Isabel, thank you for answering some questions for me for Novelicious. I loved your latest book, A Vintage Affair and would like to wish you all the best for publication in the United States. I’m sure they’ll love it just as much as we have over here.
I have to admit that even if I didn’t usually read your books, which I do, the cover was so gorgeous that I would have definitely been drawn to A Vintage Affair.
The book starts with, Phoebe Swift, who has recently opened a vintage dress shop in Blackheath, and is making the most of having something to focus on whilst trying to deal with the loss of her best friend, Emma.
1. I’ve always been fascinated by vintage clothes, and reading about someone who restores them to their former glory to give them another chance for a new life, whilst wondering who their past owners might be and what happened to them, was enthralling. I see from your website that you had a lot of help with your research from Kerry Taylor Auctions and must admit to coveting many items on her site when I clicked on the link. Did you know much about vintage clothes before starting to write A Vintage Affair?
I’ve always loved and worn vintage clothes, and appreciated the skill and artistry that have gone into their making, but I’ve never been an expert on it, so I did a lot of research. Kerry Taylor (who runs the Textiles and 20th Fashion auctions in association with Sotheby’s) was a mine of information as was the FashionEra website. I also talked to the owners of several vintage dress shops about how they source their clothes, how they restore and care for them, what era sells well at any particular time, and how they run their shops day to day. In addition to this I read lots of books about the history of twentieth century fashion and about all the major designers and couturiers. It was some of the nicest research I’ve ever had to do!
2. In the book Phoebe meets Therese, an elderly French woman whose heartrending history and connection to a child’s blue winter coat was really touching. As this is your eighth novel, can you tell me if you find it harder to think of new ideas for each of your books, and also where you found the inspiration for Phoebe and Therese in this book?
I’d had the idea for a book in which the protagonist would run a vintage dress shop for some time. Once I had that in mind then I knew that I’d be able to use a particular vintage garment as a device by which to take the reader into the past. At first I thought that the garment might be a wedding dress or ball gown with some poignant story of lost love attached to it. But then I decided that the elderly female character, Therese, would be French, and that the story about her garment would go back to the war, and to her childhood. I’d already decided that Phoebe had betrayed her best friend Emma. I created a similar story of friendship betrayed for Therese: she had promised her winter coat to her best friend Monique, a Jewish girl who was in hiding in the countryside near Avignon but instead Therese ended up betraying her to the authorities and has lived with the guilt ever since. Phoebe becomes friends with Therese, and she engages with the story of the blue coat in a profound way. For Phoebe sets out to uncover the mystery of what happened to Monique, last seen entering Auschwitz in 1943. ‘A Vintage Affair’ is very much a story of second chances – the two women - one old, one young - help each other and in so doing come to heal a part of themselves. I am sure that a major part of the inspiration for the Therese story is that my grandmother’s best friend, Helene, who she’d met in Paris, was arrested in Lyon in February 1944 and was murdered in Auschwitz a month later. I have never forgotten the shock of my grandmother telling me this when I was a child nor the profound sadness with which she always spoke of her friend.
3. On your site you have the very helpful Isabel’s Guide to Writing and Getting Published, which I have to admit to having looked at a few times in the past. Did you experience a particular ‘light bulb’ moment when writing novels clicked for you, or do you think it was something you gradually worked at and improved upon?
I was a journalist and broadcaster for 12 years before writing fiction, so I’d been a professional writer. I loved crafting radio programmes and newspaper features and hoped that I’d one day get the chance to write a novel. That opportunity knocked when I was given a comic girl-about-town column in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Tiffany Trott’. I was approached to turn it into a novel, so I did, and then somehow I’ve managed to write a few more.
4. I write in an untidy shed in my garden and I presume you have an office, or writing space where you go to write. Can you tell us what it’s like, and if you have a typical daily routine that you follow when writing your novels?
I take my children to school then go down into the ‘dungeon’ as I call it – my writing room in the basement of our house. At times it feels like a prison, and it even has bars on the windows (to keep burglars out, but also handy for keeping me in). I usually spend the first hour or so waiting for the Inspiration Fairy to show up; if she doesn’t, I then take out my synopsis and start writing from that. I’ve always planned my novels in advance. Some writers just start and see where it takes them, but I need to know where I’m going. So my synopsis is the map and I do my best to follow it – allowing for a few detours here and there - to get to the destination that I’m hoping to reach.
5. How long does it take you to write a first draft, and how many do you usually do before your book is ready for the publishers?
I only ever do one ‘draft’ in as much as I structure the story, then hone and polish it as I go along. I couldn’t bear to have to do major rewrites – it would freak me out. So I always have a strong idea of the story and, once my editor’s approved it, I stick doggedly to that! I’m not a fast worker these days – my excuse being that I do a lot of ‘research’ (I do a surprising amount at my health club) so each book is a year and a half from start to finish.
6. Is there any one particular piece of advice you can give to unpublished writers that you think could help with writing a novel?
People always say that it’s best to write out of your own world – but in my view that just makes for a lot of semi-autobiographical novels and romans a clef. I honestly think it’s better to write about what you don’t know about: to have to discover some new world for yourself, through research and imaginative engagement makes, I believe, for a better book.
Finally, thank you very much for answering these questions and for writing such enjoyable books. I loved reading, A Vintage Affair and was not only intrigued by the growing relationship between the two women and discovering the mystery behind the
blue coat, but also loved reading about the exquisite vintage clothes in Phoebe’s shop.
A Vintage Affair has just been released in the US. You can buy it here
For the UK edition, you can buy from here.