Today, we wish a very happy publication day to Fanny Blake. Her new novel, House of Dreams, is a sensuous and heartfelt story set in rural Andalucia.
To celebrate, Fanny speaks with fellow Prime Writer Tammy Cohen on research, her writing process – and cocktails!
TAMMY: Well, hello Fanny. Or should that be ‘hola’? The last time we met you introduced me to the delights of the Twinkle (a deliciously addictive cocktail made with champagne, vodka and elderflower cordial), and this time you’ve given me your wonderful new book, House of Dreams, to read. I feel positively spoiled! I soaked up House of Dreams over two days, as it’s the kind of book you experience as well as read, if that makes sense. And now I’m bursting with questions, so here goes… House of Dreams is set in rural Andalucia, near the beautiful white hilltop village of Gaucin, in an idyllic farmhouse complete with woods and outbuildings and swimming pool and even a garden of British wild flowers. The research must have been terribly arduous! Do you have a personal connection to that region?
FANNY: ¡Hola! Yes, the research was hellish! No really, I did have to go to the beautiful mountains of southern Spain where I explored, walked, ate and drank, relaxed and made notes. In fact I studied Spanish at university so I know some of Spain, including the south, quite well. But in fact I didn’t get to know Gaucín itself until after my father died about fifteen years ago. My mother and I went on a walking holiday that began just outside the village and ended five or six days later in Ronda. We walked through cork forests, followed goat tracks over mountains, explored white villages, tasted wine, picked flowers – it was one of the best holidays I’ve had and I’ve never forgotten it. So when I was looking for a setting for House of Dreams, I decided to set it there, and went back one more time to pick up on all the detail. And I did meet an Englishwoman with a fabulous garden of English flowers that I borrowed.
TAMMY: You’re a very evocative, sensuous writer. When I was reading the book I could smell the wild lavender and hear the cicadas and the lazy buzzing of the bees, and feel the sun on my skin. How important is setting in your writing? Does the setting come before the plot and characters or the other way around?
FANNY: Thank you. In fact I think of the central theme first of all – in this case, the fact that you don’t meet your parents until half-way through their life, so you can never properly know them or what made them the people they are and what, therefore, make you the person you are. After realising that, I dreamed up Hope and her three children with three different fathers, and only then I went to Spain. In truth I was originally going to set the novel in the Cotswolds but then I had one of those light bulb moments – and went to book my plane tickets.
TAMMY: The book revolves around three grown siblings who spend a last weekend together at their late mother’s Andalucian farmhouse to scatter her ashes and pack up the house. What were the challenges of condensing the action into such a strict timeframe? Were there any unforeseen benefits?
FANNY: Funnily, I found that it helped me having such a tight time frame. Everything had to happen over four days, so I planned the key events first: arrivals; stickering the furniture; the traditional family dinner (that goes wrong); the last birthday party; scattering the ashes. Once I had those lynchpins it was fairly straightforward to write around them. I find it much more difficult to spin a story out over months or years.
TAMMY: The three main characters – Tom, Jo and Lucy – are all going through their own individual crises and, just like any family, they are occasionally unreasonable or snappy with each other, but there’s never any doubt of the bond between them all. Your books often focus on the minutiae of family life. What is it about family dynamics that so interests you as a writer?
FANNY: Alan Bennett said ‘Every family has a secret, and the secret is that they’re not like any other families.’ So true. Families are endlessly fascinating to me: groups of people linked by DNA but not necessarily by ideas or ambitions. Secrets and tensions exist between generations and between the members of the same generation. Every emotion you can think of resides in a family: love, hate, envy, resentment, pride, shame, deceit – I could go on. Families provide plenty of fabulous material for any novelist.
TAMMY: The three siblings are very different as personalities and are worlds apart in terms of lifestyle and circumstances. Which one did you most identify with? Which one was more fun to write?
FANNY: There’s a bit of me in all three of them but I think I identified most of all with Jo (although I do know who my father was). She’s successful in her career but is riven with doubt about everything else – her abilities as mother; her role as a sister; the identity of her father. I don’t share those insecurities particularly but I have plenty of my own!
TAMMY: It’s not a spoiler to say that Tom’s wife, Belle, with her beauty regimes and faddy health foods and her habit of going round the house bagging the best pieces of furniture and art does not come out of the book particularly well. I got the feeling you really enjoyed writing her. What’s the secret to writing disagreeable characters? How hard is it to keep from tipping into caricature and how do you avoid that?
FANNY: I did have great fun writing Belle – she made me laugh. I like to believe that at the heart of even the most disagreeable character there’s some redeeming feature or explanation. You just have to find it. In her case, all she wanted was to be accepted by the family she was marrying into and she didn’t understand what she was doing wrong. Despite her behaviour, she’s Tom’s saviour, a good mum and a decent person at heart. She’s just a bit of a pain in the ass as well.
TAMMY: Even though the book only covers a few days, each of the main characters has made a meaningful journey by the end. Is that something you plot out right from the beginning, or does it evolve as you write?
FANNY: When I start off I have the very barest bones of each of their journeys. But as I wrote, each journey evolved into something different. For instance, I had no plans for Maria, Tom’s ex-lover, to be in the story at all. But she just walked into the house one day without my really inviting her and she stayed and changed everything.
TAMMY: Each of the siblings’ stories achieves a satisfying resolution at the end. Do you think it’s important to tie up all the loose ends in your work?
FANNY: When I finish reading a book, I like the main plot strands to be rounded off but I quite like being left to wonder what might happen to one or other of the characters. In this case, I hope their stories are rounded off but there are some questions left unanswered – if I tell you what they are here, it might spoil it for another reader. I’ll tell you over a drink!
TAMMY: Have you started on a new book? If so can you tell us anything about it?
FANNY: Yes, I have. I’ve got very exasperated by the way some writers portray women in their sixties as if they’re doddery old crones with nowhere to go except the doctor’s surgery. The ones I know are very far from being that. I want to give a shout out for the older woman and show that she is far from being washed up, that opportunities are still there if you’re open to them, and it’s not too late to have they rip-roaring affair of a lifetime. What do they say? It’s not over till it’s over.
House of Dreams is published in paperback on June 2 by Orion