Today it's my pleasure to welcome author Colette Dartford into the debut spotlight so that we can find out a little more about her debut novel Learning to Speak American which is published in eBook format tomorrow (thanks Emma for the fab questions for Colette).
Colette lives in the Georgian city of Bath with her husband and two Bolognese dogs.
Learning to Speak American originally made it through to the quarter finals of the Amazon First Novel Price so how does it feel to now having it being released first as an eBook with paperback publication to come next year? Does it feel like your dream has become a reality at last?
Absolutely. I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) in 2009 with a first draft of Learning To Speak American. I’m a self-taught author so it was far from polished but what the judges really liked was the story. Their reviews were unanimously encouraging and even though I didn’t progress any further in the competition, I continued to work on Learning To Speak American and eventually it paid off. In 2014 I was signed by United Agents and earlier this year got a two-book deal with Bonnier Publishing’s new imprint, Twenty7Books. They operate a ‘digital-first’ strategy which means they publish in e-book first and then paperback. As a debut author all of this is new to me and there’s a huge amount to learn, but it’s exciting too and has given me a tremendous sense of achievement.
Can you give us a brief outline as to the themes and content of the story?
Learning To Speak American is about a marriage tested to breaking point following the accidental death of a couple’s only child. The novel begins two years after the tragedy so it’s not about the incident itself, but how it has affected them and their relationship. They’re not honest about their feelings and that is what tears them apart. An anniversary trip to America is a last ditch attempt to save the marriage and they impulsively buy a derelict house to renovate. But as the wife immerses herself in the project and begins to embrace life again, her husband’s life begins to fall apart. It is only when their dark secrets are revealed that they are forced to face up to the truth about themselves, their marriage and their future.
Learning to Speak American is a really interesting and thought provoking title. How did it come about?
I wrote it when I was living in California’s idyllic Napa Valley and even though Brits and Americans speak the same language, I soon realised that quite often, we do so differently. I used this to show how the very British Lola changed as she became more immersed in her house renovation project. The easy warmth and informality of her new American friends allowed her to let go of the grief she had kept bottled up since her daughter’s death. Through learning to ‘speak’ American, Lola was learning to live and love again.
Losing a child is one of the most harrowing experiences in life. What made you choose this subject to write about?
I think I chose it for precisely that reason. This couple had everything – good marriage, affluent lifestyle, successful career, happy child – and I wanted to explore how much of that enviable life would survive when the worst happened. A large part of the story is set in the Napa Valley because I wanted the physical beauty of the place and the easy going kindness of the people who live ther, to play a role in the healing process. I remember cycling through the vineyards on a typically sunny morning and thinking that if someone couldn’t be happy here, maybe they couldn’t be happy anywhere. I tested out that premise with Duncan and Lola Drummond in Learning To Speak American.
It’s mentioned in the press release that parts of the book are based on doing up your own derelict house. Having been through this process yourself how helpful did it prove to be when it came to sit down and write the book?
Extremely helpful. I don’t say much about the practicalites of that process in Learning To Speak American because they’re not that interesting, but drew instead on the emotional elements of the experience: why did Duncan make such an impulsive purchase, in what way did he hope it would change Lola, how did he cope when he began to run out of money, what it did mean for their marriage when Lola wanted to spend more time in California than in their home in Somerset?
Why set the book in America rather than in England? Could Lola have found a renovation project in England or was a total change of scenery essential to finding her happiness?
It’s an excellent question. In the two years since her daughter’s death, Lola’s life had shrunk to the point where she rarely left the small Somerset village in which her daughter had lived and died. In taking her to California, Duncan wanted to show her that the world was still out there and there were good things in it. And when they stumbled across the run-down Napa Valley house, Lola glimpsed a new life five thousand miles away from the sadness that had imprisoned her.
Whose viewpoint was more challenging to write - Lola’s or Duncan’s?
I found it much easier to write a bad man than a good woman. Both characters were a challenge but in different ways. Duncan blames himself for his daughter’s death and is so overwhelmed by guilt he can’t even allow the mention of her name. He develops a dark and dubious coping strategy that spirals out of control and threatens to destroy him. Writing about this meant thinking about desperation and what it might drive you to. It felt important that readers sympahtised with Duncan and saw him not as a bad man, but as a good man in a bad situation.
Although Lola doesn’t blame him for their daughter’s death, she resents the fact he refuses to talk about her. Because Lola’s own childhood was scarred by her parents’ fighting, she fears confrontation and instead of challenging Duncan, she keeps everything bottled up inside. At the beginning of the novel she is rather passive and disconnected but as the story progresses her confidence grows, with interesting consequences. Creating flawed and complex characters is my favourite part of the writing process.
Your second novel is to be published in 2017 can you give us a few teasers as to what it will be about?
The Sinners is about how you only find out who you really are once you have lost everything.
When Geoffrey Parry loses his business and home in the recession, he moves in with his recently widowed mother while his wife, Olivia, takes a job as Houseparent at their son’s Christian prep school. But all is not as it seems and when tragic events expose a shocking secret, its devastating consequences threaten to destroy the guilty and innocent alike.
Describe your typical daily writing routine.
I wish I had one! My ideal writing time is when I wake up, before the day begins to intrude. Sadly my two dogs don’t understand this and insist on being fed and walked first thing. By the time I’ve exercised and met friends for tea and a natter, half the morning is gone before I settle down to write. I start by reading what I wrote the previous day and try not to cringe if it’s a first draft (first drafts are notoriously awful). If it's a good day and words are spilling onto the page I hate to stop for any reason. If it’s not such a good day then a break and some fresh air can make all the difference. But even when I'm not at my laptop, whatever I'm working on is always buzzing around in my head. It’s amazing what specific character develoment or plot twist can come to you suddenly when you’re doing something else.
What are the essentials you need to have nearby once you begin a writing session?
My laptop of course, an endless supply of tea, a gentle hum of noise in the background (silence freaks me out), and a comfortable chair for my creaky back.
Once publication day arrives how do you plan to celebrate?
Not how you might think. I will actually be en-route to the Sharjah International Book Fair where Midas PR have invited me to be one of the speakers. It’s a great honour, not least because of the wonderful educational outreach element of the event. But no celebratory champagne I’m afriad – Sharjah is one of the dry states of the United Arab Emirates.
After the tragic death of their only child, Lola and Duncan Drummond’s last chance to regain their lost happiness and rebuild their marriage lies in a trip to America. Day tripping in the heart of California’s wine region, the couple stumble across a derelict house in Napa Valley that’s crying out for love and attention.
It’s a far cry from their life in the Somerset village they call home, but Lola immediately falls for the house and shows the first spark of enthusiasm since the death of Clarissa. Unable to talk about Clarissa, Duncan reaches out to his wife in the only way he knows how, buying the house in the hope that the renovation project will bring both Lola and their relationship back to life.
As Lola works on the house she begins to realise the liberating power of letting go, helped along the way by her new Californian friends including easy going blond and blue-eyed project manager, Cain McCann. He may be 10 years younger than Lola, but his surfer good looks and easy charm work wonders, and soon Lola finds herself opening up for the first time in years.
Unbeknown to Lola, back at home her life with Duncan has begun to fall apart. Still emotionally scarred from his daughter’s death, Duncan starts to lose deal after deal in his high flying London job. Finding release in a series of one night stands, Duncan convinces himself he still loves Lola and promises himself that each infidelity will be the last…until he meets Saskia.
As Duncan and Lola get caught up in a series lies and indiscretions, drifting into the arms of others, will they be able to untangle their relationship or will the distance tear them apart?