It’s a free event and an informal atmosphere, allowing the audience – many of whom are members of creative writing groups – to quiz the three authors, who this year are Erin Kelly, Nell Leyshon and Evie Wyld.
Erin Kelly has published two psychological thrillers – The Poison Tree and The Sick Rose – has a third one coming out in January and is racing to finish a fourth against the very hard deadline of the birth of her second child.
Kelly worked as a journalist for ten years before she “plucked up courage” to try fiction. “The Poison Tree is about a summer of love that went horribly wrong. It opens with a man being released from prison. We know he killed two people. The mystery is about who he killed and why.”
Finishing the book while on maternity leave, she prepared a drawer for all the rejection slips she expected and sent it out into “a great big void of silence.”
Kelly eventually found an agent and there was an initial flurry of excitement as the book was sent out to publishers. “They liked it but they didn’t know how to sell it. It wasn’t crime, because it had no detective. It wasn’t women’s fiction because of the crime. It wasn’t literary fiction because of the plot… plus I’d given it this clever post modern cliff hanger ending.”
Eventually Kelly rewrote that troublesome ending and the book went to auction. She likes, she says, to set books in locations that are at a slight remove from society. She is addicted to programmes like Coast and mines them for ‘those five minute glimpses of personality’ that often inspire her characters.
The Poison Tree is currently being filmed by STV, a project Kelly has no involvement with. As it happens, the interiors for one of the key locations were filmed in Chorleywood and the owner of the house is in the audience. “They put us up in a hotel for eight days, spent three days set dressing then five days filming.” “Did they put it all back again afterwards?” someone asks. “It wasn’t entirely satisfactory,” the owner says. “That’s a little like a feel about my book,” says Kelly wryly.
Nell Leyshon is a dramatist who has had plays produced for the BBC and at The Globe. “I wrote three novels that I discarded and then got stuck on the fourth. Then I thought I’d try and write a radio play and as soon as I began to write dialogue, it felt right.”
The Colour of Milk is her first return to novel writing, and it’s no surprise that it has an incredibly strong voice. The book is narrated by Mary, a young woman in rural Somerset in the mid 1800s, who is being taught to read and write and in so doing is given the means to tell her own story.
“I have always been interested in the people who have no voice, who appear in other people’s stories and never get to tell their own. I was fascinated by someone who is illiterate but who has so much intelligence and vitality.”
Leyshon is the only one of the three to read from her own book. She gives Mary a strong Somerset accent and a soft voice with an edge to it that draws the audience in and has them sitting on the edge of their seats.
Leyshon continues to write both novels and drama. (She was playwright in residence at this year’s Hay Festival and this week the BBC is broadcasting on of her plays on Woman’s Hour.)
“I am always facing deadlines. I begin the day with a walk by the sea, then I sit at my desk and work. I might begin with ‘virgin writing’ and then switch to editing another project in the afternoon. When I was working on The Colour of Milk, I sometimes had the laptop next to the cooker while I cooked dinner.”
She clearly has an exceptional work ethic – and she has the perfect answer to anyone who says they can’t write unless inspiration hits them. “I once tried an experiment where I made a note at the top of the page whether the words were flowing or whether was I struggling. When I looked back at it afterwards, there was no difference in the quality. It was all about how I was feeling at the time.”
Evie Wyld grew up partly in London and partly on her family’s sugar cane farm in Australia. Her novel, After the Fire, the Still Small Voice, is about three generations of Australian men affected by war, and is loosely based on the experiences of her grandfather, uncle and cousin.
“My grandfather fought in the Korean War and my uncle was drafted into the Vietnam War and was very damaged by it. But it’s not about them. It’s fiction.”
The farm, seven hours north of Sidney, is “like something from the 1950s. The men drive tractors in their underpants and no shoes. My uncle only wears shoes when he has to, which means funerals but not weddings.”
Wyld studied short story writing at Goldsmiths College and fell into novel writing after an agent expressed at interest when one of her stories was published online. Writing a book takes her a long time. “I start from the middle and work out. When I am getting the first draft down, I have to work first thing in the morning, before I’ve spoken to anyone. But then most of the work is in editing and cutting. I write a lot more than I use.”
None of the three authors writes to a detailed plan. “Why would you write it if you knew what was going to happen?” says Leyshon. Kelly has a basic skeleton, “but then I write in a patchwork.”
Have they ever been asked to change something they really didn’t want to?
Not really, is the response. Kelly contrasts it to journalism, when a commission is anonymous and you can find your piece being published under a different headline and with an unrecognisable slant. “With a novel, an editor chooses your book because they like they like they way you write.”
Leyshon agrees. “It’s about finding someone you think you can work with. In my case I chose someone scarily honest and direct.”
“My American publisher did tell me I had too many toilet scenes,” says Wyld. “But I told him I’m half British, half Australian, so what did he expect?”
The US version of The Poison Tree translated the British words into American, says Kelly. “They told me the cultural flow doesn’t work both ways. But readers told them they didn’t like being patronised. It hasn’t happened again.”
All three recognise the influence that big distributors like Tescos have on cover design. Wyld admits she has been lucky. She has a friend who is a well-recognised freelance design that her publisher was happy to work with. He designed her hardback cover, a collage of etchings. Her paperback cover is based on her own photograph of her family farm. But the American cover she didn’t like at all. “But I figured they knew their own market.”
Leyshon loves the woodcut image on the hardback edition of The Colour of Milk. But the initial proposal for the paperback cover included a sexualised image that was totally inappropriate. She did get that changed. “But you can only can push so far. You don’t want to get a reputation.”
Kelly, too, loved the covers of her first two books. The design for the latest book, she says, is more garish. “But believe me, no one is more alert to the presence of my books in a shop than I am, and I have to admit these covers don’t stand out.”
The bookshop is offering a bundle of three books from the three authors for £20. By now I am far too intrigued to turn it down. I leave the event with my purse lighter and my bag heavier. Now I just need enough self-discipline not to start reading until I have finished work…
If you want to read more about the Chorleywood Literary Festival, look out for the December issue of Words with Jam.