Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Interview with Leah Fleming

I am delighted to welcome Leah Fleming to the blog today. Born in Bolton to Scottish parents, after graduating from university she made a career first in teaching. After emigrating to Yorkshire with a husband and four children she found herself catering in market stalls and cafes, doing stress management and counselling in the NHS as well as trying to live the “good life” in a Dales village. Working in this landscape brought out the storyteller within, although ideas are now marinated for a few months each year under some olive grove on Crete. 

She has published 15 novels, been shortlisted for the RNA Award as Helene Wiggin, and the Captain’s Daughter is currently shortlisted for the Premio Roma Award for Foreign Fiction 2012 under the title: La Strada in Fundo al Mare. You’ve created a name for yourself writing sagas set in Yorkshire.

So tell us what made you take a change of style with The Captain’s Daughter?

I think my books have been gradually expanding over the years in both length and time span. My editor, Maxine Hitchcock, challenged me’ to write bigger books’ and explore using other countries (eg America and France in Remembrance Day. Italy and USA in The Captain’s Daughter). Having a son in the States is proving useful! The Captain’s Daughter begins in the middle of the ocean so I knew it would have to be more epic in style with a strong continental connection. Quite a challenge!

It must have been a particular challenge to investigate an event as well known as the sinking of the Titanic. How did you set about the research? 

I was lucky that the only thing I knew about Titanic history was the fact that Captain Smith’s statue was in a Lichfield park and much neglected before the big film came out. Now he’s on the Titanic trail. I began to read about his life and family and the controversy about his role in the tragedy. ”What if” sparks began to fly. It was a joy to research after that and of course we had to visit some of the American museums too...

I’m part way through reading this book and already fully engaged with the characters. How did you set about developing them, or did they simply emerge on the page?

I knew there would be two women in the lifeboat from different backgrounds who became friends for life. I used two places I know well: Bolton and Lichfield as their starting points. Celeste came complete with her name and May followed closely behind but the one who surprised me was Angelo. He turned up fully formed on the New York dockside looking for his family and I just knew he was important but I groaned when he appeared.(Lots more research needed here.) May’s moral dilemma in the lifeboat was a tricky one to resolve but I gave it my best shot.

This being the anniversary of the disaster there are many books out there on the subject, and a TV series. In what way would you say your book is different? 

I think this novel comes at the event from a different angle. The sinking is the “inciting incident” in my story not the main theme. The narrative grows over 50 years from the tragedy and deals with the psychological aftermath on my three main characters. We also need to find out who the rescued baby in the lifeboat really is.

The Captain’s Daughter begins on the night the Titanic sinks. Two English women from different backgrounds forge a lifelong friendship in the lifeboat as a baby is rescued and put into their care. What follows is at times a heart breaking journey from America, Britain and Italy over fifty years until the true identity of the child is revealed.

How long have you been a member of the RNA, and in what way do you think it has helped your career?

I joined the RNA as a full member in 1995. How I wish I’d known about the NWS when I first began writing. I was on the committee for a few years under Angela Arney and Norma Curtis where I made some lifelong friends. I am proud to have been on the steering committee for the first residential conference at Stoneyhurst and was one of the founder members of the first regional Chapter ( The Flying Ducks) in Harrogate. This northern group was a lifeline to me in the years when I was not being published, and I still attend regularly.

Some writers need silence, others prefer the bustle of a coffee shop. What is your favourite mode of working?

I am a ‘silence in the workplace’ sort of writer, not easy in Crete when working among the noises off and cicadas. I need a table or lap, a pen and paper for first drafts and my special research notebook with pockets for reference. At home, I have a pleasant office overlooking the hills and village churchyard so I can daydream out of the window. With my rocker chair and blanket it becomes a womb-like little den in winter. I work out plot lines and problems by taking walks down the lane or lying in the bath by candlelight.

I believe you've been shortlisted for an Italian Award. That sounds very exciting. Can you tell us a little about that? 

The Premio Roma award is an annual cultural award in Italy. I am one of five finalists for the Translated Foreign Fiction Award. We are invited with our partners to an official prize presentation in the Sala Pietro da Cortona in the Capitoline Museum and to a Gala award evening ceremony on Friday 13th July in an ancient teatro in Rome: all very exciting and requiring I think some sartorial panic... 

My Italian publishers; Newton Compton submitted La Strada in fundo al mare. The translation of Captain’s Daughter with its vibrant cover, unbeknown to me. I was invited to the magnificent Italian Ambassador's residence in London in April for the launch of this year’s prize. It was only when I heard my name mentioned in the ballroom that I realised I might be going to Rome...Wish me luck but just a free trip to Rome is a prize in itself!

What do you miss most about your childhood?

I was lucky to have a fifties childhood which was safe, open air, street based and full of handstands, cartwheels, ball games, dancing and messing about. I miss not being able to hang upside down as much as I did then but I think I can still do a mean cartwheel if pushed.

What’s your favourite guilty pleasure?

My guilty pleasure on a wet afternoon is watching good black and white movies on TV whilst eating dark chocolate violet or rose creams.

If the aliens landed which book would you suggest they read first?

Iwould like aliens to read In The Heart of The Garden which was written under my old persona of Helene Wiggin (Hodder and Stoughton 1998) It would give them a potted history of England through the eyes of women gardeners over 1000 years.

So what next? Can you tell us a little about your work in progress? 

I have just submitted “The Girl Under The Olive Tree” for publication in 2013 (Simon and Schuster). I have wanted to write this account of the Battle of Crete (1941) and its aftermath for ten years. It tells the story of a British and a Jewish nurse who both hide with resistance fighters during the 4 years of occupation. It is based on true events with my own twist and a chance to give something back to the beautiful island that’s captured my heart and gives me writing space and peace.

Thank you for finding the time in your busy schedule to talk to us today, and we wish you continuing success for the future. 
Best wishes, Freda 

To find out more about Leah's books, you can check her out here: 

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact me: freda@fredalightfoot.co.uk 


Gwen Kirkwood said...

This is an interesting account of your life, Leah. I hope to read your book about the ives of people after the Titanic - rather than the sinking story. I have travelled the opposite road to you - born in Yorkshire, college in Lancashire, with adult life in Scotland. I remember being at Stoneyhurst. Good luck with the Italian award.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Lovely post, Leah, so interesting. Thoroughly enjoyed Winters Children and The Captain's Daughter is on my TBR list already.

Freda Lightfoot said...

Leah has been trying to comment and thank everyone, without success, so I'm trying for her.

Evonne Wareham said...

Enjoy the trip to Rome - and good lick with the award.

Evonne Wareham said...

Or even good luck with the award!!!sench

Evonne Wareham said...

This is third time lucky. I have a bad attack of butterfingers today. All I want to do is say good luck.

Lyn McCulloch said...

Lovely interview Helene and Freda. I have The Captain's Daughter sitting on my Kindle - it's just moved up the virtual TBR pile! Have a blast in Rome, and good luck! xxx

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Leah! What a fascinating life and choice of subjects.

Good luck with the award!

Kate Hardy said...

Loved the interview, and the book sounds fascinating. Enjoy Rome, and good luck with the award!

Cindy Haymes said...

Wow - really fascinating reading.. great interview ... I'm going to have a look on your website now.

Leah said...

Thanks for good wishes and comments. the pic is of the lacemakers of Sansepolchro who gave me such a welcome and were pivotal in giving me ideas...Researching opens such new avenues, doesn't it?

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Arriving a little late - but wanted to say how much I enjoyed the interview, Leah. All the very best with the Italina visit and award!

Cara Cooper said...

I love those afternoon black and white films too. Your new book sounds fascinating. Good luck with it.

Rhoda Baxter said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. Good luck with the award.
I love the photo of the guys in the graveyard. There's something poignant about it.

Ingrid Thompson said...

I have just finished 'The girl under the olive tree' and I loved it. It is beautifully written with such empathy for all the characters, British, Greek, Jew and German. You have a wonderful talent and I'm looking forward to read all your other books.