Please can you tell our readers about your current project Secrets of the Tides?
Hello Female First readers! Secrets of the Tides is my debut novel. It’s the story of a family torn apart by the events of one day. The narrative is told through the mother, Helen and her two daughters Dora and Cassie and as each woman tells her side of the story, the reader gradually unravels the secrets that pulled their family apart. It features a rambling old house set high up on the Dorset coastline, a confused young woman searching for answers from her past, and a whole host of long-buried secrets. I think of it a little bit like a mystery story – a family saga with a dark edge of suspense running through it. I’ve been told more than once it should be read with a box of tissues on standby.
Why did you want to write about a family’s secrets and how they come back to haunt us?
When I began to write, I knew I wanted to focus on a family, and particularly the women within that family. Mothers and daughters, sisters and wives – female relationships have always fascinated me and they are something that I hoped I would be able to delve into in my writing with real emotional honesty.
The ‘secrets’ in the narrative always felt essential to the tension and drama of the novel. I wanted to write about one dramatic event, but show it from various different viewpoints, to illustrate that there is never just one side to a story and how different people’s motivations actions can have long lasting consequences. Life is very rarely black and white and I’m a firm believer that there is light and shade in all of us. I wanted to explore this idea through my female characters, and weave their various stories around one suspenseful, shared moment.
Where did the inspiration come from for this?
I began writing the novel a few weeks after my son was born. It was such a transforming experience for me, having a child. I started to think about what would have to happen to damage the bonds that connect a family – that powerful bond between a parent and child, the ties between a husband and wife, the shared closeness of siblings.
The Tides’ rambling family house, Clifftops, and the Dorset seaside town my characters inhabit is based loosely on a village my grandparents lived in when I was a child. I can remember, as a young girl, roaming about their overgrown garden in flapping wellington boots, playing pooh-sticks in the stream at the bottom of the garden, walking along the windswept beach and eating 99 ice creams while sitting on the breakwater. It felt very natural to weave echoes of those childhood memories into the writing as I went.
I suppose the truth is that I’ve always loved novels with a strong sense of family and place at their heart. Some of my all-time favourites are I Capture the Castle, Atonement, The Shellseekers and Rebecca.
Are the main characters of Dora and Cassie based on people you know?
Dora and Cassie are the sisters in my novel and while neither of them are based on a real-life person, I am very close to my own sister and am sure my bond with her must have helped me shape their sibling relationship, even if only on a subconscious level. I tackle an emotional subject in the novel, so I knew I would have to draw deeply from my own well of experience and emotion to pull it off. That’s not to say I wrote my friends or family into a novel, or only wrote about things I had experienced personally – a bit of imagination and empathy helped with the rest!
One of the most satisfying parts of writing Secrets of the Tides was in watching the characters grow and take shape – seeing them change from sketchy outlines on a piece of paper until they felt almost real, until they started to wake me up in the night and tell me the conversations they would have, the actions they would take.
What future projects do you have lined up?
I’m currently writing my second novel about three different women whose lives are connected by a secret buried at the very heart of the novel. I won’t say anymore just yet as I’m still in the early drafting stages, but I can say that it’s a new experience writing now with a publishing contract and a deadline hanging over me. I know how incredibly lucky I am to have found a lovely agent and a talented publisher and it’s a dream-come-true to be able to be able to leave behind office life and write for a career. The struggle comes now in shrugging off my self-consciousness; it’s hard not to second guess yourself and imagine an invisible reader or editor beside you, criticising every word! I’m trying to relax into it but it’s proving hard.
How much do you feel your background in publishing has helped your novel come along?
It’s been both a help and a hindrance. I worked in publishing in London for eight years and in all that time I never once thought about writing a novel. I was surrounded by such talented writers, by such amazing stories that I never dared to think I could try it myself. It was only when I left the industry that I considered writing anything at all.
Having said that, my background, I think, might have helped me get the pitch and positioning right for my initial submission to agents. I went through all the usual channels and needed all the same luck as every other writer out there pitching their work. It doesn’t matter how many connections you have, the truth is that no agent or publisher is going to take your work on if they don’t think there is a market for it. Publishing is a profit-driven business, just like any other and there are a lot of talented, aspiring writers out there. I realise now it takes hard work, perseverance and a whole lot of luck.
When did you realise you wanted to write?
It was at the end of 2005 and I was travelling round Australia with my boyfriend. Away from my old life in London I had the space and the time to really think about what I wanted to do next and it came to me then that I had nothing to lose by trying.
Once we’d settled in Sydney I got distracted again with fulltime work and building a new social life. It was only when I went on maternity leave from my job at Universal Pictures that I seized my chance. My writing began as nothing more than a personal project, a way to keep the creative side of my brain ticking over while I was at home with a new baby. Then, gradually, the story took shape and I found myself racing to the kitchen table every time I put my son down for his naps, to get back to it and add flesh to the bones of the story.
What is your background in writing? You studied at Nottingham, was it something related to your career?
I don’t have a formal background in writing. I studied American Studies at Nottingham University. It was a degree that offered a focus on contemporary literature and allowed me to travel, which was why it appealed – I suffered from terrible wanderlust in my twenties! My favourite North American writers at that time were Mark Twain, Carol Shields and Toni Morrison. Once I’d graduated I knew I wanted to work in book publishing so I started at the bottom. My first job was PA to the Managing Director of a children’s book publisher. I think my American Studies degree helped me secure the role to some extent, but if I’m really honest, it was probably the secretarial skills I’d listed on my CV that proved most attractive to her.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I still feel like a bit of a fraud offering advice to aspiring writers but I suppose the most important piece of advice I can offer from my own experience is make the time and get the words down. One. After. The. Other. Even if they feel like the wrong words. Get that first draft down and then edit, cut, rewrite, redraft over and over until you have polished your story like a shiny pebble. Don’t show your work to many people initially – just one or two whose opinion you respect and who you know will give you gentle but constructive criticism. Don’t write to get published. Write for the sheer enjoyment of it. That’s when the magic happens. And finally, when you get stuck, turn to Ann Lamott’s inspiring book, Bird by Bird. It was recommended to me by the wonderful Australian writer Favel Parrett and it’s helped me through a couple of sticky spots already.
What is your favourite thing about writing and your least favourite?
Writing offers such freedom. Having spent years at a desk in an office, I now love working for myself, in my own space, on my own terms. I love being in control of the story, getting to know the characters, weaving their narratives into what I hope is a moving and compelling plot. When the words are flowing the hours can pass in the most sublime way. It’s almost meditative. When the words don’t come, however, it can be the most excruciating, self-flagellating, self-doubting experience ever. I’m learning that’s the time to step away from the computer and go for a long walk … or pour a big glass of wine!
Interview by Lucy Walton