My sincere thanks to Amanda Craig for submitting to the virtual cream tea and the glow of the standard lamp today and in case you missed it the draw for free copies of Hearts and Minds is open for just a little bit longer here.
"An astutely portrayed cast of characters tell this story and
this becomes a book of both contrasts and similarities, everyone's
under an exacting pressure and many and varied are the forms of slavery
and entrapment; to work, to a lifestyle, to a master, to a mistress, to
a past life, to a dream, to money, to poverty, to misguided values and
Amanda Craig has rolled out a great big canvas on which to explore them
Amanda, can you talk us through that canvas, where the book began, your vision for it, the how and why?
I suppose H&M began when I heard about 9/11 at the school gates, and a white-faced mother said, "You realise that London is going to be next, don't you?" I'd been thinking about writing about all the immigrants I saw in my daily life - I had a Kosovan cleaning lady; the man who swept my street was Albanian; I kept chatting to Polish waitresses in my local cafe; I knew that much of my food was being picked by immigrants, and so on. So then I began to think about the fear that these people, who were making British life a good deal easier, would arouse if we had a terrorist attack. Because I live near King's Cross, it was logical to think of a bomb there. But then....7/7 happened, and for weeks and months I could hear sirens racing up and down York Way, just up the road. It was a dire time to live in London. People kept getting on the Tube and bus, and wondering whether they were going to be blown up, but in this wonderful British way refusing to stop using public transport. Yet apart from the blown up bus, the carnage was all kept underground, out of sight, unlike the flashy cinematic attack on the Twin Towers. So I knew that I wanted to write about a terrorist attempt that was almost hidden. I talked to someone who trained police how to react in a bomb attempt, and he told me, long before it became public knowledge, there had been over 30 foiled attempts.
By 2003, however, I had become seriously ill. I was rushed to hospital with acute appendicitis, discovered to have quite advanced thyroid cancer and then, a couple of years later, endometriosis. My novel kept being put back because I was too ill to write (though I still managed to keep up writing for the Sunday Times for the first year). But the good thing was that, being so dependent on doctors, Third World nurses, Eastern European au pairs, Muslim mini-cab drivers etc as all my normal work as a mother and housewife was outsourced, I learnt a great deal more about this underworld. When I became better, I interviewed real-life victims of torture - with whom I made contact through the Medical Foundation, PEN and the charity Women for Refugee Women. I also interviewed teenaged prostitutes. They were drug addicts; the youngest was fourteen. I wanted to get a feel for their lives to create Anna, my trafficked Ukrainian. They were happy (as long as I paid them) to talk in a warm cafe near King's Cross. They weren't trafficked, but said they knew girls who were - and in fact no sooner did I finish my novel than I saw three Eastern Europeans working the street just around the corner.
I had what you might call an embarrassment of riches as far as stories about suffering was concerned. But I also wanted to reflect the hope, luck and kindness many of these people experienced in this country, and in London - which can be so hard and cruel, yet also so transformative. There is a real-life Job who helped a trafficked woman escape from the brothel where she was kept prisoner, just by giving her money. There are people like Katie who find it in themselves to do something amazing to help another person in dire distress. I want to emphasise that although parts of my characters' story are dark, the good do end happily and the bad are punished. I believe in love and kindness as a force for good in the world; I am against the kind of novel that emphasises hopelessness as the only truth about the human condition.
Very few of the stories I put in my novel are made up; it's how I deepened them and linked them that was the tricky part. I knew that there would be a love story about how a depressed American woman working in London gets a new man in love with her - Katie is there partly to provide comedy - but I had no idea how to link in my absurd political magazine, the Rambler, where she works with the main plot until quite late on. The detective story took longest to get right. I knew there had to be one because of the architectonic Victorian novel structure, but I also knew that I didn’t want to have the police involved. Having Polly find out what happened to her missing au pair seems obvious now, but it wasn’t for about three years. We had a serial killer decapitating his victims into the canal just down the road. If you live in London there is just so much stuff. That's why I am fed up with historical fiction. The way we live right now is what's really interesting, exciting and urgent.
I really groped my way forward over the seven years Hearts and Minds took to write. One thing I did discover was that if I kept each chapter to no more than 2000 words (six pages) then it kept up a kind of steady beat of tension. Once I found that, and switched viewpoints in each chapter, I found I had a kind of dance between my five main characters. I think of it now as a piece of music.
As you know we are devil for the detail here so I'm afraid we
need the lowdown on your writing day. Must the windows be sparkling and
the dog groomed before you can settle to write; computer, vintage
Remington or Pukka Pad (pencil or fountain pen? If roller-ball please
don't tell us, we don't like those), special writing jumper or ahem
woolly socks (be truthful now, we won't tell anyone)
My working day is bounded by three things, getting the children to school and back, and walking the dog and cooking supper.
We get up at 6.45 in order for my daughter to get the school bus from Highgate to North London Collegiate (a fiercely feminist intellectual day school for girls.) The first forty minutes of each day in term time are pretty much as described in my novel, except that unlike Polly I have a lovely husband who lays the table before going to work at 7.15. He’s a high-powered economist in the City (and no, not the kind responsible for the recession, though he saw it coming long before most) who doesn’t reappear until 8.30. I stopped having an au pair three years ago, as soon as I was mended enough to bend at the waist...so it’s me rushing around and finding kit at the last moment.
The really nice bit of my day is walking son and dog round Hampstead Heath, testing him on Latin and Greek before he goes to Highgate school while dreaming about whatever book I’m writing. Even in winter, before dawn, the Heath is what keeps me sane – it’s a bit of almost-countryside, full of woods, birds, bluebells etc but with a nice cafe and the wonderful art collection (Vermeer, Rembrandt) at Kenwood House as well. On the drive home, I listen to either Radio Three or the Today programme, switching between stations if irritated.
I’d rather do anything than write, so when back I do about an hour of housework, read the paper, try not to eat a second breakfast, open emails, and then by 10 am start working. Once a month I meet up with one of my best friends, also a novelist, at a cafe called Kalender and we talk ferociously about writing over coffee. I write on a lap-top with a curvy keyboard – which is what you need if you have RSI – but I also write with a Waterman fountain pen. I dread getting arthritis, so take cod liver oil and glucosamine...it seems to help, like stretching and swimming. But writing always takes a physical toll of my hands.
One other thing I do is take notes when people ring me up. If I’m having an interesting conversation or hear a phrase that sounds good, I instantly write it down. I also keep a diary every day. Sometimes it’s just about the weather, occasionally it’s about politics or personal preoccupations but mostly it’s about other people – their problems, quirks, virtues, failings, hopes, blind spots, charms etc. I try to see people in the round, always, and to find patterns in behaviour. Some quirks and remarks do find their way into novels, but not whole people. I was extremely upset twelve years ago to be threatened with a libel case by an old boyfriend over a novel called A Vicious Circle, which had Penguin drop the book just before publication (it was then published by Fourth Estate for a much bigger advance). I create my characters for years before writing them; they live in a kind of parallel universe to this one.
I write 10-1, 2-3.30; collect my son and walk the dog on the way, then 4.30-6.30. Over lunch, I read through some of the 100 children’s books that get sent to me each week for the Times, and choose what to review. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously because I think children deserve only the best, and yet it’s often hard to select because we’re living through an extraordinary flowering of children’s literature.
My most precious piece of equipment in writing apart from my lap-top and pen are a pair of thick, green, hairy, thermal socks from M&S. Writing is a bit like falling asleep - you can’t do it if your feet aren’t warm! I also swear by Twinings ginger and lemon tea, and a handful of Brazil nuts when stuck. When really stuck, a whole bar of Divine milk chocolate is essential.
I write in a small moss-green study overlooking the top bit of my garden, so I can only see lime trees and three huge abutilon bushes which have violet flowers coincidentally the same colour as my blinds and bookcases. On the wall in front of me is a Keep Calm and Carry On poster, and a calendar from a children’s publisher. I’ve also got a collection of eight framed engravings by Gustav Dore of fairytale scenes (bought very cheaply twenty years ago in Madrid). The one I most want by him I don’t have, which is Little Red Riding Hood talking to the Wolf; but I’ve got various others, like Cinderella being fitted with the glass slipper, Bluebeard’s wife opening his treasure chamber and Puss in Boots telling lies to peasants, and tricking the ogre. I love Puss in Boots more than any other fairy-tale character because he’s a liar who makes his lies come true – which is what novelists do, in a way.
At the end of the day, it’s all family stuff – cooking, getting my children wound down and my husband perked up, running baths for them, watching a bit of TV and then getting everyone to sleep by 10.30. My daughter is doing GCSEs and insomniac, so on a bad night she’s creaking overhead until 2 am. My dog (Lucky, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel of exquisite beauty and temperament) is very good at knowing just when to defuse stress with a full session of tickling, massaging and comforting. Lots of writers suffer from depression, and keep cats, which I think makes depression worse (because cats are the only creatures more self-centred than authors); dogs make you much more active and cheerful. The only thing is, they do snore.
Who must we read? Your greatest literary influences?
Reading: Anything that interests, moves, excites, amuses or instructs, I suppose. Read newspapers! Not to read one is to miss out on all the small and fascinating stories as well as the big, boring ones from TV. Read anything that makes you more thoughtful, kinder, brighter, braver and more able to enjoy life. Newspapers have a vile, seedy, spiteful side, but they are also our best weapon against sluggishness and thuggery.
My main influences as a novelist are probably Dickens, Balzac, Trollope, Austen and George Eliot, with a bit of Mrs Gaskell and Gissing too. EM Forster, Angela Carter and Alison Lurie are all well up there, but so are a host of other writers. I love classic detective stories (Conan Doyle, Walter Moseley, Ross Macdonald, Barbara Vine, PD James); I also love good SF (Ursula le Guin, Robert Heinlen and a lot of newer ones writing for teens like Neil Shusterman), and popular science (Matt Ridley, Steve Jones, Richard Dawkins). I love romantic comedies (PG Wodehouse, Eva Ibbotson and Stella Gibbons). I adore children’s books, from picture books (Sendak, Burningham, Quentin Blake) to novels (Sally Gardner, Michelle Paver, Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz). I re-read fairy-tales often, and among my most precious collections are the Andrew Lang colour fairy-tale books still printed by Dover; I will read almost anything by or about Shakespeare; I love certain poets, especially Keats. If I could go back in time and save just one person with antibiotics, it would be Keats, because I’m sure that he would eventually have written novels, and great ones.