Name Rosy Thornton
Where are you from
A little about your self i.e. your education Family life etc.
I was raised in a Suffolk village before I went to Cambridge to study Law. I stayed on at the University there for my doctorate and then as a lecturer, which has been my ‘day job’ ever since. But Suffolk is still where my roots are, and I now have a home back there, in the small village of Blaxhall, which is where my short story collection, ‘Sandlands’ is set.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
In 2016, following on from five novels, I published my first collection of short stories – ‘Sandlands’. The response to the book has been a pleasurable surprise: it is currently on the shortlist of six books for the 2017 New Angle Prize, awarded biennially for a literary work (fiction or non-fiction) inspired by or set in the East Anglian region, and also on the longlist for the Edge Hill Prize – the main national award for short story collections.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I was a latecomer to writing fiction – although I had written and published books and academic articles as part of my job as a legal academic. The desire to tell stories came upon me suddenly in my forties, really out of the blue. I think it may have been some kind of ‘mid-life crisis’ – or perhaps the creative side of my brain rebelling after years of being neglected in favour of all that legal analysis!
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’m not sure that I have yet managed to reach that point, in spite of having six published books behind me. Maybe it’s because I spend my working days being a lawyer and a teacher, that I still think of myself primarily in that role, and of my fiction-writing as a hobby or a dalliance. I have to pinch myself sometimes to think there are really novels on the bookshelf with my name on the spine.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
It was, indirectly, a television programme – a BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic novel, ‘North and South’. I had always loved the book, and was entranced by the series, especially by the gorgeous Richard Armitage, smouldering dangerously in the lead role as John Thornton. I went online and discovered the world of fan fiction. My first, very tentative, steps in creative writing were on a fanfic forum – called ‘C19’ and devoted to Victorian classic fiction and costume drama of that period – where, chapter by chapter, I wrote a full-length pastiche sequel to ‘North and South’! I did make some attempts to get this published. I found a literary agent to represent me, who touted it round the publishing houses, but to no avail – largely because it was emotionally overblown tosh! But by then I’d got the writing bug, and went straight on to write my own first wholly original story, which became my first published novel, ‘More Than Love Letters’. It still took quite a bit of inspiration from ‘North and South’, with a heroine named Margaret after Margaret Hale in the Gaskell novel – and a romantic hero called Richard!
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
If I do, it isn’t terribly apparent to me – but I think authors are often too close to their own work to recognise the nature of their own ‘voice’. I like to try something different with every book, and have written across a spectrum of genres which has included light ‘rom com’, a campus satire, rather more reflective women’s fiction and now, with ‘Sandlands’, short stories and even some flirtation with the supernatural. But I suppose I do have writerly preoccupations, thought, to which I keep on returning: families, especially mothers and daughters; bereavement and recovery from loss; the importance of community. And I think all my books are rooted in a strong sense of place.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
My first four novels were published by Headline Review, an imprint of the Hodder/Hachette group – in other words, a very large, very commercial publisher. In those days I’d say I was also writing much closer to the ‘commercial’ rather than the ‘literary’ end of the publishing spectrum. All of that meant that I had almost no say in the titles that were chosen for my books: in the world of commercial publishing the choice of title is seen as part of the ‘packaging’ of a book, along with the cover visuals and the blurb on the back cover, and is essentially a marketing decision.
Things are very different now that I am with a small, independent, more literary publisher – the wonderful Sandstone Press – who have published my most recent two books. There is still discussion of the title with the editor, but the decision is far more one for the author herself.
My latest book is called ‘Sandlands’ because of the part of coastal Suffolk where the stories are set, known as the ‘sandlings’ or ‘sandlands’ for its distinctive light and sandy soil. It falls from your boots in winter like clods of mud but dries back to fine powdery sand and seems almost to evaporate; it pools at the margins of the roads in the summer months like trails left behind by a retreating sea tide. And sand is a great metaphor for one of the themes of the book, because it is shifting and uncertain, slipping away between your fingers.
Fiona: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
I’m not sure the stories in ‘Sandlands’ contain a ‘message’ as such, but they certainly share some common themes and ideas. The main one, I think, is the way the past is all around us, and the line between past and present can be deceptively thin.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
It might be thought a dangerous game to have played, setting ‘Sandlands’ entirely in the real small village where I live. But while the landscape and countryside depicted are real enough, and the village’s major landmarks are all in place – the church, the village hall, the pub – the people in my stories are all 100% invented. None of my characters is based on any of my neighbours, I point I have been at pains to make clear to everyone. Especially one recurrent character who pops up in several of the stories: the grumpy pub landlord, Raymond. I can’t stress too much that Raymond bears no resemblance whatsoever to the lovely, sunny gentleman by the name of Mike who actually presides at the Ship Inn. (Please don’t bar me, Mike!)
Fiona: What books have influenced your life most?
I suppose I’d have to say that the book which has most influenced my writing life is Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’, since this was the novel which first started me on the path of writing fiction. Rather more prosaically, Glanville Williams’ ‘Learning the Law’ as a teenager encouraged me in my decision to read Law at University, setting the direction of my academic career. The book I love the most, and most frequently re-read, is Dorothy L Sayers’ ‘Gaudy Night’ – a ‘murder mystery’ which contains no murder but a love story that puts Anna Karenina in the shade.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
My favourite contemporary authors include many of the ‘usual suspects’: Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson, Deborah Moggach, Esther Freud, Sarah Waters, Andrea Levy… But ‘new’ authors? Well, I recently loved and hugely admired Fiona Melrose’s first novel, ‘Midwinter’ – a beautifully evocative tale of a father and son and their relationship to the land they farm.
I think my all-time favourite author may be Dorothy L Sayers (see above!), but the writers I most love tend to be those with a gently funny take on the foibles of humankind, from ‘classics’ like Jane Austen, through wonderful ‘period’ authors such as Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald, to the contemporary voices of Mantel, Atkinson, Moggach et al.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
My online writing friends! The internet is such a great tool for getting in touch with other writers, to share advice and tips, critiques, encouragement and support.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
No – my ‘career’ is my academic life. Writing fiction is, for me, a glorious ‘hobby’ – a labour of love.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Like most writers, I suspect, I am never wholly satisfied with anything I have written. I can open one of my books at any page and find a sentence, a phrase, that I think could have been better worded. But I’m not sure I’d want to go back and change things. Each book is what it is, and represents a moment in time in my writing. Of course it could have been better, but rather than dwell on the fact I’d rather move on, and make the next book a better one.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
How about a short passage to give an idea of the landscape in which the stories in ‘Sandlands’ are set? It is from the final story in the collection, ‘Mackerel’, and is in the voice of the elderly widow of an Aldeburgh fisherman.
“This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a pale powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach. Every May or June it starts its creeping invasion, sending fingers across the tarmac from right and left. Baked to dust by the sun, it shakes out from around the feet of the bracken and cow parsley, the campion and cuckooflowers which swell the verges. You could almost fancy it the work of strange, secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and sand-bars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea.
The house is never free of it, either, however often you sweep. It blows in on the draught through doors and windows, sneaks in on feet and clothes disguised as mud but dries to fall as sand and settle in the cracks and creases of the furniture, and form small dunes, if you’d let it, behind doors and in corners. Once I found a miniature cockleshell, finer than the finest bone china, just lying on the kitchen floor. I’ll never know how it came to be there.”
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Yes – plots. I really don’t do plots! My novels and short stories all begin with a character or a place, a theme or an idea, and never a storyline. I am hopeless at planning where the story is heading, and tend to just write and let it go where my characters choose to take it.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Ha ha – no! I have always set my books in landscapes with which I am already intimately familiar. ‘Sandlands’ is a case in point: the stories are all set in my own home village of Blaxhall.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
It’s my publishers who have commissioned designers for my covers. The choice of designer is not really a thing an author gets involved with.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That writing a short story is far, far harder than writing a novel! As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously once wrote in a letter, ‘I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.’
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead?
I’m not sure I can answer this for my current book, since it’s a collection of sixteen different stories. But I can tell you who would play the romantic lead in a film of my first novel, ‘More Than Love Letters’. It would be Richard Armitage!
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
An author far wiser than me once said that the recipe is very simple – and I completely agree. It’s just this: ‘Read. Write. Repeat.’
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’m currently reading Daisy Johnson’s short story collection ‘Fen’, which is set in the bleak, flat landscape of the East Anglian fens. The stories are mysterious, slippery, sometimes disturbing, playing with the unreliable boundaries between past and present, fact and fiction and even humans and animals become unreliable, liquescent. This is a world where a girl can turn into an eel, and it seems entirely plausible. It’s one of those books I really wish I had written myself!
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
The first book I remember reading over and over as a very young child was called ‘Hector the Helicopter’. I don’t recall much about it – not even, I’m ashamed to say, the name of the author – except that Hector flew to the Land of Treacle Puddings. I loved that page the best: I can still picture the happy little helicopter, swooping low between mounded hills topped with oozing dollops of golden sugar syrup.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
Authors who make me laugh are many and varied: P G Wodehouse, Michael Frayn, David Sedaris, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Sue Townsend, James Thurber, Roddy Doyle, Barbara Trapido, Deborah Moggach…
Who makes me cry? Well, I wept buckets at the end of Marge Piercy’s ‘Gone to Soldiers’, Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ and Keri Hulme’s ‘The Bone People’. And if I want a really cathartic, nostalgic cry, I go back to my dog-eared childhood copy of ‘Black Beauty’, and turn to the chapter entitled ‘Poor Ginger’. I’m filling up now, just thinking about it!
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
There are so many authors, past and present, who I would love to meet, just to tell them how much their books have meant to me. I find it almost impossible to single out just one… but perhaps it would have to be the incomparable, the immortal, Jane Austen.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
I shouldn’t want a headstone or any other physical memorial. I’d like to be cremated, then scattered to the winds, so that I can merge back with the endless cycle of nature. If people read and enjoy my books, and the people who love me remember me with joy, then that’s more than enough for me.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
I run in the early mornings six times a week, and twice a day, whatever the weather, I take my two spaniels for long walks in the countryside. I love this alone-time, which gives me the head space to mull over ideas for my writing. It’s also a good counterbalance to the hours a writer necessarily spends sitting on her behind!
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
My favourite TV show of all time is ‘The West Wing’ – Jed Bartlet being, at the moment, a particularly therapeutic antidote to Donald Trump in the White House! I’d rank Aaron Sorkin not just among my favourite screenwriters but among my favourite writers, period. A close second would probably be the glorious ‘Six Feet Under’. And I have to mention again that life-changing BBC adaptation of ‘North and South’! Among more contemporary television dramas I’d single out ‘Happy Valley’: Sally wainwright is another writer I hugely admire.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
Just this morning I cut the spring’s first boiling of young asparagus spears from the allotment; steamed and topped with a knob of melting butter and a squeeze of fresh lemon, there’s nothing better in the world. In music, it would have to be something twentieth century, French and choral – like the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Fauré’s Requiem. Or, if I’m in a different mood, The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’. And a colour? How about that particular palely luminous, pinkish grey-white of the sky on a misty midsummer morning, backlit in gold before the sun breaks through?
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I’m extremely happy being a lawyer and a teacher, with my fiction-writing alongside, and have no great hankering for other lives. But sometimes if I’m trying to describe the evening shadows slanting across a furrowed lane, or clouds of pollen choking the air above a verge of cow parsley, I wish I had access to some other medium, besides words. So perhaps in a different world I might have liked to be a painter.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
This is my website:
And this is the link to where the book is featured on my publishers’
I am also attaching a high-res visual of the cover of ‘Sandlands’, and a
couple of author photographs. You are very welcome to take any other
visuals you’d like (e.g. covers of my other books, etc.) from my website,
which is here:
This is my Amazon author page: