Saturday, May 7, 2011

Interview with Susanna Kearsley

I'm delighted to see on Twitter that RNA member Susanna Kearsley is enjoying some well-deserved success with her latest book The Rose Garden, which is number 10 in the bestseller lists in Canada. So tell us Susanna, how did you get started?

I spent most of my childhood and teens writing first chapters, mostly because I wasn’t brave enough to attempt a whole book and decided that, if I didn’t really try, I couldn’t fail. And then when I was in my early twenties, my sister finally forced my hand by daring me to finish what I’d started with the chapter I’d just showed her, and the wager was one that I couldn’t possibly afford to lose, so I sat down and finished the novel. I spent the next couple of years trying to get it published before I sent it to a small New York publisher dealing in mysteries and romance for libraries, and they accepted it. Getting that first phone call from an editor to offer me a contract was a moment that I never will forget. By then, though, I had nearly finished writing my next manuscript—for Mariana—and that was too long a book for them. Instead I entered it, unpublished, in the competition for the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize at Transworld, and was fortunate enough to win, which truly was the start of my career.

To plot or not to plot? How much of a planner are you?
Actually, I’m hopeless at planning, even when I do try. In the beginning, when I thought that’s what a writer was supposed to do, I used to try to plan a book chapter by chapter, but my characters kept veering off and doing their own thing, and I discovered that the story seemed much better when they did. So now I start with just my setting and my premise and a scant handful of characters and throw them in the mix, and see what happens. If I’m working with real history, as I did in The Winter Sea/Sophia’s Secret, I already have an existing framework that I need to hang my story on, but otherwise I simply try to give my central characters the problems and the purpose that will keep things moving forward.

What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
Very likely the same things we are. I’d imagine that, like writers, editors have become so attuned to and aware of the techniques of our profession that it’s hard to read a story and not see the man behind the curtain, working the controls. So when you come across that rare book that can pull you in completely to another world, you treasure it. I think that’s what an editor is looking for, deep down – a novel she or he can truly fall in love with – and I’m sure that, as with people, different novels will appeal to different editors. The trick is in the matchmaking.

Where is your favourite place to work?
I can work nearly anywhere, as long as I have my laptop, but my favourite place to work is in my writing-room. It was meant to be the dining room but I converted it by filling one long wall with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that my husband fears one day will tip the whole house to the side. I have a cosy armchair by the window where my dog likes to sleep in the daytime and where my children come to sit and chat in the evening, and my desk is an old oak kitchen table that my father used as his desk when I was a little girl. And in here I’m surrounded by the artwork I’ve collected through the years and the mementoes I’ve brought back from all my research trips – bits of gravel from the garden paths of manor houses, a limpet shell, a lump of brick, a little green glass bottle filled with water from a holy well in France…my bits and pieces, rich with memories that inspire me while I write.

Do you write every day? What is your work schedule?
I try to write every day, and most of the time I manage it. My children are still young but I can usually fit in my writing time while they’re at school, and at the weekend I can shut myself away for a little longer stretch of work while my husband’s home. But there are days when, in spite of my best efforts, I don’t get to the computer – I’m off running errands, or one of the children is ill and needs me more, or I just need to take a day to “refill the well”, as Brigid Coady calls it (you can read her excellent post on this here, at our group blog The Heroine Addicts:. Nonetheless, to keep myself from slacking off I keep a written log of daily word counts, and for each blank day I have to give myself a good excuse!

Which authors have most influenced your work?
Mary Stewart would be at the top of the list. I grew up wanting to be a Mary Stewart heroine, actually – when I finally did make it to France in my twenties I’d sit drinking coffee at outdoor cafes in the hope someone might come and deliver a stray set of keys to a car that would lead me off on an adventure. It never happened, of course, but I did have a lot of cups of fabulous French coffee. I also learned a lot from Lucilla Andrews, who wrote marvellously real heroines (and heroes) in her nursing romances. Her book The First Year is a classic, in my view. American writer Jan Cox Speas was a huge influence, as well, as was Nevil Shute, whose beautiful A Town Like Alice is one of those books that I’m constantly pestering people to read.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
The middle. Always the middle. I’ve never yet written a book that I haven’t wanted to bin when I get halfway through it. I think that’s the point when the enormous gap between my ideal image of the book and the less-than-perfect thing that I’m creating seems so wide to me, I never think I’m going to pull it off, and so I’m always tempted to just chuck it and start something new. Luckily, after ten books I’ve learned that this is normal for me, so I grit my teeth and carry on, and trust that everything will work out in the end.

How do you promote your books?
For someone like me in the midlist, I think the best thing is to get myself out there as much as I’m able, to actually meet people face to face. I try to go to one conference a year, and do readings at libraries, and all of that. I also made a web site for myself with Serif’s WebPlus software, and I try to keep that updated each month. I blog with The Heroine Addicts, and lately I’ve become obsessed with Twitter—not only for making connections with readers and reviewers, but because it lets me keep in constant contact with my RNA friends, so I don’t feel quite so lonely living all the way across the pond (I live in Canada).

Do you have interests other than writing?
I love travel, and reading, and studying history, and continuing my family’s efforts with amateur genealogy. I also have a weakness for live theatre, and for films—I go to the cinema nearly every Friday night. It’s my indulgence.

What advice would you give a new writer?
Believe in yourself. Shut your ears to those around you who are telling you it can’t be done, and tell yourself you really are a writer. You can do it.

Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
The Rose Garden is a time-travel story set on the south coast of Cornwall. The heroine, Eva Ward, has returned to the place where she spent all her childhood summers to scatter the ashes of her sister in a place where they had both been happy, where they’d both belonged. But Eva’s not sure anymore where she herself belongs, and it’s no help when she starts sliding from her own time to the past, and interacting with the charming Daniel Butler and his free-trading companions in a time of war and treachery, in 1715.

The idea for the novel grew from something I once heard on the radio while I was living in Wales, when an elderly woman was talking about how she’d often heard whispers in the walls of her house as a child, and her mother had told her to not be afraid, it was only the people who’d lived in that house long ago, and who were living there still, in another time. That concept of the present and the past running so closely alongside each other, breaking through the barriers in places, really stuck in my imagination.

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
Right now I’m hard at work on what I call a “sort-of sequel” to The Winter Sea/Sophia’s Secret, continuing the story of the historical characters through from the aftermath of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1715 to a relatively little-known episode that happened in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1725. It’s a time-slip again, but I’m using different modern-day characters to frame the past story, and I’m trying to write it more as a companion book than a true sequel, so the books won’t have to be read in any order.

What a fascinating interview Susanna, and a delightful glimpse into your working life as a writer. I must say I personally loved Sophie’s Secret and greatly look forward to your next.

To find out more about Susanna’s books visit her website:!/SusannaKearsley

Interviews on the RNA Blog are conducted by Freda Lightfoot and Kate Jackson. If you would like an interview, please contact me at:

Author photograph by Ashleigh Bonang


Rosemary Gemmell said...

A fascinating interview - and Mary Stewart must be one of the most inspiring writers from the past as many of us mention her!

Love the sound of The Rose Garden.

Cornflower said...

Sophia's Secret is a great read - I so enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to The Rose Garden now.

Lori Benton said...

It's actually encouraging that one of my favorite authors feels the same way about the middle of her novels in progress that I do, and has the same struggles and doubts. I've learned to keep pushing through too, and not to panic (not too much, anyway) when things seem muddled in the middle. Great interview, Susanna and Freda. I can't wait to read The Rose Garden.

Christina Courtenay said...

Great interview, Susanna, and I'm so looking forward to reading The Rose Garden - Amazon tells me it's arriving next week, can't wait!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

Thanks for the fascinating interview, it's a relief that even successful writers feel that they want to bin their books half way through writing them.

I can't wait to read The Rose Garden.

Evonne Wareham said...

Hi Susanna
I still remember a lovely evening at the last RNA conference when we sat together at dinner. I'm also a Mary Stewart fan - there are a lot of us about. The Rose Garden sounds great - I'm a complete push over for anything with gardens in it!

Susanna Kearsley said...

Thanks so much, everyone. I sometimes wonder whether Mary Stewart ever realises how many of us (especially here in the RNA) she's inspired through the years! Nice to know I'm not the only one.

And thanks also to Freda for the wonderful questions.