Monday, May 5, 2014

Ave Atque Vale

This week I’m hosting a ‘blog tour’, in which writers take turns to answer the same four questions about their writing, and then pass the questions on to another writer. I'm also taking a bit of time out to focus on my writing.

What are you working on?

I’m currently working on a trilogy of novels. The first, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, is set in Dublin in 1920 during the Anglo-Irish War – or, as the Irish call it, the War of Independence. Aisling O’Flaherty flees to Dublin after her widowed father is murdered and her home town burnt to the ground by British troops. She finds work as a housekeeper for Harry Lovegrove, a British officer and a spy. Patrick Kelly, a member of the Irish Republican Army’s assassination squad, befriends her as a way of spying on Harry. However, Patrick finds he is falling in love with Aisling, while Aisling has already fallen in love with Harry and he with her. Aisling has to choose between her heart and her faith, country and family ...

The second volume, which I’m working on now, is called My Enemy’s Enemy and is set in London in 1940 during the Blitz. Kathleen is a young woman of Irish heritage from the East End who has been recruited by MI5 to root out fifth columnists. On her way home one night during an air raid she comes across Daniel Stein surrounded by the ruins of his home and the dead bodies of his family. He is a Jewish refugee from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and a passionate Communist. As Kathleen grows closer to him she is drawn into the shadowy world of the Communist Party, an involvement she hides from her bosses at MI5; meanwhile, however, her work obliges her to face up to disturbing secrets from her own family’s past ...

The third volume, Ourselves Alone, is still only the most general plan at the moment. However, it is likely to be the most autobiographical, as it will be set in 1975, the period of my own childhood, in the part of South London where I grew up. It will also have an Irish theme (Sinn Fein is Irish for ‘Ourselves Alone’), and will carry forward some of the characters from the second volume, just as the second volume carries forward characters from the first.

  1. How does your work differ from others of the same genre?
I write historical fiction (though as one writer commented, ‘They’re all historical by the time they get to the printer’). I try to make it not only factually accurate – how many buttons there would be on a jacket, what people put on their toast, when that building was pulled down – but also, more importantly, psychologically accurate. What intrigues me is what it actually felt like to be a young woman in Dublin in 1920, a refugee in London in 1940, an IRA volunteer in 1975; how would you think? How would you see the world? How was that different from people’s consciousness now? It makes me sceptical about the notion of an unchanging human nature.

Why do you write what you do?

I find entering the minds, the hearts and the senses of people in the past endlessly fascinating. When I return, I see the world around me with fresh eyes. I hope my readers do too. And I couldn’t not write. Writing is like exercise; in theory I could live without it, but it would make both very grumpy and very unhealthy.

How does your writing process work?

Like exercise, little and often. I’m a lark by nature, and my brain is clearest in the morning, so I do an hour before work every day, while eating breakfast; the creative process is closely linked to porridge in my mind. I take weekends off, but snatch occasional intensive periods in school holidays when my daughter’s term finishes later than mine or she is engaged in some supervised activity. I measure it by time, not output; sit in front of the screen for an hour every day, and it will come. As Hemingway said, ‘The art of writing is the application of the writer’s bottom to the chair.’

On which note ... on the advice of my agent, I’m taking a break from my blog for a while to focus on my novel as first priority. Thank you to everyone who has loyally and appreciatively followed it! Hope you enjoy the novel when it comes out.

Tessa Arlen
The blog tour continues next week with Tessa Arlen, like me a historical novelist, whose Edwardian thriller Death of a Dishonourable Gentleman comes out in January 2015. Born to British parents but brought up all round the world as a diplomat’s daughter, Tessa has made her home in Seattle. However, she finds herself drawn back to Britain, and particularly to the period just before the First World War when it seemed at its most confident and assured, even while catastrophe was just around the corner ...

Find out more about Tessa at her website.


  1. Julian I will miss your blogs! But can't wait to read your book(s) when they are published. Thank you so much for inviting me to take part in the blog tour....will do my very best!

  2. Like Tessa, I will miss your blogs but I think it is wise to concentrate on your main writing work. Interesting detail about the porridge.