It’s a strange and difficult time to be launching a new book but I know that, now more than ever, escaping into a good story has been keeping me sane so I’m hoping Jan Baynham’s debut novel, Her Mother’s Secret, races up the charts.
A trip to a sun-drenched Greek island – even if it’s in my head – sounds just the ticket at the moment, especially with a mystery to solve.
Before we discover more about Jan’s novel, what about Jan herself? A retired teacher, she lives in wonderful Wales with her husband and only started writing after her retirement.
Starting with short stories, Jan is now concentrating on novels – and is already on to her third!
Here’s the blurb for Her Mother’s Secret.
A secret left behind in the summer of ’69 …
It’s 1969 and free-spirited artist Elin Morgan has left Wales for a sun-drenched Greek island. As she makes new friends and enjoys the laidback lifestyle, she writes all about it in her diary. But Elin’s carefree summer of love doesn’t last long, and her island experience ultimately leaves her with a shocking secret …
Twenty-two years later, Elin’s daughter Alexandra has inherited the diary and is reeling from its revelations. The discovery compels Alexandra to make her own journey to the same island, following in her mother’s footsteps. Once there, she sets about uncovering what really happened to Elin in that summer of ’69.
And without further ado, here is our Q&A:
Can you tell us more about your debut novel?
Her Mother’s Secret opens in 1991 when a young Welsh woman, Alexandra, is grieving after the untimely death of her mother. Elin has left her diary to her daughter and on reading it, Alexandra discovers a part of Elin’s life she knew nothing about. She is shocked as the secrets from Elin’s past are revealed and realises she didn’t know her mother as well as she thought.
The diary takes us back to 1969. Elin, who has just finished art college, travels to Greece to further her painting skills. She records everything about her summer on the island but, while there, something happens that causes her to never paint again. The secrets of that summer remain with her until she dies 22 years later.
Alexandra makes her own journey to Greece, following in her mother’s footsteps. She arrives on the same beautiful island that made such an impression on her mother. Once there, she sets about uncovering what really happened to Elin in that summer of ’69 and why it was never mentioned again.
It sounds like a fantastic story. How long have you been working on it? Was it hard writing two different time periods? What about location? That seems very important too.
Thank you, Tara. I enjoyed writing it. The idea for the novel started out as a short story, entitled Whispers in the Olive Trees,and was published by Alfie Dog Fiction. After writing that, the characters stayed with me and I knew I wanted to delve much deeper into their personalities, especially Elin’s, and explore why she kept the secrets hidden from the people who meant so much to her. It was 2017 when I began to write the novel itself, submitting it as a partial to the Romantic Novelists’ New Writers’ Scheme that year.
I enjoy reading novels with two different time periods and so it seemed natural for me to write in that way, too. I think what happened in the past often has an important bearing on the present. It’s certainly true for Alexandra and Elin. Using the diary was my way of looking back to events that happened before Alexandra was born. Elin’s story is told as a complete section in the book but references to what Alexandra has read in the diary appear in her sections, too, linking both time periods together. Well, I hope so, anyway. The novel is not a dual-narrative where two stories of equal weight are interwoven throughout the book.
I agree with you. The location is extremely important and hope that my choice of Greece is the right one for Elin’s story. I wanted a location that was very different in climate and culture to her homeland of rural mid-Wales. As an artist, the vibrant colours of the sea, flowers and the landscape would be perfect for her. As Alexandra thought on her arrival on the island, No wonder you loved it here, Mam. The colours alone make it an artist’s heaven.
What about the publishing process? Was it quickly picked up by Ruby Fiction?
I began submitting the novel to publishers as a result of two very encouraging 1-to-1s at the RNA Conference in July 2018. Both editors asked to see the complete manuscript when it was finished and I submitted to both in the November. By then, one was no longer with her original company but the other publisher gave me very constructive comments after sending it one step further to the submissions’ panel. It wasa rejection, yes, but I took on board the points made to improve it and submitted it to Ruby Fiction early in 2019. I was thrilled to accept a contract from Ruby in May last year.
Can you tell us a bit about you? Where are you from? What do you do for a living?
Originally from mid-Wales, I live in Cardiff with my husband. I am now retired but spent all my working life in education, from running my own art department, teaching evening classes when our three children were small to running my own Nursery. For the most part, though, I was a Primary school teacher for many years and then a Teacher Adviser for Literacy. Immediately after retirement, I trained as Philosophy for Children (P4C) trainer.
How did you get into creative writing? When did you start?
On retirement, I joined a small writing group in a local library where I wrote my first piece of fiction. From then on, I was hooked! Soon afterwards I took a writing class at the local university and began to submit short stories for publication to a wider audience. My stories and flash fiction pieces have been longlisted and short listed in competitions and several appear in anthologies both online and in print. In October 2019, my first collection of stories was published. Following a novel writing course, I began to write my first full length novel.
You seem to be quite active in writing circles, how important is it for you to meet and be inspired by other writers? What do you gain from it?
Writing can be a very lonely business and I appreciate the writing friends I’ve made at every stage. I meet regularly with two friends I met on the ‘Telling Tales’ short story course and belong to a small writing group called ‘The Cowbridge Cursors’ which was formed when a larger writing class folded. As each member has acquired a publishing deal, I have celebrated their successes and been inspired to keep going and improve my writing. Having joined the Romantic Novelists Association in 2016, I value the friendship and support from other members and regularly attend conferences, workshops, talks and get togethers. I’m co-organiser of our local RNA Chapter. Also, I cannot praise enough the support and encouragement I’ve received from the writing community on social media through Twitter and my Facebook Writer page.
Do you ever have a day where writing is just not happening? Do you have any tricks to push through this?
Yes, I have many days like that. I am the queen of procrastination! What usually works for me is having a deadline. If something has to be done by a certain day or date, that is the best motivator for me. I take part in NaNoWriMo most years and although I know I’ll have more editing to do at the end, I like the challenge of keeping up a daily word count. Any other tips to push things through? For me, sometimes writing a flash fiction piece or a short story can get the creative juices flowing again if I’m stuck at a particular point in a novel.
You have published short stories before and now have a debut novel under your belt. Do you have a preference for what you write?
I have to say I prefer writing novels now. The fact that I can explore my characters in more depth, present them with more challenges and create obstacles for them to reach their goals is particularly satisfying. I get to know my characters so well that I miss them when I’ve finished writing the novel. On my last holiday to Greece, when we visited a taverna in a Cretan village, I almost expected Dimitra to come out and serve us. There were tiny kittens playing in the sunshine and reminded me of Cleo, belonging to Dimitra’s little girl.
… the ball of grey and white fluff (was) curled under one of the chairs outside on the courtyard in the very last patch of warm sun. Lyra ran and gathered the kitten up into her arms.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing my third novel. It’s set in 1940 and 1959, in rural Wales and Northern France. It’s another mother/daughter story and again involves secrets. As with my other novels, this story is about forbidden love but this one explores the issue of social class. I’m about a third of the way in and I’m enjoying getting to know my characters. I’ve spent time planning the stories of Mary Ann and Clara in detail so I need to get on and write the whole novel now.
Can you please share your top writing tip?
My top tip is never to give up on your writing. When you get a rejection – and I’m sure everyone will at some time – see if you can take any positives from any feedback given and use that advice to improve your writing. I’m grateful to the excellent advice I received from my NWS readers. I highlight all the positives in one colour and then highlight the advice and criticisms in another. If I agree with the suggestions, I list them and address them in turn. I did the same when I received the detailed feedback from the publisher at the end of last year.
Thank you very much to Jan. I especially love the way she deals with rejection, looking for the positives (and acting on them, if it feels right). Sending her all my best wishes for the success of Her Mother’s Secret.