Elizabeth Buchan's novels include Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, Everything She Thought She Wanted, Consider the Lily, and Daughters. She is based in London.
Q: Some of your novels take place in the present day and some in the past (and at least one has a little of both!). Do you have a preference for writing one or the other?
A: No. I think it is a good thing if the writer keeps an open mind, and their territory fluid. Some ideas lend themselves better to the past and vice versa.
Having said that, I think there are recognizable stages in one’s development!
When I embarked on writing a historical backdrop was a very tempting option and I seized on it. There is 1) a chronology in place 2) turbulent backdrops (war, revolution, etc.) against which a more rookie novelist might feel easier pitting their characters against.
Later on, I felt that it was possible to write about important moments in people’s lives – those shifts in sensibility and morality – within a domestic arena. After all, you don’t have to ride off into battle or shoot into space to be interesting.
Q: You worked as a blurb writer and a fiction editor before turning full-time to fiction. Did the experiences you gained from those earlier jobs help you when you decided to write novels?
A: It was the other way round. I decided very early on that I wanted to write but, being a really awkward lumpen child and teenager, I knew it would take time.
On the premise a cat may look at a king, I got myself a job in publishing. Writing blurbs might not seem an obvious way into writing novels but, actually, it was a brilliant nursery school for the would-be writer. You have to understand the essence of the book and every word has to earn its place. You also have to woo your reader and lure them into turning the pages.
Q: Of the characters you've created, do you have a favorite?
A: All of them I love. I find it hard to say goodbye but, when I do, they are gone out there into the ether and I forget about them while I concentrate on the next book.
Q: Many of your books deal with family dynamics. Why did you choose that as a focus, and how do you come up with your plots?
A: The family is endlessly fascinating. It is the microcosm and key to what is going on in wider society. It changes, adapts, breaks, languishes, reinvents itself. What happens to a child within in, or tragically without it, determines their future life. It is a crucible, and an important one.
As to plots: all I have do is read the newspapers. You couldn’t make it up what can be read in them. There are, of course, universal situations: parents versus children, marriage, divorce, premature death and there are many permutations which, when I start thinking about them, begin to spin out a plot for me.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Back to history! I have always been fascinated by the undercover life.
For my second novel, I wrote Light of the Moon about an agent going into occupied France during the Second World War. It was a young writer’s book and I wanted to revisit the subject and see what I did with it now.
The one I am just finishing is set in Demark during the Second World War and centres on a family whose members are divided by whom they support in the war. A couple of them become undercover agents in the Special Operations Executive. Family division again…
Its title (not confirmed finally) is The Life That I Have.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Although there are moment of gloom and torture ( not to mention pennilessness), to be a writer is such a privilege. I am extremely lucky.
At the moment, there is much despair over the fate of books and the print industry which is going through a crisis.
But, I think, one thing is certain. We always need the storyteller – in whatever form their work is delivered. If I am counted among those, I am very happy.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb