If you haven’t read a book by Clare Ashton yet… well, frankly, what are you doing?? Clare is an uber-talented author whose writing will immerse you from the get-go with her vivid descriptions of the beautiful places in which she sets her novels. She inspired the way I wrote the Cornish village of Miltree in my own book The Summer We've Had. From busy, built-up London (including places such as the Whispering Gallery) in Finding Jessica Lambert to the gorgeous town of Ludbury in The Goodmans, Clare has a knack for sending her readers exactly to the heart of her settings… and I haven’t even mentioned her plots and characters yet!
Luckily, I ask her about them in this interview, for day five of Sapphic Fiction February.
Hi Clare! So... introduce yourself! Tell us a little bit about you - who are you, and what do you do?
I’m Clare Ashton and I grew up in Wales. I still adore the countryside and country, and although it bored me to tears as a teenager, I’ve wanted to return ever since I left for university. Actually, I inch closer every time we move house. I never really had a firm idea of what career I wanted and stumbled into a role as a copy-editor (a very bad one, I have no idea where commas go), then retrained as a software engineer. And all along I wanted to be a sapphic romance novelist but didn’t know it. I write for a living now in between running after my two kids, which is getting harder because they’re getting bigger and faster. (Ten and twelve – how did that happen so quick?!)
What made you want to sit down and write your first book?
An insatiable need to write about lesbians. I thought I was straight at the time – and I suppose it was hint number one thousand that I was much queerer. I wrote short stories and attempted a novel in my twenties, then tried again in my thirties when an idea for a twisty story wouldn’t go away.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
By going round and round in circles. Well I do! A germ of an idea may start in a character setting or a concept, then I will work through the story in my head with character informing plot and vice versa, while the setting and era shapes both. Poppy Jenkins wouldn’t be the same without the rolling green hills of Mid-Wales, the local accent and characters and Poppy herself all in a long gorgeous summer. They all work off each other.
I’m also a visual writer, seeing the story in my head like a film sometimes but being immersed in the character at others.
I also like to have a theme or a question the story answers that shapes the plot. Occasionally I’ll even write the blurb first to keep the story focussed.
After going around in circles for far too long, I end up with a very messy outline and pages and pages of notes, snippets of dialogue and scenes. I think I had 40k words of notes for the last book. Then, I sit down to write the first draft beginning to end. I usually settle on a title before I finish draft one.
That might sound like a lot of preparation to a pantser but there are plenty of surprises on the way and the characters develop enormously through the first and second drafts until I feel I understand them properly.
Which of your characters do you relate to the most, and why?
I sprinkle characteristics, traits, likes and dislikes of my own among all the characters, but no single one is accurately like me or more relatable. (I'm avoiding this question.)
Has your own writing ever made you cry?
I’m assuming this is feeling moved by the story, rather than despair at the state of it all.
Yes! Many times. It’s funny when a scene hits you unexpectedly - when reading a story back and something works better than anticipated. It’s one of the best feelings! Different aspects of a book will affect me differently on separate read-throughs. This makes it bloody difficult to tell what works consistently!
In my latest book there's a line by Nicola Albright, Charlotte’s overbearing mother, that makes me laugh every single time. It might not amuse anyone else, but it's very helpful to have something entertaining when you’re reading “the damn book” so many times. Another scene, a more obvious one with Millie, always makes me tear up. In fact, when a book has me immersed and forgetting that I’m looking for issues, then I know it’s ready.
Does anyone you know in real life read your books?
My poor wife. It's mandatory.
Imagine your book, or one of your books, was made into a film. Who would play the lead roles?
Easy. Anna Mayhew in Finding Jessica Lambert is a role that belongs to Rosamund Pike.
When you’re not writing, what do you do to relax?
I get outdoors. I need a regular fix of countryside and mountains and love most of all to play by the sea with the kids.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given with regards to being an author?
“Not everyone is going to like your book.” It’s not the same book to everyone for a start. Preconceptions and reader expectations all have an influence, and half the book is the reader’s imagination based on their experience and culture. People don’t even read and imagine in the same way. So, at some point, you have to stop worrying and pitch it in a way you're happy with. This helps you stay on track with your vision and also survive those inevitable bad reviews where someone might not connect with your work.
A book that is too slow for one reader may be a beautifully detailed immersive experience for another. That abrasive character might be inspirational for a different reader. Hot or not – totally depends on the reader’s taste. You can’t please everyone.
How about in general life?
“Sex is addictive”. This was a warning my Nan gave me when I was nine years old, sitting at the kitchen table that was covered in crocheted lace cloth. My grandad rolled his eyes and left the room. I had no idea at the time why anyone would have sex often enough to get addicted, because it sounded gross! There's probably heaps of other useful advice I’ve been given, but never as memorable.
What is a motto you live by?
Remember to look up and appreciate the good things.
How can people connect with you?
Finally a light-hearted one. If you were a sandwich, what sandwich would you be?
A chip butty.
If you enjoyed this interview, then make sure you’re following my social media accounts (@kblakemanwriter on Twitter and @katherineblakemanwriter on Instagram) to get all the latest updates! And if you want to support my own Sapphic Fiction journey while you’re here, my new novel The Summer We’ve Had is available now!