I am thrilled to have Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half author Lissa Evans on The Spike for a Q&A. Here we go:
1 You have had a few career changes – from medicine to TV and then to writing novels. You make it look easy! Was it?
It was very easy to give up medicine, since I hated it so much; I was perpetually terrified and spent every hour on call simply praying that my bleep wouldn’t go off. When I eventually handed it in, it was the happiest day of my life. When not on the wards, I’d spent time writing and performing in a comedy group and I used that experience to apply for a job in BBC radio light entertainment ; from then on, every job that I did – script editing, producing, directing – was about words and story, and the perfect rhythm of a funny line. It was a wonderful training for writing prose.
2 Tell us more about your relationship(?) fascination with (?) the Home Front.
When I was 12, my father was given a Christmas present of a book called ‘How We Lived Then’ by Norman Longmate. It was a history of the British home front during the Second World War, and was drawn from hundreds of diaries and personal accounts. My Dad didn’t read it – as he pointed out, he’d lived through the era and didn’t need to be reminded (he’d been a junior scientist, working on radar) – instead, it was me who picked it up and read it, and re-read it, over and over again.
It meant that I grew up with a sort of working knowledge of the era – almost as if I had memories of my own of the period.
I was fascinated by the detail of ordinary people living through extraordinary times: the four-page newspapers, the home-made toys for Christmas, the holiday beaches skeined with barbed-wire, the grey recycled paper and unpainted pencils, the crowded class-rooms, the hurried marriages in borrowed finery and the park flower-beds replaced by vegetable patches and pig-sties.
I have never lost my interest in the period, and in the people who lived through it. Life was tiring, tough, and makeshift, and people had to adapt to the most enormous changes, almost on a day-to-day basis.
3 Some of your characters are so realistic with such real quirks (e.g. the girl who starts her story going “My Nan’s house is gone, my sister’s house is gone” ticking them off on her fingers) you must surely have stolen them from real life. Did you?
It tends to be incidents rather than characters that I take from real life – for instance, in ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, my heroine, Catrin, goes into a packed cinema on the worst night of the Blitz and watches the classic James Stewart cowboy movie ‘Destry Rides Again’ – this was taken directly from a vivid anecdote by a Leicester Square cinema manager, in which he described how the fictional guns drowned out the actual bombs, providing a kind of refuge from the nightmare outside.
Similarly, in Crooked Heart, in which many of my characters are on the wrong side of the law, I took a lot of inspiration from the St Alban’s local newspaper of the era, which was packed with accounts of petty crime (‘a thief broke into White Lodge and stole a carriage clock and two bananas’) and weekly lists of rates defaulters…
Once you feel really at home in a period, the characters seem to emerge of their own volition.
4 Is your day-to-day life better now you are a full-time novelist? Do you miss the camaraderie of previous working days?
In comparison to my other careers, it’s in many ways a simple and less stressful job; just me and a laptop; – no meetings/goals/safety courses/interviews/away day or office politics. And I get round the supposed loneliness of it by using a library as my base (The London Library) where I have writing mates whom I see at lunchtime.
5 Are there any personality traits you think make a good novelist?
I’ve been thinking about this, and the only one about which I’m certain is ‘keen reader’. If you don’t read, you can’t write. Apart from that, I think novelists come in all shapes and sizes, from the shy to the extravagantly social, from those with intense concentration, to flea-brains such as myself (if I glance at the clock and five minutes have gone by, I count that as a record-breaking feat of concentration.).
6 What are you having for dinner tonight?
My husband is a worthily vegetarian cook, so I shall be eating something worthy and vegetarian.
7 What thing that you bought recently (clothes/sunglasses/books/airplane tickets) that you are most excited about.
Tickets to Venice in October; I went there for the first time two years ago and fell heavily in love. I’m totally certain that if I lived in Venetian Palazzo I could write three books a year…
8 How important do you think the ongoing existence is of women-only shortlists for fiction?
I’m not sure, but speaking selfishly, I think it’s the only shortlist I’m ever likely to get on….