I’ve always written. I started on Arvon Creative Writing courses in the 1990s and one of the tutors was Beryl Bainbridge, who sent my first novel to an agent friend of hers. That was when I had my first break with a two-book deal, and I’ve been writing ever since. I’ve also enjoyed tutoring on Arvon courses myself, and for the First Story charity which takes creative writing to schools serving low income areas. Tutoring has been very rewarding, and the exploration of the creative process has really helped my own work. It also gets me out of the house!
If you had to give an elevator pitch for Lark Song, what would it be?
I’m hopeless at this. I started out trying to write a modern take on Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but with a man, Duncan, trying to woo a widow. The dead husband, Reuben, keeps popping up in all his glory, whether in memory or photographs or other treasured objects, and like Mrs. De Winter, he is tormented by the dead spouse. A venomous mother-in-law (mother to the dead Reuben) is hell-bent on nipping any nascent relationship in the bud, and makes Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca look like a pussycat. Add three dysfunctional children who don’t want a replacement father, and Duncan has his work cut out. But determined to find out about his dead rival, Duncan stumbles upon some shocking secrets. What to do with them is his horrifying dilemma. (See what I mean? Far too long.)
How did you wish to explore the concept of family throughout this book?
I don’t think I had any preconceived ideas. I suppose most families are complex and chaotic, and not at all as they seem on the surface. This one had its fair share of secrets and misunderstandings. I do the relationships within families are where stories all start.
What made you have Duncan delve deeper into the past to see what secrets were hidden instead of solely focusing on Freya developing a new relationship?
I think Duncan is a good egg – but I don’t want him to be too good to be true. Obsessing about a former partner seemed quite a good flaw for him to have, and one that most people can relate to. Also, a former partner who is dead is very different to an ex: the deceased spouse can still be loved legitimately, whilst no one would be expected to tolerate a lover who was not over their ex-partner. Duncan doesn’t feel he can focus entirely on Freya until he has nailed down his rival. Who was he? Why does he still exert such power over her and the family? He doesn’t want to be ‘second best’ again.
Why use Sophie as a focus for the anxiety dominating the family and not Freya?
I do think small children are often the litmus paper for family chemistry. Older children have other anxieties, peer pressure and hormones, but small children often reflect what is going on beneath the surface of families in what seems like odd or dysfunctional behaviour. Sophie pulls out her eyelashes because she can’t bear what her eyes have seen, which doesn’t correlate with what she’s being told. Freya, on the other hand, is not aware of concealing anything. She has been lying to herself for so long that the truth – when it hits her – is overwhelming. She has made her man up ‘out of scraps’.
How does the title relate to the overall themes in the book?
An interesting question. ‘Lark Song’ was not my original choice of title. It was ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ until after it was finished, so I had become quite attached to that title (which I later learned was already the name of a Cohen brothers film). I realized that birds play a quiet role throughout the novel. It begins as swallows and house martins are lining up for their autumn migration and ends with the influx of swallows and the first cuckoo. Duncan ‘Swan’ hints at life-long fidelity, whilst childhood sketches of larks hide in Freya’s the attic. In her child’s handwriting she has described it as a bird who makes up for his dull plumage with tenacity and stamina. When she spots a male lark singing after the revelation about Reuben, she calls it a ‘show-off’ who leaves the female to build the nest. When she sees it soaring in the sky in the last chapter, working so hard to stay in the air to impress its mate, she sees an entirely different version of male endeavor.
Who was a more challenging character to write about Duncan or Freya and why?
I enjoyed writing both of these characters, perhaps because I could so easily draw on my own experience: Duncan not wanting to be second best, Freya deluding herself for many years. The challenge with Duncan was to explore his insecurities but at the same time to make him strong enough to take on Freya and her lovely children. The challenge with Freya was to make her self-delusion credible. I had to drip-feed the back story that made it possible, but not so fast as to give away the truth.
Did the end result turn out different from the basic ideas you had in your head before you began writing or was it more or less the same?
Very different, but that is always the way. All I started with was a seed of an idea. But I would keel over with boredom if I started at the beginning and worked my way through a precise plan for 100,000 words or so! The plot always evolves. Ideas spring out of nowhere when you’re thinking about a story all the time. Somehow they fall into place eventually.
What would you say is the best thing about writing? And on the flip side, what is the hardest?
Good question! I think maybe the best thing about writing is making sense of the chaos. Shaping ideas and events into a story is a very instinctive thing to do. We do it all the time: we see a face in clouds or in the pattern on the floor. We look for shapes and for things to make sense. The very best bit about writing comes after about the first five or ten thousand words when you’ve sorted out the voice and the tense and all you have to do is go into the story. The hardest thing is getting started, finding the right point of view and the right tense. I usually play around with those for ages. And of course, it’s hard to find the good run of time to started. Once I’m in it, the space just finds itself, because I don’t really stop thinking about it.
Do you treat yourself to something to celebrate the publication of your books?
I should, shouldn’t I? I usually go for a meal after a launch and start thinking about the next one.
They want to move on—but one terrible truth could shatter it all.
As a widowed mother of three, new love seems impossible for Freya—until she meets Duncan, and suddenly she feels alive again. But there are secrets afflicting Freya’s family, some more sinister than others, that could destroy their relationship before it has a chance to flourish.
While Freya’s older children are less than welcoming, six-year-old Sophie helps Duncan find his place in the family—but even Sophie harbours fears that threaten to overshadow any chance of a new start. The past is hard to leave behind when pictures of Freya’s idolised late husband hang in every room, and the more Duncan tries to find the source of Sophie’s anxiety, the more he is convinced that Reuben was not the perfect husband and father Freya remembers.
Tormented by concern and his own insecurity, Duncan begins an obsessive investigation into the dead man’s past. But when his good intentions lead him in too deep, he risks destroying everything he has built with Freya—and the whole family’s second chance at happiness.