Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Q&A with Rachel Crowther

Rachel Crowther, photo by Roger Smeeton
Rachel Crowther is the author of the novel The Things You Do for Love. She also has written the novel The Partridge and the Pelican. She worked as a doctor for 20 years, and she lives in Surrey, England.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Things You Do for Love?

A: I'd been interested for some time in the question of what women who've juggled everything - career, family, etc. - do when they retire and their children have grown up.

My aunt, for example, who was a leading divorce lawyer in London, has become a devoted Granny and intrepid traveller since she retired, while a senior doctor I'd worked with early in my medical career died, very sadly, soon after she retired - on the side of a mountain.    

I was playing with this idea a bit: what if the woman in question lost everything all in one go, because she retired early to nurse her dying husband?

What if that marriage had been very complicated, and his support for her career had come at a high price? What if she felt she'd been a terrible mother, and hadn't sustained much connection with her daughters? What if their lives reflected different parts of hers, in different inflections?

Then we went on holiday to France, and one of our hosts was an Englishwoman in her 60s called Flora - nothing like my heroine, and even the village where she lived wasn't much like St Remy, but somehow that lit the fuse that started the novel off in earnest. 

Q: The story jumps around in time from the present to various points in the past several decades. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you change it as you went along?

A: No, I very rarely write in order. I like to have different points of view and different time scales to play with, so when one stalls I can jump to another.

I see writing a novel as a bit like one of those foil art scratch cards where you scrape off the top black layer to reveal the colours underneath: the lives of the characters are there waiting, and you have to figure out how best to reveal them; how to tell the story.

Or maybe it's more like carving a sculpture (one of Alice's, maybe?) from a solid block of wood or stone, discovering the shape of the image within it, moving round it to tackle a different side now and then. 

It often helps to come at the story from different directions, anyway, and especially with flashbacks I find those little glimpses of the past frequently come into my head fully formed when I'm writing something else, almost like a memory I've just recalled that explains, or sheds light, on something in the present.  

So I keep writing and writing, and generally the shape of the novel begins to appear as I'm going along, but usually there's a lot of reshuffling and reshaping (and rewriting) along the way, and at the end, and indeed long after I think I've finished... 

This novel had a long, long editing phase and didn't reach its final form until it had been completely taken apart and put back together again three or four times, over about five years. 

That bit feels more like assembling a patchwork quilt. It's quite an intuitive process, but I always have a meticulously organised table (generally with colour coding – e.g. for different characters or time frames) in which each chapter has a line, so I can keep track of what I'm doing.   

Q: You write from the perspective of various characters--did you particularly enjoy some of them?

A: I actually really like all the characters in the novel, and although none of them are very much like me, the three central female characters perhaps reflect different aspects, or iterations, of me.  

But the main characters are always very close up when you're writing - they're like family, very difficult to see objectively because they are so internalised - so in a way, I perhaps enjoy the secondary characters more.

I like seeing them quietly coming out of the shadows to occupy their space in the novel - people like Francine and Daniel, and even the very minor characters like Lou's friend Dearbhla. But if I had to pick one character to meet, or to keep, it would have to be Flora. 

Q: Art and music play a major role in the lives of these characters--why did you choose to focus on that?

A: Both art and music are very important to me - music in particular has been a huge part of my life, and although I'm no artist myself our house is full of paintings and ceramics by friends.

So it felt very natural for the Jones/Macintyre clan to be immersed in those things, and I was intrigued from the beginning by the idea that Flora felt excluded from them, and even a little threatened by the way they provided a common currency for her husband and daughters.

The art/science dichotomy is a strong undertow in the novel, and Nicholas Comyn's pictures also gave me a way to work out some thoughts about how we tell our own stories, and what the truth is about our lives.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm actually at a really exciting point just now, since my next novel, Every Secret Thing (which is coming out in the U.K. in June), has just gone to be typeset, and I started a new novel last week.

Every Secret Thing is the story of a group of Cambridge University students who sing together in a choir (the chapel choir at their college, to be precise) and are taken under the wing of an older woman, Fay, who invites them to her house in the Lake District (the land of Wordsworth and Coleridge...) to sing in a village music festival.

Twenty years later, the group is reassembled when Fay leaves her house to them in her will, and they have to come together again and face up to the tragedy that separated them.  

The new novel is still taking shape, but I'll gladly tell you more about it in a little while.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The U.S. rights for my novels are still available, and I'd love to find an American publisher!

As well as The Things You Do For Love and Every Secret Thing there's also my first novel, The Partridge and the Pelican, which is about two young women who find a baby abandoned in a phone box.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For Rachel Crowther's author page on Facebook, please click here.

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