Questions to the Author: Samantha Norman

2015-02-11 21.56.10An Interview with Samantha Norman

For most people, writing a book is hugely daunting. The idea of sitting down and typing every day for months is not something to inspire people. However, for Samantha Norman it was probably harder when she chose to write her first novel, “Winter Siege”, because this was a book started by her mother, the best-selling historical novelist and author of the award-winning “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, Ariana Franklin.

I wanted to find out a bit more about writing a book started by a relative, but when I interviewed Samantha, I started off by asking a little about her background. Samantha came from a wonderful family. Not only was her mother a famous writer, her father is the film critic Barry Norman, “which means I have two horribly successful parents!”

Her mother was Devonian, with a maiden name of Narracot.

“My Mum grew up in Torquay and always loved Devon.  I think Narracot is a Devonian name. She was very proud of her west country heritage and used to take us down there on holiday when we were kids. We used to go to a village called Morthoe, near Woolacombe.

“Although I was born in the South East, I’ve spent most of my life in London. I love the city but I also adore the countryside and have feet in both camps.  My father and sister both live in the village I was born in and I keep my beloved horse there so whenever I can I escape London and go riding.  However I have inherited my mother’s love of the west country.”

I wondered what sort of memories she had of her mother writing.

“I just remember that Mum was happiest when she was writing and that imbued in me the idea that writing was an enormous privilege and joy. It also meant that when my sister and I were little she was amply employed in her study upstairs and let us get on with our own stuff — that sort of benign neglect is a very good thing for kids.”

It must have been fun in her household, growing up with a pair of famous parents, but daunting too.

“I just grew up assuming that that’s what people did when they grew up. If they’d both been car mechanics I probably would have become one of those — lack of imagination on my part really. So initially I followed in Dad’s footsteps and became a journalist and television presenter and then — force of circumstances really — took up the novel writing  when Mum died.  She’d always nagged me to write a novel of my own but while she was doing so well at it I didn’t feel the need to.”

Sadly, Ariana died suddenly in 2011, leaving a book half-finished. I would imagine that picking up her work would be enormously difficult. Samantha had to fight for the opportunity.

“The minute I realised that there was an unfinished manuscript I decided that I’d like to be the one to finish it. To be honest, at that stage I didn’t know whether or not I’d be able to and I had to fight hard to convince her (terribly tough) agent, who was very sceptical initially.

“In a strange way it was quite easy to write because I knew her voice so well. Also when I was starting out as a feature writer for newspapers and magazines, she was the one who taught me how to write. It was very cathartic because in a strange way I was able to hang on to her for a little longer than my father or my sister were.  I was almost inside her head, inhabiting a world she loved best and learning all the things she knew.

“This will sound strange but I sort of became her when I was writing it.  I did feel her breathing down my neck but it was a positive, encouraging presence and I welcomed it.”

As so many historical writers often discover, the hardest part was trying to absorb the period. Did her degree in history help?

“It wasn’t easy — I was very unconfident about that aspect because there was so much research to do so I just got my head down and read as many books as the London Library would let me have.  I’m sure I got things wrong but I took the research incredibly seriously and did a massive crash course in 12th Century history.

“I knew vaguely about  The Anarchy — probably because Mum used to talk to me about whichever project she was working on.  I found it to be a much more enlightened and civilised age than I thought. Obviously there was a good deal of brutality, but there were some great brains developing then and some remarkable people.”

One thing about picking up someone else’s work and taking it over is the daunting prospect of making sense of notes and the existing manuscript. Did her mother leave a complete outline?

“No she damn well didn’t! She’d written about half the novel but, most unusually for her, she had left no notes. Knowing the way she worked and how meticulous she was I know that they must exist but nobody could find them anywhere!”

To be fair, many authors write their books without reams of notes. I make notes all the time – until I start writing! How did you find the process of writing?

“I developed an enormous respect for all writers published or not. To sit down and write day in day out and have the dedication to complete a manuscript is a remarkable achievement whatever happens to it.  I know how hard it is now and, although I always admired my Mum, have even more respect for her now.”

You have two young boys. Was writing disruptive for them?

“They were really supportive and also at school during the day so I just regarded it as a new 9 -5 and sat down at my computer every day and got on with it — it helped enormously that there was a deadline to meet and some cash at the end of it.

“My sons loved that benign neglect thing I mentioned earlier.  They’d both got to the age when they didn’t really want me hanging around them!”

She was, like most professional authors, grateful for the input of her editor.

“All that solitude can have a pretty warping effect after a while.  I was actually grateful for all the editorial feedback — being such a rookie I needed all the help I could get — sometimes it was a bit dispiriting but I got through it and learned as much as I could.”

The most rewarding aspect of the book?

“Actually finishing the thing and getting it published and knowing that Mum I’d done right by Mum — she’d have hated anyone else getting their hands on it and she nagged me to death about writing.  I’ve done it now.”

I wondered whether she would be writing more books.

“I would really love to.  Actually I’m now writing the final instalment of my Mum’s Mistress Of The Art of Death series.  She left it on a real cliff-hanger and so all the loose ends she left need tidying up.  After that I don’t know what I’ll do but I’d love to keep writing and since I’ve done all this research it would be a waste not to continue with it.”

And there’s always one last question for any author: is there any advice she would give to aspiring writers?

“I remember flirting with the idea of writing when I was much younger and asking the ridiculous question of a very successful literary agent that I knew, ‘How do you write a novel?’

“He said, ‘You just sit down and bloody write it!’  Harsh but true.

“Be determined: prepare to go a little crazy and insecure but be professional about it.  Commit yourself and finish the manuscript.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.

Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman’s book WINTER SIEGE is on sale now from Bantam Books, ISBN 978 0 857 50147 9, and priced at £7.99.

 

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