Today it's my pleasure to welcome Iona Grey to the blog as part of her Letters to the Lost blog tour. When I was asked to do a Q&A with Iona I knew there was only 1 person I could ask to come up with some questions for her and that was Emma as she had just finished reading the book and LOVED it, you can read her fantastic review here,
What inspired you to write Letters to the Lost?
The immediate inspiration came from a letter. It was an old-fashioned kind of letter, handwritten on lovely thick cream paper, and my daughter had left it lying open on her desk. I caught a glimpse of it as I walked past her room and was instantly intrigued! I didn’t go back and read it, honest, but as I went up to my office I was wondering who it could be from, and the phrase Letters from the Lost just appeared in my head. This was the start of the story!
I’d always wanted to write a book set in the second world war. I grew up hearing the stories of my grandmothers and godmothers, who had all been young at that time – teenagers, and young brides – and I suppose I was captivated by the romance of their memories, and the way they seemed to go right back there as they spoke about them. It felt very vivid to me, and I wanted to try to recreate that feeling on the page..
Did the story develop as you had planned it or did the characters take you in another direction the more you became absorbed in the writing process?
I think with the Dan and Stella storyline I knew fairly well what was going to happen. I had a good idea from the outset what kind of people they were, and in many ways the war provided the ‘surprises’ in that story, so they were very much at the mercy of external events. It was different with Will and Jess though; their story was much more wide open and provided me with lots of unexpected revelations! I knew I wanted Will to be sweet and self-deprecating, but I was genuinely caught out when I found myself typing a line about him having spent six months in a psychiatric unit. As soon as it was there on the page I knew it made sense, and immediately afterwards his perfect brother stepped onto the page with his immaculate fiancé. The wedding was definitely not part of any grand plotting scheme! Similarly with Jess, I had planned for her to be a young runaway and knew all about her circumstances in the present, but hadn't thought about her past. The story became about her quest for a home, which stemmed from her early life with her Gran. I really enjoyed exploring as I wrote.
What challenges did you encounter with writing through the medium of letters and also using the dual time frame?
The challenge of writing through letters is that realistically, only one side of the story can be told! Stella has Dan’s letters, but her side of the correspondence is mostly not included, which was a bit tricky. I wanted to get across a sense of them having a conversation and really getting to know each other as they exchange news and information about themselves, so there are a few things that deliberately remain a little bit mysterious.
The challenge of a dual time frame structure is building the book so that the arc of each story mirrors the other without overwhelming it. A criticism often levelled at dual time frame novels is that the past strand is generally more absorbing than the present, but to me this is almost a given and not necessarily a bad thing. I think the past is the core story and the present day characters are the reader’s representatives, curious to learn about the events of long ago. If their lives were too fascinating they might not have the same thirst to find out!
I really didn’t like Charles at all but loved Dan and Stella. Who was your favourite character to write about and why?
Actually, I really loved writing Ada. She’s not a major character, but while they were still taking shape in my mind she absolutely sprang to life, and I could hear her voice as clearly as if she was standing in the room beside me. It’s no coincidence that the first scene in the 1940s section of the book is narrated from her point of view. I think the reason why she was so real to me was that she’s an older woman, and a very definite combination of my much-loved grandmothers and godmothers who had shared their wartime stories with me as I was growing up. She dispenses that no-nonsense advice and wisdom that I heard from them, and her disapproval is a hard thing for Stella to bear!
You definitely need plenty of tissues when reading this book. Were there any parts that made you cry while writing it?
I didn’t cry while I was actually sitting at my computer; I think when I was writing the more emotional bits I was too tense for that. Those bits are sometimes easy to write in the sense that the words come quickly, but they’re certainly tough in other ways. Without being aware of it at the time, I hold my shoulders more and more stiffly as I type, so that when I finish for the day I have to take a big breath out and release all that pent-up tension. It’s a bit like going into a sort of suspended state. Reality gets completely left behind, and it’s only afterwards that the emotion hits you and you feel exhausted (without having shifted from your seat for hours. Oh dear!)
I think Letters to the Lost would make a great mini-series. I can just imagine curling up on a Sunday night to watch the latest episode. Who would you cast in the main roles?
I was inspired by the memory of Richard Gere playing an American soldier in the 1978 film Yanks when I wrote Dan, but sadly he’s too old to play him now (apart from in the present day!) So, I heroically scoured the internet for gorgeous, strong, honourable twenty-something actors and I’m sure that Theo James will be thrilled to know that I’ve hand picked him for the role. Stella is trickier, but my mum suggested ‘the girl from Downton Abbey – not the cross one, or the one who has no luck with men. The dead one.’ I think she means Jessica Brown-Findlay, which would definitely work for me.
Will and Jess are much harder, and I’m all out of ideas. If anyone else has any, let me know!
Have you any advice for aspiring authors now that you have published your first book?
My advice would definitely be to write the book of your heart. It’s a great idea to read widely, to keep a weather eye on the market and be aware of publishing trends but ultimately you can only write a book that you feel absolutely passionate about, and a story that obsesses you. Perseverance is also vital. Every book reaches a stage where all seems lost; the story that was so bright and shiny in your head is ashes and dust on the page, but often this can be fixed once you’ve got a final, finished draft. And it’s really important to remember that any book that you pick up as a reader has been through many drafts and had the input of several brilliant professionals, all bringing their own expertise. The big surprise for lots of people (me included) when they start out is how very, very generous those professionals often are with their expertise, so do tap into that. Twitter is a fabulous place to get to know people and pick up invaluable advice. (It’s also a great big time-suck, but a very lovely one!)
Please can you give us any hints as to book two? Letters to the Lost was so brilliant I am eager for more.
Aww, thank you so much for saying that! I can’t imagine writing anything other than stories with a big romance at their heart, and that’s exactly what Book Two is. It’s set a decade later than Letters to the Lost, but the effects of the war are still evident. I’m finding the 1950s a really fascinating era to write about. It seems to me that there was a swing back to the strict moral values of a much earlier age, after the brief freedom of the blacked-out wartime years! Women were expected to step away from the jobs and responsibilities they’d taken on during the war and return to the kitchen, or be decorative features in the drawing room, pretty in the New Look fashions. But the world was changing fast. The King died in February of 1952 (which is the year in which my book is set) and a new Elizabethan age began. All across Britain, land that had been in the hands of the same families for generations was being sold off and the huge country houses that went with it were being abandoned and bulldozed at a rate of one a week by 1955. As you know, I’m a sucker for an empty house, and that fact served as the starting point for the book. I’m still waiting to find out where it takes me!
1943, in the ruins of Blitzed London…
Stella Thorne and Dan Rosinski meet by chance and fall in love by accident. Theirs is a reluctant, unstoppable affair in which all the odds are stacked against them: she is newly married, and he is an American bomber pilot whose chance of survival is just one in five.
... He promised to love her forever
Seventy years later Dan makes one final attempt to find the girl he has never forgotten, and sends a letter to the house where they shared a brief yet perfect happiness. But Stella has gone, and the letter is opened by Jess, a young girl hiding from problems of her own. And as Jess reads Dan's words, she is captivated by the story of a love affair that burned so bright and dimmed too soon. Can she help Dan find Stella before it is too late?
Now forever is finally running out.