Thursday, 14 July 2016

I’m the sort of writer who prefers to work alone...

Interview with Judith Lennox
by Agnes A. Rose

Judith Lennox is a British author of many best-selling historical romances, which have always enjoyed both critical acclaim and readers around the world. She was born in Salisbury and grew up in Hampshire. She made her debut in the mid-eighties of the last century, and her novels have also gained a faithful fan base in Poland, where we can read many of her books, such as: “Catching The Tide”, “A Step In The Dark”, “One Last Dance”, “The Turning Point”, “The Heart Of The Night”, and many others. Judith Lennox loves gardening, going for long walks, visiting old houses and historical monuments.

Agnes A. Rose: A very warm welcome to you Judith, and can I thank you, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me today. You write mainly multigenerational family sagas. Could you tell us why you chose this kind of literature? What inspires you to write?

Judith Lennox: Thank you for inviting me to your blog. It’s great to have the opportunity to communicate with my Polish readers. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics within the family, and how the passing of time can affect those dynamics. I’m interested in relationships between siblings, between parents and children, young and old. The experiences of childhood, when we are embedded most deeply in the family, leaves its mark on us for the rest of our lives. I like a big canvas because I enjoy weaving a complex web; my characters must respond to events in the wider world as well as those within the family. I started writing with the objective of entertaining the reader, of course, but also to explore questions of motivation and character. Why do people do what they do? Why will the same situation or problem inspire people to react in different ways? Our experiences, and the way we have been treated in the past, inform our choices.

Judith Lennox
Agnes A. Rose: You have a number of sagas among your booklist. What methods do you use to research your novels?

Judith Lennox: Of course I read history books, and I very much enjoy reading diaries, biographies and autobiographies of people who lived in the era in which the novel is set – politicians, artists, writers, all sorts. I have in my library old maps, old cookery books, information about motor vehicles, fashion and music etc. The internet is brilliant for finding out all sorts of things – where train lines ran in the early twentieth century, routes that my characters might take on a journey, comparative money values etcetera – all things I need to know. I visit the places in which I set my novels, to get the feel of them, and though I often write about parts of the country I know well – Cambridge, for instance, where I live now, or the Hampshire countryside where I grew up – researching new settings will often suggest ideas that I can use in my work.

Agnes A. Rose: Your books present some interesting and complex family dynamics.  What did you draw on to create them so believably on paper? Are there people you know that will recognise themselves in these characters?

Judith Lennox: For me, much of the pleasure of writing is in inventing new characters. Though I take strands from people I know – every writer will draw in some way on her own experience – I don’t think anyone would recognize themselves in one of my books. I come from quite a large family – I have two brothers and a sister and three sons, all of whom are married and have children of their own – so I have lot of experience of the affection and rivalry that families foster. My upbringing was slightly unusual in that I spent much my childhood in quite an isolated place in the countryside. We lived on the edge of a large stretch of woodland and had a lot of freedom. Our cottage was a short distance from an old country house that was no longer inhabited; we children used to play in its overgrown garden. I often draw on these memories in my novels. Many of my characters are pulled between the isolation and beauty of the countryside and the busyness and stimulation of the city.

Agnes A. Rose: Your characters very often hide a secret associated with their past, for example Isabel Zeale, who is the main character of “Before The Storm”. Could you tell us how you create such complicated fate for your characters? How do you go about imagining, developing and give real lives and personalities to the characters that we will read about within in your books?

This is the Polish cover of 'Before The Storm'
Published by Prószyński i S-ka
Warsaw 2008
Translated by Anna Nowosielska
Judith Lennox: Very early on in the process of putting together ideas for a new book, I’m thinking what sort of character I’d like to write about, and then I map out the life events that would have shaped her. I wanted Isabel at the opening of the book to be a wounded, inward-looking character. Though she is attracted to Richard Finborough, she initially resists him. But he is persistent, and in the end she marries him. My intention at the outset of ‘Before The Storm’ was to write about a difficult marriage, one that survives in spite of the odds. My parents’ marriage was difficult, yet it survived, so I suppose I drew on that. People take their traumas to a relationship and can’t always bring themselves to speak of them. So I needed to create a secret for Isabel, one that she can’t bear to own up to. Secrets can grow bigger as time passes and harder and harder to reveal. Her past shames her and becomes increasingly impossible to bring into the open.

Agnes A. Rose: If you had to pick just one of your characters to hang out with for a day, who would you choose?

Judith Lennox: That’s a tricky question! I think Bess, in “A Step In The Dark”, would be enormous fun to hang out with if you were in the mood for a party… The four Maclise girls from “All my Sisters” would be good company too. As for my heroes… Theo Finborough in “Before The Storm” is very likeable, as is Ben Thackeray in “One Last Dance”. Martin Jago in “A Step In The Dark” is gentle, cultured and intelligent, and I would be attracted to that.

Agnes A. Rose: In your books you very often write about the tragic time of the Second World War or sometimes even before the war. I am sure that you are interested in war history. How much does it help you to create your beautiful stories? 

Judith Lennox: If a novel is set in the first half of the twentieth century, as most of mine are, it’s inevitable that the two wars will have a huge effect on the lives of the characters. The wars dominate those years – for many they were a catastrophe, but for some – especially women – they offered new opportunities. Very few people’s lives must have been left unchanged by the war, so I have to take that into account when plotting my novels. War provides a hugely dramatic background to a story, bringing characters together or casting them apart, plunging them into grief or fear, or giving them the chance to love. The Depression years of the 1930s were also a time of great change, bringing into being all sorts of new political and artistic movements; that decade has always fascinated me and it provides much interesting background material. I think that many readers like to learn something new when writing a novel, so I try to research my historical background thoroughly and bring it to life on the page.

Agnes A. Rose: Can I ask what sort of books did you like reading as a child? Do you think the books that you read as a child have influenced your writing in any way?

Judith Lennox: I enjoyed family stories and school stories. I would say that I’ve always been primarily interested in character, rather than plot, though a fast-driving plot is essential, of course, to make the reader turn the page. In my teens, I read a great many historical novels – Georgette Heyer, Anya Seton, as well as the classics – Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Orwell, Daphne du Maurier. I tend to prefer stories where the central character is female – though not always; I adored Dorothy Dunnett’s “Lymond” series. Yes, I’m sure the books I read in childhood have shaped my writing. You never forget them; they remain a part of you for the rest of your life.

This is the Polish cover of
'A Step In The Dark'
Published by Prószyński i S-ka
Warsaw 2008
Translated by Barbara Szyszko
Agnes A. Rose: As a huge fan of your books one of my favourites is “A Step in the Dark”, which was published in Poland in 2008. Could you tell us what motivated you to write this beautiful and very moving story?

Judith Lennox: I wanted to write a story set in the Scottish Highlands. My husband Iain is Scottish so we’ve often stayed with relatives or holidayed there. The scenery is very dramatic, and very different from the southern woodland and chalk hills where I grew up. I felt it would provide a wonderful background for a novel and I had the opportunity of staying in a house in Perthshire that I later used as a model for Ravenheart House. Bess Ravenheart, the central character, is one of my favourite heroines. She is an adventuress. She is beautiful, spirited and a survivor and lives by her wits, but she can also be rash and manipulative. She is driven by her longing to recover the child who was taken away from her. I wanted to show how an instance of ruthless cruelty – Bess’s mother-in-law Cora’s appropriation of her grandson Frazer – can set off a chain of events that affects future generations.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have your own daily routine and writing schedule? Do you have an office where you hideaway to write, or can you write anywhere?

Judith Lennox: When I started to write, thirty years ago, we lived in a small house and had three young children so I worked wherever I could – on a table in the bedroom or in a corner of the dining room, fitting into the hours my sons were at school or nursery. Now I have a wonderful workroom to myself at the top of our house. I write for four hours in the morning, from about nine to one. Then I’ll do something else for a few hours – read, garden, go for a walk – and then in the late afternoon I often go back to my desk for another hour. That hour is usually productive, things fall into place and the work makes progress. I need to shut myself away to write, and I dislike interruptions. If I’m interrupted three or four times, I find it hard to focus my concentration again. I only work at the weekends if the deadline is very tight. Having a couple of days’ break often gives me new ideas, as if my unconscious is working away at the problems in the novel while I’m having time off.

Agnes A. Rose: From your experience, what conventions have the most potential career impact for writers – conferences, workshops, writing groups, critique partners and so on? Have any of these affected or helped you?

Judith Lennox: I’m the sort of writer who prefers to work alone and hates the idea of someone looking at a half-finished piece of work, so have never used workshops or writing groups, though I’m sure they work well for many. I tend to show an unfinished text only to husband, or to my editor and agent, who often make invaluable suggestions at that stage. I’ve suffered from a spinal disorder all my adult life, so conferences, with all the sitting still and standing around, are not for me. I organize a lunch with fellow writers in a pub in Cambridge each month, for friendship and to share tips and information, and I find this both enjoyable and valuable.

Agnes A. Rose: As I mentioned above apart from writing you are also interested in gardening and going for long walks. You also love visiting and watching old houses and historical monuments. Could you tell us something more about this way to rest? What is the most interesting place you have visited so far?

Judith Lennox: Getting out into the countryside, seeing new places, recharges my batteries. I prefer seeing a beautiful garden to going to an art gallery. I visited the Chelsea Flower Show this year and some of the gardens took my breath away. Coleton Fishacre, a National Trust property by the Devon coast, was the inspiration for Rosindell in “One Last Dance”; Cold Christmas, the house in which Tom works in “The Heart Of The Night”, was inspired by a visit to a medieval house in Lavenham. Places I have particularly loved include the Orkney islands to the north of the Scottish mainland, that are wonderfully beautiful and serene and steeped in history, and the lush, opulent hills in the interior of Sri Lanka, where I stayed when researching “All My Sisters”.

This is the Polish cover of 'All My Sisters'
Published by Prószyński i S-ka
Warsaw 2007
Translated by Anna Bańkowska
Agnes A. Rose: Have you ever been to Poland? If so, what did you like most in my country?

Judith Lennox: I visited Poland when I was researching “The Heart Of The Night”. We explored Warsaw, where we saw the remains of the ghetto and visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum. We then drove north, to the Masurian Lakes, where we stayed in Wegorzewo. We visited the ruins of Hitler’s wartime HQ, the Wolf’s Lair, and then headed on to the Baltic Sea, and to Gdansk. History seems very close to the surface in Poland. I found it both extraordinarily moving and amazing to see places I’d only read about in history books. Because of its geographical situation, Poland’s history is so different to Britain’s. I loved the Polish countryside, the lakes and the great dark forests that felt so much wilder and deeper than English woodland. I hope some day to have the opportunity to explore more of eastern Europe.

Agnes A. Rose: What is your writing project you are currently working on? What can you tell us about this project?

Judith Lennox: I’m right in the middle of a new book at present. It’s set partly in the south-east of England, but also in Spain, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, and I’m very much looking forward to travelling there for research later in the year. The book has two different time periods, the 1930s and the 1970s, and two heroines. It’s the first time I’ve tackled that sort of structure since “Some Old Lover’s Ghost”.

Agnes A. Rose: Judith, I have been absolutely delighted and very honoured that you agreed to be interviewed for my literary and historical site. I would also like to thank you again for taking the time to speak to us today. Is there anything you would like to tell your Polish readers? Or maybe you want to add something I have not asked you about?

Judith Lennox: Thank you so much for inviting me! It’s been a pleasure responding to your thought-provoking questions. It’s a great honour to be published in Poland and I’d like to thank all my Polish readers for their great support over the years – I appreciate it enormously.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

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