My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June! I was inspired to write it when I moved house to a rural area where the neighbours are very friendly and there is a strong sense of community. In the short time I’ve lived in Somerset, I’ve made great friends, met remarkable people and I’ve been impressed by the warmth and kindness of the locals. I’ve been given fresh vegetables, cider; I’ve borrowed all sorts of implements from bench saws to pick axes; I’ve rescued a farmer’s sheep; I helped a farmer who’d overturned his jeep and I’ve been dug out of the snow by a lovely local man with a huge piece of farm machinery. Life here isn’t dull.
Most of my novels up to now have been about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a château. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsleigh Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.
Barbara and Pauline initially have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.
At first, Barbara is an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.
As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel, not least whether they should finally find love or not.
I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure, Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.
I have three more books in the mix currently. I’ve just finished writing another novel, I’m about to edit the one before that, and I’m half way through writing another. The common theme they share is the adventures of older protagonists who discover new ways to enjoy life. The central characters, the people they meet, the places they visit and their particular journeys are all very different: they are not all guaranteed happy endings.
However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.
It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimm’s is the very best I can offer.
Do you base your characters on real people?
Not specific people, but I suppose many of them are composites or influenced by examples from life. I strive to make my characters warm and credible, likeable and flawed, not perfect, which gives them a chance to develop, to change and to find their happiest place in life. Barbara in The Old Girls’ Network, for instance, is crochety and forthright at first, because she has been hurt and disappointed in the past. Bisto is quite depressed and lonely, because he has lost people he loves and he blames himself. By the end of the novel, both characters come to understand how to find happiness.
Why do you write about older characters?
George Mallory was asked why he climbed Mount Everest and he replied, ‘because it is there.’ The same is true for older protagonists. I suppose older characters may have been under-represented or stereotyped at times and being older is the place we all want to be eventually. I like the idea that they have lived a life already but it’s not over; there is much more to discover and to enjoy. As long as my protagonists are in reasonable health and have mobility, they can move forwards.
What do you read yourself?
I mostly read contemporary literature but I think it is important to read all books in all genres, as they all have something I can learn from. At the moment I’m reading Milkman by Anna Burns and really enjoying its unorthodox style.
Where do you get inspiration for your novels?
I think that having a quiet mind helps, being happy and unstressed, because ideas can slip in easily. Often if I go for a walk on the beach or in the woodlands, characters and themes for new novels come to me. Or at three o’clock in the morning I’ll wake up and the beginning of an idea will be scrabbling around in my head. As writers, we take inspiration from places, people, everything we see and do.
Do you have a daily regime for writing?
Yes and no. I tend to follow the same pattern mostly but I can also be spontaneous. I like to get up early, go to the gym or for a walk, then start working and keep going until I’ve finished a chapter or two or a specific piece of work. If I write a chapter a day, that’s about 2,300 words and then I’ll go back over it and previous writing. Sometimes I’ll do much more; if I’m editing a novel, I can work into the night. I also give myself time to work on my blog. It’s important to take breaks, walk away and give yourself thinking time. If it’s a really sunny day, the beach or the woodlands beckon.
You mention blogging. Do you enjoy it?