The Sea Gate with author Jane Johnson

The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson is a wonderful story with the perfect blend of present-day and past and a compelling cast of characters featuring the frail but crusty Olivia–I picture Maggie Smith or Judi Dench in the role–and the lovely Becky who is trying to get her life in order.

There are broken families, a house with a hidden passage to the sea, a scheming family intent on fraud, and a long-ago murder or was it merely a disappearance? As the book description says: an entrancing tale of love and courage.

Throughout, Jane Johnson ratchets up the suspense chapter by chapter culminating in a very satisfying ending. I recommend it highly!

The author, Jane Johnson, kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

Most of the story is set in Cornwall in a house called Chynalls. Chynalls is almost its own character in the book. Where did you get the inspiration for it?
Jane: Chynalls was inspired by a number of houses I’ve known over the years. There was my grandmother’s house, which was rambling and rather decrepit, and made strange noises at night (including the sound of a brass doorknob turning where for years there had been no door Flushed); and my great-aunt’s house, from which I stole the scullery, with its channel to wick away water – or maybe blood; and the spider-infested outdoor privy; and one of the houses I grew up in down in a remote spot on the south coast had a tunnel that ran from the cellars to the shingle beach and was locally known as a smugglers’ passage. The ‘sea gate’ itself I spotted in a local village – I lived in the area of West Penwith, in the far tip of Cornwall, where the novel is set.

A Cornwall sea gate used for the cover

Unique and relatable characters are one of Jane Johnson’s strengths. I asked her whether any of the characters in The Sea Gate inspired by real people she knows.
Jane: Not directly, but the idea for the novel came initially from conversations with my mother, who was around the same age as Olivia when the war broke out, and she spent some of those years down here in Cornwall, before going up to London to work. My mother, though, did not have an artistic bone in her body, unlike Olivia, whose paintings made her semi-famous. My mother, on the other hand, when engaging in a Christmas game of ‘Pic-Charades’, in which you have to draw for your game-partner the word on the card, managed to bamboozle me completely by giving a duck 4 legs…
Several of the old folk in the village where I live offered me their recollections of life here during the war and I felt it was important to honour their memories and that remarkable generation. They have – including my mother – all passed now. I mourn them, but am so glad I managed to write some of their experiences into the book.

What was the most difficult part of the artistic process for this book?
Jane: I think the fact that it’s set where I live gave me pause to begin with, especially since some of the events are within living memory for some of the very oldest inhabitants. I didn’t want anyone reading it and complaining that the farmer’s wife wasn’t dead and that he didn’t have a daughter with special needs, or that their father definitely did not hoard butter etc… So instead of calling the village Mousehole, I called it by its old Cornish name of Porth Enys – the Island Port: and that gave me the creative distance I needed to free me to write the story I wanted to write.

Porth Enys … also called Mousehole

Were the WWII incidents and circumstances influenced by what really happened in Cornwall during that war?
Jane: Yes, I used actual incidents and well researched circumstances – the bombing of Penzance, the crash of a German warplane into farm fields, the stationing of internees and POWs at the local farm to carry out the farmwork for the war effort, the pelting with rotten vegetables of French refugees when they docked at Falmouth, the trawlers lost to mines and submarine attacks; the coast dotted with lookout posts and barb-wired off from civilians; the general sense of paranoia about strangers. It was fascinating to do the research and learn more about the region I live in, and enormous fun to write such recent history for once: it’s the first time I’ve written anything so modern, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. My next novel – THE WHITE HARE – is set in a remote valley in Cornwall in 1954. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and the end is in sight!

The Swingate stone near Porth Enys into which a WWII plane crashed.

The Seat Gate by Jane Johnson ~~ A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War.

After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever.

Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found.

As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner…

Looking Back on 2017

With over 900 posts (!!), A Writer of History now contains a lot of topics that have interested readers. During 2017, some posts stood out. The topics varied from WWI Fiction to creating historical characters. I hope you find a few that interest you.

Pictures = Thousands of Words

I’m in edit mode on my newest manuscript called variously Camille and Mariele, Acts of Rebellion, or A Time of Rebellion [MKT: now called Paris in Ruins]. As I go through the pages with the usual angst about whether my writing is any good, whether my publisher will like it, and whether the structure hangs together, I’ve been identifying photos that have provided inspiration …

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In an earlier post Books Books Books, I included a long list of award-winning historical fiction. This post takes a look at what readers say about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as an example of successful historical fiction.

Fatal Attraction – Margaret George Talks about Nero

Margaret George spoke about her novel The Confessions of Young Nero. I asked her: What does it take to write such a novel? How does an author feel about her very real character? 

Davide Mana on Successful Historical Fiction

Author Davide Mana generated a lot of interest with his guest post on successful historical fiction – a theme for 2017.

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

This post features a quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh that struck a chord with me and with readers: “the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation. On the contrary, woman must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought of reading, of study or work.”

Dynamic Pacing 

A summary of a talk given by agent Irene Goodman and author Selden Edwards on pacing which is the speed and intensity at which events of the plot unfold. This post contains 17 tips which were summarized at the end of the talk.

Mess, Mess, Mess, Mess – Art

Geraldine Brooks was one of two keynote speakers at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2017. She spoke about her writing process.

Weaving the Twin-Stranded Storyline

Dual timeline novels – something Susanna Kearsley excels at – was the subject of her workshop at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2017.

WWI Fiction – Readers Have Their Say

In 2017, I conducted a survey of WWI fiction. This post shows the results.

Historical Perspective – Appealing to Modern Readers

Author Cryssa Bazos talks about creating historical characters: Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. It’s only through balancing this with the commonality of human nature that we can appeal to modern audiences.

The Alice Network with Kate Quinn

After reading The Alice Network – loved it! – I spoke with the author, Kate Quinn

Book Titles – What’s Their Purpose?

What does a book title do for you? Does it entice? Does it hint at the novel’s story? Does it reflect your personal circumstances? Does it confuse? A post about choosing a title for one of my novels.

Characters – You Need to Know What They Look Like

Writing any kind of fiction involves an intense relationship with your characters. I’ve read of other authors creating a bulletin board with photos of their characters so they can easily bring them to mind. In this post, I’ve shared pictures of two characters – the admiral and the wife – in my as-yet-unpublished novel The Admiral’s Wife.

You can also check popular posts from other years: 2012, 20132014, 2015, 2016

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Book Club tackles Where the Crawdads Sing

The Toronto book club I’ve been attending for roughly twenty years discussed Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing recently. In advance, our moderator circulated a New Yorker magazine article about the wildlife efforts of Delia Owens and her husband Mark Owens in Africa and the huge controversy that arose when one of the major news organizations was filming a documentary about them and a poacher was killed. There was some suggestion (unproven) that Mark Owens’s son might have killed the poacher.

This article offers an intriguing view of Delia’s unusual life in the wild and her relationship with her then husband and there was much speculation at book club on how her work in Africa affected Where the Crawdads Sing.

We usually begin by asking each person whether they liked the book – and in the case, everyone said they enjoyed it, although most offered a caveat or two.

What is it about the story that so many readers have found compelling? Goodreads has over 440K ratings of the novel averaging 4.5 out of 5. Our group felt that the sections of the novel dealing with Kya’s marsh world were the most compelling and that this portion of Owens’s writing is superb. Perhaps that’s because she’s written three earlier non-fiction works about natural settings.

Do the two timelines work? Here we had reservations. Most said they found the murder investigation and trial bland and not written nearly as well as early timeline chronicling Kya’s growing up. The group expressed admiration for the deep understanding of Kya’s inner life as portrayed in the earlier timeline and disappointment that the story lost Kya’s voice/inner monologue and the richer understanding of her motivations that would have come from that in the other timeline.

Why are readers drawn to Kya as a character? Because she’s alone and vulnerable, because she demonstrates strength and determination, because she cares deeply for the natural world.

Will there be a movie version? A resounding yes. Apparently Reese Witherspoon has already bought the film rights. Some felt that Delia Owens crafted the story deliberately with a movie in mind.

Was the story plausible? Could a little girl of seven really look after herself the way Kya did? Could Kya learn to read and educate herself so completely? Was the ending plausible? We debated each of these.

If you’re interested in an interview with Delia Owen, you can check this article from BookPage.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens ~~ For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Perfect for fans of Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell, Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.