Many moons ago, when my three children began to be less dependent, I embarked on a Creative Writing Course with the Open College of the Arts. I had always wanted to find space to write and I loved every assignment.
At about the same time, I read East of the Sun by Julia Gregson. I lcouldn’t put it down, and decided to write to the author. I was more than delighted when Julia replied and we’ve swapped a few e mails over the years. I revealed that my dream was to write a book and she was so encouraging.
I love all her work and am delighted to have here on my blog today. The writing community is so special: the way authors share tips and are so approachable. Julia read my first novel (which back in 2012 was called Never Forget and was in dire need of a good edit or two. Nevertheless, she gave a copy to her own publisher. It wasn’t accepted – it took a few more years before I found Bookouture, who helped me polish up The Tuscan Secret.
Anyway, enough about me.
I love your work, Julia, and I wrote to you more than ten years ago after having read “East of the Sun”. You were so encouraging and told me how a group of you, (not so very young ladies) met in a pub regularly to chat about writing. And you told me not to give up. If you only had one piece of advice for a would-be writer, what would it be?
I would still say the same thing. Don’t give up – look what happened to you!
I would add patience. I have a quote by the Danish writer, Isak Dinesen on my noticeboard: “I write every day without hope without fear.” If you expect quick results you will be frustrated. Luck and timing will play their part, but perseverance is key.
It’s worth confessing here I am both fearful and impatient. It’s funny you mention, ‘East of the Sun’, because only last week, during a lockdown clear out of cupboards, I found a diary I was writing at the same time. I opened it on a page where I told myself the book was a disaster- best thing would be to chuck the whole thing in the river and give up.
I’d been so happy with East of the Sun when I first started it, done one fascinating research trip to India, was planning another, had written, maybe 50,000 words, but suddenly I felt I’d hit a wall, and had no idea how to finish. It was horrible, and devastating, and somehow shaming to have put so much of myself into something that suddenly felt so worthless.
This is the point when I think it is so important to have the right people around you. When I confided some of this to my husband, also a writer, he asked to read the book. He said he loved it, (that, in my mood of despair, I discounted, he had to live with me!), but, more importantly, he pointed out, it was a book about female friendship. Such a simple, even throwaway remark, and of course I knew it, but it gave me the key to my way in again, and how to finish. That book sold over a million copies. It changed my life.
East of the Sun is a book that I have read several times. I have visited India and vow to return one day. At the moment, when we can’t travel, I recommend travelling via Julia’s words into this story.
Which of your books was easiest to write, Julia – and why?
I don’t find any books easy to write. I think I’m partly drawn to the work by the fascination of what’s difficult. What has changed is that I have learned how to handle my own temperament better. If I have a difficult day, I’m much more likely to say. ‘OK, here’s the bit when I want to chuck it.’ So what?
The writer, Eudora Welty, put the stages of writing a book so well when she describes the first few chapters as feeling “like a walk in the spring rain.” It’s all new and fresh and everything’s possible. The second part she called, “the Gobi desert,’ because it’s inevitably trickier: the engine of the story has to start to fire, the characters to find direction, this can feel like a slog. The last part, was like skiing down a hill.
What I’m better at now is not forcing it, but relaxing into the work, and meeting my unconscious half way. I work most days because I want to be there, it’s not an act of will – novel writing is addictive
When my husband died in 2019. I became even more aware of how lucky I am to have this work to do – work that is engrossing and energising. This has been a hard time in different ways for all of us, but also a time of stripping back, of understanding what our engines are.
How true. So sorry about your loss. I cannot imagine a life without my husband. He is my best friend.
Where do you do your writing and do you have any photos of this place to share? Do you have a writing routine?
All my working life I have longed for a shed of my own, and after the publication of my fourth book, ‘Monsoon Summer,’ I finally got one. My hut is half a horse shelter and, in summer, two horses, peer in through the glass and watch me typing.
How absolutely idyllic. I love the view of the trees too. I could easily become distracted.
It has a wood burning stove and a tiny kitchen, a compost loo, and views of a rushing stream, woods and fields. Having it has been life changing.
Up there I feel free It separates me from the house where I’m more liable to make a soup or load a machine, and be distracted by almost anything.
When I’m working, I do three to four hours in the morning, when it gets to the more hectic parts before publication, or deadlines, I’ll carry on in the afternoon.
Another great read. Here is my review
Please can you tell us a little about your path to publication?
Uneven! And baby steps. I left school very young, 16, and had a lot to catch up with. First, short journalism pieces which taught me a lot; later, a career as a feature writer, including a spell in New York and Los Angeles as a foreign correspondent.
Years later, I was in my fifties, I was very lucky that my first published short story won the Literary Review/Rymans, short story award which gave me confidence to go on and also an agent, (Curtis Brown). I’m aware nowadays how difficult even that agent step is. About that time, I was commissioned, by the Sunday Times, to write a travel article which involved a 7 day ride on horseback from Wrexham to the Lleyn Penninsula . I had the idea for my first book, ‘The Water Horse,’ on that ride, and that book was bought by Century Hutchinson.
(Here is Julia researching for The Water Horse)
Loved this story too. I am always totally swept up into Julia’s locations
What are you working on at the moment?
While I was researching my last book, Monsoon Summer, I interviewed a young midwife, Anna Kent, who’d delivered babies in S Sudan, Haiti India. Her life was so astonishing that, half way through our talk I said, ‘Bloody hell! You should be writing your own book.’ Turned out she’d written extensive diaries, and she and I have spent the last year turning them into a book to be published by Bloomsbury this year. While we wait for proofs, I’m going to work on the second draft of a novel set in New York in the seventies.
Wow, you are so busy, Julia.
Finally, please can you tell us something about yourself that we wouldn’t guess.
I was once a cowgirl (jillaroo) in the Australian outback.
Now, that is so intriguing. Yet another book, perhaps?
I’ve loved chatting with you, Julia, and I wish you continued success. Thanks for sharing with us and good luck for your next books. There is plenty of room on my shelves for many more by you.
Another great book on my shelf that Julia hasn’t mentioned is Jasmine Nights
For all details, here is a link to Julia’s website