Saturday, June 13, 2020

Q&A with Claire S. Lewis

Claire S. Lewis is the author of the new novel No Smoke Without Fire. She also has written the novel She's Mine. She worked in aviation law in London, and she lives in Surrey, UK.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for No Smoke Without Fire, and for your character Celeste?

A: Funnily enough I came up with the idea for first - the grave tending business that is the brainchild of Celeste in the novel.

I thought it would be such a useful service to be able to order memorial flowers and tributes online, have a florist deliver these to the graveside, clear and weed the grave and arrange the bouquet then email photographs to show the display.

This would help the elderly and ill in particular, but really anyone unable to visit the grave of a loved one for any reason whatsoever. Sadly, this kind of service could be especially in demand in times of lockdown and pandemic such as we are now living through.

Then it struck me that this business model was a good starting point for a plot - a pretty young florist who travels alone to remote country graveyards to deliver flowers to isolated graves…you get the picture…And so the flame of No Smoke Without Fire was lit!

My character Celeste was inspired by a brilliant French film I watched called (in the English translation) He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (and in the French) A la Folie, Pas du Tout, directed by Laetitia Colombani.

The film stars a very young Audrey Tautou who plays a young woman suffering from “erotomania” - she suffers from the delusion that she is in a relationship with a man whereas in fact this is an obsessive mental health condition and entirely in her imagination.

In the first half of the film we see things from her perspective, and it appears that the man (a doctor) is exploiting her cruelly. Then the film rewinds and we see all the scenes again from the man’s perspective. I

n the second half of the film all the violent and damaging acts that the young woman has perpetrated on the man and his family are revealed, giving us a very different view of her.

My story is very different to this film (although the stalker Theo may be suffering from erotomania) but it was really the changes in viewpoint that I found fascinating and sought to emulate in my novel.

It was the first scene of A la Folie, Pas du Tout that really triggered the idea for Celeste as a character. 

There we see Audrey Tautou going into a charming flower shop overflowing with blooms where she buys a perfect single red rose as a gift for the heart specialist doctor she believes to be her lover, before pedalling off on her pushbike to deliver the gift.

It was this portrayal by Audrey Tautou and that scene in the flower shop which gave me the idea for Celeste, a beautiful but flawed and damaged young florist who has empathy for her clients and a fierce intolerance for discrimination and abuse.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I did some research on floristry and graveyards – partly through books and websites and partly though visiting florists and local churches. Most of the settings and descriptions of place I write in my novels, are written from memory and personal experience.

I attended a writer’s course run by the wonderful Blue Pencil Agency about a year ago at Asthall Manor, a stately home in a typical historic English village in Oxfordshire. The gardens are adjacent to the grounds of the ancient parish church.

I spent many hours there, perched on worn stone steps, scribbling notes and “haunting” the church yard reading inscriptions, taking photographs and soaking up the sounds of nature and the peaceful atmosphere. My notes formed the basis for certain scenes in the novel.

No Smoke Without Fire is set mostly in Chelsea, Pimlico, Cambridge, and Surrey – all places I know well and can easily visualise in my imagination or by flicking through photograph albums which trigger memories and help me to capture the scenes (I’ve always loved taking lots of photographs).

I live in the countryside in Surrey (which has been a blessing during lockdown) so I’m often out walking the public footpaths which criss-cross the woodlands and pastures of rural England linking picture-perfect villages, each with a pub and a church, such as the parish church of St Michael’s at Betchworth which featured at the first wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral (remember that scene in the film when Hugh Grant and Charlotte Coleman vault the dry-stone wall when they are late for the ceremony?)

I know Chelsea and Pimlico well because these are my favourite parts of London and as a trainee lawyer, I worked for three months just off the iconic Kings Road.

I was a postgraduate student in Cambridge, so I spent two years in that beautiful city and have very vivid memories of punting on the river Cam and the idyllic scenes of bridges and colleges along The Backs.

More recently I visited again with my daughters as my eldest was doing an art project which involved painting bridges in response to the theme “together and apart.”

Learning about floristry involved both online research and visits to my local florists where I enjoyed buying flowers and observing carefully the ways in which the florists so skilfully put together the bouquets.

As for whether I learnt anything that surprised me in the course of my research – when looking up floristry websites and suppliers, I was certainly surprised at the range of sharp tools and implements which form part of a florist’s standard tool kit.  I

t occurred to me that along with twine and ties, these tools form quite an armoury of potentially harmful implements. This triggered a few key ideas for the plot!

Q: You said in our previous interview, "I love writing in the voices of unreliable narrators." How do you think the unreliable narration in this novel compares with that in She's Mine?

A: My original title for the novel was In Loving Memory which is the inscription seen on so many ancient and recent gravestones in England. I have to admit I feel that represented the heart of the novel more truly than my published title.

Celeste is motivated by her love for her dead brother and this is the inscription on his grave – so the phrase signposts the tragedy in the past. But she is also motivated by the desire for revenge – you can see there was an intended irony in my chosen title, In Loving Memory.

So, in answer to your question, Celeste is an unreliable narrator, in the sense that I’ve aimed at “smoke and mirrors” in the presentation of her character and the gradual revelation of her true motivations.

She has survived trauma and bullying and abuse in her teens, but she is also a perpetrator of violence. Some of her actions are motivated by her loving memory of her dead brother but others are motivated by anger and a passion for revenge.

Written as a close third-person narrative, I’ve tried to maintain a smoke screen of ambiguity over Celeste’s motives so that the reader is unsure whether they are altruistic or malevolent. We see things from Celeste’s viewpoint, but selectively – her true motivations are not fully disclosed until the closing scenes of the novel.

I would hope that the reader is left not really knowing quite what to make of her. She is clearly a damaged personality who has exacted revenge on her ex and used her awkward stalker for her own purposes, having only qualified compassion for him when his ultimate fate is revealed.

This mix of light and shade in the characterisation of Celeste has led some reviewers to refer to No Smoke Without Fire as “fiction noir” and I am certainly very happy with this characterisation.

In contrast, She’s Mine was written in the first person and we cannot always trust what the unreliable narrator Scarlett is telling us because she has only a partial view of the unravelling plot as she tries to solve the mystery of Katie’s disappearance.

In the very final scene of She’s Mine it is clear that even at the very end of the story Scarlett has not grasped the full extent of the deception (or has she?). The reader knows more than the first-person narrator in the closing scene and her unreliability is confirmed!

Q: The book focuses on issues surrounding the #MeToo movement. What do you hope readers will take away from the novel in that regard?

A: No Smoke Without Fire touches on issues surrounding the #MeToo movement due to the abusive power relationships shown in Celeste’s back story, her fears and motivations when Ben reappears on the scene, and the revelations concerning Mia’s treatment by her fiancĂ©.

Certainly, I was writing at a time in 2018 when the #MeToo movement was very much in the news.

The novel exposes and condemns the kind of coercion and abuse that the #MeToo movement was calling out. It deals with issues of domestic violence and oppression of the female sex and psyche by the patriarchy of men and boys.

However, Celeste could not be held up as a role model for the #MeToo movement because of the highly questionable way in which she takes justice into her own hands. Celeste suffers at the hands of her father, her schoolmates, and her teenage boyfriend. But she is not an innocent herself.

She hasn’t processed or dealt with the trauma and heartache of a personal tragedy and abusive relationships in her childhood and she remains a deeply troubled and damaged young woman in her early 20s who in the end resorts to physical violence to exact revenge on her main unrepentant and unreconstructed aggressor.

In terms of what I would hope the readers to take away – I do not have a proselytising message as such; this is a plot-driven story of psychological suspense after all - but I hope it will provoke questions and invite readers to ponder the issues.

I guess one takeaway would be that the stress and trauma caused by inappropriate and abusive relationships should be called out and processed at once rather than being buried away or allowed to smoulder where they will damage someone’s personality and life going forwards.

The story may serve as yet another illustration of the lifelong impacts on female survivors of physical and emotional subordination at the hands of coercive, oppressive, and powerful male individuals.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next story is also in the genre of psychological suspense and is set in post-pandemic north London and Tuscany – a stunning region of Italy which I know well from many family holidays.

I am playing around with the idea of a “book-within-a-book” along the lines of Nocturnal Animals. So, in addition to the uncertainty as to who did what, there will be an added uncertainty as to whether the secondary line of narration is intended to be confessional or imagined or a mixture of both.

At the same time, I’m working on my next project - to have my two novels turned into films.

Once my third psychological suspense is completed in the autumn, I’m planning a detour into something a little different – a feel-good fictional story about living with a child with autism but written through the eyes of a sibling.

I would want it to be funny, relatable, subversive, and not too earnest (which tends to be the tone of some memoir-style books written by parents of children with autism).

The aim would be to highlight the lighter side of living with a strong-willed, happy, uber-egotistical, and much-loved child or teenager with disabilities who drives the rest of the family out of their minds with his outrageous behaviour…Something of which I have personal experience!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: As I mentioned, I would be absolutely thrilled to have my books turned into films or a TV series. This is my dream! (Isn’t it every writer’s?!) A few people have referred to the filmic style of my writing – in fact I imagine the scenes visually in my head as I write them down.

I have retained the film rights in my novels and would be keen actively to market them along with my agent at the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.

Another thing I’d love to mention is that, since I feel so lucky to have been able to continue with my writing work and to publish my second novel during this time of pandemic, lockdown, and international crisis, I would like to make some small gesture in support of those helping the most vulnerable at this time - particularly as No Smoke Without Fire deals with issues such as domestic abuse and mental health issues that are so relevant in a time of lockdown and pandemic.

With thoughts of our key workers and those who have had their working lives disrupted or are continuing to place their health and safety at risk by travelling into their workplaces, I’ve decided to do my bit by donating all my net royalties earned in 2020 from sales of the e-book of No Smoke Without Fire to leading UK charities, Women’s Aid (domestic violence), Young Minds (young people’s mental health), and Centrepoint (homelessness), who are helping people whose problems have been made more acute by the COVID 19 pandemic and whose situations are likely to remain very challenging long after the lockdowns have been lifted.

Thank you again, Deborah, for this lovely opportunity to take part in your Q&A!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Claire S. Lewis.

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