Today it’s my great pleasure to be hosting a guest author who lives just a few miles away from my home, Hilary Spiers. Hilary’s debut novel Hester and Harriet is published by Allen and Unwin in paperback today, 3rd March 2016. Hester and Harriet is available here in the UK and in ebook here in the US.
Equally exciting, is the super guest post from Hilary who is also a playwright as well as a novelist and today she tells us just how different, yet equally tricky those skills are.
About Hester and Harriet
Hester and Harriet two widowed sisters in their 60s, are reluctantly driving to visit relatives when they come across a young woman hiding with her baby in a bus shelter. Seeing the perfect excuse for returning to their own warm hearth, the sisters insist on bringing Daria and Milo home with them.
But the arrival of a sinister stranger looking for a girl with a baby, followed quickly by their cousins’ churlish fifteen-year-old son, Ben, who also appears to be seeking sanctuary, Hester and Harriet’s carefully crafted peace and quiet quickly begins to fall apart. And, perhaps, it’s exactly what they need…
A Guest Post from Hilary Spiers
WRITER’S BLOCK: a play by Hilary Spiers
Hilary sits in front of her computer. From time to time she taps at the keys with one finger. She glances at the screen, reads what she has written, and deletes the lot in frustration. This happens several times. A noise from upstairs. She shoves her chair back and hurries for the door
HILARY Is it lunchtime yet?
WRITER’S BLOCK A novel by Hilary Spiers
Hilary has never learned to type. But she can type. Not admittedly the way people are meant to type, with both hands, eight fingers and two thumbs. No, she types – as she has for more years than she is prepared to reveal – with the middle finger of her right hand, surprisingly fast and accurately.
But today, the fact she cannot type properly, nor as quickly as many others who use a keyboard for their living, is irrelevant. Because today there is nothing to type. Today, the words that sprang so readily to mind as she drifted off to sleep last night, those precise, telling, perfect words, are flat and lifeless on the page. For the fourth time in as many minutes, she presses the Delete key, on this occasion with a savagery that her keyboard does not deserve. The blank screen sneers back at her.
She glances at her coffee cup: empty. She looks at the screen again: empty. Upstairs, a floorboard creaks: her husband getting to his feet. Perhaps glancing at his watch, calculating how long it has been since breakfast. Picturing the left-over chicken breast in the fridge, the butter, the mayonnaise, the still-warm loaf peppered with seeds on the bread board … It’s not a very big piece of chicken. Will it stretch to two sandwiches? Is there more than a scraping of mayo in the jar? Surely he’ll be just as happy with cheese and pickle …
Leaping to her feet, she hurries for the study door. His shadow falls across the hall as he rounds the newel post at the top of the stairs. If she’s quick, she can make it to the fridge ahead of him. With studied casualness she calls up, as if surprised to see him, ‘Is it lunchtime yet?’
I write both novels and plays, two very different disciplines that nonetheless overlap. The first – and obvious – difference between plays and novels is length. A play might only run to a quarter or even a fifth of a novel’s word count but don’t let that fool you into thinking playwriting is an easier option: as with short stories, you keep paring and paring to ensure that every spoken word counts. There can be no longeurs in a play or the audience loses interest – fast. In line with the famous maxim ‘Show, don’t tell’, one endeavours to let information emerge organically as the plot unfolds; lengthy exposition (indeed pretty much any exposition) serves only to annoy them (‘For God’s sake, we know all this!’ or ‘Is this relevant?’ or ‘Just get on with it!’ ).
A novel on the other hand offers the luxury of space and time to expand characters, to paint them exactly as you see them, not leaving your creations to the mercies of an actor or director to place their own (sometimes inexplicable) interpretations on a line or character. A novelist is casting director and scene-painter, dictating precisely the look, shape, age of the characters (indeed, how many characters appear, a make-or-break decision in the cash-strapped theatre) and creating the backdrop for the story, unconstrained by space or money or the practicalities of whisking characters from, say, a coffee shop to a prison cell in the blink of an eye. (That’s not to say you can’t write a play with multiple settings: you just have to be aware what you are asking of a set designer. And whether the company concerned can afford to realise your ambitions.)
What’s lovely about the theatre is that – once a play finally makes it on to the stage – feedback is immediate. You hear and see what works and what doesn’t in the moment. That line you and the cast found so funny in rehearsal? Deathly silence. That moment of intense pathos in Act 2? How can anyone be laughing?! And audiences will differ from night to night (and even pre and post-interval, which admittedly may have something to do with a glass of wine or two). In contrast, a novel demands patience. Your baby is launched into the choppy, unpredictable seas of publication and you have to sit and wait, stomach churning, for readers to react. For reviewers to review. For ratings to be given. Some readers are kind enough to take the time to contact you directly to give feedback, to say what they liked (or disliked) about your characters, your plot, your style. And even to ask when the next book is appearing …
And then there’s the loneliness issue. It’s a truism that writing is a solitary business. When a play is in development or rehearsal, you’re working alongside other people: the director, the actors, the rest of the company. Characters are unpicked, suggestions made to tighten or shorten or lengthen a scene and your script becomes a living entity, evolving and hopefully improving as it develops and changes. I love that part of the process. That’s not say I don’t love novel writing. I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent (and am still spending) with Hester and Harriet. They make me laugh, they often surprise me. They make me re-consider my prejudices. But all this is done in isolation. Of course, I have my writing buddies, my stalwart friends reading and re-reading drafts, and then in time my editors, but every revision means only one thing: the brewing of yet more coffee, the return to my study, the shutting of the door and the application of my hard-working middle finger to the keyboard. The wonderful thing is, I have both these opportunities and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
About the author
Hilary Spiers has had a varied career – including law, speech therapy, teaching, youth work and the NHS. She has also been involved with the theatre as an actor, director and playwright, and her dramatic work has been performed in a number of theatres including Hampstead Theatre and Riverside Studios. Hilary has won several national short story competitions and had work broadcast on the radio. She lives in Stamford, Lincolnshire and is available for interview.
You can find out more about Hilary Spiers on her web site. Hilary will be signing copies of Hester and Harriet at Walkers Bookshop in Stamford Lincolnshire on Saturday 5th March between 11AM and 1PM.