Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Interview - Harriet Grace

Earlier this week, I posted my review of a great book which I recently read called Cells by Harriet Grace and you can read my review by clicking here
Harriet very kindly agreed to be interrogated oops I mean interviewed by me and it was really interesting to learn more about her and what makes her tick.
Thanks so much Harriet for sharing a bit about yourself with me and my readers. 
Please can you tell us a bit about yourself, what is your background?
I was born in London and brought up in a small village called Inkpen, which features in ‘Cells’.    I went to boarding school in Bristol when I was ten and left school at sixteen to learn a language and do a secretarial course, which my parents felt was the best way to fill in the time before I found the right man to marry!  This involved a term in a French protestant school in the Massif Central where Jewish children had been hidden during the war, although I only discovered this over thirty years later and I still haven’t written the novel about it; a secretarial course in Oxford; and eventually some ‘A’ Levels and a couple of credits with Open University in my twenties.  I worked as a secretary in publishing, spent six months in America doing temporary secretarial work, and then back in London worked for Macmillan’s Publishing before getting married.  I worked in PR, ran a nanny agency, had my first child, spent two years in South Africa at the height of apartheid, had my second child there, and wrote some articles which got published.  Back in the UK as I was recovering from measles – very nasty as an adult - I lay in bed and tried to write my first short story. 
Many years later my children and stepchildren are grown up and I have grandchildren.  I live in Kew, about five minutes walk from the Gardens, and can still type at 50 wpm!  For the last twenty years my working life has been divided in two both connected with people: writing fiction about relationships and working professionally as a career counsellor helping people through change or any kind of career problem. 
I have an MA Writing Distinction (Sheffield Hallam) and have had poems selected and published.  ‘Cells’ is my first novel and I’m currently working on a new one.
How long has 'Cells' been in the making?
It has had a long gestation.  I had written two novels that had done the rounds of the mainstream publishers and nearly made it, and when they didn’t I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing.  ‘Cells’ was the novel I wrote for that and it took me about three years to get my degree, and then I still felt it needed more work, which took another year!  I sent it to my agent but she didn’t like it!  So, I sent it to about 15 agents and found one who did like it.  It did the rounds of the mainstream publishers and was nearly taken by one of them.  When it wasn’t, I decided to self publish.

Part of the book is based in the US. Is this a place that you have been to or would like to go to and if so, why?
When I was twenty I worked in Washington DC for 6 months and then did a greyhound bus tour round the States, and the place we stayed in the longest was San Francisco.  We spent a whole week there and I wish I could have stayed a year.  It was magical with its hills and soaring skyscrapers, its flowering trees and water glimpsed between buildings. I’d never seen a city like it.   It was era of the film ‘Bullitt’ and Steve McQueen and that car chase.  Many years later, while my daughter was at Berkeley for a year, I returned.  It had its social problems but it was still magical and it was during that visit that I was inspired to include it in the novel.  My daughter now has a film business in Los Angeles so I know LA well.
What made you choose the topic of a childless couple to base the book around?
My novels tend to start with people rather than an idea or topic.  With ‘Cells’ I started out with an image of a woman looking across an open-plan office and seeing a younger man and some kind of spark happening between them.  She’s a successful career woman who has the job, the house, the husband.  He’s a loser from a dysfunctional family.  Then it came to me: she has no baby, she has tried IVF, it hasn’t worked and she’s trying to move on.  As I started to write about this subject I realised I had hit on a peculiarly modern dilemma.

I wanted to explore something I hadn’t experienced myself. Imagine, I thought, a woman who was brought up to have a career first and then, almost as an afterthought in her mid-to-late thirties, thinks about having a baby.  What happens if she doesn’t succeed, in spite of IVF treatment?  Is it the same for her?  Does she mind so much?  Won’t it interfere with her career? I was interested in the ambivalence that many women have about childbirth and rearing children – their longing to have a baby, create a new life, versus what it does to their identity and their career.  I tried to get in touch with the sometimes unbearable ‘extension of hope’ that IVF provides, and the despair when it fails.  Both these factors affect men too.

Where do you write and what is it about that place that gives you the inspiration to write?
I wrote ‘Cells’ mostly in a small room upstairs at home. But recently we built a ‘little house’, as my grandson calls it, at the bottom of our 60 ft garden in Kew – in brick and beautifully insulated! The first time I sat in the room with my new table, a book shelf, a pad of paper, pencils and my laptop I was scared. Just getting the table in the right position had been stressful. I worried that I wouldn’t like it, that I might not be able to work there.  But it has grown into a lovely room where I want to go, and I feel very lucky.  It is mine and I know I won’t be interrupted.  I can shout and scream if I want to, leave stuff all over my table and not clear it up, sit there and think if the mood takes me, and not feel silly if some days the words are slow to emerge.
Your characters are wonderfully created.  How do you go about developing your characters?
Thank you!   My characters can start from an image – see above – or an incident.  I see them in some kind of context that I feel excited about.  Gradually I identify who they are and how many characters I want to focus on.  From then on I need to do a lot of thinking. I write lots of notes, little scenes with them in.  ‘Dramatise, dramatise’ I believe Henry James said... and I try to think about them doing something, a scene where something happens, and I scribble it down. I write their bios in the first person - what happened when they were children, what their parents were like, their siblings.  Did anything horrible happen – will that be in the story, or just ‘lean’ on it, having its effect?  I research where they live – the geography, what they do, what they wear, what they like, etc.  But I don’t delay too long in starting.  I learn a lot about the character in the writing when they are in a relationship with other characters and when they are in conflict.  Most importantly, I try to get inside each character and see the world entirely from their point of view.
How do you fit writing into your everyday life?
Do what I say, not what I do...  ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men’.... etc. etc.  I dream of getting up, not looking to the right or left, ignoring emails, internet, visitors, lodgers, cats, husband, grown-up children, grandchildren, paid work, phone calls... and going straight to my room in the garden, every  morning and writing for several hours.  In reality, over the years writing has had to fit in with bringing up children, and working part-time developing a micro career in career coaching, and many other things.  At every stage I’ve moaned that I don’t have enough time.  At the end of every year, I’m certain I’ve become less disciplined!For me having a ring-fenced time and a place to write, definitely helps.  Doing it regularly and not letting the writing get ‘cold’ is important.  I should be writing now, but I’m doing this!!  I always plan to have a written timetable that I stick to, but it rarely happens. So, what I do is try and get out to my room every day if/when I can and in the morning if possible.
Are you a reader? If so, what type of books do you like to read?
I love reading and I mostly read novels, but also some biographies or books on psychology or psychoanalysis.  If I’m travelling I read guide books, history books and novels about the history of the place I’m visiting and the people who live there. ‘History’ and ‘people’ are probably key words.  I’m fascinated by how people have become who they are, what happened in their childhood – their history.  Similarly, with a new country I want to find out the history of the people there and how they have made it the way it is now. 
I’m interested in how people interact with each other, their relationships, what is going on underneath the surface, what is not being said, which is why I love novels and often find them ‘truer’ and more satisfying than factual books. A book I’ve read again and again is ‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively, a classic, must-read novel.  More recently and quite different is Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit From The Good Squad.’    Another amazing novel is Rose Tremain’s ‘The Way I Found Her.’  I could go on...
How do you find the whole 'social media world' that surrounds books and authors these days?
I’m a still a novice, getting slowly better at it, hopefully!  At first I didn’t want to know about it; it felt like a distraction.  I just wanted to try and write novels not blogs! But now I can see what an amazing potential social media has for finding an audience for my novel, getting reviews, learning from them, being in contact with other writers etc.  Trying to market my book locally not using social media was very hard work and it was almost impossible to reach a wider audience. 
Already I’m experiencing the effect of being an Author on the online group and having my book go on a blog tour.
What are your plans to write more? When will we be seeing more from you?
The last year or so I have been writing a film script, which is still in development.   I have several short stories I should be sending out, and am currently starting a new novel.


Linn B Halton said...

A really interesting interview Kim - I bet Harriet was exhausted afterwards! It's in my TBR pile and I can't wait to get there.

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