Q&A with Catherine Hall
Can you sum up Days of Grace for our customers in just one sentence?
It's a story about an intense wartime friendship, a suppressed passion, a jealous crime, and a corrosive secret kept for decades...
Nora, from whose point of view Days of Grace is told, leads an eventful and largely tragic life, and is not the most likeable character(!) How easy was she to write – did you have any specific inspirations when developing her?
It's funny, when I sent the first version of the book to my agent, one of the first comments she made was that Nora might be too unlikeable, and I was surprised, because I'd always loved her. I'd shared many of her feelings - albeit to a less dramatic degree! - and I could see how the wrong circumstances could easily lead to the point where they might spiral out of control. But my agent was right, and we then spent a long time making her more sympathetic. So Nora in her first incarnation was much more lonely, isolated, strange than she is now, and whilst I didn't find her hard to write, the real work came later, with the re-writing and editing.
Although there was no single person who was the inspiration for Nora, I've known a lot of old women with stories to tell but no-one to tell them to. Many of them couldn't follow their desires because of society or family, especially if they had feelings for other women. They told me about unrequited love, guilt, love that couldn't ever be properly expressed and about shame. I wanted to write about the effects of this shame, and how it limits people, stops them doing what could make them happy and – yes – sometimes makes them difficult or unlikeable. My job was, if not to make my readers like Nora, to try to make them understand why she is as she is.
What was the significance of the wartime setting for the story?
The Second World War seemed like a logical setting, when someone from Nora's poor East End background could be thrown into another life. War creates situations and circumstances that would never occur in peacetime. Anything can happen. So it was helpful for the purposes of plot. I also wanted to explore the psychological impact of evacuation. Many evacuees suffered terrible damage after being forced to leave their parents and found it very hard to form proper attachments to other people later on. That gave me some background for Nora, who spends the rest of her life trying and failing to build up some kind of family around herself, making up for the separation from her mother when she's evacuated. Her disappointment when these attempts fail is what makes her reactions so intense.
Do you agree with the old adage that writers should 'write what they know'?
I think there's probably always an element of writing what you know, whether you're conscious of it or not. It might be a character, a theme, a setting or something more elusive like an atmosphere. You can't help it. But then there's the joy of using your imagination, and the challenge of finding out what you don't know, of putting yourself in someone else's shoes and circumstances. I wouldn't want to give that up. So I think writers should write what sparks their interest, and what they know will inevitably wriggle into the story somehow.
What are you currently working on?
I'm trying to decide on an idea for my next novel. It's hard because I know I'm going to be spending the next couple of years with the characters, so I'd better get it right!
Can you tell us a few of your favourite books/the books that have influenced you?
I grew up somewhere very remote and so spent every night of my childhood reading whatever I could get my hands on. At first it was books like the Swallows and Amazons stories, because they were about what children do when there are no adults around. Then I became obsessed with Enid Blyton's boarding school romps at Malory Towers. As a teenager I came across Virago paperbacks and went off in a completely different direction. I discovered magical realism through Angela Carter's Wise Children, and loved the psychological depth of Doris Lessing's writing, especially in The Golden Notebook and The Fifth Child. Jeanette Winterson's The Passion changed the way I thought about how you could use words. At university I became interested in modernist women writers and their experiments in style. My favourite is Jean Rhys, who's probably influenced me more than anyone. She's best known for Wide Sargasso Sea but I love her books set in Paris in the 1920s, like Good Morning, Midnight; deceptively simple writing about undistinguished women. Lately I've been rediscovering H.E. Bates' short stories, which beautifully describe a disappearing rural England in the 1950s. To cheer myself up, I go back to Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, because it's so over the top, or to John Cleland's Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which I don't think is meant to be funny, but always makes me giggle with his overestimation of men's sexual prowess.
Do you have any tips you would offer to anyone looking to write their first book?
I'm not an expert, but the most important thing for me was just to keep going. I found a place where I could be alone to write, then spent as much time as I could there. It takes a lot of practice. Another thing I found helpful was to stop in the middle of a paragraph or an idea so when I came back to it then next day I could start again without panicking. The worst thing is sitting there waiting for inspiration.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.