I caught up with her long enough to hear her views on a lot of subjects. It was a true delight to talk to her
Q: Marmite? Love it or hate it?
A: I can eat it, but...
Q: Coffee or tea? Red or white?
A: Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. Mostly red wine after 6pm – but chilled white when the temperature soars!
Q: What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
A: For ‘Moon Rising’, it could only be red wine!
Q: First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!
Q: As a writer who has been traditionally published and is now working independently, how do I see the advantages?
A: There may be no guarantees with a traditional publisher, but they have whole teams of people to do the background work, which is invaluable, especially for the first-time author. A downside is that traditional publishers now expect their authors to do a lot of the publicity themselves, especially re social media, blogging, talks, etc.
Indie writers don’t have to work to a deadline, nor are they pressured to keep coming up with ‘similar’ books – they can write the stories they want to tell. On the other hand, the indie writer has to handle everything, from finding a good editor and cover designer, to making publishing decisions. And that big bugbear – marketing! The background work is time-consuming and can be costly. So indie authors who make it into Amazon’s top-selling categories have my heartfelt admiration.
Q: Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously?
A: In the end it was a conscious decision, prompted by an incident that occurred in my teens. I was rooting through a stack of old books in Granny’s attic, when I came across the portrait photo of a handsome young soldier. The Australian uniform told me who he was – my grandfather’s brother, killed in Flanders in 1917. Moments later, from the same large envelope, his minutely-written WW1 diary fell into my hands.
Finding out why he’d gone to Australia, and how the places in his diary connected with the bigger picture of WW1, became something of an obsession – at a time when I was supposed to be studying for exams! I even started writing a story about him – never finished, but the idea refused to go away.Marriage to a sea-captain meant that I was often at home alone for several months. While I was expecting our first child, I wrote a contemporary novel, which earned nothing but rejection slips. It was disheartening, but a few years later, at just the right moment, the WW1 soldier’s diary and photograph came into my possession.
I knew the chances of publication were slim, but by that time I felt driven to write the story anyway. Needing background, I started researching the soldier’s history in earnest, discovering quite a few skeletons in the family cupboard along the way. The journey was signposted by some very strange coincidences – taking me away from the soldier, and towards his parents’ generation. It was too much for a sketched-in background – it had to be upfront, a story in itself. So that original idea became two books.
Five years later, to my astonishment, everyone loved the first one. ‘Louisa Elliott’, set largely in 1890s York, became an international bestseller. At 700 pages, it’s a big book by today’s standards, with a triangular love story and closely-guarded family secrets at the heart of it. Very much a Victorian novel, but with surprisingly modern themes.The follow-up, ‘Liam’s Story’, was based in part on the WW1 diary, but I found the only way to tell his tale was as a dual-time novel, with lovers in the present day tracking down the truth behind a tragic love affair in the past. There’s also a paranormal element to the story, which echoes the strange experiences I had while researching the two Elliott novels.
Q: What made you choose this genre?
A: History has fascinated me from childhood, probably because regular visits ‘home’ to see Granny in York, were full of excitement. There, history was all around me – and nowhere closer than in Granny’s attic, with its old books and bound collections of Victorian women’s magazines, full of serial stories and beautiful illustrations. Reading them kept me occupied while the adults were busy talking. It probably explains why I’m most comfortable writing about the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While researching, I enjoy discovering what was going on in the world at the time, and how it might impact on my characters and the plot I’m constructing.
Q: If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
A: A good question. Even though my first two novels were marketed as romance, they don’t fit easily into the genre – they are darker and more realistic. I’ve always written what inspired me at the time, and with a creepy ghost story, a gothic romance, and a seafarer’s tale under my belt, I’d say all are cross-genre with character-driven plots, which doesn’t make them easy to market.
I’ve been editing and re-issuing my back list in recent years, ‘Moon Rising’ being the latest. But my current WIP is the story of a 60-year-old widow, who is contacted by an old flame, asking difficult questions about the past. Not yet ready to say more than that!
Q: If ‘Moon Rising’ was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
A: Back in 2000, when it was first published, there was talk of a film with Liam Neeson – which sadly, came to nothing. Then, he would have been ideal. Maybe someone could suggest a younger actor, just in case we should need one now?
Q: How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
A: It’s always a flash moment, sparked by something I’ve seen or read – like the WW1 diary. Entries in the 1912 Southampton Dockmaster’s Log Book, inspired ‘The Master’s Tale’, my novel about Captain Smith and the Titanic.
‘Moon Rising’ began with an 1886 photo of a Russian sailing ship wrecked below Whitby Abbey, and the related newspaper report of a terrific storm. That set me on the trail of Bram Stoker and his novel, ‘Dracula’ – and Whitby’s legends, which seem to have inspired so much of the content. And so began a tale of passion & possession…
Q: Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
A: Must clear the decks if I’ve been away from writing for a while, so I can have an uninterrupted week or two with my characters. I write in silence, but play music at other times. Some classical, but I love old pop songs – certain lyrics are very evocative. For instance, ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Annie Lennox’s ‘Love Song for A Vampire,’ were great for ‘Moon Rising’!
Q: I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
A: Family has always come first. I was virtually a ‘single mum’ while my children were growing up. Their Dad was away at sea, but then he’d come home for two or three months, so he wanted my attention too! Now I’m a granny, I try to put my characters first, but it doesn’t always work.
Q: How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
A: When I get the first inspiration, I know how and where the story starts, and usually I know how it ends – what remains is plotting the route to get there. After the first draft – lots of editing!
Q: Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
A: Bram Stoker’s letters – but after his death his wife burned them…
Q: Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
A: No, but I’ve often had to hold them back – they were too eager to take short cuts!
Q: How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
A: To me, facts are vital – like a skeleton supporting the flesh of fiction. So masses of research – and lots of research trips. Nowadays it’s easy to find the basics on line, but I never take anything as gospel unless I’ve checked it elsewhere. And nothing beats original documents – or indeed, a visit to the places where characters lived and worked. I was fortunate to be living in Whitby for three months while researching ‘Moon Rising’.
For ‘The Master’s Tale – a novel of the Titanic’, I had my husband on hand for the technical detail, and in younger days spent many months at sea with him. So I’ve had first-hand experience of how it feels to live within a small community of men, virtually cut off from the real world. As a writer I found that very useful when writing about my male characters!
Q: Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
A: No – my ‘real’ characters have often been the mainstay of the story. Hence the need to get them right. But I have been known to kill off fictional characters to improve the plot!
Q: Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
A: If a novelist is writing about real people, often there just isn’t enough beyond basic facts to make a rounded character. Depending on how much is known, it’s a balance between probability and possibility. My aim is to do them justice. Not to present them as flawless, but as human beings like you and me – doing their best but not always succeeding.
I took liberties with the family history to make both ‘Louisa Elliott’ and ‘Liam’s Story’ more compelling for the reader, but in portraying the main characters I stuck closely to what I’d been told about them. So it was as though I knew them even before I started writing.
With regard Bram Stoker, I read three biographies to get a balanced view of his life as lawyer and business manager to Sir Henry Irving, the famous actor – and also his work as a writer. Like my portrayal of Captain Smith in ‘The Master’s Tale’, I hope that in reconstructing real events – and interpreting their actions – I’ve cast light on both these men as human beings.
Incidentally, in ‘Moon Rising’ and ‘The Master’s Tale’, both Stoker and Smith are under pressure from their employers – and I think we can all identify with that. Captain Smith tells his own story, but we see Stoker through the eyes of the young woman he meets in Whitby – a woman whose life is also at a crossroads. She’s the one recounting the story of their relationship and its aftermath. So we see Stoker’s actions, but only through dialogue do we get an idea of his motivations.
Q: Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
A: Totally. In trying to ascribe character and motive to ‘real’ people, inevitably the writer is using life experience and/or observation of similar people and situations to make the story credible. And to move the plot forward.
Q: Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
A: I’ve had my moments of hating the ‘baddies’ – particularly Stoker’s employer, the actor, Sir Henry Irving. But I’ve always loved my main characters, despite their all-too-human faults. I even fell in love for a while with Robert Duncannon, the anti-hero of ‘Louisa Elliott’ (a sexy, attractive cavalry officer) and I loved Liam Elliott absolutely. After almost ten years of living with his presence through two books, I was heartbroken when ‘Liam’s Story’ came to an end.
Can’t say I loved Stoker unreservedly – he was a man in crisis through much of the story. But as for Captain Smith – oh, my goodness, deep, deep sympathy…
Q: Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
A: I still paint a bit between books, and I travel a lot, but really, writing is and always was my first love.
Q: What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
A: Mysteries, thrillers, detective stories both modern and historical – probably because I couldn’t possibly write one. Robert Harris is a favourite, also Val McDermid – and at the moment I’m enjoying Ann Swinfen’s historical mysteries.
Q: Last but not least... favourite author?
A: Difficult one – I read all the time and I’ve loved so many. When I was younger, my favourites ran from Thomas Hardy, through Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier to John le Carré. More recently, Patrick Gale and Susan Fletcher have caught my attention with the quality of their writing. But new authors are coming along all the time – if I ever retire, I’ll spend all my time reading!
Born in York, Ann now lives in Southampton with her Master Mariner husband. The busy port with its historic associations provided inspiration for her fifth novel, THE MASTER'S TALE, in which Captain Smith of the TITANIC tells his story from beyond the grave. © Diana Milne January 2017 © Ann Victoria Roberts – 26th March 2017