Elena Bowes talks to the bestselling novelist Julia Stuart about her latest book, The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland.
The Last Pearl Fisher of Scotland – what a marvellous book. I laughed, I cried, I bit my lip in suspense and I loved the believable eccentrics you created. I pictured you writing away, giggling as you typed. Was your book as enjoyable to write as it was to read?
Thank you. People often say my characters are eccentrics, but to me they’re perfectly normal. You should meet my relatives. As for giggling while I type, I should perhaps reveal that beneath every writer’s desk is a pile of yanked-out hair, which mice steal at night for their nests. See that long luscious hair in my author photo? It’s a wig.
How did you come up with your menagerie of quirky characters? Do you mostly imagine your characters, or are they based on real-life people, or a combination?
Perversely, I work out my plot first, then create the sorts of characters who would do that kind of stuff. However, on this very rare occasion, I did base one of my characters on someone I know. When I started thinking about Maggie, my pearlfisher’s 10-year-old daughter, my mind slid to a blonde Spanish girl I met a few years ago while waiting in a queue to plunder archaeological remains left by the tide at the Tower of London’s beach. She’s still pleasingly feisty.
You’ve written four novels. What are you looking for when weighing whether the seed of an idea will work as a full-length novel?
I can feel it in my stomach, which I suppose must be the excitement of sensing I’m onto something. It’s the same gut reaction I have to news stories. I was a journalist for years.
So much of your dialogue is humorous because of what you omit. Your colourful characters are similarly delightful. Can you give first-time authors tips on how to make readers laugh?
It’s always my intention to make my readers laugh in certain scenes (and to cry in others), yet I’m surprised whenever I’m told that I’ve managed to pull it off. I’m similarly baffled as to how I achieve it. But looking back several sentences, it seems that I omit things…
In your acknowledgements you thank Henry Sutton at the University of East Anglia for what he taught you about point of view. Your book jumps seamlessly from three characters’ point of view – Brodie, Maggie and Elspeth. Can you offer advice on effectively establishing point of view?
Up until I did my master’s at UEA, I’d written all my novels with an omniscient narrator. I quickly discovered that Henry, my tutor, had such an aversion to omniscience he could smell it at 100 paces. I agreed with his insistence that if you restrict point of view you improve characterisation, so I ran with it. My advice is his or at least my recollection of it. Restrict point of view to four characters at the most and stay in one point of view for an entire scene. This means that everything in that scene, including the weather if necessary, is told from one character’s perspective. Who you choose will depend on what’s happening with the plot, of course.
How much of the book’s plot did you plan ahead of time? Did you know the ending before you started?
I always write a synopsis first and always will. I want to be sure that my story’s worth telling before I embark on the massive commitment of writing a novel. I recommend it. My then publishers rejected my second novel on the basis of the first five chapters. I decided to finish it as I’d worked out the plot and thought it a tale worth telling. I was also very curious as to how the basic plot would pan out. That novel went on to become a New York Times bestseller and was selected for the holiday reading of the Obamas.
Please describe what you do in 26 words?
I’m a novelist driven by curiosity for the plot and a copywriter happily trying to rid the corporate world of suspect phrases such as ‘pain points’.
If you couldn’t be a writer what would you like to be?
Perhaps a photographer as it’s another way of telling stories.
What do you do for fun besides dream of being the front end of a pantomime horse?
I enjoy a game of tennis and am public-spirited enough to let most players at my club beat me.
I’ve started the research for my fifth novel, which will feature an alarmingly high number of sticky buns.