Elena Bowes talks to award-winning author Francesca Kay about her new novel, The Long Room.
Please describe what you do in 26 words
I write fiction. My hope is to engage its readers’ imaginations, aiming always to use ‘the best words in the best order’.
How did the idea for The Long Room come to you?
For me fiction starts with an image. A child drifting alone at the extreme edge of a playground, a solitary student working late in a library on a summer evening, a figure standing outside in the cold and gazing into a well-lit room where life is being lived…. The Long Room and its hero were born from images of loneliness such as these.
Were you led more by theme, plot or something else when planning the novel?
A hero having been conceived, he needed an occupation, a setting, and a story. What occupation could be more alienating than that of an eavesdropper in a shadowy intelligence concern? Was there ever a time when the world of espionage was cloudier and more confusing than the time of the Cold War? In other words, the images give birth to a character, the character inhabits a world and takes action, the action develops into a plot.
How much of a role does imagination versus research play when you describe the daily tedious work life at the Institute?
The routines of the Institute are entirely imaginary.
How did you create the sad, lonely principal character Stephen Donaldson?
Stephen is the product of imagination working in tandem with experience of real life. By that I don’t mean he is based on a real person. Instead, like most fictional people, he comes from the observation of reality transformed by the capacity of imagination.
You’re a master of showing not telling. What advice would you give a first-time author in realistically depicting character?
First of all, I think the writer must believe that their own characters are real, at least for the time it takes to write their stories. That entails seeing them as clearly in the mind’s eye as one does friends or family. Even if there is no need to detail their physical appearance in the fiction, the writer should know the colour of their eyes. Once the solid reality of the character has been established, it is easier to be sure that what they say or do will be plausible, and therefore credible, to readers.
Can you describe your process of writing? At what point did you know how the book would end?
I never do any plotting or planning in advance. I start at the beginning and write on until I reach an ending which at that point seems inevitable; I do not know what the end will be before I get to it.
What books are on your bed table?
Bernard O’Donoghue’s new poetry collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church and Patrick Flanery’s novel I Am No One.
What do you do for fun?
I cook, I see friends, and I swim and practice yoga.
A new idea is growing very slowly in my mind!
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