Tell us a little about where your ideas for your characters and their stories come from.
They come from all over the place. It's often a snippet of conversation or a news story that just lodges in my head and won't go away. Sometimes I get an idea for a character too, and then unconsciously start knitting them together. Me Before You is the most "high concept" book I've ever writtenin that I could describe it in two sentences. But most of them are a lot more organic and just contain lots of ideas and things that I've pulled together. With this book I think the issue of quality of life was probably to the front of my mind as I had two relatives who were facing life in care homes, and I know that in one case she would probably have chosen any alternative to that existence.
Which of the characters in Me Before You do you identify with the most?
Well, there's definitely a bit of Lou in there. I did have a pair of stripy tights that I loved as a child! I think you have to identify with all your characters to some extent, or they just don't come off the page properly. But I also identify with Camilla a bit. As a mother I can't imagine the choice she has to make, and I could imagine in those circumstances you would just shut down a bit emotionally.
What made you choose to set Me Before You in a small historical town with a castle at its center?
I tried all sorts of settings for this book. I drove all over Scotland, trying to find a castle and a small town that would "fit." It was essential that Lou came from a small town, rather than a city, because I live in one myself and I'm fascinated by the way that growing up in one can be the greatest comfortand also incredibly stifling. I wanted a castle because it was the purest example of old money rubbing up against ordinary people. Britain is still incredibly hide-bound by class, and we only really notice it when we go to a place where it doesn't exist in the same way, like the U.S. or Australia. I needed the class difference between Will and Lou to be clear.
We love the way you draw the social distinction between Lou's working-class upbringing and Will's upper-class background. Did you do that deliberately to introduce humor into what could otherwise have been a deeply tragic situation?
Yes I did. I thought that the subject was so bleak potentially that it was important to have a lot of humor in the book. But it adds a useful tension to the narrative too: offsetting the warmth and chaos of Lou's home life with the more formal and reserved nature of Will's relationship with his parents. And it gives Lou an added reason to feel totally out of her depth once she arrives there. From the point of the reader, it also gives Will a subtle advantage that is vital if we are to see him as Lou's equal and not just an object of pity.
Your books always have an incredibly moving love story at the heart of them. What is it about the emotional subject of love that makes you want to write about it?
I have no idea! I'm not very romantic in real life. I guess love is the thing that makes us do the most extraordinary thingsthe emotion that can bring us highest or lowest, or be the most transformativeand extremes of emotion are always interesting to write about. Plus I'm too wimpy to write horror.
Have you ever cried while writing a scene in any of your books?
Always. If I don't cry while writing a key emotional scene, my gut feeling is it's failed. I want the reader to feel something while readingand making myself cry has become my litmus test as to whether that's working. It's an odd way to earn a living.
Where do you write? Do you set hours or just put pen to paper when inspiration strikes?
I work in roughly set hours, but with three children and a lot of animals I've found you have to be flexible. If there are no disruptions I roll out of bed and straight to my desk and work from 6am to 7:30am, and then again after I've done the animals from roughly 10am to 2:30pm. My ideal time to work would be from 3pm to 10pmbut unfortunately that only happens if I go away and hide in a hotel.
When you form characters do you ever incorporate aspects from people you know?
Yesbut often without realizing. Luckily if you write a negative character trait people are rarely likely to recognize themselves. More often though the characters have elements of myself which I then stretch and exaggerate until they become their own. Lou, for example, contains something of the character I could well have been if I had married the man I got engaged to at 17. I would have led a very different life.
Who would be in your dream book club? Where would you meet and what would you talk about?
Oh, wow. If I can have dead and living writers, I'd have Anaïs Nin, Hemingway, Xenophon, Haruki Murakami, Jessica Mitford, and Nora Ephron. We'd meet in a smoky bar in Paris and I'd probably not say very much at all. I'd be awestruck and just sit there and listen.
Do any other writers inspire you?
Yes. I love Kate Atkinson for her inventiveness, and because as a reader you can give yourself over to a plot that seems to go everywhere, trusting that she will bring the ends together in the most satisfactory and unexpected ways. I love Barbara Kingsolver for her use of language and Nora Ephron for her wit and the way she writes about the business of love and being human. It's always tricky reading too much of the writers who inspire you though; sometimes they're so good you just want to give up and go and work in a chicken factory instead.
When you're not writing, how do you like to spend your time?
I ride my ex-racehorse, Brian, and try to just hang out with my children without muttering: "I'll be with you in a minute I've just got to finish this " A dream weekend, however, would be spent alone with my husband in Le Marais, Paris.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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