Batman might have featured in Susanna Bavin’s childhood stories but she has turned her attention towards more everyday heroes for her family sagas – the first of which, The Deserter’s Daughter, is published next month.
With a deadline of just six months to complete her second, I’m even more grateful to Susanna, who lives in North Wales, for taking time out to answer my questions for Behind The Book.
It’s amazing to be able to tap into all her experience – and she offers some great insight into getting a book (or two) published (as well as some top tips for along the way).
Before we get to the Q&A, here’s the blurb for The Deserter’s Daughter:
1920, Chorlton, Manchester.
As her wedding day approaches, Carrie Jenkins is trying on her dress and eagerly anticipating becoming Mrs Billy Shipton. But all too soon she is reeling from the news that her beloved pa was shot for desertion during the Great War. When Carrie is jilted and the close-knit community turns its back on her, her half-sister Evadne and their mother, the plans Carrie nurtured are destroyed.
Desperate to overcome her private troubles as well as the public humiliation, Carrie accepts the unsettling advances of the well-to-do antiques dealer, Ralph Armstrong. Through Ralph, Evadne meets the aristocratic Alex Larter, who seems to be the answer to her matrimonial ambitions.
But the sisters have chosen men who are not to be trusted and they must face physical danger and personal heartache before they can find the happiness they deserve.
When did you start writing? Is it now your full-time job? If not, what do you do?
I was a child writer. My first story was about Batman (!) but my great love was writing boarding school stories, because that was what I adored reading. Is writing now my full-time job? I wish! My first career was as a librarian specialising in work with schools and children; then I became a teacher. After we came to Wales I moved into the care sector, firstly as a carer and now I have a part-time job as a cook in sheltered accommodation.
Have you always been a saga fan? What do you enjoy about them?
When we were 14, my best friend discovered Victoria Holt’s books and she got me reading them – and I was hooked. Throughout my teens I wrote gothic stories and this soon morphed into writing sagas – not because I was reading them at that point, but simply because that was the way my story-telling naturally developed.
I enjoy reading thrillers, psychological suspense and US cosy crime, but my favourite fiction is the saga. I especially love books by Anna Jacobs and Carol Rivers. In a saga, there is so much material to become immersed in, both as a reader and as a writer. The traditional format of the saga is to follow the heroine as she faces and bit by bit overcomes her troubles, with various sub-plots adding further depth and intrigue to the story. I love the exploration of the characters’ lives – their relationships, ambitions, successes and failures, all the things that make them tick. The tiny details of a life can take on such significance. Sagas are about relationships of all kinds – family ties and divisions, friendships, enmity and love.
Sagas have an historical setting too, which has always appealed to me, again both as a reader and as a writer. For me, the delight of the saga is seeing the heroine having to deal with challenging situations within the social and legal context of the day.
Your debut novel is set in 1920. Were you already a fan of that era?
Thanks to a wonderful teacher called Miss Smith, history was my favourite subject at school; and I went on a do a degree in history. My particular interest is social history – specifically women’s lives; and domestic history – costume, food, furniture etc.
The first few novels I wrote had a Victorian setting and I built up a lot of knowledge. Then I looked at the market and saw that, while Victorian-based novels were still being published, there was far more concentration on the 20th Century, so I made the decision to move my next book into the 1900s… but not too far in. Hence 1920. It was a bit of a wrench at the time, but now, having immersed myself in the history of the day, it feels right and comfortable.
How did you learn your publisher was interested in a (two-book) deal? What was that moment like?
It wasn’t so much a moment as a prolonged series of moments. First of all, the offer from Allison & Busby was to publish The Deserter’s Daughter and to have first refusal on my next book. Then I received an email saying that A&B wanted to see a synopsis for book two. Fortunately for me, my agent, Laura Longrigg at MBA, had already got me to write a synopsis for a second 1920s saga and had advised me to ditch an enormous sub-plot and concentrate on the main plot so that the reader could become immersed in the story of Nell, the heroine. It was at that point that A&B wanted to see the synopsis. I had to drop everything and work on a revised version.
On the strength of that synopsis, I was offered a two-book deal. This happened a few days before Christmas. The best Christmas present ever!
Telling everyone and receiving all those congratulations and good wishes was very special. If you’re a not-yet-published writer reading this, I hope it happens to you one day.
How far into book two are you? Is it going well?
A mere six months to complete a saga – wow! The Deserter’s Daughter is just under 126,000 words and the follow-up will be the same sort of length. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, so I need to get a move on.
For me, the pressure is associated with all the other things I have to do, rather than the writing itself. Moreover, I am not a writer who writes straight onto the screen. I use pen and paper. I don’t write in perfect copperplate – I scrawl my own shorthand. But unlike a writer who composes on-screen, the typing is a separate part of the process for me and has to be factored into the deadline.
As for the story itself, I’m very happy with it. Laura was absolutely right to tell me to ditch the big sub-plot and make it Nell’s story. This has enabled me to delve deeply into her life and the lives of the people most important to her. As a reader, I appreciate depth in a novel and I hope this what I provide as a writer.
How invested do you get in your characters? Do you think about them even when you’re not writing?
Deeply. And yes.
Most characters arrive in my head fully formed, right down to the last detail of their back-story. This was what happened with Carrie and Evadne, the sisters in The Deserter’s Daughter, and also with Ralph, the villain. Other characters might take a little longer to develop inside my mind, but I end up knowing so much about these people that I can’t help getting drawn into their lives. Writing about them in such a way as to make the reader understand exactly why they do or think or want a particular thing is hugely satisfying. As a reader, you don’t have to like a character in order to understand them, but you do have to understand them thoroughly for the story to be successful.
Are you nervous about publication? What will you do on the big day?
I don’t think ‘nervous’ is the right word, but I am very aware that my book is going to be a hardback and therefore expensive. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled to be published in hardback before the paperback comes out. That doesn’t happen to everyone these days, and especially not to a first-time author. I feel privileged.
I hope lots of people will be interested enough to request The Deserter’s Daughter at their local public libraries. Coming from a family of lifelong library-users, and speaking as a former librarian, it makes me feel proud to think of my book – my book! – being on public library shelves.
As for publication day, there will be an afternoon tea with friends at one of the hotels on Llandudno’s promenade. My husband and I did some rather delicious market research before we chose the afternoon tea we liked best. It’s going to be a lovely occasion.
Any advice for writers working on their own novels and maybe in need of some encouragement?
In blogs and interviews I have read, writers often give general advice on the importance of perseverance, which of course is important, but I am going to give some practical tips that I hope will be useful.
Thank you so much to Susanna for her time and effort. It’s been so nice to connect with her and I loved reading her answers, which I found so interesting and inspiring. I’ve already written tip number two on the whiteboard next to my desk.
Please check out Susanna’s website, which also has a brilliant (and very useful) section on writing. You can also follow her on Twitter and, of course, please request The Deserter’s Daughter, which is published in hardback on June 22, from your local library.
Lastly, a big thank you to Catherine at Cultural Wednesdays for introducing us.