In light of the publication of Letters to the Past, Alice was delighted to speak to bestselling author Erica James, about her inspiration, the writing process and the books getting her through Lockdown.
1. Firstly, congratulations on your latest book, Letters from the Past – it has kept me entertained during the past few days of lockdown and offered some lovely escapism! What was the initial inspiration for this sequel to Coming Home to Island House? (I must admit I read and enjoyed this as a standalone novel!)
When I started writing Coming Home to Island House, I had in mind that I would love to write a sequel, but when I reached the end of the novel, I couldn’t think what would happen next. So rather than force an idea to come, I distracted myself by writing something completely different, that turned out to be Swallowtail Summer, a contemporary novel set on the Norfolk Broads. It was while writing that book that my eldest son and his wife invited me to stay with them in Seattle and during my visit, we flew down to Palm Springs for some winter sunshine. We were staying near the famous Movie Colony, an area where many of the stars from the Golden Era of Hollywood had their homes. I love anything to do with that era and from nowhere, an idea came to me – I pictured Romily, (now some years older than we left her at the end of Coming Home to Island House) staying in Palm Springs to discuss the possibility of one of her novels being made into a film. Then I had to think what had happened to the rest of the Devereux family. I can’t actually remember how or why I thought of introducing the more sinister element of the story, the poison pen letters, but it must have come to me in one of those magical light bulb moments.
2. A large cast of characters – from across the Devereux family, and their friends and partners – are focused upon in different chapters. Why do you to choose to structure your novels in this way? Also, whilst writing Letters to the Past, which characters were the most enjoyable to write? (Romily was my favourite)
I haven’t always written in this way, giving a chapter to each character to further explore their viewpoint, yet somewhere along the line I adopted this technique. Often things ‘just happen’ when I write, rarely is it a conscious decision, it’s as though the characters of the story dictate how things have to be done.
I enjoyed getting inside the heads of all the characters in Letters From the Past. Romily was great to revisit, but I particularly enjoyed exploring more of Hope’s story and Evelyn’s. Funnily enough when I wrote Coming Home to Island House, Evelyn always struck me as a character with whom I wanted to spend more time. As for Hope, I had a soft spot for her in the first book and knew that I wanted to find out more about her struggle to be happy, and why she always feared the worst. As for some of the new characters I created, the moment the dialogue began to flow between Red St Clair and Romily, I knew I was going to like him!
3. The story takes place in 1962, but there are flashbacks to the second world war, and the rather different lives led by many of the characters – from Romily, to Red and Evelyn. Many of your previous novels also take place, at least partly, during the second world war. What draws you to writing about this period, and what do you enjoy particularly about writing about this period?
For years I wrote contemporary novels, and then I wrote Summer at the Lake which had parts of it set in Italy during the early 1950s. I found that I quite enjoyed writing in a different era and for my next book – The Dandelion Years – I decided to venture further back in time to WWII for parts of it. Such was the success of that novel, I followed it up with Song of the Skylark which also had a partial WII setting. With Coming Home to Island House, I took the step of writing the book entirely set in the second world war. I suppose I wanted to see if I could do that, after all, as a writer, it’s important to challenge oneself, to find new ways of telling a story. I also find it very satisfying writing in a completely different voice – the way people spoke and behaved all those years ago made an interesting change from a contemporary novel.
4. Island House serves as the ‘hub’ of the story – in the idyllic Melstead St Mary was this based upon any real places?
Although fictional, Melstead St Mary is based loosely on a number of Suffolk villages I know. During WWII East Anglia was home to many RAF and USAAF bases, so there is a rich history to draw from when it comes to setting a novel in this area during that period. The inspiration for Island House came from an exceptionally beautiful house I would often pass while out walking.
5. I read in a previous interview that you don’t plan your novels, and invent as you go along – did you also adopt this creative approach with Letters from the Past?
That’s true, I’ve never plotted or planned a book in my life! I just wouldn’t know how to go about it. While writing the first draft of any novel, my starting point is my cast of characters, the setting and a couple of problems thrown into the mix. As I introduce the characters, the story just seems to unfold before my eyes. Which makes it sound much easier than it is. Some days during the writing of the first draft, I can end up staring and staring at the blank screen in front of me willing the words to appear. Somehow they do!
6. Leading on from this – do you have a particular writing routine?
My first book was published when my two sons were ten and twelve and so I kept ‘office hours’ while they were at school. As they became older and my books grew in length, I ended up working longer days. On average I try to start work around 8.30 a.m and finish around 6.30 or 7.00 p.m. Of course, I’m not sitting at my desk for every minute of all those hours, I’m constantly making myself cups of tea, or nipping out to the garden to do some weeding or deadheading when I get stuck with a particular scene.
7. Your novel touches upon some serious and sensitive subjects – for example, domestic violence, and PTSD (with Red, but also with Julia). How do you approach writing about such sensitive subjects?
I think those more sensitive subjects creep into the storyline as the character becomes more real to me. If you think about Red’s character, and bearing in mind that I never plan a book, there had to be a reason why he behaved in the way he did, and bit by bit the answer came to me. In dealing with anything of a sensitive nature, I’ve always had the ability to empathise, to imagine myself in a similar situation. I’ve been told more than once that I write about death incredibly well. Not sure what that says about me!
8. Though the novel takes place in the early sixties – which we are told was the age of liberation for women – within your novel we see how not all women could not truly lead ‘free’ lives, particularly through characters such as Annelies. Was this a point you deliberately tried to highlight? Through your diverse and strong set of female characters, what were you hoping to show readers?
The sixties are known for being a time of great liberation, but in 1962 when a lot of the novel happens, the ‘swinging sixties’ had yet to gain momentum. While the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening in October of 1962, people were genuinely terrified that the world might end. The shadow of the last war – and the potential for a new one – was never far away. Although a new era was dawning, women still faced the same old enemy, that of inequality and double standards. Women like Romily and Evelyn did so much to help with the war effort, and yet in peacetime they were expected to return to a life of domesticity. I will let the reader decide how far we’ve moved on from those times …
9. Will we be hearing from the Devereux family again in the future? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I am indeed working on a new novel, but it’s not about the Devereux family.
10. Which books are you reading to get through lockdown?
My only reading time is first thing in the morning with a cup of tea while still in bed. I’ve recently enjoyed Jodie Piccoult’s A Spark of Light, Alison Pearson’s How Hard Can it Be and Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan.
Letters from the Past by Erica James (Orion) is out now in hardback, £12.99