Today I am pleased to welcome Lesley Thomson to the blog. Lesley is author of A Kind of Vanishing, The Detective’s Daughter, Ghost Girl and The Detective’s Secret. Her latest novel in The Detective’s Daughter series, The House With No Rooms is published by Head of Zeus on 21 April 2016. Lesley kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The House With No Rooms.
It’s a murder story set in Kew Gardens which features Stella Darnell and her side-kick, Jack. It’s set in the chilly autumn of 2014 and during the blistering drought of 1976. The brilliant sunshine and heat creates an eerie, unsettling backdrop in which children play. In 2014 Stella is asked to solve a murder by a dying friend and as she and Jack delve deeper into the case they uncover the events of 1976. The novel has a strong botanical theme, it centres on the art of botanical illustration – artists who work with botanists creating drawings that help them identify species – and the paintings of Victorian artist and explorer Marianne North. Her strange gallery – the house with no rooms – is situated in the depths of the gardens. It is a crime scene.
2. What inspired the book?
I have visited the Botanical Gardens at Kew since I was a child and it cost a penny to enter. It holds happy memories. It is unchanging, yet paradoxically in constant flux as species are discovered, named, or renamed, their order – the taxonomy – altered. The high wall around it was built in the nineteenth century by the Director, Joseph Hooker to keep out the public. He intended as a place of study and experiment and didn’t want what he perceived as drunken visitors stomping about! For a crime writer, Kew is the perfect setting. It’s an enclosed, delineated space with lots of things to scare a person – starting with the Queen’s Beasts by the Palm House. As with any profession, many botanists have ambition as well as a passion to discover more. They accumulate and hold knowledge which gives them power, however benignly they use it. A potential cauldron of thwarted dreams, failure and disappointment!
(Lesley often takes photographs for research purposes and shares the images for readers on her website. This image is of one of the aforementioned Queen’s Beasts.)
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
I do plan. The novel arises out of an image – in this case the Marianne North Gallery at Kew – and a single plot idea, the murder and I know the ending. For the novel I am currently writing, I have created a detailed chapter plan which is a road map. For me, this is a new modus operandi. It’s not how I have written so far.
In the past I have come across problems when a lot of the story has been written. I have inched my way towards the ending, then done several drafts to get it ‘right’. I created a chapter plan in retrospect that gave me a map of what I’d done rather than what I would do. This method has worked, but this time I wanted to push myself. By doing a chapter plan in advance, I can move episodes around, add in chapters and generally shift the shape of the thing to solve the problem. I encountered the conundrums that inevitably pop up sooner in the process.
The point about this is that every writer has to find what works for them, and that might change over time as they develop. I think it’s important to stay fresh, to challenge myself. I appreciate that in other writers’ books.
I write a novel a year so the process cannot take longer than that! However, I’d say it was about the same time as human gestation, nine months. That includes idea development, research, planning and several drafts. Oh and a couple of sleepless nights…
4. The House With No Rooms is the fourth in The Detective’s Daughter series. What do you think are the perks and downsides to writing a recurring character?
Personally, I think the downsides are minor. The only one I can think of is that many facts of the character are set in stone early on. They can’t be changed. Stella has to be born in August 1966 because that’s in the first novel. Should I wish to have made her older or younger for some reason, tough! However, I enjoy these challenges and as I say they are relatively unimportant.
The advantage of writing a series – and this is something I actively love about it – is that I have time and space to develop characters over the course of the stories. Recently I was a guest at a book group who had read The Detective’s Daughter. I was struck by how the Jack and Stella that the group were discussing were different to how they are in The House with no Rooms. As the stories have progressed, they got to know each other better –indeed I’ve got to know them better – and they have taken on the experiences they’ve had in the ensuring stories. I enjoy charting their lives.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I tend to ‘get away from it all’ to write. I frequently sequester myself alone in a cottage in the country to get large chunks of the novel written. My idea of relaxing is reading, this goes in tandem with being a writer for me. I love to read other people’s stories. I’m a big fan of Victorian writers, Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Mrs Gaskell. And of course the Bronte’s. I read a lot of crime fiction, classic and contemporary. I aim to write the novels I like to read, stories that utterly absorb the reader into the fictional world.
I go on long walks with our dog, to relax and as part of the writing day. Emerging from my solitude, I welcome time with my family and friends. But there’s no true ‘getting away from it all’, Stella and Jack are with me at all times!
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
It’s a novel I reread regularly, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The scenes by the river – and it has a great opening – are vivid and alluring. He manages his intricate storyline with ease and as with all his writing, creates rich and varied characters who engage. I always find something new in the book each time I return to it.
7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
I never come away from interviews with a ‘burning answer’ that I never got the chance to give. This Q and A is no exception. It’s always such a privilege to be asked about my writing and to reflect on the process. Thank you for inviting me to do it this time.
Lesley Thomson’s novel A Kind of Vanishing won The People’s Book Prize in 2010. The Detective’s Daughter, (2013) sold over 300,000 copies. It was Sainsbury’s Ebook 2013 and Amazon number one. Ghost Girl, the second in The Detective’s Daughter series was published in 2014. The Detective’s Secret (2015), was Sainsbury’s Book of the Week. The House with No Rooms is out in April 2016. Lesley teaches creative writing on the MA at West Dean College, at the South Bank Centre in London and will be conducting a masterclass at Bloody Scotland later this year.
About the book:
“The summer of1976 was the hottest in living memory. In the Botanical Gardens at Kew, a lost little girl, dizzied by the heat, thought she saw a woman lying dead on the ground. But when she opened her eyes, the woman had gone.
Forty years later, Stella Darnell, the detective’s daughter, is investigating a chilling new case. What she uncovers will draw her into the obsessive world of botany, and towards an unsolved murder that has lain dormant for decades…”