Charles Ellingworth – Q&A

Charles Ellingworth is the author of A Bitter Harvest, published by Quartet Books on 25 April 2019

Charles kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about A Bitter Harvest.

Bitter Harvest is set exactly hundred years ago in 1919. The Great War is over but this is not yet the roaring 20s. For women in particular, it was a time when some brutal facts were being assimilated: no more than one in ten of them would ever get married and have children. Society had been fundamentally changed.  For men too life was different. Many had been wounded or traumatised but for those that were not, life was complicated and the emotional stakes high. A Bitter Harvest follows the lives of Isobel and Rose Richmond and their cousin Ariadne – three very different women and also that of Julian Belmore, a bisexual  Irishman with an Irish Nationalist past. It is set in the Dorset countryside, the Paris Peace Conference and in the Orkney Islands where the German fleet scuttled itself. Other characters include Lloyd George of height of his powers and an aged Thomas Hardy.

2. What inspired the book? 

The inspiration for  A Bitter Harvest  goes back to my childhood. I was brought up in a small village in Leicestershire where there were at  least half a dozen spinsters – as they were known then. At the time, being a child, I didn’t think about it much but now I know they were part of generation of women whose future husbands were killed in the First World War. They had been raised in an Edwardian society where women were defined by marriage and children but for them this was never a possibility. It was a cohort that was starved both emotionally and sexually and never had the possibility of children or grandchildren to comfort them in their old age. There were three sisters that I knew  well one of whom was our nanny and cleaner. Edna, or Vossy as we knew her, had had ‘a young man’ but he had died in Flanders. Because so many regiments were raised locally, on a catastrophic day like the first day of the Somme, whole villages would be wiped out.

The sisters lived in a house with a few modern comforts. There was only an outside privy and washday was once a week in a galvanised tub with a mangle as a dryer. A television appeared in the late 70s. As I looked back on their poignant lives I thought that a novel, or novels, that followed women of their generation through their lives would be filled with possibilities. 

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?

The initial kernel of the story is the most important thing and it generally involves good people doing bad things and bad people doing good things – the heart of any truly interesting drama in my view. I have the arc of the plot well traced in my mind, but certainly not all the detail, before I start writing. The  main characters, and a physical picture of them, are well drawn in my head but many of the secondary characters appear, almost out of nowhere, as the book develops. I like to find lightly mined areas of history as a background – which is why I am sure I’ll never write about Henry VIII and his wives….

4. Having been through the publishing process a couple of times is there anything about the process of creating a novel that still surprised you?

Writers block is not something with which I am cursed. When it is about to descend on me, I think about the problem very hard and then leave it. It’s amazing how the answer comes unbidden the next day – or week –  as if the subconscious is working overtime. I have come to trust it and use it. I am also a great believer in good editing which every writer needs no matter how famous or talented. I go through this process at least twice before I submit the manuscript to my agent as you are always too close to it and need  help to scrape off the rough edges and sometimes to rethink major aspects. It is hard – and called ‘killing your babies’ with good reason. I undertake this at least twice as I want to know what is just personal preference and what really needs attention: if two or more people say the same thing, you would be a fool to ignore it.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I really enjoy travelling – particularly with my paraglider. Isn’t it the dream of everyone to fly like a bird? With a paraglider you can – and there in nothing better than catching a thermal in the Alps and soaring over the tops of mountains with only eagles for company and your own wits to take you miles from your take off to a valley filled with wildflowers having crossed glaciers and snow fields. You cannot think of anything else while you are doing it and you sleep dreamlessly afterwards.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

This is as difficult as choosing one food: however much you like it, it will surely pall eventually. But if there is one book, a novel, that I think is as near to perfect as is possible, it is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  I could also read Tolstoy back to back for a very long time as no one can switch from a huge canvass to corners of the human heart as he does.

7. I like to end my Q&As 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?

Why do you do it? It takes a huge chunk of your life and it’s hard. So why?

I think it because it makes you really look at how you think the world works – or rather how individuals interact with it at a private and public level and the costs of that interaction. Life is complicated – and fascinating – and I particularly like the petri-dish of the novel as it enables you to examine it once removed from your own experience, forcing you imagine someone else’s experience – someone of a different sex and nationality and time. If you do it well and others enjoy it, and maybe learn from it too – that is deeply satisfying.

About the book

1919 – The Great War is over and an armistice agreed, but peace is not a given. England, riven by grief and loss, attacked by the Spanish Flu, with its younger generation of men killed, traumatised or wounded, is adjusting to a changed world. The slaughter of the Great War is over, but the Roaring Twenties are still far away.

A Bitter Harvest explores the experience of the two Richmond sisters and their cousin Ariadne, confronted with the reality that only a fraction of their generation will ever marry and have children. Set predominately in the English countryside, the narrative shifts between Dorset, the Peace Conference in Paris and the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow, with a cast of characters that includes an aged Thomas Hardy and Lloyd George at the height of his powers. But when Julian Belmore, an Irishman who has come through the war unscathed but conflicted, meets the sisters, bringing emotional turmoil in his wake, events begin their descent towards tragedy.

About the author

Charles Ellingworth is the author of Silent Night, a compelling historical novel published to acclaim by Quartet Books in 2010. He studied history at Oxford and has written for the Financial Times and other magazines. He lives in Somerset.

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