Female Ambition in The Night Visitor

17 May 2018

 Night Visitor PB final image

 

‘How far would you go. . .?’ Female historians as TV presenters – and The Night Visitor

The historian and TV presenter Kate Williams  tweeted today about the contents of her mailbox at Reading University, where she is Professor of History: ‘Today’s uni pigeonhole haul: exam scripts for marking, a PhD report, a note about the photocopier & obscene & threatening letters based on my TV appearances. The joy of being a woman in the public eye…’ Mary Beard, another brilliant historian and TV presenter who certainly knows what it’s like to be trolled, immediately tweeted back advising Kate to report the letters to the police. They are, she wrote, a crime. And a crime cannot be ignored.

As I watched all this unfold on Twitter I found myself wondering whether anybody is leaving poison pen letters in historian Simon Schama’s pigeon hole? Is anyone Twitter Trolling the handsome David Olusoga about his hair? Or publicly shaming Dr David Starkey for his glasses? Or telling Dan Snow that he’s fat. I doubt it. But when a female historian appears on TV she ceases to be judged on her intellect or wit or presenting skills. Instead she’s judged by the sum of her (body) parts: hair, teeth, bum, age, clothes.

I cannot imagine what this must add to the pressure these women are already under. Their jobs (juggling intense work in both academia and TV) are incredibly demanding. They know they are being scrutinized. As I watched the Twitter discussion, I found myself thinking about my character, Olivia, in the Night Visitor. Olivia, like Kate Williams, or Susannah Lipscombe (who helped me with the research for the character) is a history professor who also presents TV programs. She has a brilliant career, a talented husband, three children and houses in London and Sussex. But she also has a terrible secret and if the truth is ever exposed then her career will be in tatters – she will face public ridicule and shame. When you are in the public eye, with a huge Twitter following and an awareness of how vicious people can be, then the stakes must feel very high indeed.

Only one person knows Olivia’s secret and that is Vivian, the sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor. Vivian has become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant and on the surface the two women could not have less in common. Vivian is single, unattractive and socially awkward, devoted to her rescue mutt Bertie. But as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that my characters have far more in common than they might ever believe (or admit to). They are both ambitious and very clever. And they both care, very deeply, about their careers.

In The Night Visitor I explore how far a successful woman like Olivia might go to protect her reputation. Everything she has worked so hard to achieve – her reputation, her public image, her good name, her job, the happiness of her children – is under threat. Is it okay to lie to protect all this? Is it okay to commit a crime?

I wanted to write a nail biting and entertaining book, but I also wanted to examine some moral grey areas. Successful women – particularly those in the public eye – get a bad rap, as Kate William’s matter of fact Tweet about her pigeonhole poison pen letters demonstrates so eloquently. I’ll admit that neither of my main characters is exactly ‘likeable’ (I find writing likeable characters very dull). But still, I felt a growing and powerful sympathy for both Olivia and Vivian as I wrote the book. Ultimately, all these women really want is to be taken seriously, for their minds. They just want to be allowed to do what they love, and to do it well, without being shamed or exposed or ridiculed. And really, where the crime in that?

Costa Book of the Year awards ceremony

31 Jan 2018

costa book awards logo

With fellow judge Freya North & author Jon McGregor

 

Last night was the Costa Book Awards ceremony at IMG_3931Quaglino’s in London, a truly uplifting celebration of some of the best writing in Britain today.  The overall Book of the Year prize went to Helen Dunmore’s incredible poetry collection, Inside the Wave, many of them written in the last weeks of her life. Dunmore, who died of cancer last year aged only 64, is the second writer to win the Book of the Year prize posthumously (Ted Hughes won for Birthday Letters in 1998).  Her family (pictured here) accepted the award last night and her son, Patrick Charnley, gave a short acceptance speech that had everybody wiping away tears.  ‘Poetry was in Mum’s soul’, he said.

‘For Mum to win the overall prize is staggering. We’re so thrilled. But there is a lot of sadness that she is not here. But she would have been really over the moon, particularly because it was her poetry … She’d have been so pleased to know that her win would bring new people to poetry’.

The category winners were:

Novel:  Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (pictured above with me & fellow judge Freya North); Biography: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott Children’s:  The Explorer by Katherine Rundell; Debut: Gail Honeyman’s  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

 

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Inspiration for the Victorian Gothic manor in The Night Visitor

11 Aug 2017

Spooks, memories and visitors

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

When I was a teenager, growing up in a village near Lewes in East Sussex, I had a friend whose house was very different from everyone else’s. For a start, it had about five times as many bedrooms. It also had tall iron gates, a long, tree lined driveway and a haunted Minstrel’s Gallery. This place – which I now know to be a Victorian Gothic Manor – looked very grand on the outside. It had tall grey flint walls and grand, mullioned windows, but the inside told a different story. The house was in coming undone.

My friend’s family was not landed gentry, far from it. Her father, a drinker, keen on the races, had won the house some time in the 1970s in a bet. It was crumbling and damp, with rattling casement windows and no central heating. There was no money to fix anything. I got the sense that nobody really cared because the family was breaking down. The house was not just physically gloomy, but unhappy and troubled in a more profound, less tangible way. And I felt, instinctively, that it was not just the container of the family’s sorrows, but – somehow, inexplicably – feeding them.

I would go there from time to time during the secondary school years. I’d marvel at the grandeur of those iron gates and that long driveway; we’d climb the sweeping staircase to what is, in my memory, an endless procession of dark and musty rooms with plasterwork damp to the touch, old quilts, a pervading chill and flitting shadows. It was thrilling for a teenager. I remember one party – twenty drunk fourteen year olds screaming across the unkempt lawns, only to end up crammed into the (surprisingly tiny) kitchen, too spooked to venture further into the house.

My friend, a tall, loyal, bright girl with a hint of wildness behind the eyes, confided to me once that she sometimes had a ‘visitor’ in the middle of the night. She would wake in the small hours to find a shrouded and malevolent old lady sitting on her, pinning her to the mattress. She was paralyzed when this happened, she said, unable to even cry out for help. This terrifying apparition, she was convinced, meant to choke her.

The friend and I lost touch when I went off to university. Her life, I heard, did not unfold as happily as mine, she has had troubles. Her family broke up and the Manor was sold. But thirty years on, I found it again, in my imagination, a huge, neglected flinty beast set in an idyllic spot beneath the South Downs, a stone’s throw from the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The Manor – which I called Ileford –  became a key setting in my novel, the symbol of how the most grand and imposing façade can conceal rotten secrets. My friend’s ‘night visitor’ came to life again too. But that’s another story.

I still long for the Sussex countryside – the chalk paths up to the South Downs, pheasants panicking across country lanes in the early morning mist, and my hometown, Lewes, slotted in the cleft of the hills. I live in Oxford, now, and people tell me I’m lucky to be here but I still long to move ‘home’. I did go back to the Manor while researching my novel. I went up to the iron gates, held them and peeked through but I could see very little. I thought about going up the drive, knocking on the door and introducing myself, trying to explain who I was, what I was doing. In the end, I didn’t dare.

 

The Night Visitor launch photos

8 Jun 2017

with beetlesBook Launch night visitor launch crowd night visitor launch crowd 2 night visitor launch noodles 2 night visitor launch signing night visitor launch ted and prosecco night visitor launch with Helen nightvisitor cupcakes There were two parties to launch The Night Visitor. One in Blackwell’s Oxford, and another just a week later in Goldsboro Books, London. Night Visitor_launch invite_LondonIMG_1867 IMG_1848
IMG_1845 Quercus editor Stef Bierwerth
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Charleston Literary Festival 2017

30 May 2017

On Saturday I interviewed novelist Sarah Perry at the Charleston Literary Festival in Sussex, about The Essex Serpent. I grew up nearby in the nearby town of Lewes and it meant so much to me to be back on home turf. Here are some pictures of the weekend, which happens at the beautiful Charleston Farmhouse, home of Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and a Bloomsbury Group hub. The church is in the nearby village of Berwick and was decorated by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell – it’s quite extraordinary.  Sarah’s event was packed but most of all I wish I’d taken a picture for you of the green room, which is the original farmhouse kitchen, with a decorated colander lampshade, and a scrubbed pine table groaning with scones and clotted cream, Victoria sponges, ginger biscuits, pots of tea…Hard to leave.

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Run up to publication of The Night Visitor

18 Apr 2017

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The Night Visitor with its smart new jacket heads out into the world for reviews and endorsements….just over a fortnight till publication.

Bestselling Crime Author Peter May

24 Jan 2017

Peter May at Waterstones Oxford

It was such a pleasure to spend an hour grilling crime author Peter May at Waterstones Oxford​ last night about his new book Cast Iron, the final in his acclaimed Enzo series. The most fascinating revelation, for me, is that, after many months of deep research, Peter spends an intense week writing a detailed storyline and then writes the entire novel in only about *seven weeks*. He makes Peter May Oxford 2017himself write 3,000 words a day, without fail, and will stop practically mid-sentence when he gets to his daily target.

He also talked about the wrench of saying goodbye to his beloved character Enzo, after six books. Incredibly, he started writing the Enzo books after his novel The Blackhouse was turned down by every single UK publisher. It was eventually picked up in France, became a huge bestseller, then had British publishers bidding like crazy to buy it. The madness of subjectivity. He chose Quercus Books​ (a publisher we share) because they were small, supportive with an immensely clever and talented staff. The Blackhouse (which became the first in his famous Lewis Trilogy) went on to sell millions worldwide.

This is the part of my job that I really love – the chance to learn from a pro (who also happens to be a lovely person).

 

 

Ladybird inspiration

2 Nov 2016

Prof Helen Roy Prof Helen Roy

I visited my friend, leading ladybird expert Prof. Helen Roy, today in her Oxfordshire offices. Helen provided much inspiration for my new novel and tons of information and research help into ladybirds and beetles (The Night Visitor is coming out next year, ages away still but I’ve finished it now). Apparently there are Harlequin ladybird swarms going on – it’s ladybird madness across Britain at the moment. The Harlequin is an invasive alien species – they may look cute but they’re the baddies, mainly if you’re a nice British ladybird.

Tabloids of course have reported this as ‘swarms of alien bugs carrying sexually transmitted diseases are invading our homes’.

BBC Report into Harlequin swarms

and…

Brilliant Daily Mirror headline 

‘Research’ trip to the South of France

29 Jun 2016

It was recently our 19th wedding anniversary. The novel I’m now writing is set, in part, in the South of France. When I was growing up we used to go camping there every year and it’s very dear to me.

All this called for an, ehem, ‘research trip.’  It was bliss (and actually quite useful for my book).

Here are a few pictures I took for inspiration.

 

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Forcalquier

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Location Scouting at the Hunterian Museum

12 May 2016

Yesterday I did a spot of location scouting at the Hunterian Museum, inside the Royal College of Surgeons where I’m planning a key scene in the novel I’m writing now.  It’s a fascinating place –  for non-medics like me it’s all about beautiful and creepy oddities; an eighteenth century ‘abscess opener’, a necrotic skull, the death mask of Sir Isaac Newton – I even found a case of beautiful, iridescent beetles (there’s a beetle theme going on in my latest book too).

Find out more here: Hunterian Museum 

 

Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons

outside Hunterian

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