Thursday, 16 October 2014

Author Interview: Vanessa Greene

Today I'm joined by Vanessa Greene for a teatime chat to talk about tea rooms, cakes, and of course about her fab new book The Seafront Tea Rooms which was published last Thursday.

Are you a creature of habit and have the same thing for afternoon tea or do you like to sample the menus?
I try to be open to new things and like to taste the tea room’s specialities – and I’ve had some delicious lavender and lemon drizzle cake that way – but I’m also a fan of the classics. I can’t resist a slice of Battenberg. 

If you could have afternoon tea with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be and why? 
The artist Frida Kahlo. She lived through extraordinary times and despite being bed-bound for much of her life still managed to create beautiful artworks. I think she’d be a really inspiring woman to share a bit of cake with! 

Now let's talk The Seafront Tea Rooms...  

The Seafront Tea Rooms is a peaceful hideaway, away from the bustle of the seaside, and in this quiet place a group of women find exactly what they've been searching for.

Charismatic journalist Charlotte is on a mission to scope out Britain's best tea rooms. She knows she's found something special in the Seafront Tea Rooms but is it a secret she should share? Kathryn, a single mother whose only sanctuary is the 'Seafront', convinces Charlie to keep the place out of her article by agreeing to join her on her search. Together with another regular, Seraphine, a culture-shocked French au pair with a passion for pastry-making, they travel around the country discovering quaint hideaways and hidden gems. But what none of them expect is for their journey to surprise them with discoveries of a different kind...

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book The Seafront Tea Rooms?
The novel’s set in a cosy, windswept cafĂ© on Scarborough’s South Bay, run by Letty – well known in the town for her legendary scones. Here in the tea rooms we meet three other women who’ve each reached a crossroads in their lives – Seraphine, a French au pair who has come to England to escape an illicit love affair; single-mother Kat, who has put her dreams to one side while she tries to make ends meet; and Charlie, a journalist in her late twenties, whose glamorous urban life is thrown into disarray when her sister needs support. 

Charlie’s been commissioned to write a feature on Britain’s secret tea rooms, and together with Kat and Seraphine they begin their mouth-watering research. As they get to know each other better over macaroons and tea, they gradually open up, and help each other through the challenges life has dealt them. 

Where did the inspiration come from to write about tea rooms? 
Afternoon tea is such a uniquely British institution, and it’s great how it’s come back into fashion in the past few years – once a cherished tradition of the older generation, you’re now just as likely to find women in their twenties grouped around cake stands for hen parties or birthday celebrations. It’s a time to relax, chat and laugh – catching up with old friends and making new ones. 

There are conversations that happen over a slowly drunk cup of Earl Grey that I don’t think could happen at any other time. Stories are shared, secrets divulged and problems halved as women take time out from their busy lives to sit down, put their smartphones away and enjoy the simple pleasures of freshly baked scones and soothing cups of tea. Those layers of who we think we should be, what we’ve achieved in our professional lives, or the strains of running a household fall away as we take time out to focus on cherry bakewells and macaroons – cakes are a real leveler! 

I bet you had fun researching for this novel, how many tea rooms did you actually visit?   
I did, it was brilliant! My favourite stops were in Scarborough, where the novel’s set. There’s a fantastic place in South Street there called Francis Tea Rooms, which was once a 1940s hairdresser. They’ve retained the original wooden dividers, so that you get little booths to yourself. It’s full of character. The owner there let me open the jars of tea that they have on shelves there, and those scents provided real inspiration for the Seafront. Another favourite of mine was Betty’s in York, and Drink, Shop, Do in London’s Caledonian Road. I probably visited about a dozen in all, some on my own and some with friends. 

Which character was your favourite to create?
I really enjoyed getting to know Kat, a young single mother who is struggling to find her place in the world. She’s a complex, kind character who is far stronger than she realizes. She does everything she can, including sidelining her own ambitions, to pave the way for her ex-partner to play a role in her son Leo’s life. With imagination and energy, she creates a wonderful world for Leo even though she can’t afford to give him all of the treats she’d like to. I wanted to put Kat through some really hard times, as I thought she could handle it! So she experiences some real highs and lows in this novel – but with the help of Charlie and Seraphine, she comes out stronger.

It's time now I guess for a few general questions... 

When are you most productive writing, morning, afternoon or evening?   
I almost always write in the morning, when my thoughts are freshest and before the everyday tasks on my to-do list have had a chance to burst that nice bubble of imagination a story exists in. I find a strong cup of coffee helps to uncork the bottle and get the words flowing first thing. The first thing I do is three pages of free writing (like a stream of consciousness) – to declutter my mind: I need to do the laundry, I haven’t slept well, I’ve been feeling stuck with a plot point, whatever – but after three pages the idea is you’ve then put it all to one side and return to my novel, fresh. I’ve also solved issues with characters there, as it gives some space away from the novel itself. The idea comes from Julia Cameron’s book The Artists’ Way, which is a great workbook, and one I return to if I found I’ve got blocked. 

Are you a plotter? 
Yes. I write a two-page synopsis before I start work on a new novel, then flesh this out into a chapter outline broken into three parts, or acts. It helps me to ensure that there is enough tension and action throughout the story, and to track the characters’ development. I always end up deviating from the plan, and the ending will often be a surprise to me. In Seafront I knew there would be a wedding, and I could picture it from the very start, the location, the guests – I just couldn’t see who it was who was standing at the end of the aisle. Then, about halfway through, the characters let me know. However much you plan, you can’t really know your characters until they start acting for you. For me, that’s the most fun part.  

If you could go on a writing retreat anywhere in the world, where would you like to go? 
What a lovely question. Ah, you’ve got me thinking now. I think it would be to France, or to the west of Ireland, near Connemara. It’s one of the most spectacular, lush and inspiring places I’ve been. If it’s too hot and sunny I just want to head to the beach, not sit at my laptop! So a cosy cottage, with a cardigan and no TV but plenty of books would be just perfect.  

Finally a few quickfire questions to close... 

Tea or Coffee? Tea with friends, coffee for writing!

Prosecco or Bellini?  You can’t beat a Bellini can you? My friend made me one with fresh peach juice once and it was absolutely delicious. 

Scones or Pastries? There’s a very big space in my life for both – but a fresh scone comes out on top

Victoria Sponge or Chocolate Fudge cake?  I’m a chocoholic. Enough said.  
Here you go Vanessa, hope it's tasty ;-)  My favourite is actually Red Velvet so here's what I'm having (virtually sadly as supposed to be on a diet!) 

The Seafront Tea Rooms tour continues tomorrow over at Emma Louise's blog, check out the schedule below for any visits that you may have missed.

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