Today I’m delighted to welcome Christine Webber back to Virtual Book Club, my author interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their book to your book club.
Christine was a guest on my blog in July 2021, when she was talking about her novel, So Many Ways of Loving, which was subsequently shortlisted for the Selfies Awards.
Christine Webber tried various careers in her younger days (in fact, it may be easier to list what she hasn’t done!) She was a classical singer, a Principal Boy in pantomimes, as well as a piano and singing teacher. Then came her big break. She landed a job in television as a continuity announcer, and shortly thereafter she became a news presenter at Anglia TV. In her forties, she trained as a psychotherapist, becoming a problem page columnist for publications including TV Times, Best, BBC Parenting, The Scotsman and Woman and was a regular on Trisha, The Good Sex Guide and from the BBC’s Breakfast sofa. She and her husband, David Delvin set up a practice in Harley Street, and while working there together, they collaborated on several books. As a result, Christine was commissioned to write ten self-help books including Get the Happiness Habit, How to Mend a Broken Heart and Too Young to Get Old. Her focus now is on the issues of mid and later life. She makes video podcasts on positive ageing, writes a columns on that theme, and is a life coach specialising in health and ageing. But she has no plans for any more non-fiction books. Instead, for the past five years she has concentrated on writing novels for and about older people. Christine’s latest novel, Watching From The Wings, will be the subject of our discussion today. Welcome Christine!
Q: You describe your novels as Books for Older Readers. What can readers expect?
I am not sure Books For Older Readers is fully recognised as a genre, but it’s a significant trend now among a number of authors who are past the bloom of youth. Many of us were disenchanted with mainstream novels which tended to caricature older people. I certainly felt irritated by these lazy characterisations which did not represent in any way the vibrant, busy, ambitious, ever-changing post-50 men and women I could see all around me, living life to the full. I think that we all find older age surprising because of just how much unexpected transition and upheaval there is. But I find I really like to write about all the issues that arise – late romance, travel, illness, widowhood, adult children doing unwise things with unwise people and so on. It makes sense to me that, just as we loved to read about other children when we were kids ourselves, we now want to read fiction with relevance to our current lives as older adults.
Q: At what point in writing Waiting in the Wings did you come up with its title?
This question makes me laugh. It has become a bit of a joke to me and various friends that I always have a working title which bears little relation to the final name of the book. My first novel with older characters was known as ‘Diary of a SWOFTY’ till it became Who’d Have Thought It? Perhaps I should explain that SWOFTY was an acronym dreamt up by the Department for Work and Pensions around 2014 and it meant Single Women Over Fifty. I was often on BBC Breakfast around then as a relationships expert and I remember being booked to talk about it. And that’s what gave me the idea for the novel. Other working titles that did not stand the test of time were ‘Ever More With Me’ which became It’s Who We Are, ‘Who’s Going to Massage My Back?’ which turned into So Many Ways of Loving, and this current novel – now called Watching From The Wings – was known to me for two years as ‘Katie in the Country’. In every case I think, the appropriate title has become apparent to me when I have reached a word count of around 100K.
Q: It’s my experience that all books begin with fragments. Which were yours?
All my fiction has begun with a fragment of an idea. Watching From the Wings was sparked off by a situation in my own life. Around the end of the first lockdown in the pandemic, I realised that the house I’d moved to after my husband died was not, after all, right for me. I found another one in Suffolk which I thought would suit me better. And it has. But, like for so many people, the buying and selling process became an absolute pain. And the couple who were buying my Norfolk house – and kept coming round for tea and saying how thrilled they were to be moving into a smaller, warmer property which was so unlike the large old, draughty house they’d inhabited for forty years – pulled out of the purchase, suddenly, a few days before we were due to exchange. I was not only deeply upset but really curious about what they, as a couple. were going through. I am sure it was the husband who did not want to downsize after all. I know she was desperate to do it. So, I did think a lot about her thoughts and emotions, and what it meant for their relationship. That was the starting point. At first, I thought it would be the launch chapter of Watching From The Wings but as things worked out it became the beginning of the second half.
Q: The moral of this story is don’t pull out of a house sale unless you want to end up in a novel! Housebuyers aside, did you incorporate any real life characters into Waiting in the Wings? If so how?
I have passing references to well-known actors of the day, and I have put in my favourites from real life – including Roger Allam and Ralph Fiennes. My main character, Katharine is married to a famous actor. Early in the second half of the book, which is set 40 years after the first half, she is facing up to what her life has become and laments her husband’s loss of fitness and also how his acting has become mannered and artificial. She feels bad about acknowledging this but cannot help compare his work with that of other thespians of around his age.
Q: Maggie O’Farrell said, ‘The way I see it, the past and the present are not separate. The present is the past amended, particularly in the way we apprehend it, our memories and nuances.’ It that something that you explore in the timeline of your novel?
Yes, I really do. The older I become, the less sure I am about time and existences and often wonder whether or not there may be other phases going on, in some kind of alternative sense, that influence us, but of which we have no real concept. I think, by the way, that it’s quite common when you have lost someone close, to start thinking about parallel universes and whether you might be still with this person in snapshots of the past in a different way entirely. I remember reading something along these lines by Tracey Emin when she was grief-stricken. Is it just that life as we know it becomes less sure as we age and go through various reverses? Who knows? Certainly, in this book, the past (set 40 years earlier than part two of the narrative) is responsible in every way for what is happening in contemporary times. I think too that from the moment we’re born we have certain innate characteristics which last us through life.
Q: You mention characters. Let’s talk about yours. The protagonist in Waiting in the Wings is Katharine Boyd (variously referred to as Katya, Kit Kat, Kitten, Katie). What ten words best describe her?
Tall, diffident, clumsy, loving, passionate, loyal, friendly, honest, funny and decent.
Q: Do any of your books have dedications? If so, to whom and why?
I got together with my husband, David, in 1987 and soon after that, I was commissioned to write a whole series of self-help books for Hodder and Stoughton. I dedicated every book I wrote to him. Then, many years later, when he became terminally ill, and I was writing fiction by then and was knee deep in constructing It’s Who We Are, I wrote what I thought would be my last dedication to him. But then, after he died, I dedicated So Many Ways of Loving to him too, because, though it was three years after his death, one of the themes of the book is widowhood. When it came to Watching From The Wings, I knew I needed to move on, and it seemed an obvious progression to dedicate it to my two wonderful stepsons. I’ve known them since they were in their late teens, over 30 years ago, and in that time, they have offered so much love and kindness to me – and been a massive support since their dad died.
Q: What a lovely tribute. I know that every time I publish a book, it is such a nerve-wracking experience I say, ‘Never again!’ Why do we keep going back to it?
I have just been out walking (more of which later) and I was pondering this question. The rather boring truth I think is that it has become a habit. And frankly, I feel somewhat lost when there is no book on the go. Indeed, like many writers, when I finally finish tweaking, and the manuscript goes to the printers, my sense of relief is always laced with a rather empty feeling. Bit pathetic! And I feel that way till the next one begins to take shape in my head. During my walk today, I did suddenly have an idea about a new novel and its first two chapters, which felt very heartening. It might take a few weeks to get going as I am quite busy, but I now have a sense of direction which is good. Meanwhile, of course, I also write because I have a job as a ‘positive ageing’ columnist across several newspaper titles in East Anglia – so that is a weekly commitment which just has to be done.
Q. I think a great many writers resolve problems and fill in plot holes while walking. Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking wrote, “Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively.” I assume that’s something you’d agree with?
I live in rural Suffolk and it is easy therefore for me to find interesting places in which to exercise without pounding pavements. Often, I walk through woods, by rivers, across fields… I am very aware of the changes of the seasons because of that. It is never routine. Never dull. With my interest in positive ageing, I do believe we should all exercise more than we think we need. This is great for the body. But, just as importantly, key to keeping the brain as young as possible. So, I take a ballet class most weeks. I also do Pilates. But I set myself a target of walking 20 miles weekly. Generally, I manage it – not all at once though! Walking feels essential to me now. It puts me right in so many ways. I come up with ideas for columns and, as mentioned earlier, plots for novels. I feel a sense of perspective because of being out. It stops me obsessing about stupid problems or irritations with health or other people. It’s just therapy really, isn’t it?
Q: Do you believe that you write the book you want to read?
Yes, I absolutely do. I want to read real life – not fantasy. I want to read books that explore characters and how they operate, and for them to feel realistic and authentic. I want to laugh. I want to cry. And I want, at the end of the book, to feel satisfied. And I think those are the criteria I work to when I’m writing.
Q: If you discover a new author, do you tend to devour everything that they have written?
Big time! In the last eighteen months, I’ve discovered Matt Haig and have now read virtually everything he has written. And I am going through the same process with Nina Stibbe, who was recommended to me on Facebook not long ago. Her writing makes me laugh out loud – a good talking point on a crowded train! And – as a result of her recent tragic and untimely death – I have finally caught up with the very entertaining writing of Kate Saunders and will buy everything she has written. I am very loyal to the authors I love and have genuinely read most, if not all, of their books. These wonderful people include: Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Kate Atkinson, Patrick Gale, Helen Dunmore, Robert Harris and Iris Murdoch.
Q: That’s a great list. In fact The Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore is next on my TBR pile! I read a question recently in an interview and I thought, Oh, that’s a good question, and so I’m going to ask it here. Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
I trained as a musician initially, and music is really the thread in my life that holds me together. Frankly, it’s impossible to name one of anything. But the world would be a far poorer place without Beethoven’s late string quartets or his opera Fidelio, the Schubert song cycles.
Want to know more about Christine?
Discover Christine’s podcast and You Tube channel, Too Young to Get Old.
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Written on May 19, 2023 at 12:10 pm, by Jane Davis
Categories: Author Interviews, Blog, Homepage, In-depth, Self-Publishing, The Making of a Book, The Selfies Awards, Virtual Book Club, Writing Life | Tags: Books for Older Readers, Books with older main characters as protagonists, Christine Webber, health and aging, Older protagonist books, Positive Aging, So Many Ways of Loving, Watching from the Wings, Who'd Have Thought it?
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