Welcome to my weekly blog series – Author Interviews.
Every Saturday, here on my blog, I get to interview an amazing and inspirational author over a virtual cup of tea and a virtual biscuit. The author tells me all about their literary journey, the obstacles they have overcome whilst writing their books and their literary motivations. These interviews give me a fascinating glimpse into the writing life of an author and they also give me some valuable writing learnings and tips.
This week I am bubbling with literary excitement because one of my mother’s favourite authors is sat in my red chair. When I informed my mother that I had managed to persuade Siân Evans, author and cultural historian, to be interviewed on my blog, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sigh!
Siân’s latest book Queen Bees, is a story about six extraordinary hostesses who shaped British society in the inter-war years. This book was devoured by my mother and thoroughly enjoyed by my daughter’s Godmother (who helped me get in touch with Siân). Any author who manages to please these two tough readers is amazing in my eyes.
Queen Bees has received dazzling book review headlines like:
‘ENTERTAINING’ The Times
‘A FASCINATING ACCOUNT’ The Sunday Times
‘GLORIOUSLY GOSSIPY’ Red Magazine
‘ENORMOUS FUN’ Observer
This book is now on my ‘To Be Read’ reading pile and I can’t wait to delve into a world of posh tiaras, glittering social events and society hostesses.
So please welcome Siân Evans!
Tell my readers all about yourself the books you have written..
I live in suburban south-west London, and home is a 1920s semi, which is stuffed with battered old books and Art Deco ceramics of dubious merit. I’m originally from Cardiff, studied at Manchester Polytechnic then the Royal College of Art in London, then went to Tokyo University for 2 years.
I have always been fascinated by the social and cultural history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I started researching the objects of that era through the history of design, then broadened my scope to the culture of the era, and am now particularly interested in the people of the times – so I have gone through the ‘what’, to the ‘how’, and am now interested in the ‘who’ and ‘why’.
I’ve published 14 books so far; the first one, In the Oriental Style, was published by Thames & Hudson in 1991. My most recent books include Life Below Stairs in the Victorian and Edwardian Country House; The Manor Reborn; Pattern Design; and Mrs Ronnie: the Society Hostess who collected Kings. The latest one is Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses between the Wars, which was published on 8 September 2016 by Two Roads, part of Hodder. It’s a group biography about 3 American and 3 British women, all formidable personalities, who clawed their way to social influence in the Twenties and Thirties.
When did you write your current book?
I was commissioned to write Queen Bees in December 2014, and it is about 105,000 words long. It’s a complex subject which covers a lot of ground, so the pace of work was pretty demanding. I delivered the manuscript in January 2016, and then over the following 5 months I cleared permissions for quotations etc, gave the text a spot of buffing and polishing, and once we got to proof stage, I compiled the index. A factual book without a decent index is just annoying…
Why did you become a writer?
I learned to read quite early, and was always a very keen reader, ploughing through anything I could find, from old copies of Punch to the backs of cereal packets. I remember hearing on the news that Enid Blyton had died, and being distraught that the supply of Famous Five books was now about to dry up. I always loved writing stories and essays for school. Then when I was 10, one of my poems was published in Pictorial Knowledge, a rather worthy children’s magazine. I was amazed and thrilled to see my name in print, and still am. So I always wanted to become a writer, although it took me quite some time as an adult to find a way to make it happen, like most authors.
What writing issues did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
It is staggering how the practical business of writing has changed in my lifetime. When I started writing seriously in the mid-1980s, such as freelance articles for magazines etc, the most sophisticated piece of kit generally available to would-be writers was an electric typewriter. I used the money from my first book to buy my first PC (Personal Computer) in 1991; it cost over £1,000 including a printer, and it was slow, cumbersome and not very bright, but I wrote my second book on it, and I thought it was ‘cutting edge’! By comparison, the technology available nowadays to ahttps://www.apple.com/uk/nyone researching and writing is extraordinary – and of course, now there is the internet, which has revolutionised the acquisition and spread of knowledge. My first 3 books were largely researched in person in libraries and archives, a time-consuming process.
Did you go through any bad writing patches and what kept you going?
My first 4 books were researched and written while I was working fulltime in London; mostly as a press officer firstly for the Design Museum, then the V&A and finally the National Trust. So that could be quite demanding – holding down a job, then writing in the evenings and at weekends. But in 2006, the NT moved its head office from London to Swindon, and that decision presented me with one of those life-changing opportunities. I figured that if I didn’t try to make it as a writer, I’d never know. Working on the principle that you most regret the things you didn’t do, I took the redundancy that was on offer to those employees who didn’t want to move to Wiltshire. This allowed me to stay in London, but also bought me time to get established as a writer, and I got by initially role by various freelance jobs. It was a gamble, and I wasn’t sure if I could make a living at it, and I suppose I am still not convinced! But I don’t regret that decision ten years ago for a moment, and feel I was very lucky to have such a chance.
Are you a plotter or a ‘just write / see what happens?”
Both, in a way. I write non-fiction, so I create a synopsis and a proposed structure for each of the books I write, and I get commissioned by publishers to proceed on that basis. So I start off with a ‘scaffold’ around which I build the text, though of course that can change shape as the work progresses.
However, I also constantly doodle around with ideas and themes. Often I start by just hand-writing words, or phrases, or thoughts, or references on sheets of A4, and I shuffle a lot of paper. I collect images, and photos, and make a kind of ‘mood board’ which I find helps the imagination. I also try to listen to music from the era and country that I am writing about…so Duke Ellington, Marlene Dietrich or Noel Coward will be burbling away in the background while I am still at the research stage.
Yes, I am a great believer in ‘just writing and see what happens’…in my experience you have to treat writing a bit like physical exercise, you get creaky if you don’t do it frequently. In a way it doesn’t matter what you write, it could be a damn fine e-mail to an old friend, or a diary, or an account of a conversation overheard on the bus – write it down, and then buff and polish it to be as good as you can make it. It’s all practise.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
The infinite possibilities.
What is the worst thing about being a writer?
The infinite possibilities! Seriously, it can be hard to focus. And of course writing is a largely solitary pursuit, so you have to guard against getting too isolated, and make sure you have a social life too. Over the last 8 weeks I have appeared at 7 literary festivals or events in connection with the launch of Queen Bees. It is ironic that after 18 months of beavering away quietly in libraries, archives and at my kitchen table, I am suddenly entertaining audiences of curious, committed and often avid readers. I’m very happy talking to the public, and I enjoy being interviewed, but it doesn’t suit every author, many of whom tend to be rather more introverted in character.
Have you ever considered quitting?
There is a wonderful Posy Simmonds cartoon which appeared in the Guardian years ago, in which a rumpled-looking, despairing woman in a dressing gown is sitting at a laptop surrounded by discarded sheets of paper, talking to a mild-looking chap with glasses, who is carrying bulging supermarket carrier bags. In the caption, she is saying something like “…and of course, it’s not like anyone is ever going to read the bloody thing….” We’ve all been there. Yes I have sometimes got totally stuck and fed-up, but then I go off and do something practical like have a swim, or do some savage pruning in the garden. Something happens while you are away from the problem, and you find a way to tackle it differently. Good friends and family are also invaluable when you hit the buffers.
What does a typical writing day look like?
Depends what stage I am at with a particular project. If I am researching in London, I might be holed up in the wonderful British Library, reading through books or magazines of the era, or transcribing letters etc. I might be in an archive in an unfamiliar place – I had a terrific time ploughing through the Scottish National Brewing Archives records in Glasgow University, a lot more fun than it sounds, and I was fascinated by the Royal Archives in Windsor, where I sat and read the hand-written personal diaries of King George V and Queen Mary. Or I might be ‘in the field’ visiting somewhere relevant to my research, such as a historic house, or an overgrown graveyard, taking photos and making notes.
If I am at the writing stage I sit at my dining table, with a view of the garden, and something instrumental burbling away on the CD player. I read over what I wrote last time, and make a ‘to do’ list, which I never completely finish, but it helps decide what needs doing next. I try to limit looking at phones and e-mails till I have a break for tea or coffee; as much as I love being in contact with friends and family, I could spend all day sending lengthy e-mails or browsing news websites. And then, I get writing. When it is going well, you get what a friend calls ‘that warm bath moment’. If I get stuck, I’ll take a break, as above.
I try to take breaks every 90 minutes or so, to stretch – writing is a sedentary pursuit so you have to look after your back, and it is really important to get physical exercise too, so I often factor in a walk. I tend to work either morning and evening, or afternoon and evening so I can get some time away from whatever I am working on. Of course, when I am up against a deadline I can be working 12 or 14 hours a day, and normal life is suspended. That’s when I turn into the dishevelled lady writer in the Posy Simmonds cartoon…
How do you go about researching your book?
I still read avidly; most of what I write is historical and factual, so I rely on contemporary accounts, such as diaries and letters, or newspapers and magazines of the time. Increasingly I am coming across sound archives which are helpful too – not only Pathé or BBC recordings, but also ad hoc interviews conducted in the 1970s or 1980s by volunteers quizzing ordinary people who witnessed extraordinary events.
Early film footage and photos are invaluable too – many of these can now be accessed on-line. I try to watch movies from the era, and read the plays and novels that were written around the time. I mentioned collecting images; they not only inform what I am writing, but are useful as a ‘wishlist’ to hand on to picture researchers once the book is almost finished.
I compile 2 bibliographies as I go along – the first lists books or resources I want to read or access, and the second lists those sources once I have used them.
It is helpful to keep accurate records of where you found a particularly juicy quote or a wonderful image – just add the reference below that quote all through the text, and edit it out in the final version. It will save hours of frustration if you need to include that image, or get permission to reproduce the quote in your book.
You have to be wary about copyright issues; you can quote the title of a song or poem without infringing copyright, but beware of quoting from song lyrics or chunks of the poem. If the work is still in copyright, you need to get permission from the copyright owner, and publishers of poetry and song lyrics often charge large sums for reproduction.
What have been your 3 biggest writing learnings?
- Find a subject, field, theme or person that fascinates you. You will be investing a lot of your time and energy in writing about it or them, so be sure you genuinely want to know more, and that you want to convey what you know to your readers. It may not be easy to write, but it should ultimately be rewarding.
- Be aware that you might not always like the people you are writing about, but there is also a great deal of fun to be had in writing about villains!
- There is a reason why publishers impose deadlines – it is so they can rest your manuscript away from you and turn it into a book, which is what they are in business to do. If they don’t snatch the text from your hands, you could spend decades fiddling with a manuscript and never actually deliver. So, meet those deadlines, and don’t forget, they will let you buff and polish it further once they have had a look.
Do you have any advice for budding authors?
- People love stories. If you can tell a great tale, you will always find a receptive audience, whether you are writing comedy sketches or
- Follow your hunches; you gradually develop an instinct for a rattling good yarn waiting to be told.
- Always have a notebook to hand, or a smart phone – it is remarkable what ideas come to you while you are thinking of something else. Keep all your old notebooks and read through them when you have a chance.
- When you get published, don’t forget to register your book for Public Lending Rights – it is easy to do online, and then every time a library-goer takes out a copy of your book, you will get a small payment, which is sent to you automatically once a year, and can really add up.
Do you suffer from writer’s block and if so how do you overcome?
Occasionally – see above. But I rarely see it as a problem, more as a natural ‘down time’. And I find that being physically active in other ways allows your mind to come up with a solution.
Did you ever think about your next book whilst writing?
Almost always, as working on one book often triggers my ideas for the next one. I discuss the ideas with my agent, then if she thinks it’s viable I put together a proposal, and she approaches publishers who might be interested in commissioning me.
What do you wear to write?
In winter, I can get very cold while sitting and writing, so I tend to go for warm and comfortable clothes such as fur-lined boots, stretchy leggings, long jumpers and scarves. Fingerless mittens when it’s really chilly, a hot water-bottle on the lap, rug over the knees, the works. I also have two enormous woolly ‘writing sweaters’, my favourites, hand-knitted by my mum, one of which I will wear on top of whatever else I have on. Summer is easier, whatever is cool and comfortable, though you have to beware of fierce air conditioning in the reading rooms of the British Library, so I usually take a cardigan or big shawl with me, even on hot days.
How can my readers read your books?
I’m a great believer in public libraries, so would encourage your readers to support their local branches! But you can also find my books ‘in all good bookshops’, as they say, such as the many independents in this country, and of course in the big chains such as Waterstone’s.
Amazon provide a very comprehensive back-catalogue of current publications, e-books and second-hand copies too, and it’s easy to see what titles are available by typing ‘Sian Evans’ into the books section of their website. They also carry reviews by readers as well as press cuttings, which make interesting reading.
Incidentally, Queen Bees is also available as an audio book, and you can hear a sample from it on the relevant Amazon page, read by the excellent actress who plays Linda Snell in The Archers. Perfect casting….and I like to think it’s what those Queen Bees would have wanted.
Siân – what a fabulous interview! Thank you so much.
Some points that I am taking from this:
- I bet it was fab seeing your name in print at 10 years of age. That is serious dream making stuff for a 10-year-old!
- The Posy Simmonds cartoon made me smile. I think I may have muttered something similar tonight whilst wrestling with my second draft.
- I need to enjoy myself and write about villains.
- I need to invest in some ‘writing sweaters!’
- It was really interesting to understand the research process of a non fiction author.
- I love how you view Writer’s Block as simply ‘natural down time’ and you try to do something practical to get the mind working again. Great tip.
It has been a pleasure to interview you Siân – thanks 🙂
For other amazing author interviews please click here.
If you would like to be interviewed as part of this popular series please get in touch with me.
These interviews are all about giving something back to the writing community which I think is really important for us all, no matter what we have achieved.
Have a fabulous day!
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