Today I'm so honoured to have the very talented Rosy Thornton visit.
I've read two of your five novels. The first one was The Tapestry of Love set in France (you can see my review on Amazon here), and the other was Ninepins set in the fens of Cambridgeshire. Very different stories and, perhaps genres as TToL was romance, and yet you manage to capture your settings so well, making me imagine I'm where the story takes place. Is the setting very important to you when you're writing? Do you start off with imagining the setting and take it from there?
Rosy: It’s not setting which comes first, generally, it’s a character and a situation. But the setting and the story which unfolds there are, for me, inextricably linked. The wild mountain landscape of the Cévennes in The Tapestry of Love felt like a place of escape, so naturally it fitted the story of a woman seeking a new life following divorce; the way a small mountain community is forced in upon itself made this a novel about connection and the putting down of roots. The Cambridgeshire fens are a land claimed artificially from the marsh and always at risk of flooding: for me this determined that the novel I set there should be one shot through with a lurking sense of threat.
I know the Cambridgeshire fens well. Your next book on my to-be-read-list is your new one, Sandlands, which is receiving huge praise, and was published on 21st July 2015. I know that this one is set in Suffolk and based very much on nature. Can you tell us more about it?
Rosy: That’s right, Sue. The stories which make up Sandlands are all set in and around the same small village in the strip of coastal Suffolk known locally as the sandlings or sandlands. They are linked not only by their setting, and a few shared minor characters, but also by pervasive themes, one of which is the natural environment of the area, its flora and fauna. Nine of the sixteen stories take as a central motif one particular species of bird or animal, butterfly or flower.
As with my novels that you mentioned earlier, the landscape of the sandlands is for me inescapably linked to the complexion of the stories I have set there. Sand shifts beneath your feet and slips away between your fingers, and reality in the stories is equally unreliable, things being never quite what they seem. It is a timeless place, unchanged for generations, which means that the past seems always close at hand. My stories are thick with ghosts and memories, and past and present intersect in unanticipated ways.
Are there any of the stories in Sandlands that you'd like to take further and make into a full-length novel?
I don’t think I’d ever do this, any more than I’d be tempted to write a sequel to any of my novels. For me, once a book or a story is finished, and I’ve made up my mind where it should end, then that’s that. If the ending leaves open multiple possibilities, then that’s how I want things left, with those possibilities all still available to my characters. Both as a writer and a reader, I like things to end in a place where I have a sense of lives continuing to be lived, beyond the final words on the page.
That said, there is one story in Sandlands which more than one reader has said to me would make a whole novel. Called ‘Nightingale’s Return’, it tracks the parallel journeys of a father and son, seventy years apart. The father was an Italian prisoner-of-war sent to work on a Suffolk farm in 1942. The son, now retired, has come from Italy to visit the farm where his father was billeted. Both men listen to the song of a nightingale, and contemplate the fact that these small songbirds migrate a thousand kilometres to return to the same patch of gorse where they were fledged. The book ends with an encounter on the threshold of Nightingale Farm which raises more questions than it answers – not only about what will happen next but also about the events of the past. I think these two men’s stories could sustain a whole book – but I prefer to leave the blank spaces in their lives to be filled by each reader’s imagination.
I really can't wait to read it. It's on my TBR list. What advice would you give to a new writer, starting out?
The best advice, I think is simply this: ‘Read. Write. Repeat.’ Keep on reading as widely as you can, in all kinds of genres, and especially books which are better written than anything you think you could ever produce yourself. Reading is a writer’s fuel. And keep on writing as much as you can – write a little every day – because only by practising can we improve. Don’t be too hidebound by the so-called ‘rules’ found in the creative writing how-to books, nor by perceived ideas of what might sell. Just write what comes from inside, in the words that seem best to express it, and give yourself space to develop your own voice.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Sue! I’ve enjoyed answering your questions.
You're always very welcome.
Here's a lovely excerpt from SANDLANDS
This is an excerpt from the story I mentioned, ‘Nightingale’s Return’? This is the father, Salvatore, billeted in the war on Harry Beck’s farm and reflecting on his new life in England.
From drilling in the Emilia-Romagna in February he was haymaking in Suffolk in June: from seedtime to harvest and with no blow struck in anger in between, his experience of the war seemed curiously like a dream, or something that had happened to another man entirely. This was his real life, this continuity of rising and washing, of working and sweating and tilling the soil, and laughing and talking and eating and drinking, and his face cool on the rough cotton bolster at the end of the day. The language was strange, and rose and fell in ways which jarred upon his ear at first, but he soon learned to follow and fit his tongue to its daily patterns. The soil was finer and sandier than back in San Cesario; the beer was russet brown with a thin, yeasty taste and there were potatoes every day and rarely macaroni, the soups and stews were under-seasoned but hearty, and Harry Beck was a hard worker and a temperate taskmaster. The rhythm of the farming day, the farming year, was much as it had been in Italy, his pleasure the same in simple tasks carefully accomplished. He would soon have been here one whole year round; when he arrived at midsummer the nightingales were still singing and now in April they sang again.
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