Thursday, 11 July 2013

Author Interview: Penny Feeny

Today it's the final leg of the blog tour for Penny Feeny's new book, The Apartment in Rome which is published today by Tindal Street Press.  Happy publication day Penny, I hope you're celebrating in style...

I'm delighted to be able to welcome her to my blog for a bit of a chat about where the inspiration for the book came from, her writing process, her inspiration for the book, her writing process and much more, so I'll hand you over to to Penny.

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book?
My main character, Gina, had a rootless upbringing, but has been settled in Rome for 20 years. She’s a model turned photographer and a thoroughly independent woman in search of fulfilment as well as security. She’s having to fight to keep the tenancy of her apartment, but her work is on the cusp of real success – until a chance encounter reawakens the past and threatens to jeopardise everything she’s struggled to achieve. Sasha, the lonely British teenager who stumbles into Gina’s world, doesn’t realise what havoc she’s causing when she embarks on an innocent romance. But she, too, will learn that the impact of first love never goes away.

Where did the inspiration come from to set this story in Rome?
I’d loved living in Rome in my twenties and writing about it was the perfect way to recapture some of that enjoyment. It’s a wonderful, alluring city that’s attracted ex-patriates and migrants throughout its history. I was also interested in looking at people who live on the fringes of conventional society, for whom life isn’t as settled and comfortable as it is for most of us.

Which came first, the characters, plot or destination?
I’d always wanted to use Rome as a backdrop and was delighted when my publishers encouraged me to do so. The starting point for some of the characters were people I used to know there – but the starting point only! They soon developed distinct personalities. I thought it might have been difficult to write the character of Sasha, the 16 year old, since it’s a long time since I was a teenager – but the memory of how intense things feel at that age never goes away. The plot develops as I go along. I have a rough notion of what will happen but I do a lot of revising.  Part of the pleasure of writing a novel  is having ideas surface; it’s a voyage of exploration for the author as well as the reader.

Are you able to give us a hint as to what your next novel is about?  
I am working on a novel that deals with family crisis at a time of unusual natural forces (the volcanic ash cloud of 2010). The plot involves an English and an Irish family linked by a long ago tragedy, and follows the connections that develop between them in the present-day.  For a change, it’s set largely in Ireland which is another country I know well. It’s a beautiful holiday spot too.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I wanted to write for as long as I can remember. I was a very bookish child and a lot of my spare time was spent reading and making up stories. All my jobs have involved writing or editing of some kind, but nothing beats getting paid for producing fiction!

Have you ever had writer’s block?
No, but there are certainly times when I feel as if I’ve run out of ideas and don’t know where to go next.

If you weren’t a writer, what career path would you have chosen to follow?
I’ve had a few different jobs, mostly in the arts (and now I’m also a volunteer advice worker on a part-time basis). I think the work I most enjoyed was radio journalism. This was in BBC local radio, the company was always pleasant and the assignments were interesting. I think radio is a much more intimate and satisfying medium than TV.

Being a writer appears to be such a solitary lifestyle, especially when you’re in the midst of writing, so do you consider the influence of social Media, Facebook and Twitter, a blessing or a hinderance?
Yes, it is solitary, although hopefully one’s characters are good company. So far I have resisted social media, though I do spend far too much time browsing the internet.

How long did it take you to get your first book published?
I have had many false starts! Years ago I came close with a first novel (now firmly in a bottom drawer) but work and family life intervened. I gradually began writing again when the youngest of my five children started school. I had reasonable success with short stories and pushed myself to write something longer. Ironically an earlier version of The Apartment in Rome was written before my debut, That Summer in Ischia. If I were to include that I’d have to say 5 years; otherwise 2.

Do you have a set daily writing routine?
I am very bad at settling down to write and always looking for distraction. I have to have a clear space of time – at least 3 hours – to be sure of achieving something. So if I know I have a busy day with appointments etc… I will only tinker. Otherwise I write in longhand first, away from the computer, and then transfer the material, editing as I go. That’s the bit I really enjoy.

Would you say that any of your characters are like you?  If so, which one(s)?
There are bits of me in some of my characters, but part of the fun of making people up is allowing them to be more outrageous than I would ever be.

If you could write another style of genre, what would it be and why?
I admire people who can write a really truthful, honest memoir but I can’t imagine ever having the courage to expose myself so openly.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
It’s a very common one, but I’ve found it to be true. Persevere. Don’t give up. If you go on trying and improving, one day the timing will be right for you. Oh, and read as much really good stuff as you can.

If you could invite any three authors, alive or dead, to a dinner party who would you choose and why?
I’m afraid I don’t much like dinner parties, unless they’re really casual. I love food, but I prefer one to one conversations. I think I would choose Oscar Wilde – for wit and entertainment value; J.D.Salinger  because I’m fascinated to know why he stopped publishing, although he never stopped writing, and Anne Tyler because she’s my favourite author.

Do you prefer to read physical copies of books or e-books?
I spend a lot of time, inevitably, in front of a computer screen, but I don’t have a Kindle and have never read an ebook. I love physical books, the feel of them , the look of the cover (there’s no colour on an e-reader), and I often like to refer back to earlier chapters or see when the next one ends. Books make lovely presents too.

Are there any books you’ve read that you wish you’d written?
When I first read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle as a teenager, I kept trying to copy her style. It seemed so effortless  and engaging. I later learnt she worked at the book for four years before she was satisfied with it.

When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
Yes: a few days not having to worry about  my characters for a start (they’re almost like family by the end of a book).  The first thing I bought when I got my first royalties was what’s called a Dutch bike – very sedate and comfortable. I grew up in Cambridge and spent my youth on a bike and now my children have left home and I don’t have to ferry them around, it’s wonderful to have the freedom to cycle again.

Where would be your idyllic location for a writing retreat?
Somewhere in the Mediterranean: Italy or the south of France. Sicily is my favourite destination of all and I’m going there shortly on holiday, to a tiny seaside village called Marinella di Selinunte. Selinunte, built by the Greeks, is one of the most magnificent ruined cities,  and if you look up from sunbathing on the beach you catch sight of a temple on the promontory above. The area is quiet and unspoilt (it’s known as Sicily’s Wild West) so there shouldn’t be too many distractions.

If you were going to be stuck on a desert island and could only take 3 books with you, which ones would you choose?
I’d go for Oscar Wilde again, The Complete Works, because there’s so much range; he shows a great sensitivity towards women and I find his work very moving as well as entertaining. Middlemarch by George Eliot is my favourite novel and  I could enjoy using the time to re-read it. And I would choose a short story anthology – any one at random – because I love the variety of short stories and you can get something more out of each reading.

The Apartment in Rome is available now. Amazon links: Paperback or Kindle

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