Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Susanna Kearsley Week - An Interview

Today we are lucky enough to have an interview with Susanna Kearsley for you to enjoy! She is the author of numerous novels including The Winter Sea, Marianna, Splendour Falls, and Named of the Dragon. Here are some of her thoughts on things that we at Historical Tapestry were wondering.

Photo by Ashleigh Bonang
What is it about the UK, specifically places like Scotland and Cornwall that provide such good settings for novels?

For me, it’s the layers of history they give me to play with. Because I like to interweave the past and present in my books, I’m drawn to places where the history stretches back a little further than it does in my own part of Canada. Here, we consider a house to be ancient if it’s from the mid-1800s. In Britain, that’s practically modern! Besides which, the history itself is so interesting. And there are parts of the UK – especially some of the more remote areas along the coastlines – that lend themselves more easily to stories of suspense, because they’re already so far removed from everything that’s commonplace, and have a certain magic all their own; a certain atmosphere.

As one of our two Canadian HTer’s Kelly specifically would like to know do you have any plans to write anything set in Canada?

Actually, in spite of what I’ve said above, I do have an idea for a story set in Canada, in one of the few places in this country where the history does stretch back into the mists, and hasn’t all been well-recorded. But since I’m not sure how long it will be before I get around to writing it, the best that I can offer Kelly is my thriller Every Secret Thing, which is set partly in Toronto and around it, in the present and the past, and has a few scenes at the secret wartime training camp for spies, Camp X, that lies not far away from where I live.

I have seen you mention that one of your major influences is Mary Stewart. Can you tell us a little bit about her influence, and your favourite books by her? What other books would you consider your ‘Books of a Lifetime’, books that have shaped you as a reader and a writer?

My mother and I often joke that it’s her fault I’m such a great fan of Mary Stewart, because my mother was reading This Rough Magic (newly published, in those days) while she was pregnant with me, so we figure my love of Mary Stewart’s writing must have seeped in at some elemental level while my brain was being formed. Either that, or else genetic memory was at play and I inherited my mother’s taste in writers. Whatever the reason, Mary Stewart did turn out to be my very favourite author, and This Rough Magic remains my favourite of her books, followed closely by Touch Not the Cat, The Moonspinners, Wildfire at Midnight, Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk?, The Ivy Tree, My Brother Michael, and The Gabriel Hounds, though their order as my favourites sometimes shifts around depending on my mood.

As for her influence on me as a writer, well, I think it’s probably self-evident. One of the kindest compliments anyone can pay me is to say that my novels remind them in any way of hers, although I’ve never consciously set out to imitate her storytelling style. I did, however, grow up wanting to be a Mary Stewart heroine, imagining I, too, was one of those wonderfully resourceful, intelligent, ordinary women who travelled alone to the islands of Greece, where while sipping my wine in an outdoor cafĂ© I’d be suddenly caught up in some unexpected adventure. It sounded so marvellous.

But other authors helped shape my imagination, too. The major books, I think, that had the most effect on me as both a reader and a writer would be A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh & The House at Pooh Corner, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, all the stories of Gregory Clark, Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, and Bride of the MacHugh and My Lord Monleigh by Jan Cox Speas. There have, of course, been countless other books I’ve read and loved, and many that I still re-read and treasure, but the ones that I’ve listed above lodged more deeply, I think, in my heart, and I don’t think I’d be the same person I am now if I’d never read them.

How do you feel about your books finally being published for a wider audience?

In a word, I feel fortunate. Luck, not only good but bad, plays such a large part in a writer’s life, and certainly I’ve had my share of both, but through my whole career I have been carried by the kindness and encouragement of readers who have taken time to write and tell me they enjoy my books, and I have had my friends and family there to anchor my priorities and see that I don’t lose my sense of balance, and my agents in the UK and America have worked to find me editors and publishers who seem to share their faith in me. So as I say, I’m very, very fortunate.

One of the interesting things about your work is the backgrounds you give your contemporary characters. For example, in The Shadowy Horses, Verity is an archeologist with an interest in Legion IX and in The Winter Sea, Carrie is an author researching the Jacobite rebellions. How much research does it require for you as an author to make these roles feel real to the reader?

Well, Carrie was easier than most, because I simply let her do what I do. But for the others, I did do a lot of research. It’s important that my heroines be independent women, and their jobs are often central to the plot, so I do try my best to get the details right. In Verity’s case, that meant having a real archaeologist be my advisor and lead me through the daily tasks that Verity, as finds supervisor on a dig, would really be doing. And when I wrote Season of Storms, with a young stage actress as my central character, I contacted an actress here in Canada who’s known for both her work in television and on stage, and she sat down with me and shared the inner workings of rehearsals and the staging of a play.

I don’t do this only for heroines, I do it for any character who does a job I’ve never done before myself. I’ve talked to fishermen and artists, former spies from World War II and, for my latest novel, rose growers. I’ve found most people, if politely asked, will very generously answer any question I might throw at them, and many of them, afterwards, will take the time to proofread sections of the book before it goes to print.
Finding these people, talking to them, sometimes even meeting them in person, is a fun part of my research.

Due to the timeslip aspect of your novels, and also with the contemporary strands of your story, you have to write more than one leading man. What are the key elements required to make a convincing leading man?

It all starts, for me, with the name. I like plain, solid names for a man, not only when it comes to the historical heroes, where plain, solid names were the norm, but in my modern-day men as well. David and Richard and John – these are names of the men I might meet on the street every day, and that makes them more real to me.

I also like it when a hero isn’t perfect, since real men always have their imperfections and their blind spots, though that doesn’t stop us loving them. And physical perfection isn’t necessary, either. Because I write in the first person, when a hero in one of my books is described as being handsome, we’re seeing him through eyes of the heroine, so while to her he might be the most handsome man she’s ever met, that doesn’t mean he has movie-star looks, only that he fits her own definition of what makes a good-looking man. We all have different views, on that count.

I can only draw from men I’ve known in my own life: my grandfathers, my father, and my husband and my friends, all different men, and yet with certain commonalities. If my heroes tend to be quieter men, it’s because the real men I know don’t go emoting all over the place – as a rule, they don’t talk much at all (though to be fair, I talk so much myself it may just be that they can’t get a word in edgewise). They don’t always say the right things, but they’re there, really there, when you need them the most. They’re dependable, trustworthy, decent, intelligent, honourable men with a good sense of humour. So I give these traits to my own leading men.

You also have written crime novels under the name Emma Cole. How does writing a crime novel differ from writing a historical novel, and do you think that your writing style changes depending on which kind of novel you are writing?

I’ve actually only written one and a half crime novels, of what I hope will one day be a trilogy, and the Emma Cole name seems to have fallen by the wayside now, since my UK publisher has re-issued the first thriller as a Susanna Kearsley title. But the process of writing the thrillers is definitely different.

For one thing, they take a lot longer to write! The first took me four years to finish, and the sequel to it is taking even longer. Which is rather ironic, because with a thriller I have to make the book move faster, be much more aware of pace, and cut from scene to scene instead of making the more leisurely transitions that I’m used to. Because of this, I have to make an outline for the crime novels, instead of simply sitting down and letting my subconscious lead me where it will.

But when I get the characters in motion on the page, the writing feels the same, to me. As for the voice, I confess that I honestly don’t see a difference, to me it’s the same voice I always tell stories in, but I do know that some readers have commented otherwise.

Can you give us a sneak peek about what you are working on next?

I have a new book, The Rose Garden – a time travel story set on the Cornish coast – that’s coming out this spring (though not till autumn in the States), and right now I’m working on a book that continues the story of the eighteenth-century characters from The Winter Sea, characters I grew to love so much I wasn’t ready to let go of them.


  1. Hi everyone.

    I'm still adjusting to the very great honour of having a whole week assigned to me, here. Thanks so much.

    Normally, I try to stay in the background in comment threads, because I find that as soon as an author jumps into a conversation, it usually kills the conversation :-)

    But I just wanted everyone to know that I'll be checking in from time to time today (a good distraction from my writing!), so if anyone has any questions they want me to answer, about anything, feel free to ask away...

  2. Interesting. I agree with her both about feeling gratitude to readers, and with the idea that the mom's reading goes right through that umbilical cord!

  3. Indeed, it seems that it's our good fortune that Susanna's mother was reading Mary Stewart while she was expecting!

    Very much looking forward to the continuation of The Winter Sea as well as the future release of The Rose Garden. Thanks for the interview!

  4. Susanna,
    Thank you so much for giving this interview (and thank you Historical Tapestry for hosting her!)

    I know I speak for many readers when I say we love, love, love your books. I just wish you could write faster! :D

  5. jwade19, thanks for your message. I'm really glad you like the books.

    Sorry I don't write faster than I do... no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to manage to get one done in under a year, and more often it's closer to two years. Sorry :(

    But I'm happy you're at the other end, reading them! And like you, I'm very grateful to the women here at Historical Tapestry for doing this wonderful week for me. I'm beyond honoured.

  6. OMG, you're writing a "sequel" to THE WINTER SEA!! You have totally made my MONTH!