Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Deborah Lawrenson - Author Interview

Did you see the book review I wrote yesterday for Deborah Lawrenson's "The Lantern"? Deborah kindly offered to tell us something about herself. Take a look because she describes her journey to becoming an author with a top publisher, where inspiration for "The Lantern" came from, and how her individual writing style developed.

Deborah: I was born in London, but lived all over the world as a child, as my father was in the diplomatic service. These days, my husband, daughter and I split our time between the south of England and the south of France. 

I trained as a journalist because I wanted to write but didn’t have the confidence to write a novel straight out of university. It was while I was working as a reporter on a gossip column in London that I realised that, not only was that a great fun job for someone in their 20s, but that there was the subject I’d been looking for. My first novel was a comic satire on the world of London newspaper diary pages. I wouldn’t recommend anyone goes looking for it though – it hasn’t stood the test of time and I think now that it should have stayed in a drawer unpublished. It was the book I practised on while I was learning how to write a novel.

Gradually, I have found a style that is lyrical and visual. I really try hard to capture the special spirit of a place, to paint pictures in words that enhance the setting of a strong story. It’s the highest compliment any reader can pay to say that they felt they had been transported to another place while reading one of my books.

The Lantern actually started as a family joke. Summer evenings in Provence are invariably spent outside, often with long dinners for friends in candlelight. I bought so many lanterns for atmospheric light on those nights that my husband and teenage daughter were rolling their eyes and telling me I had gone lantern-crazy. Seriously, though, I think it works well because it’s simple and memorable as a title and the lantern in the novel is the symbol of where the past and the present meet.

The beautiful landscape of the Luberon region of Provence is as realistic as I can make it: the great pleated hills that look as if there are dark rivers coursing down as night falls, the blue quality of the distance, the stone hill-top villages and the fields of lavender.

When my husband and I bought an atmospheric but crumbling old house in Provence, we camped on stone floors and hoped for the best. I re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and wondered…what if I had come here knowing less about the man I was with?

Several events in the novel are true. A ceiling did collapse. The mysterious perfume is real in that I smell it but never find a source. The light that flickers disconcertingly, the discovery of rooms we didn’t know were there, the making of the walnut wine, the man who composes music: none of these are invented either.

I fell in love with F Scott Fitzgerald’s prose as a teenager, starting with The Great Gatsby, and have never stopped loving it. I also lose myself in Lawrence Durrell’s sensuous writing, especially Prospero’s Cell and Bitter Lemons. I admire too the works of Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol, Antoine de St Exupery and Emile Zola.

My favourite authors form a long list which includes Carol Shields, Julian Barnes, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Kate Atkinson, Armistead Maupin, Margaret Forster, Penelope Lively, crime writers Peter Robinson and Simon Brett, and many others. What they all share is a mastery of their genre and style.

Sue: Well, I think that's the best proof that the advice given to authors about reading a lot is correct :-) Read, read, read.

This part is taken from a post from Deborah's blog: 
The Author's View of "The Lantern"

On a subtle level The Lantern is a novel about reading and stories and words. Is it too descriptive, using too many varied adjectives? Maybe, but the narrator Eve is a translator: words, and the precise choice of them, matter to her. The control of language, for her, means stability and rational understanding of her surroundings and situation when it seems she might otherwise be losing control. The novel keys into timeless fears of the unknown, and the uncertainty when the first stages of an idyllic romance are over and real life begins.

Eve is a shy bookworm, whose comfort zone is reading. But her new life cut off from family and friends, coupled with mounting uncertainty about Dom, only sends her to books that exacerbate her dread, until she is not sure whether she is imagining the worst because she is influenced by the stories she is reading, or whether she is more accepting than she should be because she is seeing real life through the gauze of literature.

It is also a novel about spirits and ghosts and the histories held all around us, both in the obvious sense of the atmosphere of the run-down old house, and the ghosts of Eve and Dom’s own past that will not settle. Is Les Genévriers haunted, or are these psychological manifestations? And, just as there are always echoes of the past life of old houses, there are always echoes of earlier stories in literature.

In The Lantern, there is a clear line that stretches back through Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece Jane Eyre, the classic English gothic novel of the house, the man and the first wife…

Why set the novel in Provence? Remember Mr Rochester’s request of Jane (which she refuses) that they live together as man and wife in the South of France, even though they cannot be legally married because his wife is still alive. Beyond Jane Eyre, is the Bluebeard legend: the old French tale of a new young wife whose husband refuses to tell her what became of his previous wives, but she realises that the answer lies behind a locked door of his castle.

Bénédicte, as an elderly woman alone on the hill, becomes the subject of speculation and stories heard and embellished by trespassing village children. Behind the brightness of the Provençal countryside are dark tales told by farmers and shepherds, retold in books by the writer Jean Giono and read by both Bénédicte and Eve.

The Lantern is also about isolation. Eve and Dom insulate themselves from the modern world in their own dream cocoon. Bénédicte lives on alone at Les Genévriers, the young girl who has become an isolated old woman whom others call crazy. Marthe is isolated by her blindness. In such circumstances, small details become large.

At times when the characters seem detached from the reality, their state of mind or interpretation of a situation is mirrored in their descriptions of the landscape. In a very obvious example, Eve and Dom travel to Davos for a skiing trip, but Dom will not admit what is troubling him - while all around is the cold, hard white dazzle of a frozen world.

Both the novel’s past and present voices are first-person narrators; both are courageous, loyal and self-contained in their different situations. (Perhaps on some psychic level, there is a mutual recognition of this.) Although they do admit to fear and anger, for the most part their emotions are buried, but surface in the way they see what is around them. To Eve, in the first flush of love, the property seems to expand around them, with the infinite possibilities of blue horizon beyond. Later, the walnuts fall from the tree “like fat brown tears”.

This detachment and displacement is echoed in loss of one sense and the subsequent need to compensate by using others more acutely. The idea of writing a “sensory novel” (which luxuriates in descriptions of all five senses) grew from this. How do you capture music, or fragrance, or texture, or taste in words? The challenge was to try to write visual descriptions might be vivid if heard by a blind person, or scent descriptions that might come alive through the sight of words on a page.

Fascinating insight, isn't it? I wonder how many author's can analyze their writing so well? Trying to think about myself....

Thank you so much Deborah for this wonderful post. I've enjoyed meeting you so much.


  1. That's cool she used some of her own experiences in the book. Sounds like a funky old house.

  2. If it's anything like the house in the book, Alex, it is.

  3. Awesome interview, Susan! That sounds like a scary old place to live in!
    And yes we should definitely trade guest posts! Let me know when you're free. :)

  4. Great interview!

    It sounds like an interesting story.

    And I love the covers for the book--both the one with the gate and the one with lavender.

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