What can our readers expect from your novel?
‘The Villa’ is set in Sicily and uses its inspirational landscape, its fairy-tales and its traditional recipes to weave a story told by three generations of strong female voices. All these women are looking for answers.
In the ancient baglio of Cetaria and in La Sirena – the mermaid’s villa - an old family feud re-surfaces and Tess searches for the elusive il Tesoro – a Sicilian treasure hidden generations ago – and for the answer to the mystery of why her mother Flavia left her homeland to go to England. In the meantime, Tess’s teenage daughter Ginny is struggling with her own blossoming sexuality and with the questions she needs to ask her father – if only she can find out where he is.
Readers can expect a good page-turning story with plenty of Sicilian tastes, sights and smells combined with not one but two passionate love stories spanning the period from the second world war to current day.
You have been compared to the likes of Victoria Hislop and Julia Gregson, how does this make you feel as a writer?
Very honoured! I love the way these writers weave a vibrant historical thread through their work which has relevance and significance to our lives today, and I hope that I manage to do the same.
Where did your inspiration come from for the book?
The initial inspiration came from the landscape on the island of Sicily which I first visited in October 2008. I was fascinated by the contrasts: the darkness and light; the tranquil with the undercurrent of menace; the beauty and the undeniably rather seedy. These contradictions intrigued me. When I read up on the history of the island it all started to make sense and I decided to use Sicily as a setting for the novel. I was beginning to do some underwater snorkelling with the help of my husband – a qualified diver – and I also liked the idea of writing about a woman who was exploring under and above the water in this place. And then there was the Sicilian food…. Delicious! This started me on a pathway to Flavia, the grandmother in the story, who was obviously going to be Sicilian and immersed in Sicilian cuisine. I also wanted to use three female voices from three generations to express their differences but also their undeniable connections and how this related to their culture and their roots.
To what extext did travelling to Italy and Spain affect your writing?
I think that travelling around Italy and Spain has made me much more sensitive to the nuances and symbolism of landscape and places. Seeing a different place every day also keeps everything fresh and new. When we stay in a place for a long period of time we often stop noticing things; sometimes it takes a visitor to thoroughly explore!
I’ve always loved the landscape of Italy in particular. It has a wonderful sense of history. Travelling through Italy while I was writing ‘The Villa’ I spotted a stuccoed mermaid motif on a dusky pink villa in a hilltop village in Umbria, and this became the inspiration for La Sirena – the mermaid’s villa.
You write stories and articles and now a novel, do you have a preference?
I love writing novels best. With a novel you can become fully immersed in an idea, a theme, a concept. You can create characters whom you will live with for a year or more. You have the scope to dig deep emotionally and yet also to explore landscape and if possible also develop a fiendish plot! Writing a novel might sound daunting, but if you view it as a series of little steps – it really isn’t so scary. Stories and articles are great for short, sharp treats. But a novel is a feast for the senses.
How much has your teaching in creative writing helped you own work?
Very much. Writing is a craft that takes years to practise and you never stop learning. Tutoring creative writing has given me the opportunity to work in a creative setting with like-minded people and explore many aspects of creative writing, the self and the imagination, which I would otherwise have had to explore alone. It is very rewarding. I’m sure that it has informed my work in too many ways to mention.
What advice could you give to a writer wanting to produce a novel of a romantic genre?
Take the time to develop strong three-dimensional characters with interesting and believable lives. Explore their thoughts and their dreams. Make them want to fall in love but put a few obstacles in the way. Maybe they’ve been hurt before, maybe they are too busy working to find love, maybe they are with the wrong person but just haven’t realised it yet. Develop a strong plot and a theme and concept that also uses the symbolism of landscape and place within the story. Use internal dialogue (internal thought) to connect your characters with the landscape and to explore their thoughts and feelings. Don’t be inhibited or think about your mother/ father/ grandparents etc. Let go! (They should do the rest for themselves)...
How did you go about researching the novel?
I spent some time in North West Sicily to get a first hand flavour of the place (in particular the food, since Sicilian recipes feature heavily in ‘The Villa’) and I researched the history of the island – including the Mafioso connections! I had to research aspects of World War II – which affected British pilots and Sicily – and post war conditions in the UK and Sicily for the historical thread. I did some snorkelling in the bays off North West Sicily in order to write about the underwater landscape and researched the Marine Conservation areas and underwater caves there. It was also important to find out about earthquakes and how the earth moves… I researched the rail journey from Sicily to England undertaken by Sicilians after the war; there is no doubt that England was perceived as holding work and life opportunities that did not exist in the general poverty of post war Sicily. Last but not least I did a lot of enjoyable research about Sicilian fairy tales and mermaids!
It has been said that it is the perfect summer read, why do you think this is?
That’s a great compliment. I suppose in a summer read women are looking for something that is up-beat and inspirational rather than too dark or distressing. A summer read should reflect the lighter and sunnier landscape, I think. And it should engage and absorb rather than stress out the reader! The Mediterranean landscape in ‘The Villa’ probably helps... Most readers want to empathise with the characters and also want something that makes them think. Hopefully ‘The Villa’ achieves this. I tried to bring in some humour – for example in the voice of Ginny, who was great fun to write about, and I do like writing about human relationships – for example the relationships between mothers and daughters which are explored in the book. It’s important to make a summer read a good story and hopefully one that can’t be put down while you soak up the rays and relax by the pool...
What future projects do you have lined up?
My new novel again weaves a contemporary narrative with a historical storyline and features three women discovering the truth about their shared past. The central theme is whether everyone has the right to know the truth surrounding their birth and it is based on the true life happening of the scandal of Spain’s stolen children – ninos robados. The novel is set in West Dorset, Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands and Barcelona.
Ruby discovers that her family is not what it seems and embarks on a quest to discover her true identity, Vivien has a secret burden which is about to be revealed, and Sister Julia has to decide whether to hand over a document she has kept hidden for decades.
It’s also a love story, of course...
Interview by Lucy Walton