I’m often asked what leads me to a subject for a new novel. It seems to particularly interest readers that I seldom stay with one theme for more than one book. My 2012 novel Maria and the Admiral really was a new departure for me. It was my first truly historical novel with two real people, Maria Graham and Admiral Cochrane as my protagonists. I began my research nine years earlier in Chile, where these two remarkable people met in 1822, and I continued my work in libraries in London, Oxford and Edinburgh.
At first I was unsure whether to disguise my characters with false names – perhaps false noses too – but, in the end, I felt sure enough of my understanding of their personalities and their actions, to go ahead with a fictionalised account in which everything that happened was possible and even probable. I found the whole experience enthralling and decided to follow the historical course with my next novel.
Glory- A story of Gallipoli was published in April 2015, the centenary of the first allied landings on the Turkish peninsula. My interest rose out of my family’s history: my father’s father was killed there in August 1915, three months before his fiftieth birthday. In the novel I tell the story of the campaign mainly through fictional younger soldiers and two sisters but have also created A Brigadier Fitzpaine who has the same military experiences as my grandfather. Reading my grandfather’s letters and my grandmother’s diaries made writing the novel an emotional experience.
The Missing Boy, the novel before Maria and the Admiral, was also a painful book to write. It’s the story of a thirteen year old boy who runs away from home. Starting with the horrible fact that 100,000 children are reported missing each year, I found myself more and interested in how and why this happens. I talked to the police, watched missing person programmes (extraordinarily dramatic) and researched the families left behind. Happily, most of these children return but some don’t and many have met various levels of abuse and violence while they are unprotected in the world. Drugs are a continuing danger.
There were times when I regretted choosing the suffering of a child as a central theme. The structure of the book as a kind of thriller with the boy’s safety under constant threat meant that I wrote it in a state of deep anxiety. In some ways I felt more like a voyeur than the author.
On the other hand it was a new way for me to look at the importance of a loving family and the miseries cause by its breakdown. Love is much written about in our society but I found myself questioning whether it is often another word for selfishness.
Lies and Loyalties (paperback 2008) is about a family of four brothers and one sister, an MP, a QC, a Catholic priest, a brother who suffers from mental problems and his wife who at the beginning of the novel is resident in Her Majesty’s Prison Holloway. I’ve always been interested in the gap between the haves and have nots, between the comfortable and the disturbed. I may have caught that interest from my father, Lord Longford (see Longford Trust) who spent most of his later life trying to help prisoners. Now I’m involved with my work for Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners.
Lies, loyalties and love probably are the themes of most of my novels – obsessional love, serious lies and (mostly) family loyalties. To which I guess I’d have to add violence. Not that I’ve ever written the same novel twice. Previous novels have included: the story of a random act of violence in which the attacker leaves prison and searches for his victim, Bodily Harm; a passionate love affair partly set in Chile, One Summer; a sequel to Jane Austen’s, Emma, called Perfect Happiness (Emma & Knightley in US) which is the not very convincing last line of Austen’s superb novel. Then there’s The Space Between which examines the prospects of a young widow (lies) and A Woman’s Life which is a study of friendship (loyalties) between three women over forty years. They come from America, Ireland and England but their lives interweave over those forty years.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a saga novel called A Woman’s Age which followed the lives of three generations of Englishwomen, kicking off in 1910. I suppose that was the nearest I’ve got to writing a book about feminism but women have often been at the centre of my work. Occasion of Sin, a tragic love story was actually an up to date telling of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina. In my version Anna gets back on the train. I shan’t go through all my novels here but there are a couple more I’d like to mention. The Garish Day has a man, a diplomat, at its centre and deals with four decades and as many countries. Magic and Fate is my stab at magic realism, although in fact a lot of it, particularly the super model heroine took a great deal of research. Luckily, the doyenne of the catwalks, Suzy Menkes, took me under her glamorous wing.
Writing about Magic and Fate reminds me to put in a note about the importance of entertainment- even fun – in novels, even those with serious themes. I often think that the reason that childrens’ books have become so popular with adults that the authors know very well that no child will stick with a book that doesn’t entertain them.
I began writing childrens’ books to entertain my own children – they did the first illustrations as I read them aloud (a practise I highly recommend) and now I’m looking to my grandchildren. My novels are for the 8-12 age group. Far-Out and There’s More to Life are both adventure stories with a touch of fantasy. My two latest children’s novels Poppy’s Hero and its sequel Poppy’s Angel although adventure stories, tackle some gritty subjects. Poppy’s father, Big Frank, is in prison. Through him, she meets Angel and confronts a different kind of inner-city life.