Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Guest Post: Jane Sanderson talks about using family history as inspiration

Today I'm pleased to be able to welcome Jane Sanderson to my blog to talk about how family history has played a small part as inspiration for her books, Netherwood and Ravenscliffe.

Something really wonderful happened when I started writing and researching my first book, Netherwood: finally, after nearly fifty years, I started paying proper attention to my family’s past. 

We’re all the same, aren’t we? We never make time to talk to our parents or grandparents about their lives – and, indeed, as self-absorbed teenagers and young adults, it never even crosses our mind that they might have interesting stories to tell. Certainly my three children, now 19, 17 and 14, never ask me anything about school, or my early years as a journalist, although from time to time I foist anecdotes on them, and they’re well brought up enough to look interested.

Mind you, I haven’t got a story to tell that’s anything like as gritty and admirable as that of my Grandma, who unwittingly, and many years after her death, began the whole process of turning me into a novelist. I was ironing – boring, but true – when I started thinking about grandma’s cooking: pies, puddings, pastries, all of the very highest quality, all rustled up without recourse to recipes. Grandma saved me from having to have school dinners, by offering to feed me when Mum went off to teacher training college. Four days a week I would trot round to her little house for lunch, then go back to school full of good food. I say four times a week because Mondays was washday, and she was always too busy (and too grumpy) to have me at the table.

It struck me, as I stood there at the ironing board, that in 1942, when her husband was killed in a mining accident, she could have sold her food to make a living. Of course, I also knew that grandma wouldn’t have countenanced that idea, so I invented Eve Williams, to fulfil the dream. And the moment I had Eve in my head, Netherwood took off. 

One thing led to another. Dad, who was an electrical engineer at the same colliery where his own father died, had a wonderful fund of memories about life in the pits. He supplied so much of the details that make the mining sequences authentic – he described to me the noise of the winding gear, and the first signs of an underground roof fall or explosion, and the sound of clogs on the street in the early hours, and the tap-tap on the windows of the knocker-upper. He was just 10 when his Dad was killed, and he went to work himself on the day after his fourteenth birthday, and although these were facts that have always been known to me, I didn’t fully appreciate their significance until I began to ask real questions, and listen properly to the answers. 

Obviously, there’s a great deal of invention in Netherwood and Ravenscliffe. The Earl and Countess, although inspired by the Fitzwilliams of Wentworth, are figments of my imagination, as are many of the characters that people my novels. I didn’t know an Anna Rabinovich – although I wish I had. I didn’t know an Amos Sykes either, although I knew men similar to him, and I expect my dad did too. But my own family, directly and indirectly, are what gives my novels their heart. Grandma isn’t here to read them, and I never knew my Grandad, but I now feel I’ve gained a connection with the past that might have eluded me, if I hadn’t written a book. It’s been a joy and a privilege. 

As regular followers of the blog will know I have only recently started reading historical fiction so haven't read Netherwood, Jane's debut novel, as yet although I will be doing so shortly as I have recently bought a copy.  I'll also be reading and reviewing Ravenscliffe shortly.  For those of you who'd like a sneak peek Jane has made an extract available on her website here.

Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson is published by Sphere on 27th September as a paperback, RRP £6.99. 

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