ShortBookandScribes #QandA with Linda Gillard, Author of Hidden
I’m truly delighted to welcome Linda Gillard to Short Book and Scribes today. I’ve long been a fan of her books. The first one I read was Star Gazing and then I went backwards and read A Lifetime Burning and then Emotional Geology, all traditionally published at the time. Since then, Linda has self-published a further six novels. I love them all (I haven’t read Hidden yet but my paperback is all ready and waiting) but I must admit to a soft spot for Star Gazing. Linda has been kind enough to answer some of my questions. I hope you enjoy reading the Q&A.
A birth. A death. Hidden for a hundred years.
The new novel from the author of Kindle bestseller THE MEMORY TREE
“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”
In 1917 a sense of duty and a desire for a child lead celebrated artist Esme Howard to share her life and home – 16th-century Myddleton Mote – with Captain Guy Carlyle, an officer whose face and body have been ravaged by war. But Esme knows nothing of the ugliness that lurks within Guy’s tortured mind, as he re-lives the horrors of the trenches. As a child grows within her, Esme fears Guy’s wrath will be turned on them both. A prisoner in her own home, she paints like one possessed, trusting that one day someone will hear her silent cries for help.
A century later, Miranda Norton inherits Myddleton Mote and its art collection from a father she never knew and decides to move on after the end of an unhappy marriage. Inviting her extended family to join her, Miranda sets about restoring the house and turning it into a thriving business. When the moat is drained for repairs, a skeleton emerges. Then someone from Miranda’s past returns to torment her and an appalling act of vandalism reveals the Mote’s dark secrets, hidden for a hundred years.
First of all, can you tell me a little about your new book, Hidden, and where the idea for the dual timeline story came from? I love the sound of it as I’ve been enjoying WW1 (if enjoying is the right word) books lately and I’m particularly interested in surplus women and how they approached their much-altered futures after the war ended.
HIDDEN started off as contemporary ghost story with an Elizabethan back story because the house, Myddleton Mote, was Tudor. In the 16thC story there was a socially ill-matched couple – an actor and a rich young woman – and both of them came to sad ends. My working title was TIME’S PRISONER and this referred partly to the woman who was kept imprisoned by her family in an attempt to thwart an elopement.
While I was writing this book I was approached by Amazon’s publishing arm. They wanted to re-publish THE TRYSTING TREE (it was eventually re-titled THE MEMORY TREE) and sign me up for two new novels, one of them to be similar to THE TRYSTING TREE, a dual-time story set in 1915 and 2018.
This was wonderful news, but the catch was they wanted a book in six months! It takes me at least a year to write a book, so the obvious solution was to adapt the book I was working on. I kept the moated Tudor house, I cut the ghost and set the back story in WWI. I retained the idea of a woman being kept prisoner in her own home, but this time it was as a consequence of a disastrous and unorthodox marriage.
Ever since I’d read Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, I’d been intrigued by an advert she quoted that appeared in The Times in 1915: “Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.” In HIDDEN I tried to imagine why a woman might have placed that ad and how such a marriage might have turned out if the man she chose suffered from shell shock as well as disability and disfigurement. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say things don’t turn out well!
How important is a sense of place in your books? I visited the Isle of Skye because I had read Star Gazing and you wrote about the island so beautifully. Unfortunately, it rained the whole week we were there but I’d love to go back sometime. Do you write hoping that your readers will identify more with the setting or the characters, or are both equally as important for you?
Setting is very important to me, almost as important as the characters. It’s a bit like choosing where to live, or at least where to have a long holiday. In my head, I’ll spend at least a year in that setting, so it has to be interesting, ideally inspiring.
I usually begin with an idea for the setting, though characters quickly develop alongside that. Sometimes a place might be the inspiration for the story. When I visited Cawdor, an inhabited castle in the Highlands, I thought it would be a brilliant setting for a contemporary ghost story. That idea eventually became CAULDSTANE. The Hebridean island of North Uist was the inspiration for EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY. I can’t imagine that story taking place anywhere else.
Myddleton Mote, the setting for HIDDEN, was based on two similar National Trust properties. The initial inspiration was Ightham Mote in Kent, a house I’ve known since childhood, but my fictional house is mainly based on Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire. It’s bigger than Ightham, it has a priest hole (which I needed for the plot) and it’s much closer to my home in Scotland – a consideration for research trips.
Can you tell me more about how you became a writer? If you weren’t a writer what path do you think your life would have taken?
I took other paths before I became a writer. My first novel was published when I was 53. Before that I’d been an actress, a journalist, a stay-at home mum and then I trained as a primary teacher. I started writing fiction when I was recovering from a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork and the stress of teaching. Eventually I was diagnosed with mild bipolar affective disorder (aka manic depression).
As I convalesced, I couldn’t find the sort of books I wanted to read. At the time bookshops were full of chick lit, but I was 47 and I wanted to read about women closer to my own age. So I started writing a love story set on North Uist, which I knew quite well from family holidays. I made the heroine my age and bipolar. I wanted to look at the relationship between “madness” and creativity, but I think I was also trying to find an upside to my diagnosis. I was writing just for me, knowing my book would never find a publisher because, in commercial fiction, women over forty only featured as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife. They were never the main character, let alone the romantic heroine.
My writing group encouraged me to send the book out to agents. They thought its positive message about mental illness should be shared. To my utter amazement, an agent took me on, then I found a publisher for the novel I’d called EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY.
I’ve written nine novels now and I can’t imagine doing anything else. It helps me manage my mental health issues and chronic neuropathic pain. In 2012 chemotherapy saved me from breast cancer, but it damaged my nerve endings badly. Drugs don’t help, but work distracts me from pain, both physical and mental.
All your books are standalone stories. Do you ever think of returning to any of your characters to find out what happened to them next?
I’m often asked to do this! I think a sequel to STAR GAZING is the book that’s been requested most. Readers must find it hard to let go of the characters, I suppose. I do too, but rarely feel the story can extend beyond the last page. But I’m considering taking a subsidiary character, Rupert, the ghost-busting minister from CAULDSTANE and giving him his own story.
I’m also pondering whether I can go back to my original Myddleton Mote story, the one with the Tudor ghost that I had to abandon. That wouldn’t exactly be a sequel to HIDDEN. It would be a spin-off, using the same 21stC characters.
Do you plot your stories meticulously or do you just write and see where it takes you?
I don’t plan much. I don’t think I’ve ever started a book knowing how it will end. In HOUSE OF SILENCE I didn’t know until quite late on which man the heroine would end up with. That was a bit nerve-wracking – for me and the two guys! I plan and research enough to get started, then I just write, listen to the characters’ voices and see where they take me. It’s a bit scary and you have to trust the process, but if you let it, your subconscious will write a much better story than your conscious mind.
Do you have time to read yourself and if so what kind of books do you enjoy?
Unfortunately most of the reading I do is for research, though I do get through a lot of stories (mostly about dinosaurs) with my grandson. Thank goodness for Audible, which allows me to “read” while doing chores.
When I do read for pleasure I prefer books that are very different from the one I’m working on. If I need to park my brain at the door, it will be Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart or Agatha Christie. By contrast, I’m also a huge fan of John Le Carré. SMILEY’S PEOPLE and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD are two of my favourite books.
Other favourite authors are Dorothy Dunnett, Rosemary Sutcliff, Elizabeth Goudge and Elizabeth Jane Howard. I think Howard is seriously under-rated. If she’d been less beautiful or not Mrs Kingsley Amis, I think she might have been taken more seriously. Everyone loves the Cazalet Chronicles, but I think THE LONG VIEW and THE BEAUTIFUL VISIT are even better.
What are you planning to write next and where will it take us?
The obvious next step is to continue to write about WWI because that’s what’s selling, but after three stand-alone books that feature the war (THE GLASS GUARDIAN, THE MEMORY TREE and HIDDEN), I’d like to move on to something different. Researching WWI has been an education, but it’s been really grim. There really was no upside to that conflict. But having said that, I do have a really good idea for another WWI story, so I might have to stay with that period for one more book.
There’s also a much lighter Plan B: a love story set in the Isles of Scilly, with mature protagonists, aged 50-60. She’s a jaded agony aunt running away from city life, he’s the priest – now retired – from CAULDSTANE.
Which one will I write? I don’t know. It all depends which of my imaginary friends start talking to me first. As soon as I start to hear those “voices”, I shall have to get going.
Thank you, Linda, for such interesting answers. I must admit I had Star Gazing in mind when I asked about sequels. I can’t wait to get to Hidden!
Linda Gillard lives in North Lanarkshire, Scotland. She’s the author of nine novels, including STAR GAZING (Piatkus), shortlisted in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and The Robin Jenkins Literary Award for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape.
Linda’s fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE became a Kindle bestseller. It was selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten Best of 2011 in the Indie Author category.
In 2019 Amazon’s Lake Union imprint re-published THE TRYSTING TREE as THE MEMORY TREE and it became a #1 Kindle bestseller.