An interview by the blog site Books, Life and Everything.
Welcome to Books, Life and Everything. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Would you like to start by telling us a little about yourself and how you started as a writer?
I was born in Stockport and went to Birmingham University where I met my husband. Unfortunately it took us thirty years to realise we were meant for each other and get married! But that is a story for another day! We live in rural Cumbria with our two Cockapoos. I have two grown up children and three (but soon to be four) grandchildren.
I think I have always been a writer. I loved writing stories as a child and, one year, when I was about seven, asked for a stack of writing paper for Christmas. I was always toying with ideas but being a Mum with young children made actually doing any writing quite hard and, of course, getting started is the most difficult part of any project. In 1992 I started my first book. It took me ten years to finish it. In 2007 my personal circumstances underwent a radical change and I was able to write full time. Since then I have written five more novels and two anthologies.
What is it about the historical fiction genre which attracts you?
This is the first historical novel I have attempted. Game Show, my book about the Bosnian War, is historical now, but at the time of writing it was current.
I think the need to be absolutely accurate with facts and dates, the sheer amount of research required, put me off up to now, but this story came to me and needed to be told. What interested me in particular was the dramatic tension between the decline of the country house in the twentieth century and the rise and rise of opportunities for women during the same period. If I yoked a woman to a large country house, how would that tension play out?
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Tall Chimneys?
Tall Chimneys is about a girl, Evelyn, brought up with strict Victorian values at a time when those ethics were being replaced with more liberal ways of living. She was raised expecting to be a quiet, subservient woman but finds herself in an era when much more is possible for women and, indeed, much more is required of her. Out of step with everything, she is sent to live at the family’s secluded country house in Yorkshire and more or less abandoned. The machinations of the predatory estate manager, Sylvester Ratton make life very challenging, but the arrival of a handsome artist promises some improvement to her lonely, vulnerable situation.
While many country houses are being demolished, she is determined to save hers; it is her refuge, her only home. Its seclusion means that she can make her own choices, disregarding society’s censure, fighting to suppress her in-built sense of shame to do what she believes is right. But it comes at a cost. From the peculiar hollow in the Yorkshire moor she watches the decades pass her by. Rather than a sanctuary, she sometimes wonders, is her precious house a prison? It has a curious hold on her. Sometimes she feels that it would not allow her to leave, even if she wanted to.
One hundred years later, a distant relative arrives in Yorkshire from the States to find his family’s country seat. What he finds in the strange, vegetation-choked crater in the moor will change his life forever.
How do you set about researching and ensuring your books are realistic?
In terms of facts and dates, everything has to be carefully researched and accurately represented, unless you’re going to use artistic licence to suit your story, in which case you must make that clear. Making books realistic is the same in any genre and it’s all about character. They must act in accordance with the qualities you have given them. They must be true to themselves. As a writer, I have to allow them to grow and develop. Sometimes they surprise me! But I have to let them have their way even if it means changing the direction of the story. If it isn’t authentic, the reader can tell, and it leaves a bad taste. It’s like that squirty cream you can buy in aerosols. It might look good for a few minutes, but then it dissolves into a pool of greasy white liquid and nobody is fooled into thinking it is real cream.
Did you base the house, Tall Chimneys, on any particular house you have visited?
No. I researched Jacobean houses and found one called Tissington in Cheshire that looked as I had imagined Tall Chimneys to look (minus the chimneys), but I haven’t visited it. I sent my cover artist, Sarah Reid, a picture of the house and some examples of the work of John Piper, who inspired my ideas for the art of John Cressing, my artist character. She came up with the original artwork for the cover.
Your story spans 100 years. Did you have a preference for one of those time periods when you were writing the novel?
I found the period around 1936 very interesting as I wrote that section; the rise of the Fascists in Britain, the political events in Germany and Europe, the abdication of Edward VIII. They all enlivened what was actually quite a drab and difficult period in Britain as people struggled to cope with the aftermath of the depression, unemployment was widespread and poverty extreme. In many ways it reminded me of the period of austerity we have just lived through.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I enjoy the classic novels of the nineteenth century but am discovering some really good, modern literary writers too. I have just finished a novel by Elizabeth Strout which was marvellous. I beta read for my writer colleagues when I am asked to do so, and try to support other Indie writers by reading and reviewing their work. This has introduced me to some very talented but unfortunately not well known writers.
What can we expect next from you?
I am toying with two ideas at present. I would like to write a sequel to The Hoarder’s Widow. I feel that Maisie’s story isn’t quite finished, and also I feel drawn to explore the lives of other characters I introduced as her friends. However, also cowering in a cobwebby corner is a desire to write a spin-off of one of Jane Austen’s novels. I know this is hallowed ground, and so many writers have decimated those precisely-tended shrubberies and defiled the drawing room carpets in their attempts to emulate Miss Austen. I wouldn’t want to be numbered amongst them. But my writing has (flatteringly) been compared to Jane Austen more than once, I love her books and would love to create something she might not shudder to look over. So, watch this space!
That sounds exciting, Allie. Thanks again for giving us an insight into your writing.
I always enjoy historical novels featuring the twentieth century and this one did not disappoint. It was fascinating to view the period through Evelyn's eyes, even though she was so cloistered in her family house, Tall Chimneys. Through the visitors who stay in the house in the mid-century years, you glimpse different aspects of the Second World War, from the fascist right through to the American soldiers who are billeted there.
It becomes quite difficult to extricate the character of Evelyn from the presence of the house. It is as if she needs to be there in order to function and feel safe. Though she might be in danger from certain characters, she finds it impossible to break away. As her life fails to find fulfillment, the house itself deteriorates and falls into disrepair. It is almost like a physical representation of her state of mind.
This is a long and complicated story which is well written and all the loose ends are tied up at the end. There are some interesting secondary characters who are all drawn to the house for different reasons. There is a nod to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre in Evelyn rejected as she is by her family and the house itself is almost Gothic in tone which added to my pleasure in reading.
In short: a family saga which spans a century.