Today I’m delighted to welcome bestselling author, Isabel Wolff, to my blog. Isabel is a former BBC journalist. Her ten novels have been translated into 30 languages and have sold over 5 million copies. Her early romantic comedies such as ‘The Trials of Tiffany Trott’ and ‘Rescuing Rose’ have given way to stories such as ‘A Vintage Affair’ and ‘The Very Picture of You’ in which she skillfully blends present and past.
I was fortunate enough to receive a preview copy of Isabel’s new novel, ‘Ghostwritten’, which is set in contemporary Cornwall and on Java, during the Japanese occupation of World War II.
Isabel, having recently interviewed several ghost writers who have also been published under their own names, it was very interesting to read a novel about the life of a ghost writer. Is ghost writing something that you have ever considered?
I have, increasingly so, because writing a novel is hard, and I sometimes think how nice it would be nice to have a holiday from the stress of it by doing some ghost writing instead. The story would be there, right from the start, and I’d just have to help the client write it, and give it a satisfying structure. I know that I’d enjoy this because I used to work for the BBC World Service as a reporter and was used to interviewing people at length for my features and documentaries, then shaping the material into a coherent whole, and I think those skills would be well suited to ghost writing.
From the cover of the book (the final version of which is slightly different) and its title, I had expected a ghost story. And although it’s not a ghost story in the traditional sense, do you think it’s fair to say that ‘Ghostwritten’ is a book about laying ghosts to rest?
You’re right – it’s not a conventional ghost story, but it’s about a young woman who is haunted by a tragic event in her past – an event that has shaped who she is, and how she’s lived her life. Jenni now wants to confront that event, after twenty-five years, but finds it very distressing. So in the novel I explore ideas about ghosts, presences and visitations, because this suits her fragile state of mind.
When we meet Jenni at the beginning of the book, she has reached a crisis in her relationship with Rick because he wants to have children and she doesn’t. My partner and I are childless out of choice. Having said that, the reasons why people decide to have or not to have children is one that fascinates me, and is a theme I often return to in my writing. Despite the variety of reasons that might be behind such a choice, women are sometimes seen as cold for not wanting children. Why do you think that is?
The media are comfortable with the narrative of women who wanted to have children, but were unable to do so for whatever reason – that’s a nice ‘sad’ story for them, one which puts women down. The media are less comfortable with the idea of a woman choosing not to have kids – because this is a symptom of the power that women now have – and so they portray them as selfish and cold. Fifty years ago if a woman got married then she almost always had children because there was no reliable contraception. Today whether or not a woman has a child is up to her, but the media don’t like that and feel entitled to judge.
Your main character, Jenni, likes the anonymity ghost writing allows her and, as the novel progresses, we discover the reasons why. Jenni is helping Klara, a survivor of a Japanese internment camp, to write her memoirs. When you mention concentration camps for civilians, most people think of Europe. I have to admit that, whilst I was aware of the horrors of Japanese Prisoner of War camps, I wasn’t aware just how horrific conditions were for women and children. What drew you to Java?
Jenni does want to remain anonymous, it’s true; she shuns the limelight and gravitates towards the shadows because of the profound remorse and shame that she feels. I was drawn to Java because I’ve always been interested in the Pacific theatre of war, and I knew that it was a story that not many of my readers would know. The only dramatization of this neglected part of World War 2 history is ‘Tenko’, which was a hit TV series in the early 80s. I used to watch it avidly and was fascinated by it. The conditions in the civilian internment camps were atrocious, and thousands of women and children died. So Klara’s story is about her struggle to survive.
As Klara tells Jenni her story, it becomes apparent that the two women have more in common than they could have imagined. I very much liked the idea that they could be separated by geography and two generations, but that they shared similar experiences. Was that your intention?
It was my intention for Jenni and Klara to be connected in this way, yes, so that we gradually learn that they have an enormous amount in common. This friendship across the generations was also a large part of ‘A Vintage Affair’ in which my heroine, Phoebe, befriends an elderly French woman, Therese.
The novel made me think about the stories that I would tell – and those that perhaps I would omit – if I was telling the story of my own life to a complete stranger. Do you think you would be brave enough to do what Klara did?
I don’t know whether I’d be as brave as Klara, because I’m much younger and still at an age where I’d worry about what people thought of me. If I were 80, like Klara, perhaps I would be honest about my life – I don’t know. But Klara is telling her story for the first time, and wants to tell the truth, although she finds it very hard to do so.
I’m reticent to ask too many more questions about the novel’s themes in case we give too much away. Suffice to say it’s a compelling read and one that has stayed with me long after I turned the last page. As we’ve already said, Ghostwritten is your tenth novel. Perhaps you could take us back to the first success you enjoyed as an author?
My first novel ‘The Trials of Tiffany Trott’ was a romantic comedy about a girl about town, Tiffany Trott, and grew out of the column of the same name that I had in the Daily Telegraph. I very much enjoyed writing it, and was thrilled that it sold a million copies around the world. Although the books I’m writing now are very different, I remain fond of Tiffany, and she still makes me laugh.
Hilary Mantel says that a Catholic upbringing is the only qualification a writer requires. Do you have any writing qualifications?
I’m a Catholic and I think I know what Hilary Mantel means because having to go to Confession from an early age does make us self-aware, inclined to pick over our actions and to examine our conscience. I think that writers tend to be outsiders – watchful and reticent, rather than the life and soul of the party, and I have always been like that.
What is your reaction when you see someone reading one of your books in public? Does it still give you a thrill?
A few times over the years I’ve got on the tube train and seen someone with their nose in one of my books. This is always a delicious feeling for any author. Sadly, in the age of Kindle, it’s a pleasure that is, increasingly, denied to us. Another wonderful moment was when my fifth novel, ‘Behaving Badly’, had a huge animated poster up in Victoria Station – I just stood there gawping at it.
What is your writing routine?
I take my children to school, then charge around Hyde Park with our black cocker spaniel, Alfie, before getting down to work. I always aim to write new words in the morning – a thousand if I can manage it – and then edit what I’ve written in the afternoon. I often try and do a bit more to the book late at night, when the family’s in bed and the house is silent; but by then I’m tired, and often wake up to find my forehead on the keyboard and ssssssssssssssfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff on the screen.
Isabel, I’m really grateful that you took time out from your routine to talk to me. Ghostwritten will be published by HarperCollins on March 27th and I wish you every luck with it.
If you can’t wait until then, you can pre-order here.
To find out more or to connect with Isabel, please click on the links.
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