The other day I read & reviewed The Twilight Hour, which is in the running for my Book of the Year 2014. It’s a wonderful, touching story, and you can read my review of it here.
I was therefore very excited when I was asked whether I’d like to interview Gerrard for my blog. I sent over some questions and she responded quickly and with characteristically excellent writing.
Q&A – Nicci Gerrard
Your new book, The Twilight Hour, is published under the name ‘Nicci Gerrard’, but you also write as one half of the duo ‘Nicci French’. What’s it like writing by yourself? What are the main differences and challenges of writing as a duo, and as a solo author?
I’d like to start by saying that I feel terrifically lucky to be able to have two voices – to inhabit two rooms inside myself.
Writing can be lonely and also scary – and sometimes a bit like going mad (and I write in an attic). Writing with Sean is less lonely, less scary, though not perhaps less mad. In many ways the actual process itself is remarkably similar, because when we are writing our Nicci French novels, we never write together; that would be impossible and also very quarrelsome. We still have to be alone, letting ourselves sink down into the work, letting go of self-consciousness. It’s the bits around the actual writing that feels very different. There’s the planning, which Sean and I do together over weeks and months, over coffee and tea and then wine, on long walks – on my own, I don’t have the same sense of ideas being confirmed and added to. I have to trust myself – to know when something will work and when it won’t. Then the editing and re-writing, and of course the aftermath of – the publicity, the readings, talks and interviews. As Nicci French, we can hide behind each other and protect each other. As Nicci Gerrard, there is no-one to hide behind. This is me: my voice, my words, my responsibility, my mistakes, my fault….. I feel much more vulnerable as Nicci Gerrard.
But I have an entirely different voice when I write alone, and it’s a voice I need to use.
Your main character, Eleanor Lee, is presented as multifaceted and interesting, far more so than a lot of older characters in fiction. What was she inspired by, and how did you go about building her character?
Thank you – that means a lot because it’s what I set out to do from the start: bring an old, blind woman nearing her end to life in all her rich complications. And in fact there was a particular inspiration for the novel and to Eleanor. My parents are both alive but they are very old and very frail and vulnerable now. Two years ago, my siblings and I moved them from their family home into more practical house where they now have a 24-hour carer. My father was a doctor, and a private, courteous and kind man and he is now bed-bound and heartbreaking. My mother was (and still is) beautiful, and also boundlessly optimistic and adventurous; she is registered blind, has had cancer and several strokes, is very fragile. When we were packing their things away we found an old film of that we had converted to a disc that we all watched together at Christmas. It was of their wedding, over 60 years ago. There they were, so young, so hopeful, arm in arm and beaming at us. It was one of those moments which makes your skin tingle and your heart beat faster: very emotional and happy-sad.
We look at old people and often all we see is their age. But the old contain all the selves they’ve ever been. I wanted to create a character and give her her youth back as well, so that the reader sees the old Eleanor and the young at the same time. I wanted to have a woman who was still purposeful, caustic, passionate, guilty. I wanted the novel to swarm with old memories.
The novel touches on themes of loneliness and depression, but still manages to be an uplifting tale. Do you view yourself as an optimist in general?
I think I am – but perhaps a melancholy optimist, or even a self-willed optimist, if that makes sense. I don’t think everything will turn out for the best at all, and I’ve never believed that people get what they deserve and reap what they sow, but I do feel that even in the midst of sadness or loss, life can also be filled with great joy and kindness and you have to hold on to that. I think resilience is one of the most important qualities. Even when you’re lonely and depressed, you must put one foot in front of the other and move forward. And you should look at other people with compassion. There’s a wonderful quotation, attributed to Plato: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’.
How did you manage to get the balance between writing about dark subjects and maintaining a note of positivity throughout the book?
Life is made up of small moments. The Twilight Hour is set in winter, in a desolate landscape; Eleanor is old and blind and near death and Peter is young and sad and lost. The novel is about guilt and betrayal and grief. But I allow them to help each other though these small moments. They drink tea together and wine together and she tells him a story. They give a shape to sadness. And they recognize each other. I think I believe in recognition much more than I believe in happiness – it’s why the kindness of strangers is so uplifiting. Also, they are both allowed to move forward. What’s depressing (and what characterizes real depression) is being stuck.
A bit of a classic question – tell us about some of your favourite books, or authors you find inspirational.
Where do I start! OK, with my childhood and all of the Moomintroll books by the great Tove Jansson. They are whimsical, mystical, lyrical and haunting little tales that I loved as a girl and read to my children over and over again (often through tears). I have also re-read Jane Eyre many times – the first time as a teenager, when I was completely captivated by the voice, apparently demure and yet so angry and assertive. It’s a great romance of course, and yet it’s also strange and wild and full of Gothic undercurrents. (I also love Wilkie Collins’ Gothic novels, particularly Woman in White and The Moonstone). Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway and her diaries I return to, always with a sense of wonder that someone can write so wonderfully about tiny moments and with such elegiac beauty about time passing. Anna Karenina. Willa Cather’s My Antonia. The poetry of W H Auden and Louis MacNeice (I learn them off by heart and recite them loudly when on my bike). I think I have to stop there – and I haven’t even got on to any living authors…..
How did you get started as an author?
I always wanted to write, ever since I was old enough to read, but I never quite got beyond 3,000 word features or interviews until I met Sean when I was thirty and working as literary editor for The New Statesman. My marriage had just ended, I had two tiny children (a two- and one-year-old), was worried about everything, especially money, didn’t have much faith in men – and I somehow fell in love with him. We used to read each other’s work and we talked a lot about books and writing – we used to have a conversation about the possibility of two people making one voice. We thought that one day (when the children were older, and very quickly there were four children not two, when we had more time, more space, more money, more everything) we would try to write book together, as an experiment. Then we both came upon the idea that was the inspiration for our first psychological thriller, The Memory Game, and thought: if not now, when? So that’s how I started – as a collaborator, under a name that didn’t belong to me. Perhaps I needed that element of disguise to give me the confidence.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write and publish their first novel?
To write a novel: I’d say read a lot, and then I’d say, when you have the story that you need to write, start immediately. There’s never a perfect time, there will always be a reason to put it off. And try to find your own voice, whatever that voice is. Writing is a strange mixture of faith and doubt. Be self-critical but don’t be discouraged by failure: a large part of writing is failing to write, erasing what you’ve written, beginning again….
To publish a novel: well, you probably have to find an agent, since very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts now. Send a covering letter, a synopsis and the first few chapters to a suitable agent (look at novels in the same territory as yours and find out which agent represents them). Be dogged. When and if they say no, try again. And again.
The Twilight Hour comes out on the 23rd of October and is published by Penguin. You can pick up a paperback for £7.99; more details available on Penguin’s website.