobile reception, no TV, and a 14 mile round trip to the nearest shop. Just me and my dog and the log fire and the deer coming down from the woods at dusk. Inspirational!
Thank you, and these are my links:
Eden’s Garden: Amazon US or Amazon UK
We That Are Left: Amazon US or Amazon UK