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…

Interview with author Eugenia West

I first encountered Eugenia Lovett West when her most recent novel – Sarah’s War – was released. As someone who began writing after a thirty-year career in business, I was fascinated to learn that Eugenia West is well into her nineties. She says that her goal is to keep on waking up every morning with the urge to create. Amen to that!

What was the inspiration for writing your first novel, The Ancestors Cry Out? 

Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, What was my inspiration for writing my first novel, The Ancestor’s Cry Out? I fell in love with the island of Jamaica when visiting family there—and this was in the 1960’s before it became a popular resort. Women still walked along the road with baskets on heads and there were few cars. The beauty of sea and sky was dramatic, the people were warm and friendly. As well, there was great contrast between the shore and the higher elevation. A trip into the hills and a visit to a sugar plantation introduced me to a wilder landscape and sense of a strong sub-culture, sometimes voodoo. I read a number of journals written by wives of British governors with tales of uprisings and tragedy. The combination of beauty and the undercurrents of danger led me to invent a cast of characters and to send a young woman from Boston on a mission to find a lost inheritance.

What keeps you writing?

I believe strongly in the value of escape reading. For me, it started when I had little children and nap time was a chance to read and regain sanity. These days, the need for escape reading may be stronger than ever, and my aim is to give readers total immersion into another world. I come from a long line of preachers and teachers and I may have inherited a love of playing with words.  As well, the euphoria when a manuscript is accepted does overcome the pain of rejection. And—at age 96, it’s a gift to wake up in the morning with the urge to create.

Do you begin with plot or character?

For writing history, I’m apt to begin with plot. Sarah’s War evolved after reading about the winter of 1777 in Philadelphia, the contrast between General Washington’s disintegrating militia at Valley Forge, the sickness, the bleeding feet in the snow. Now picture British officers living the high life in winter quarters in Philadelphia. There were weekly balls at Mr. Smith’s City Tavern, sports, musicales. This culminated in a farewell party for General Sir William Howe modeled after an old fashioned jousting tournament and ending with a grand ball and fireworks costing thousands of pounds. An extravaganza—nothing like this had ever happened in the colonies. The contrast led me to start years of research. I spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing, and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a fearful mistake by allowing his troops fall out for a leisurely lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to avoid a trap and escape. The first version of Sarah’s War was far longer, with three main characters.  In the end, to make the story move faster, I concentrated on one character, Sarah. It caused me great pain to cut out many pages of careful research, but I tried hard to maintain a sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. Loyalists and fence sitters outnumbered patriots. The streets were filled with informers and spies. There was no structure of governance, just thirteen states each with their own demands. We owe a great deal to those first patriots who might well have been hung if the war for independence was lost.

You’ve written novels since the 1970s. What changes to the industry do you think are most significant?

My sense is that changes in the last few decades are giving writers far more opportunities to see their manuscripts become books that you can hold in your hand. When I started writing novels, it was almost essential to have an agent with connections to editors. The alternative was expensive vanity publishing. Now many books are self-published and profitable. There are more small presses, and there’s also a new game in town—hybrid publishing. The author pays up front and the hybrid publisher produces a presentable book—cover, ISBN, links to distributers etc.  Depending on the success of the print run, the author gets a high percentage of earnings. There have been other major changes. I used to work on an electric typewriter and mistakes had to be covered with white ink. Then came computers. Unlike children who seem to be born hardwired with technical skills, my generation struggled with the learning process—I still treat my computer with wary respect. In fact, when I started writing there was no internet and no social media like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, giving writers the chance to build up lists of fans and followers.

What lessons have you learned from your long career writing fiction?

The answer is many—and often the hard way through trial and error. Readers and writers are starting off on a journey together. It’s up to the writer to create a bond—and that bond must be created as soon as possible. I learned that it takes many hours and many thousands of words to find one’s “voice” or particular style—my theory is that writing is 10% talent and 90% applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I discovered that I don’t have a gift for clever metaphors, but I do have an ear for dialogue that can move a story along without lengthy descriptions. It helped that when my youngest child was in school all day, I became a freelance reporter for a number of weeklies in New Jersey. Journalism teaches one to check facts and to cut down on adverbs and adjectives that detract from strong writing. Feeling important, I rushed around with my Nikkon camera covering everything from sewage disposal meetings to national conventions. Then, instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages? My first novel was sheer trash, but the second, The Ancestors Cry Out, was picked up by Doubleday. I learned that, for me, suspense is essential. I want the reader to be compelled to turn the page.

You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary. What appeals to you about each genre?

As a story teller, not a bone fide historian, I owe a great deal to non-fiction writers like McCullough and Ellis and Philbrick. History can be flexible, accounts handed down are subject to change. For example, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it wasn’t Boston patriots dressed as Indians that boarded ships and threw tea overboard. It was tea smugglers, concerned that imported tea would eat into their profits. Historical fiction demands that you balance facts and imagination. Great care must be taken when introducing actual figures like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. On the other hand, for mysteries, there are rules to follow like planting red herrings, valid clues, surprise endings. The villain is always caught and justice must triumph. Mysteries come in many shapes and sizes, but for me a husband killing his wife in a bathtub is not an option. Mine have global sub-plots like advanced weaponry, illegal viruses, and cybercrime. To sum up, I think there is a special dimension to writing history because both reader and writer gain insights from expanding our knowledge of the past and of the people who changed the world. It’s a never ending source of interest.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Eugenia. Readers will be fascinated with your experience and inspired by your career.

Sarah’s War by Eugenia Lovett West ~~ 1777 is a pivotal year in the United States. The Revolutionary War has long since begun, with no end in sight. George Washington and his untrained militia struggle to survive. The thirteen states are torn apart by politics. Amidst all this chaos, Sarah Champion—a beautiful young Patriot and parson’s daughter whose twin brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island—is sent from rural Connecticut to live with a rich Loyalist aunt in Philadelphia. There, she is plunged into a world of intrigue and treachery. She spies on British officers enjoying festivities in winter quarters. She goes to Valley Forge with information about a plot to kill Washington.

As the war drags on, Sarah digs deep for the strength, courage, and wits to overcome the numerous deadly threats she faces, driven on by her determination to realize one dream: being part of the efforts to form a new and independent country.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

 

Perspectives on writing with author Bob Rich

Bob Rich is a professional grandfather. His main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which his grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. He’s worked as a research scientist, a builder’s labourer, a nurse, a psychotherapist and always as a storyteller. For eighteen years, he’s written a newsletter – a collection of thoughts and insights on a wide range of topics – called Bobbing Around. I think you’ll find his perspective refreshing.

Why do you write historical fiction?

Mary, it’s not like that for me. Writing is the chocolate icing on the cake of life, and research is the yeast in the cake mix.

I started with nonfiction, and without meaning to, built up a wide following in Australia, where I live. As a kid, one of my favorite activities was to read anything that taught me something new. I used to read encyclopedias, and could get lost in them for hours. This gave me an understanding of our world, and how it can be improved.

For years, I had a concept in my mind: a small group of forest-dwelling teenagers, facing an invading patrol of nomads who kill the boys and abduct the girls. When I felt confident enough, I started writing, and this resulted in a series: The stories of the Ehvelen. The Ehvelen are the REAL little people, the base of the many myths. I know, because I visited them in 700 BC. They became the protectors of the wild places, the Mother’s sword against cruelty, slavery, exploitation.

My writing skills have greatly improved during the past 20-odd years, and I should rewrite the books, because the content is great. Only, I’ve grown since, and now I am less interested in opposing evil as in changing it into good. For example, my award-winning novel, Sleeper, Awake, has plenty of tension, but no villains at all. It’s also historical, but the time is 1500 years into the future.

Another historical project was set between 1939 and 2000. It’s the story of a woman who did the impossible and survived the unsurvivable, more than once. She used intelligence, creativity and ruthlessness to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary, then built a million-dollar business behind the iron curtain. Only, this is nonfiction: my mother’s biography. After she died, I had a suitcase-full of research materials, but couldn’t even look at them for two years. The resulting book has the highest number of awards among my 17 titles. It’s Anikó: The stranger who loved me.

In 2013, I had book published that’s mostly historical fiction: early Viking times in Ireland, the period surrounding the Irish rebellion of 1798 and its sequel of Irish people being deported to what became Australia, then the Victorian era, and finally our times. Why did I write this one? Because it is my life story, though fictionalized to protect the guilty. It’s the story of my life, and five of my past lives I recalled in 2007, but the hero is not me. Rather, he is the person I’d like to be. This is Ascending Spiral.

Finally, one of my recent books is historical fiction, set in Australia in the mid-19th century. The inspiration for it was my work as a counselor in an (Australian) Aboriginal health service. I came to love and admire these people, who are the survivors of genocide, and terribly traumatized from what the invaders did to people of an amazingly wise culture. So, Guardian Angel is a tribute to them.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

Typically, I invent a few characters, and put them into a situation. They then take over, and tell me what to write. Often, they tell me what I need to find out before I can make it happen. For example, Maraglindi, my Aboriginal heroine, told me that her life began near Newcastle, in New South Wales, so then I researched the area, contacted local Aboriginal associations, consulted with experts on various aspects of life in the area during the 1850s, and suchlike fun activities.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time?  Any disadvantages?

I think I’d get bored with sticking to just one time-and-place. Life is too short for the seriousness it deserves. (A young fellow told me this in 700 BC.) If I get a concept for a particular time, or location, then I have the joy of researching it.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I’m not fussed about speed, or deadlines, and have several projects going at the same time, all very different from each other. I had a historical novel published in 2017, a contemporary one earlier this year, I am almost ready to send a nonfiction book (From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide) to my publisher, and am working on a science fiction series set in the present time. I started the depression book about 10 years ago, and worked on it only when the more fun fiction projects dried up.

Writing for me is not distinct from life. Ideas bubble up all the time. Some I let go, others I grab hold of, and they take me over.

What strategies guide your writing career?

Get a piece of work as perfect as I can make it. Then I seek beta readers, and improve further. I’m always open to suggestions for improvement, and there is no such thing as a mistake, only learning opportunities.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?

Enjoy. Do enough research that you could move into that time and place and be indistinguishable from the locals. Listen to your characters. They know better than you do.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?

What sets literature apart from the forgettable?

You can have a perfectly enjoyable book, which will merge into the great crowd of other memories within a few weeks, or at the most months. Other books stay with you. Real life events will bring something from the story to mind, and you feel a better person for having read it.

I think the difference is the message. Every book has a set of messages, which is the belief system of the author. When the subterranean messages are bland, the book is forgettable. When they challenge you, take you out of the ordinary and get you to question what others take to be common sense, then you have literature.

Many thanks, Bob, for sharing your views on writing. What an eclectic mix of stories. You mother’s life story sounds fascinating.

Guardian Angel by Bob Rich

1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love. During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart. Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

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.