Margaret Johnson tells us about the advantages of laying aside a manuscript for a while - though maybe not, as in the case of her most recent book, for sixteen years!
I started writing when I finished art college – I had the misguided idea that I’d be able to write a bestselling novel for Mills and Boon and be able to finance my career as an artist that way. I know! Crazy idea! The novel was called Star Love, and it was basically my fantasy about being noticed in the crowd by a famous pop star at one of his gigs. I can’t remember how long it took to write – possibly four or five months. It bounced back to me after about three months of course, but by then I’d become hooked on writing and it quickly replaced painting as my major passion.
What inspired you to write A Nightingale in Winter?
The First World War always really interested me at school – I enjoyed learning about it in history lessons, and I was extremely moved by the war poetry we studied in English, by Owen and Sassoon. I suppose I wanted to write something that felt important – by this time I’d had short, sweet romances published by Women’s Weekly, Robert Hale and Ulverscroft Large Print, and I wanted to write something more meaty. The characters in A Nightingale in Winter are troubled and searching for something, and, in a strange way, the war is an opportunity for them. Eleanor, a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) near the front line, throws herself into her work in an attempt to escape returning memories of a traumatic past. Dirk, an American journalist, is dealing with the death of his closest friend and appalled by the censorship constraints for those reporting from the Front. Leo, an artist, wants only to use the war to further his career. He thinks he can be an observer, and remain untouched by the horror of it. He’s a truly evil character, but I set myself the challenge of making the reader appalled by him, while at the same time understanding why he is as he was, and feeling a grudging compassion for him.
Your book is set at the time of World War One and must have involved a lot of research. Can you tell us something about it?
I came across a book called The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn Macdonald. It was all about VADs and doctors in the First World War, and filled with diary extracts and commentary about the women’s lives and the challenges they faced on a day-to-day basis. It was fascinating and deeply moving to ‘hear’ all these voices, and it made me want to experience even more of them. So I noted down the names of those women who had particularly moved me and made appointments to go and read more of their letters and diaries at The Imperial War Museum in London. This was before the time of the Internet, so this was the only way to do it – and I’m glad about that because it was such a thrill to hold actual the documents in my hand. Very quickly the people who had written these words became real to me, although yes, I suppose my research did take a long time as I totally absorbed myself in my subject.
What was the most enjoyable aspect about writing this book?
I really enjoyed writing about evil Leo, I have to admit! But another very enjoyable thing was rediscovering the manuscript after about sixteen years, earlier this year. After spending around two years researching it and writing two different versions of it, I suppose I’d managed to thoroughly confuse myself. After only one knock-back from a publisher, I put it away in the attic and got on with other things. Three different attics later, the centenary of the First World War inspired me to get it down, blow the dust off and re-read it. After all that time, it was clear to me exactly how I needed to change it – so clear it was almost effortless. I think it’s always a good idea to allow a first draft to brew before you return to it, although I wouldn’t necessarily advocate leaving it for sixteen years!
What is your least favourite part of the publishing/writing process?
It never feels quite the same – each book I write is a slightly different experience. Sometimes – like with the novel I’m currently writing – it can feel difficult to just sit down and get on with it, and other times it’s ridiculously easy to discipline myself. I quite enjoy the editing process. I’m used to changing my work in response to what people say. I particularly enjoyed working with my editor Sean at Omnific Publishing on A Nightingale in Winter – we were really on the same wavelength; it’s publicity that I find the most challenging.
Is there something, perhaps in another genre, that you’re burning to write? What’s next for Margaret Johnson?
A Nightingale in Winter is my first historical romance, and I do have ideas for a sequel. In particular, I’d like to follow the character of Eleanor as she struggles to become qualified as a doctor. That’s definitely something for the future though. At the moment I’m writing a contemporary women’s fiction novel – untitled as yet – which follows the fortunes of three of the characters from The Goddess Workshop. It’s going to give me another opportunity to write an evil character (yay!). My next published novel is to be Taming Tom Jones, which is being released by Crooked Cat Publishing in the autumn. It’s the story of Jen, who takes the decision to investigate her partner Michael’s exes in an effort to save their relationship. Poor Jen – she has no idea what a can of worms she’s about to open up!
Margaret K Johnson began writing after finishing at Art College to support her career as an artist. Writing quickly replaced painting as her major passion, and these days her canvasses lay neglected in her studio. She is the author of women’s fiction, stage plays and many original fiction readers in various genres for people learning to speak English. Margaret also teaches fiction writing and has an MA in Creative Writing (Scriptwriting) from the University of East Anglia. She lives in Norwich, UK with her partner and their bouncy son and dog.
What a fascinating account, Margaret. Thank you for joining us.
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