As I mentioned in my last post, I've never been to France (nor England) but I do love that books can transport me oceans away and provide me with much needed scenic vacations throughout my urban commuting. It is my pleasure to chat today with an author across the Atlantic from my Midwestern self who whisked me away to a beautiful countryside in The Tapestry of Love! Please join me in welcoming author Rosy Thornton!
Hello, and thank you for inviting me here to your blog.
I’m Rosy, I’m the mother of two daughters and I lecture in Law at the University of Cambridge, where I’m a Fellow of Emmanuel College. For the first 41 of my 47 years it never crossed my mind for a moment to write a novel, or even so much as a short story. It didn’t occur to me that I’d have any aptitude for it; lawyers, after all, are concentric, analytical thinkers, dissectors and distinguishers, who devote their time to the pedantic splitting of hairs. We are famed for our lack of imagination. But as an academic I was at least used to the process of writing, of putting words on paper for others to read, which is a large part of the job. And I suppose I had always had a rich – if unacknowledged – fantasy life; as soon as I did put fingers to keyboard, the ideas began to flow. It was as if I’d spent twenty years exercising only the left side of my brain, and my right brain was longing to strike back.
My first novel, ‘More Than Love Letters’, was published in 2006 by Headline Review, and three more have followed, to date. ‘The Tapestry of Love’, which came out in October last year, is my latest.
The setting of Tapestry of Love is delightful and you really brought to life the region of the National Park in the Cévennes Mountains. How did you choose this beautiful region as the story's backdrop?
I wanted to write a book about a woman who begins a new life in an alien environment, in order to map the challenges she faces and to consider the question of how we put down roots in a place and in a community. France was the obvious choice for me, as my brother (when he married a Frenchwoman) and then my parents (when they retired) have all made the move to live there. The Cévennes itself was just somewhere I’d visited; I spent a fortnight’s holiday there almost twenty years ago, but somehow it laid a powerful hold on my imagination. It is remote and ancient and underpopulated, allowing me to explore issues of loneliness and isolation. And, for anyone who doesn’t know it, I can tell you that it’s also the most beautiful place on earth.
I suppose I am a country girl at heart. I was brought up in a village in Suffolk and live in a village again now. It’s true I commute into Cambridge to my job at the university, but Cambridge is a small city in rural East Anglia – really just an overgrown market town. The main difference between Catherine’s life and mine is that my own is hectically busy, juggling a full-time job and a family as well as the writing – so escaping with Catherine to her existence of peace and solitude in the mountains, with only herself to please, was a glorious fantasy for me! I also spend most of my time working with my brain – whether it’s doing law or writing fiction, it’s all thinking of one sort or another. I do cook, and I used to paint a little when I was younger, but I’d love to spend more time in activity which is physically creative. Catherine’s life, therefore, with her tapestry work and seamstressing, her cooking and her gardening, is perhaps the embodiment of another of my fantasies.
The supporting cast of the novel was very realistic and I loved Catherine's family and neighbors! Did you have the entire cast in mind before you began writing or did new characters pop into the story as you went along?
I began with only a vague notion of the three main actors in what passes for a plot: Catherine, her sister Bryony, and her new neighbour Patrick Castagnol. I’m not one of those authors who plan their work meticulously in advance; I’m what is known in the trade as a ‘pantser’ – that is, I write by the seat of my pants! When each new character is introduced, I have only the haziest notion of what he or she is going to be like: an age and sex, perhaps a glimpse of some basic physical characteristics, and some sense of their key personality traits. They start out as little more than ‘types’, but as I write, as they begin to speak and to interact with the rest of my cast, they gradually take shape and become themselves. I can’t sit down in the abstract and ‘design’ a fully fledged character out of the context of a story. I find I have to get to know them slowly, through what they do and say and how they react to events, just as we do the people we meet in real life.
I must admit I can’t so much as sew on a button, myself, without its falling off again within the week. But my mum used to design and stitch her own needlepoint tapestries – until, very sadly, the encroachment of Parkinson’s in recent years obliged her to stop. And I have always admired the fabulous tapestries which adorn the walls of so many French châteaux – as well as harbouring an inexplicable interest in the history of the European silk industry!
(Purists, of course, would argue that Catherine’s tapestries are not really tapestries at all, being stitched and not woven – just as the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry either. But I decided to dare their wrath; the French use the word ‘tapisserie’ for creations of both types, and I was happy to do the same.)
Tapestry of Love is the only work of yours that I have read (so far) but I notice you have three other books I can be looking for! Will you share a little about your other books? Do you have a favorite among your own novels?
Two of my other three books are essentially romantic comedies, though the first one, ‘More Than Love Letters’ also has an edge of political satire. It is an epistolary novel, about an idealistic young schoolteacher who writes campaigning letters to her local MP, and ends up falling in love with him.
My favourite book, however, is probably ‘Hearts and Minds’, which is a campus novel set in a fictional Cambridge college, with all its political manouevrings and backstabbings. I had great fun writing it (winding up my colleagues by telling them they were going to be in it), and no shortage of material to draw on – though I actually had to tone down some of the eccentricities of the place to make it believable to an outsider!
What authors or books would you say have inspired or influenced you?
I was inspired to begin writing fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ – or rather, more specifically, by a BBC television adaptation of the novel which was screened in 2004. Or – even more specifically, and to be perfectly candid – by leading actor Richard Armitage, who enslaved half the female population of Great Britain with his smouldering portrayal of millowner John Thornton. After watching the series, I went online to find out more about it, and discovered the world (previously unknown to me) of internet ‘fanfic’. Here were people posting online their own stories based on Gaskell’s characters. I was impressed by the quality of the writing, and felt moved to have a go myself; four months later I found I had written a full-length pastiche sequel to ‘North and South’.
It was complete bilge, of course, but by then I was thoroughly smitten with the whole adventure of writing fiction, and went straight on to start my own independent story – the novel which became ‘More Than Love Letters’. It is no coincidence that the heroine of that book is called Margaret after Margaret Hale from ‘North and South’ – or that the hero’s name is Richard. No prizes for guessing who was in my mind as I imagined him…
What projects are you currently working on?
I have one more novel completed and in the process of submission, and another just begun – both of them set back in England in my native East Anglia. But, if you’ll forgive me, I never like to say too much about my books until they have a publisher, for fear of jinxing things!
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Please do drop in a see me at my website, here: http://www.rosythornton.com
Thank you so much for your interesting questions, Lisa, and for having me along to talk to you.