Your new book is narrated by a man, Harry Fox-Talbot. What was it like to write as a man?
Incredibly liberating! The pleasure of being a writer as opposed to an actor is that one isn’t limited by gender or race or age. The casting director in my imagination allows me to become anyone. For this novel I observed many of the grumpy, older men of my acquaintance and then tried to imagine myself into that mind-set.
In fact, this novel is narrated by Fox at two different points of his life; the first when he is a young man, and the second when he’s in seventies and has been recently widowed. In the earlier narrative he’s hopeful and hopeless, insecure and over-confident and in love with his brother’s girl. In the later part, he’s older and sadder and although now celebrated as a composer, he’s now suffering from writer’s block and is unsatisfied. I needed both voices to really feel like the same person – but at different ages.
Why do you write about Dorset? What’s so special? Should we come and visit?
I have a profound connection to this landscape. It’s old Wessex – an ancient place and its history is literarily etched into its surfaces in long barrows and iron aged hill forts and medieval field systems. I live in a hamlet under the shadow of Bell Hill (either named because it resembles a bell, or for the pagan god Beltane, no one really knows). I like to write looking at it – the way the clouds and weather form along the ridge always feeds into my work. When it rains, tiny amenities like miniature stone baseballs imprinted with sea creatures, wash their way loose from the chalk, reminding us that hundreds of millions of years ago our own hill was part of the ocean floor. This is the landscape of my dreams and my imagination.
And, yes, you should visit Dorset. The countryside is beautiful and Dorset cream teas are delicious as is the local cider. Our cider always has alcohol in it. Until I came to the US I had no idea it was possible to drink cider without become tipsy and getting a headache.
How long have you been at work on this book?
It took about a year.
Did the book involve special research?
I researched the phenomenon of child prodigies and the effect that such children have upon their families. Having a supremely gifted child impacts the family in a similar way as having a disabled one – he or she becomes the centre of family life and other relationships are often put under tremendous strain.
I also researched the connection between music and landscape. This involved not only reading about the song collecting in both the US and UK, but also talking and listening to musicians and their music. The prize winning singer/ song writer/ song collector Sam Lee was incredibly helpful.
I read every interview and snippet I could find with conductors – I really wanted to think my way into the mind of a grouchy, seventy-something man.
Why are people sometimes dismissive of fiction when it incorporates romance?
This complaint is often leveled against Jane Austen, primarily, it has to be said by male critics, who rail that during the Napoleonic Wars Austen wrote a book about a young woman who changes her mind, and a gentleman who changes his manners. The suggestion is that it is unimportant. Yet, there is nothing more important nor more complex than love in all its forms. Austen is the supreme observer of human passion and foibles and her brilliance lies in the acuity of her vision. She has twenty-twenty descriptive powers. Her ‘two inches’ of ivory have out lasted her critics by centuries. I’m not sure that anything matters more than love.