i’m delighted to welcome to robservations the lovely clare flynn, whose latest novel ‘the chalky sea’, is out now.
Her debut novel ‘A greater world‘ moved me so much, i had to interview her.
The eldest of five children I was born in Liverpool but have lived in so many different places that I can’t keep track any more. I don’t intend to budge now!
After a career in Marketing with global companies and in many countries, I set up my own management consultancy, working on business strategy and corporate culture for household name companies. I did that for about twenty years before becoming a full-time writer.
I write historical fiction – not about real figures – basically fiction set in the past and sometimes in faraway locations. I’m the author of five historical novels all set in nineteenth or twentieth centuries and a collection of short stories. I don’t rule out trying a different genre in the future.
When did you first realise you wanted to be an author?
I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a child I was a fanatical reader and loved making up stories. I used to create little melodramas to act out with friends during the school holidays when I was at junior school.
But when I left university I had been inculcated with the need to “get a proper job”. That’s something I’m grateful for now, as it’s provided me with a nice cushion! I managed to miss out the “starving artist in a garret” bit.
Do you remember the first piece you wrote and what it meant to you?
I remember a poem I wrote when I was thirteen – I can still recite it now. It was about autumn – I’d probably been reading a lot of Keats. The first line was “Leaves curl, whisper, fall”. All through school I wrote pieces for the school magazine and even set up a magazine with a friend.
What do you most enjoy about being an author?
I love creating characters and throwing them into difficult situations – especially when people write to me and tell me they cried – or sat up all night to finish a book. I love that my characters often pull me in a different direction from the one I had planned.
I also enjoy research. It is a break from the creative side and feeds it.
What do you least enjoy about being an author?
Doing the marketing! Ironic really as it was my career. There’s a big difference between marketing washing-up liquid and biscuits, and marketing oneself – as that’s what book marketing feels like – and my books are my babies!
Who inspires you? In what way?
I get a lot of inspiration from other authors I know – especially for the marketing and technical side of things. There’s so much to learn and the publishing scene is changing constantly. So many authors whom I don’t know personally (lots of dead ones!) have been the inspiration for a lot of my writing. In particular Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Hilary Mantel and WB Yeats.
How would you describe your novels?
Books that people get caught up in as soon as they’ve started. At least that’s what readers tell me. I hate genre classifications. I classify my books as historical but that’s just because (so far) they are set in the past. But I think that can be a confusing label, as many people expect kings and queens and I only write about made-up characters.
I write a lot about displacement – my characters are often uprooted from a comfortable life and thrown into very challenging circumstances, usually involving geographic displacement. The two protagonists from A Greater World are forced to flee England for Australia and a life for which they were not prepared, after losing everything. In Kurinji Flowers, Ginny Dunbar is effectively exiled from London pre-war society to a new life in colonial India. Eliza and Jack in Letters from a Patchwork Quilt are dragged apart when he is wrongfully arrested, leaving her to sail alone and penniless to America while he ends up in a depressing northern industrial town. Hephzibah in The Green Ribbons has her life turned upside down by the sudden death of her parents in a tram accident.
In my new book, The Chalky Sea, the displacement comes through war. Gwen remains in her own home but finds her town utterly transformed by the impact of war. Jim runs away from his home on a farm in Canada in order to join up – then finds the war is not what he had expected.
I understand your laptop, containing your original draft of A Greater World was stolen. How did you deal with this?
I was ready to throw in the towel. I’d been burgled, which is like an assault. I didn’t care about the TV, my camera or the other stuff, but losing 80,000 words was a body blow. I happened to read an article about TE Lawrence (of Arabia) and how he left the manuscript of his enormous work Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a train and sat down and wrote the whole thing again in a matter of days. That inspired me and I’m convinced the book was better the second time. It’s not an experiment I’ve chosen to repeat – although all my books are extensively revised and edited through several drafts before they see daylight.
I was incredibly moved by A Greater World, where the main characters’ dreams were unfairly crushed. Is this a theme that resonates with you?
I think it was the displacement rather than the crushed dreams that resonated with me. I grew up moving house – and therefore school – almost every year due to my father’s job. Having to be the new girl all the time and adapt to strange surroundings, go through being bullied, make new friends and build a new life had a big impact on me. Strangely, it made me restless in later years – I always holiday in a new place, I have moved house numerous times myself, lived abroad and had a lot of variety in my career.
What’s the best compliment a fan has given you?
I am constantly surprised, moved and overwhelmed by things I hear from readers. But one “super fan” stands out – she has sent me photographs of my books in unusual situations, sent me a little Victorian daguerreotype because she thought the woman depicted looked like one of my characters and commissioned a pyrographic panel with a personal dedication, an illustration of the Blue Mountains and a quote from the poem which inspired the title of A Greater World. I was overcome!
I know you’re a strong advocate of self-publishing. Can you tell me why that is and the benefits to you?
I never planned to self-publish and started down the traditional route with an agent. When A Greater World didn’t sell to a publisher I decided (with her blessing) to have a go at self-publishing and very quickly followed it with my second book, Kurinji Flowers. After that I no longer wanted a traditional deal, as I love the control I have from SP. I have many traditionally published friends and witness their frustrations with their publishers – not to mention their diminishing advances. I joined the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and was welcomed into a fantastic supportive community of professionals from whom I’ve learnt so much and gained so many friendships.
Anyone who thinks self-publishing is an easy option should think again. It’s hard work and is effectively running a business. I am perhaps better-equipped than many, having done that for twenty years. Self-publishing often gets a bad name from two main sources: – publishers themselves who feel threatened and often try to rubbish it, and those people who just “bung a book on Amazon” full of errors. Readers have no need to fear the latter if they avail themselves of the opportunity to preview books online before buying.
To be a successful self-publisher you need to work very hard, and invest money as well as time in professional cover design, editing, proofreading etc. I think you also need to be able to write well and tell a good story.
Describe a typical working day as a writer.
I don’t have a typical day. I’m not a routine-driven person. I write best in the morning but, perversely, often don’t start writing until the afternoon. I also balance writing time with marketing and often fall down the social media rabbit-hole.
During the month of November things are different, as for the past two years I’ve done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which requires you to write 50,000 words of a novel within the thirty days of the month. I end up writing like a crazed lunatic. Last year I actually finished early as I got on such a roll. The really hard work begins in December!
Who would you love to invite to dinner (fictional or real, alive or dead)? Why?
Napoleon Bonaparte – he has always been a source of great fascination to me. He was such a complex character and brought about so many good things as well as the trail of death of destruction he led across Europe and Russia.
My two grandfathers, as I never met either – they both died in the 1930s, when my Dad was thirteen and my Mum was five. I’d ask my Mum’s father about his time as a master mariner and get him to tell me some salty tales. I’d talk writerly things with my Dad’s father – he was an unpublished author of short stories and one novel.
Michelle Obama – as I admire her greatly and I’d enjoy listening to her and Napoleon debating politics.
And finally, Hedy Lamarr – to add some golden age Hollywood glamour – she was brainy as well as beautiful and invented the technology that underpins wifi and GPS.
If you won the lottery, how would you spend your winnings?
I’d probably give most of it away as I am pretty happy with my lot – once I’d sorted family out I’d set up a charitable foundation – probably something to do with young women and education.
Please tell me about your latest book or project.
I’ve just published a short story collection, A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories. It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers and in paperback. This is a departure for me as I haven’t written short stories before and some of them are contemporary rather than historical. I have plundered my own family history for a few of them – but have embroidered over what were very sketchy outlines.
My latest full-length novel, The Chalky Sea is available as an e-book exclusively on Amazon at the moment. The paperback is available there and can be ordered from all good booksellers. It is set here in Eastbourne during World War 2. As you probably know, the town was under heavy and regular bombardment from July 1940 onwards and almost two hundred people were killed with over four hundred people severely injured. The urban landscape of the town changed forever, with many keynote buildings destroyed, including the library, fire station, Barclays bank and Marks & Spencer. During the war, thousands of Canadian soldiers were billeted in the town, all of them volunteers.
The Chalky Sea tells the stories of Gwen Collingwood, a WVS volunteer in Eastbourne and Jim Armstrong, a young Canadian soldier. Each of them has troubles and secrets and the war has a profound effect on them both.
Thanks Robert, for inviting me to your blog.
My pleasure, Clare, and continued success with your novels. Gorgeous cover for The Chalky Sea by the way.
Universal Amazon link to Clare’s author page http://author.to/clareflynn