It’s always enjoyable for me when an author I’ve known and interviewed has a new book to release. Especially if the writer has a particularly compelling style and insightful ways of illustrating the human condition in their work.
I’ve known UK based author Rosy Thornton for some years now, having first made her acquaintance in a somewhat reserved writer’s forum some years ago, where her generous nature gave writers struggling to find their voice (like me…), more confidence and skill. I needed (and still do…) all the help I could get, and Ms. Thornton’s patience and knowledge came as a welcome surprise. My surprise grew out of my own insecurity and little or no real knowledge of the work of most of the other members or writers, in general. I had no idea that she was a respected fellow, lecturer and tutor in the subject of Law, at Cambridge, or that she had lots of readers who appreciated each new book as it came into the world.
My first reading of Ms. Thornton’s writing was her award-winning fifth novel Ninepins, set in the lonely fen country of Cambridgeshire. It was moving and very revealing of her characters’ internal struggles and the illusions we spin to protect our fragile hearts. My 2012 interview is posted here. Ninepins got under my skin and eventually helped inspire my own characters’ emotional development. I was very pleased to hear that a new book was due for a launching and even more pleased that the author had time to do the interview.
Richard: Rosy, I’m so glad you could join us to discuss your soon-to-be-launched Sandstone Press collection of short stories, Sandlands.
Rosie: Hello. Richard. It’s lovely to be here and so kind of you to invite me. And thank you, too, for that very generous introduction. You’ve made me feel quite nostalgic for our old co-critiquing days in the writers’ forum!
Richard: From my reading of Ninepins, I learned of your profound connection to the natural world and I’m glad to see that the stories in Sandlands will be expressing more of that connection. Were these tales conceived as parts of a larger whole, or did they spring to life independently?
Rosie: The very first story was just a story – an idea that came to me when walking in the woods near my Suffolk home and noticing one pure white doe among a group of roe deer. I found myself looking out for her every morning, whenever I glimpsed the deer, and she reminded me of an old French legend, about a young woman condemned to roam the woods at night in the shape of a white doe, until she is accidentally shot by her own huntsman brother. The legend made me think of bereavement and loss – especially of a sibling – and also of the guilt that comes with loss.
Anyway, I wrote that one, and it was so deeply rooted in the countryside of Suffolk, those woods and fields, and I thought, this place – this landscape and its wildlife – could be the subject and the setting for many different stories. So I wrote another one, and another…. and soon the idea of a collection was born.
Richard: If you were to choose another setting in the countryside you love, for another novel, what would seem the most evocative location?
Rosie: Hmm, that’s a tricky one. I have already set three books in areas that are close to my heart. This current collection in the sandlings of coastal Suffolk, Ninepins (as you’ve said) in the flat grey fens around Cambridge where I live in the working week, and an earlier novel, The Tapestry of Love, which used for its backdrop the remote Cévennes mountains of central France. Where is there left to write about? Well, one idea which has preoccupied me for some time is to write a book set by the sea. The village where the tales in Sandlands all unfold is just a few miles from the coast, and the nearby shingle beaches do feature in one or two stories. But to set an entire novel in some run down, half-forgotten seaside town, its salt-bleached paintwork gently peeling… That notion certainly appeals.
Richard: In Ninepins, you use the device of a single mother, her daughter and a girl who many would consider a “Charity Case” interacting in a very remote, work-intensive setting. The conflict seemed very immediate, yet somehow almost ethereal. It was quite trick to pull off. In Sandlands, can we expect similar sleight of hand?
Rosie: That’s a really interesting perspective on my writing, Richard. I think you’re right that I like to shift the ground from under my readers’ feet – to root my narratives in the everyday and comfortable, the daily round of cups of tea and talks around the breakfast table, but then to introduce some darker or more dangerous sense, of threat or loss, the unexpected, the ghostly or the magical. I think there can be power in that contrast – our cozy and familiar world, shot through by a current of something ‘other’.
In Sandlands, that ‘other’ is often the tug of the past – past lives and loves, past tragedies – breaking through into the present in various unanticipated ways.
Richard: The inescapable past permeates much of my own work, too, as does the Natural world. Wildlife of all kinds are especially close to my own heart. Our own home on Long Island resembles not the expected manicured landscape, but rather a deep woodlands forest, very welcoming to all animals. Can you describe your own interests regarding the Natural world and how they influence your work?
Rosie: You make me want to visit Long Island! My beloved Suffolk, evoked in Sandlands, is a landscape of great variety. British people tend to think of all the eastern counties as flat and unvarying, but within a five mile radius of the village where my book is set you’ll find rolling farmland bounded by ancient hedgerows, thick deciduous woodland and lowland heath purpled over with heather, salt marshes and shingle beaches. The fauna are varied too, and nine of the sixteen stories in the collection take one particular animal, bird, insect or flower for their central motif: from fox to barn owl, nightingale and curlew, from the dune-flowering sand catchfly to a rare species of butterfly called the silver-studded blue.
Richard: “God,” someone said, “is in the details.” There are so many unique and beautiful living things, it would be very hard hard not to be inspired by them, constantly. I see that kind of inspiration in Sandlands’ standout cover. I really love it. I would imagine that your academic career has also provided unique opportunities for your development as a fiction writer. Are there any mentors whose work influenced your need to write? How did you writing voice evolve?
Rosie: Well, I’m not sure that my university career (lecturing and writing about law) has exactly provided direct opportunities for the development of my fiction. Rather the opposite, I’m tempted to say – a full-time day job does tend to get in the way of having the time I’d like to write novels and stories! But of course, there are many, many people who have encouraged me with my fiction, including colleagues at the university and, perhaps most especially, my students. They are delighted to encounter a lecturer who doesn’t just live and breathe law, and writes books that people might actually enjoy reading!
More concretely, I do think that twenty-five years as an academic lawyer have helped me to develop a precision in my choice of words, and a forensic eye for context and meaning in the way words are employed. And those, I think, are ‘transferable skills’ (as they say), as useful for conjuring a fictional scene in exact detail as for framing a watertight legal argument.
Richard: I’ve had “what-ifs” and story interests circulating in my head since I was a boy. Making the commitment to write seriously and actually complete the longer forms has enabled me to finally engage in pursuits I’ve wanted to follow since childhood. It’s also provided me with rather less-expensive therapy and demon-exorcism as well. Has your own work provided unexpected benefits or psychic healing?
Rosie: Oh, absolutely! I think most writers secretly write as therapy, at least in part. It’s no coincidence that many of the stories in Sandlands deal in some way or another with bereavement or loss – and that my beloved dad died in 2014 when I was in the early stages of writing the book.
Richard: Sorry to hear that. Loss can be an incredible motivator though. One of my own recent books was written really as a conversation I’d always wished to have with my own Dad. I like to think he’d have really loved it. Finally, shifting gears, can you give us a short description of Sandlands that will whet our appetites and loosen our wallets?
Rosie: I really don’t think I could do a better job than my lovely editor, Moira, who wrote this blurb for the back cover of the book:
“From the white doe appearing through the dark wood to the blue-winged butterflies rising in a cloud as a poignant symbol of happier times, the creatures of the Suffolk landscape move through Rosy Thornton’s delicate and magical collection of stories. The enigmatic Mr. Napish is feeding a fox rescued from the floods; an owl has been guarding a cache of long-lost letters; a nightingale’s song echoes the sound of a loved voice; in a Martello tower on a deserted shore Dr. Whybrow listens to ghostly whispers. Through the landscape and its creatures, the past is linked to the present, and generations of lives are intertwined.”
Richard: That does the trick, as does the excellent comment about the breadth of your work on the front cover by Jenn Ashworth. Thank you for spending your time with us today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Rosie: Thank you, Richard. The pleasure is all mine!
Rosie Thornton’s books to date, include:
More Than Love Letters (Headline, 2007)
Hearts and Minds (Headline Review, 2008)
Crossed Wires (Headline Review, 2009)
The Tapestry of Love (Headline Review, 2010)
Ninepins (Sandstone Press, 2012)
Sandlands (Sandstone Press, 2016)
Her author website is here: http://www.rosythornton.com
and she welcomes new readers to ‘friend’ her on Facebook here:
For review copies or press information, please contact Sandstone Press publicity officer, Keara Donnachie (email@example.com)
# # # #
Readers’ comments are always encouraged. If you’d like to ask or discuss anything pertaining to her work, leave your comment here…
One of my favorite perks in doing publication design work, is being able to discover great writers and their work well ahead of the public. I’m often called in to contribute on projects that really captivate me. Making me think. Filling my head with what-ifs.
Since most of my thinking has always been visually based, it lends itself naturally to finding designs to convey the emotion and substance of the written word. Here are two of my most recently completed projects, which will be available to readers to enjoy soon. Full sales links and more information will follow upon the books’ launches.
Both covers make use of multiple, combined images, which can often create an appealing balance of action and emotion. In both of these cases, the stories were so evocative that the ideas came spilling out before I had even begun researching images. It doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes it takes weeks of applied research, d trial and error and sweat. My back can testify to the hazards of too many hours perched over my keyboard while my monitor burns into my retinas. But not with these.
As usual, your opinions and comments are welcome. If you have a cover design project in the wings and would like my opinion or active participation, a full inquiry form follows…
I suppose that it just feels so good when a story rolls off the fingertips, that I had to begin and complete another draft before I had completed my WW2 story (set in Brooklyn and in New Orleans), tentatively titled, River Traffic. R-T had required a lot of research, and normally, while I enjoy all the digging, for some reason, I found myself putting it away for a spell. Procrastination, or to be honest, an elusive ending found all kinds of reasons not to write. I jumped into the crazy world of book marketing to get more readers for my existing titles. Some of it worked, some didn’t. I had gotten to the point, after an almost full year of book marketing, tweaking tags, pushing information throughout the net, that I missed writing stories.
Around the time that I decided to return to word-smithing River Traffic, something unusual happened. It was just before Christmas. My sixteen year old grandson asked if I thought a particular gift was too far “over the top” to consider. It was something he really wanted, and just unusual enough that I had to bite. He wanted a broadsword. Not a dungeons and dragons fan that I knew about, he had accompanied me to see the Tolkien movies, but this came out of left field. Since most of the gifts I knew were coming his way were pretty serious things he needed for school and I was able to find a few swords online that weren’t too expensive, I bought one for him.
The real impact occurred when it arrived. As I drew it out of its sheath to inspect it before wrapping it up, a prickly, peculiar sensation began buzzing in my ears, running up and down my back. As the light played over the edges and fuller channel, an unexpected story began to suggest itself to me. I hadn’t worked on an ancient historical fantasy project for many years, but once the itch struck, I had to find out if it was going to be of any value. Two weeks later, I’d completed 85K words in a frenzy that felt almost drug-induced. I’d also enjoyed taking my core characters by sail from Northern Africa to Tarsus, then all the way around Crete, Greece and Italy to ancient Marseilles by way of Sardinia. The time period begins in 48BCE. The actual sword that rattled the muse went over as a memorable gift. He was very happy with it and later I saw it propped up next to his bed leaning on the headboard. So far, there haven’t been any injuries or news of persons missing in the vicinity, so I can exhale regarding its appropriateness.
But of course, despite the joys of a first draft that almost writes itself, what remains on the other side is the real work. I’ve envisioned this as a project that will take up at least three books; and now the first, which is in serious need of both line and developmental editing is up to 93K words. It’s going to need some rewrites. The first round comments from my trusted core of beta readers have come back pointing in several shared directions. So at least I have a general idea of what remains to be done. I’m no stranger to rewrites. My first book needed twelve of them!
So, the point of this post is to explain what I’ll be doing for the next six months if you don’t hear much from me. I’ve also settled on a tentative project name. A Gift of Steel. What else could it possibly be?
Oh, and yes, I broke down and bought one for myself, as you can see.
# # # #
By the way, a great blog post about procrastination and the doubts that plague writers, by author and editor Debi Alper can be found at: http://debialper.blogspot.com/2016/04/facing-down-fear.html
# # # #
Update — Rewrites one and two are complete and most of the Beta reports are in. I weighed whether a major twist should happen at the end of this book or the beginning of the next. After due consideration and digesting my readers’ comments, I elected to include the twist as a way of setting up the next. A pitch has been written and sent and now I have time to return to River Traffic, my WW2/Brooklyn/NOLA novel. I’m about two-thirds complete with that one, so I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to work!
This year we celebrate the Centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland that laid the foundation for the Republic. Our Nations share aspirations and bloodlines and an acute longing for satisfied lives. My father was born on the Nebraska prairie, near North Platte in July of 1916. In thinking of the lives of his forebears in a hard land and the lives of those brave sons and daughters of Eire, I’ve written the following words…
1916: Half a World Away
by Richard Sutton
Easter morning! Sunrise paints Dublin’s cobbled streets.
Half a world away, in a rude sod shack
a woman carries the swelling burden of her future
on the bleak Nebraska prairie.
She cries out, new life inside her stirring
sure as the heartbeat of a nation, birthing.
Crying too, half a world away, soon to rise once more
to see the old world with new eyes, shining.
Sharp winds scour the plains, rattle ragged eaves.
Yet sharper still, winds of destiny and justice, long-denied
sweep over Eire; weary voices resounding strong,
proclaim this day their very own.
But not yet for the Prairie Mother,
nor for all those other Irish sons and daughters,
still daring to hope, half a world away.
The blood and the heart they share, but not fate.
Time will come soon enough to loose
the Prairie Mother’s fragile burden.
But not yet soon enough to preserve all those
bright lit spirits whose heroic call rang true enough.
Easter morning, a shout to the future shakes
the very ground, now running red.
Smoke rises and stings eyes in a rude sod shack
and half a world away on Dublin’s cobbled streets.
# # # #
The sun’s been spending a lot of time shining in our windows and on our little section of woods, lately. Over the last week, I’ve noticed our haphazard plantings of flower bulbs is beginning to show color here and there, begun by the Snowdrops. They just never give up, those guys. We have a few branches of Forsythias blooming, the privets are budding tiny green leaves and all the Laurels are covered with swelling flower buds.
I’ve been letting the muse run wild with my hands on the keyboard. What began as a glimmer of a possible idea three weeks ago has passed the 70K word point. It feels as if there has been almost no conscious interruptions from the thinking part of my brain, so once the story is finally finished, I’ll get to see if any of it is of any interest to anyone else.
The idea was a tiny spark that began many years ago in school after a very progressive Western Civ teacher, Mr. William Morrissette (later, Mayor of Springfield, OR), took us a bit beyond the typical curriculum of the time to engage in a discussion of the value of ancient knowledge. The discussion ended with his description of the burning of the Library at Alexandria by the Coptic leadership in order to purge all apostasy from their midst. Of course, a lot was burned that didn’t include them at all as it had been a repository of all types of knowledge going back thousands of years. He stressed how our ideas of “history” (His Story, as in the victor, who lives to tell the tales he wants told) change with each new conqueror, each new civilization, right up to last week.
I read recently that several Greek historians of the Classic Period had come to the conclusion that one of the reasons it was so hard to trace ancient civilizations’ contributions is that as soon as they were conquered, the victors assumed the name of the vanquished and anything of lasting value they had discovered or perfected. “It’s mine, now.” That has been a large component of the human condition for longer than we can remember, but it does mess with timelines.
The seed of an idea that I received that day was a “what if” kind of idea. What if some of the most ancient, important knowledge was saved from before the fires swept Alexandria. What if it was preserved and researched, eventually left for future generations to discover once the understanding had re-developed? What would it contain? Would mankind ever regain the ability to recognize the value of those ideas?
Another, associated thought I’ve had since my school days is that the fossil record indicates that humans have been around for at least a half-million years, yet only the past four or five thousand have been all it took to develop our level of civilization. It seems as though hundreds of thousands of years of observing and learning and thinking simply never took place, or has been somehow deemed unimportant or irretrievable. I don’t think that’s true. I think we just haven’t looked in the right places yet, or just haven’t had enough motivation or the wherewithal to do the looking. But there are a few who do. Like our Snowdrops, they get out there come what may. They beat the bushes. Irrepressable. Undauntable. Fearless.
Each Spring, I’m also gratefully reminded that the cycles of life continue as they have for millions of years. Our view of the “changing world situation” is a very narrow one, really. Those things which have always been powerful and critical to our life upon the Earth still endure, no matter how ugly election year politics might get. I’m comforted by the thought that a long, long time before us, there were wise men and women who recognized those truths, and that no matter how long ago that might have been, the truths themselves, continue on and on. They may be considered magic, or science or even a form of faith, but our perceptions vary while they continue to operate. In the way a small green leaf bursts from a twig that two weeks before seemed dead. What should we call that?
# # # #
This is just so much better than Geometry. I mean, I have deep respect for the ancient Greek mathematicians and all, Archimedes and his cronies; but my deepest respect is for the genius who came up wit the idea of putting fruit and caramel and nuts into a flaky pastry shell then baking it until golden brown. Now excuse me, but I know there must be a pie somewhere in this house. I mean to find it.
When the sleep drugs wore off, four days post-launch, he was glad that they were already too far off to even see a small blue dot of light behind them. It hadn’t been an easy decision and he had no desire to return to it. He knew that the combined contributions of four separate households were needed to secure his berth and that meant he had a responsibility to those friends and family members. People he’d never see again. He’d waited until after the medical staff had administered the wake-up meds, then took a seat at a table in the lounge and unfolded his grandmother’s old-fashioned, hand-written letter.
…and remember, help your children and grandchildren remember that out, somewhere through the stars, there was once a beautiful, blue-green planet. A place of tall mountains and deep valleys, rushing rivers and broad seas. A place where living things swam or flew or climbed or walked through flowing or still water, across the skies, between the trees in deep forests or across wide grassy plains. A place where all living things were unique and very beautiful. It was our home. The place where the first child was born. Never forget that once we loved it dearly, then we began taking it for granted. We began to believe that we could devise anything we needed. Never forget.
He laid it down. It was too hard to continue reading, but he knew that he owed her memory at least this: never forget.
# # # #
We’re not alone. Most cultures when confronted with division, inertia, retribution and fear, tend to look for a savior. Human beings in many cases would much rather relax by the fire, knowing they will be protected by an heroic figure. Keeping that hero in a position to defend them and make as many of the difficult decisions for them requires the surrender of a great deal of liberty, but… the fireside is so nice, and having to listen to disagreement or formulate ideas is so annoying.
2016 re-establishes the cycle of the cult here in the US. We seem to be caught in another search for a hero to take care of everything for us. Especially to mete out retribution to those who are responsible for our anxiety and our inability to feel confident going forward. The parallels with the rise of Nazism in Post WW1 Germany have been made by more astute and adept writers than me, but I certainly have noticed the historic similarities with the rise of another Nationalist Hero. He told them exactly what they wanted to hear. He established himself as being an outsider, not another politician. Someone who would bring the needed changes, someone who would make (insert name of country here) great again. He was swept into office and power by millions of voters.
I get it. It’s not news to anyone, no matter their politics, that our Congressional system is failing. The primary occupation of those we elect to do our business has become getting re-elected. “Agreements” abound, whether they involve money or influence or money. A seat in either House has become a feeding trough that few, if any, can turn away from. But instead of re-engaging actively with our corrupt , damaged system many of us would rather find a hero to take care of us. The best example of this is how little real issues have entered into any of the debates or discussion. The election this time is a personality contest that the media, in their jaw-dropping avarice, have grabbed ahold and are using it to raise their ratings high overhead. Informing the actual voting public has been left behind as something that will sort itself out after the fact.
So it seems that an outsider who has ridden up atop a white stallion wearing a big white hat, orange pancake and a sign reading, “Outsider Billionaire/TV Star!” has managed to almost surely secure the GOP nomination for chief executive. Why? Because he has told us all in very clear terms that he is the ONLY man for the job. His platform has consisted almost exclusively of brash name-calling and innuendo. His credentials, beyond Reality TV, are non-existent. He has no qualifying skills in developing consensus, managing conflicts (beyond, “my way or the highway”), or solid financial knowledge (beyond how to contact a bankruptcy attorney at exactly the right time to bail). Yet he is clearly, the overwhelming choice of many for either King or Hero. He surely knows how to swing a broadsword.
The one candidate, from the opposing team who has steadfastly turned away from slinging insults and has concentrated upon speaking out clearly on the most important issues we face, has been steadily losing ground. The looming election is shaping up to be, finally, a battle of the heroic warriors still standing. A spectacle that should entertain while filling the media coffers as never before. I can only hope that a clear majority of Americans don’t want to be Nazis or serfs, and would still prefer to think for themselves. A Nation of Diversity has been extolled for many years as our highest aspiration, yet even that picture has been painted to narrowly define diversity as ethnic diversity. Appearance. Diversity of ideas and means to achieve goals have not really been part of the discussion. America has never agreed on everything, but we have previously found that reaching consensus and agreement on the most troubling issues, even if it takes a long, long time, is worth the effort. It’s my deepest hope that we haven’t forgotten how.
# # # #
What do you think?
It still surprises me every time I find myself responding to unseen forces and external stresses when it comes to putting words down in a useful order. I’ve been writing both for business communication (to deadline) and creatively (muse directed) for many years now, but those things which can deflect a perfectly good burst of creative juice can still switch it all off in a flash. More interesting to me is that I still don’t know them as I see them approach. Writing can be an almost mechanical occupation sometimes. A situation where the hardest thing to do is just to get your fingers to work the keyboard fast enough. This is not one of those times.
2015 had lots of promise; but Summer on, it fled to be replaced by all kinds of demons. Those who know me know what kinds of beasts they were. I always felt as if my writing at least provided me a shelter of sorts. A vacation away from my life’s naturally occurring dramas. But this year, it hasn’t been the case. When confronted by the kinds of fear and loss that most of us have faced or will face, my ability to line words up fled the county.
It seems to be the case that understanding something intellectually and thinking you have a real grip on it, emotionally, doesn’t really count for much at all. The old saw that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans… is no joke. God’s laughter rings in my ears every time I have attempted, since August, to work on my draft novel. What had been a wonderfully immersive research and storytelling experience has become a closed door. For now.
One bright spot, writing wise, came on the heels of my wife’s post-surgical happy prognosis and treatment. I received a request for a longish short story in a mythic-historical setting that I had some experience with. The draft emerged very quickly, but here I am, some two months later, still trying to coax the final version to reveal itself. Now that most of the normal holiday relaxation/distraction season is complete, and some of the unexpected family troubles after the loss of my wife’s mother are achieving the right perspective, I feel like I can exhale and resume a more productive focus. Oh, and spend lots of time turning my thoughts inward while stroking one of my cats. Oh, and respond to the emotional scars emerging in the absence of Holiday Preparations. Oh, and…
The point of this exercise isn’t to complain, trigger a sympathy fest or even to experience the self-medicating catharsis of putting it down in order. In the process of trying to pull the rewrites together on the short story, I was reminded of something important. At the center of my desire to make up stories, is a mystery. Any success I’ve had in my literary endeavors was not really as a result of my application of lessons, assembly of formulas, absorbing critical guidance or even luck. The source of writing success for me is hiding in plain sight deep inside.
I’m writing this to encourage all budding or even established writers wallowing in their own post-Holiday anti-climax, to simply embrace your mystery. Hang onto it and show it some love. Don’t try to figure it all out. Just be able to respond when it calls to you. Make sure your tools are sharp and ready, but don’t beat yourself up if you have a dry spell now and again. It will come on its own timetable, not yours. I’m learning to accept that fact. How about you?