Today, I’m delighted to welcome Clare Flynn back to Virtual Book Club, my interview series which gives authors the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.
Clare Flynn is the author of eight historical novels and a collection of short stories.
A former Marketing Director and management consultant Clare was responsible for marketing all manner of goods from Fairy Liquid to Jaffa Cakes, and helping solve problems and generate ideas for clients from tech companies to retailers, and broadcasters to utility suppliers and drinks manufacturers.
Now she is a full-time writer and loves her life – occasionally asking why it took her so long to start doing this. Instead of dreaming up ideas to improve corporate culture, she finds it much more fun to dream up people and make things happen to them.
Clare now lives by the sea on the Sussex coast and is planning to travel right round the world next year. She won’t forget to pack her laptop. Meanwhile, when she’s not writing she loves to play the piano, paint and make patchwork quilts (very very slowly!).
Q: The Frozen River, your eighth novel,was released yesterday (17 September 2018). Can you give me twenty words on why it should be a reader’s next read…
“Enter another world – 1950’s Canada – you’ll feel as though you know the characters intimately and care what happens to them.”
Q: This is your third novel that revolves around the same group of characters. Does that mean that you knew where this book was going right from the start?
No. I never planned to write a three-book series as I’ve always written standalone fiction. I did it because readers asked me to. They didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters. So, I moved a different pair of characters into centre stage in each book and I wrote the books as though they were standalones. The Chalky Sea is Gwen and Jim’s stories; The Alien Corn is Joan and Jim, and The Frozen River is mainly about Ethel and Alice – although Joan is a strong supporting player, as are all the men in their lives. You can read the novels in chronological order from wartime to the early fifties – but you can equally well read them in any order or pick up any one.
When I started to write fiction, I sat down and began to write without a single clue where that first book was leading. It took fifteen years to complete! Since then, I’ve done a little more planning, so that nowadays I have a rough idea of the general shape of a book but, as soon as I begin to write, I find ideas arrive and sometimes take me in a different direction from the one I originally intended.
I knew at the beginning I was going to be writing about Ethel moving to Canada and about what happened to Alice, who we left at the end of The Alien Corn, pregnant and moving with her five-year-old daughter to Ottawa. I intended to bring Alice back to Hollowtree, but I had no idea what would trigger that. I also had a lot of readers who were baying for Tip Howardson’s blood – so I had to bring him back too.
Q: I know you love to travel. Is the book’s setting somewhere you have visited?
It’s set in the fictional town of Hollowtree in Ontario, Canada. I based it on a an amalgam of several small provincial towns in southern Ontario, west of Toronto and about an hour’s drive from Kitchener. I wanted to write about Joan’s cousin, Ethel who has a small but vital role in both the earlier books – but I had no desire to write about her hometown of Aldershot, England (where I lived myself for a year when I was a child and which appeared in The Chalky Sea) so I had to send her over to Canada.
I’ve never visited Ontario, so it was a wonderful voyage of discovery for me. I was extremely fortunate to have received an online introduction to three wonderful retired librarians from the province and they set up a Messenger group for me to ask them questions and responded to them all quickly and in glorious detail. I quizzed them on everything from Christmas traditions to legal terms and one of them, Peter, read both the Hollowtree books before publication to make sure I didn’t trip up – for example by using words like paddock (only used in horse-racing apparently) and copse of trees instead of stand of trees.
I do love to travel to the locations I am writing about, but I couldn’t make it work with Ontario. Google Earth proved very useful and I pored over farmers’ almanacs and blogs, daily climate statistics, old ice hockey videos, YouTube videos on tapping maples for syrup, maps, rail timetables and more. I made sure if it was snowing in the book it had to be have been snowing that day in reality. I do get lots of positive feedback from readers about the quality of my research. It’s important though that it is woven in lightly and to advance the story – not just dumped into the narrative. Another plus with this book was getting to watch some old movies again including Niagara and High Noon.
Three strong women making their way in 1950’s Canada
Ethel, alone after the deaths of her family and her wartime fiancé. Alice bringing up two daughters as a single mother. Joan mother to four small children. All brought together in a rural Canadian town and struggling to make their way in a changing world – often in spite of the men in their lives.
Each has a different idea of happiness and fulfilment. Will any or all of them achieve it?
The final novel in The Canadians series after The Chalky Sea and The Alien Corn.
Click here to look inside or buy ~ eBook only 99p until 22 September
Q: Where does this story fit in with the rest of your work?
In a way all my books are about displacement. I love to take a person, living in a quietly contented manner and cast them into a completely new environment – often involving a different country or even continent. That triggers conflict, challenge, sometimes distress – and always change and growth. In The Frozen River, Ethel, like her cousin Joan a few years earlier, moves from a small English town to rural Canada and a completely different life. Ethel herself embodies the frozen river of the title, limited by her circumstances, constrained by loss and grief, almost shrinking in upon herself in loneliness. It is through moving to Canada that she is forced to confront some truths about herself and find the courage to live a bigger life.
I also tend to weave in an issue that impacts some or one of the characters. In The Alien Corn it was PTSD – although in the 1940s it was more often known as battle fatigue. In The Frozen River it is depression. In the early 1950s there was little understanding of the causes and effects of depression (including post-natal depression) and treatment often involved institutionalisation and electro-convulsive therapy, as medication was greatly limited and talking therapies not widely used. Mental illness casts a shadow over Ethel’s relationship with the doctor, whose daughter suffers from it and whose late wife had died as a result of her own mental health problems.
Most of my books tend to tackle an issue – Kurinji Flowers with child abuse, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt with alcoholism, The Gamekeeper’s Wife with mental incarceration and with disability. I am making it sound as though all my books have gloomy themes, which is not the case at all, but I think it’s fair to say that to anyone looking for a straightforward, feel-good romance I don’t do that!
Q: Do the troubled identities in this book indicate changes in your own life?
I think perhaps I write about others’ troubled lives because my own life is so boring! I’ve haven’t suffered with any of the terrible things that have happened to my characters. Except one – displacement. From the age of five onwards I was uprooted on an almost annual basis as a result of my father’s job and had to face the horrors of joining a new school, making new friends and always being labelled “the new girl”. While I hated this at the time and was often unhappy and lonely (especially the twelve months spent in Yorkshire living in the middle of nowhere, bullied at school and with no other kids around except my own younger siblings) I think it has given me a lifelong readiness to live in different places. Like my father, my own job took me to different locations – in my case different countries – so I have had to get to grips, not always as successfully as I’d have wished, with a new culture and way of life.
In theory, I am now settled here, by the seaside on the Sussex coast – but I can’t stop thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to move to…” I try instead to travel frequently to feed the wanderlust and then be glad to return home!
That aside, most of the things I have written about, including marriage, childbirth, mental illness, rape, I have no personal knowledge of. To me that’s one of the joys of writing – the ability to live other lives vicariously!
Click here to look inside or buy ~ eBook only 99p until 22 September 2018
Q: Is your writing plot-driven or character-driven?
Both! They are indivisible. I see my writing as story-telling and all good stories have characters you care passionately about (whether you love them or loathe them). It’s about placing a character into a situation that the story arises. If you give me a plot structure, as soon as I introduce my characters, it will start to go in a different direction. It’s all about how people react to circumstances.
If Alice in The Frozen River hadn’t wandered into a cinema one afternoon, her story would have been very different. It is a life-changing moment. Ethel might have walked into the same cinema and enjoyed the film but would have got on with the rest of her life afterwards.
Q: You mentioned earlier that your readers praise the scope of your research, but the key to writing historical fiction is transporting readers to another time and place without overloading them with information. So how much detail is too much?
It should appear effortless. To me it’s about taking the reader into the past so that she doesn’t even realise it is historical because it feels real and present. That requires weaving the historical detail into the fabric of the book, not dumping it in undigested chunks or offering an extended history lesson. I’m currently reading In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. She packs in a huge amount of historical detail but it feels as though you are there, walking those corridors behind Lucrezia Borgia, listening to the sounds of the court musicians, the peal of the bells, smelling the odour of sanctity (aka decay) in the cell of a nun who has given up eating, watching the blood spill as Cesare Borgia plunges a dagger into a boy’s stomach, feeling the texture of fabrics, seeing the intricacies of a marquetry-lined studio or the details of a fine portrait.
It’s all about creating an experience for the reader which will plunge her right into the historical world – but at the same time it should appeal to readers regardless of whether or not they are interested in history per se. That’s because good stories reach across time periods and are relevant regardless. Human emotions – greed, lust, ambition, love, grief, fear are universal whether you write about the stone age or the present time.
Q: Are you looking to entertain or illuminate your readers?
Definitely to entertain – but if I get it right I hope they might learn something at the same time. I certainly learn a lot myself while I’m writing my books.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
Before I started – unusually for me. I wanted to keep a symmetry with the two other books, The Chalky Sea and The Alien Corn, so The Frozen River immediately felt right and was perfect for Ethel – as well as for those long Canadian winters.
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
Definitely the last one. Having written about three women I needed to draw their stories to a fitting conclusion and I wanted the three of them to be there together – but I didn’t want it to be sentimental. I decided to revisit a location that had witnessed a dramatic and climactic scene in The Alien Corn – but this time with a very different outcome. I worked really hard on it but couldn’t get it right for ages. When, finally, I was happy with it I was overjoyed when my editor singled it out as a scene that worked particularly well so all the effort paid off.
Want to find out more about Clare and her writing?
Don’t forget that The Frozen River and The Alien Corn are only 99p each until 22 September so grab your copies now!
Website – https://clareflynn.co.uk
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/authorclareflynn
If there’s anything else you’d like to ask Clare please leave a comment.
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