I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for Sandlands, the lovely collection of short stories from Rosy Thornton which was published on 21st July 2016 by Sandstone Press. Sandlands is available for purchase in e-book and paperback on Amazon, from WH Smith and to order from all good bookshops.
To celebrate Sandlands, Rosy kindly agreed to be interviewed for Linda’s Book Bag and I have my review below.
From the white doe appearing through the dark wood to the blue-winged butterflies rising in a cloud as a poignant symbol of happier times, the creatures of the Suffolk landscape move through Rosy Thornton’s delicate and magical collection of stories. The enigmatic Mr Napish is feeding a fox rescued from the floods; an owl has been guarding a cache of long-lost letters; a nightingale’s song echoes the sound of a loved voice; in a Martello tower on a deserted shore Dr Whybrow listens to ghostly whispers. Through the landscape and its creatures, the past is linked to the present, and generations of lives are intertwined.
An Interview with Rosy Thornton
Hi Rosy. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and Sandlands in particular.
Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Hello Linda, and thank you so much for having me on your blog! I’m Rosy and I’m an academic lawyer by profession but over the past ten years or so have had a second, secret life as a writer of fiction. I have published five novels to date – one of which, Ninepins, won the East Anglian Book Awards prize for fiction in 2012 – and now with my new book, Sandlands, a short story collection.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
I always feel a fraud when I’m asked that question, because I sense I’m supposed to say I always knew I had to write. Most authors I’ve heard speaking at book events or on the radio were keeping diaries from the age of seven, and crayoning stories to read to their dolls. I don’t recall doing anything of the sort – I was much too busy reading what other people had written. In fact, I made it past the age of forty before it ever entered my head to attempt to write stories of my own. Put it down, if you wish, to a mid-life crisis!
(Oo. There’s hope for me yet then!)
Sandlands marks a departure for you from novels into the world of short stories. How did you decide write in this genre and what were the challenges you faced in comparison with longer pieces?
It’s funny, because I think my natural tendency as a writer is towards length. (I fear it may be a lawyer thing!) One publisher, rejecting my first attempt at a novel twelve years ago now, described my manuscript as ‘too wordy’ – a paradoxical concept when describing a book. (Too many words? Or simply the wrong ones?) But I know what he meant. Left to my own devices, I effuse. I found it hard enough at the beginning to tell a story in less than the space of a 120,000 word novel. Short stories, I thought, were required to be pithy, and pithiness wasn’t me. But then I had a go, and discovered what a liberation the short form can be. You don’t have to work out every detail of every character’s life, their back story and hopes for the future. You don’t need to construct a complex timeline, story arcs and intersecting subplots. You grab a big blank canvas, start in the middle and paint with intense concentration an interesting middle bit – maybe suggest the rest of the picture with a few broad brushstrokes here and there – and then that’s it, you’re done. The readers have all the fun of filling in the rest for themselves.
You’re from Suffolk and the landscape plays an important part in your Sandlands stories. How far do you think we are shaped as people by the landscapes we grow up in?
I’m sure the landscapes of our lives do shape us – and I’m sure as writers they also shape the stories that we tell. I could no more write a gritty novel in a run-down urban setting than I could street dance or tell you where to change for Turnpike Lane. I can do desolation – but it would be the flat and featureless desolation of the Cambridgeshire fens in Ninepins, or in Sandlands a salt grey dawn on the Suffolk marshes with only the curlew cries for company.
Sandlands is dedicated to your father, John Thornton. How did he inspire this collection?
My family moved to Suffolk with my father’s job when I was eight, so at that basic level he is responsible for my thinking of the place as home. But he was also a man who loved the countryside. His own father – my grandfather – was a farmer in Lincolnshire, and Dad chose to go to university while my uncle stayed to run the farm. But although Dad worked behind a desk he remained a countryman at heart, rearing hens and keeping bees, and foraging for fungi and wild herbs before such things became the fashion. He instilled in me an awareness of the natural world which I think finds expression in my writing, perhaps especially in Sandlands. So when he died quite unexpectedly, coming in for supper from a day’s gardening, two years ago when my stories were half written, it felt appropriate to dedicate them to his memory.
To what extent do you think your law background affects your writing? Is writing an antidote to law, a complement or are the two areas of your life completely separate?
I was joking earlier about the wordiness of lawyers, but it’s only half the truth. Being a lawyer, analysing statutory provisions and the fine print of judicial pronouncements, does tend to equip you with a fine forensic eye for words, for the fluidity or fixedness of their meanings. Lawyers cannot get away with using words loosely, lazily or inaccurately. We have to pick exactly the right one for every context. A misplaced semi-colon here or there can change the meaning of a document. And that precision is a very transferable skill, I think, from legal texts to fiction. It might be a different bank of words we’re choosing from, but storytellers need to select their words with just as much care as lawyers.
Family relationships are important in all your writing. Why do you choose to explore this theme so much?
I’m not sure ‘choose’ is the right word, Linda, for writers and their preoccupations. (It’s the wand that chooses the wizard, you know, and not the wizard who chooses the wand!) I don’t write crime, or thrillers, or (at least not recently, and never entirely) romance. I have no interest in portraying future worlds or warped political distopias. What that leaves is just people, really – and its people and their relationships that interest me. I’ve been both a daughter and a mother, so mothers and daughters are a particular recurring theme, but parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues, neighbours, lovers, friends… this is life. What else is there to write about? In Sandlands, I also found myself exploring in more than one story the special bond between grandparent and grandchild.
You lecture at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. To what extent do you think writers need a formal education to be successful?
Not in the least, I’m certain of it. Of course higher education – all education – is a life-enriching, mind-expanding thing. Teaching, for me, is not just a living, it’s also a vocation. But do you need a degree to write a novel, or to write a good novel? Not at all. I think it would be very sad if someone lacked belief in their writing just because they didn’t do well at school. I was always rubbish at creative subjects. I could do the analytical stuff all right but was convinced I lacked imagination. A legal education, after all, is not an obvious qualification for becoming a novelist. But if you read a lot of fiction, if you love books, live and breathe books, then that’s the best foundation of all – whether or not you hold an MA in Creative Writing.
It might be said that your novels are very much ‘women’s fiction’. How do you react to this statement and is Sandlands a departure from the genre?
The truth is, I’d be bored just writing over and over the same sort of book. I like to try something different every time, to attempt new challenges. Of my five novels to date I would say that two are rom coms, one is a campus satire, and two are, broadly speaking, women’s fiction. Whether Sandlands represents a departure, I’m not sure. More ‘literary’, perhaps, and less ‘commercial’ – though I abhor those terms and the supposed distinction they presume. For me, my writing is all one continuous spectrum. But the voices in the stories forming this collection are certainly diverse – male and female, young and old. I hope men as well as women might enjoy the book. But then, I’d hope that for all my books.
Many of the themes in Sandlands are quite prosaic and you bring them to life beautifully (I loved the description of Salvatore potato picking for example). Was this deliberate or did the themes arise naturally for you?
Again, I’d say it was more an organic thing than a conscious choice. But if you write about the mundane and everyday, then introduce the magical, the dark or unexpected, it somehow has more power. The ghost that stalks the corridors of some gothic stately home is safely ‘other’, and therefore containable – it’s the one in the shadows of a familiar room that captures our deepest fears. Jenn Ashworth (a brilliant writer and an all-round lovely person) said of one of the stories in Sandlands: “Home becomes unhomely, unfamiliar and frightening, and then the gentleness of a long-known landscape and people is whisked back into view.” A friend described another story as “quietly apocalyptic”. These are the contrasts I’m aiming for!
Some of the stories in Sandlands are written in the first person and some in the third. Why is that and did you change perspective for any of them in the editing stage?
As I’ve said, the stories in the collection are pretty varied. Some are ghostly or magical, some poignant and sad; one or two, I hope, are funny. So I guess it made sense to employ a mixture of narrative styles and degrees of ‘psychic distance’ (as they say) to reflect these different moods. And it’s curious you should ask about a shift of perspective during editing, because one story (entitled ‘Mad Maudlin’) did change from third person to first, to make it more immediate and immersing.
I thought your writing had the beauty of poetry. Do you read or write poetry yourself and would you consider publishing some in the future?
I could never write poetry in a million years, and I don’t read a great deal of it, either. When I do, it’s not the fearfully abstruse stuff but the accessible kind: often funny, and preferably rhyming! Particular favourites are Sophie Hannah, Carol Ann Duffy, John Hegley and a recent (to me) discovery, Paul Groves.
That said, I do think poetry and short stories have much in common. It’s those blank spaces I was talking about earlier: the empty white paper around what is actually on the page, leaving room for the reader’s imagination to roam. But the stories in Sandlands are not poems. They’re not just a sequence of pretty images or abstract ideas – they are… well, stories. Proper, old-fashioned stories with a beginning and an end, and things happening in between that you’d recognise as a plot!
Thank you so much, Rosy, for your time in answering my questions.
Not at all – it’s been a genuine pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting me along, Linda!
My Review of Sandlands
Wow. I just loved this collection of short stories. Reading Sandlands was like dipping into an exotic box of chocolates and realising each one is different but equally satisfying with a unifying theme.
I wasn’t expecting the wonderful poetic quality of the writing. It put me in mind of Seamus Heaney at his very best. There’s a preternatural undercurrent that weaves its spell throughout so that I found the writing mesmerising. I felt immersed in the experience of reading so that it became an almost physical pleasure, like stroking smooth silk or tasting perfectly chilled champagne. The presentation of Suffolk as a county is outstanding. Whether it’s the implied contempt for non-Suffolk seedypuffs or the ethereal sight of mist over the fields I felt Suffolk was as much a character as any of the humans.
There are many voices behind the narratives and every one is completely convincing. I loved the way many stories began as if the reader had been in conversation with the narrator. Frequently there’s an immediacy and quite ordinary context that belies the story to come, such as the consideration of a damp proof course or looking at an image of a piano on a laptop, so that the reader is surprised and ensnared into experiencing the emotions of those presented almost against their will.
But what I found most enthralling was the ghostly undercurrent of the past that echoes its way through so much of the text. Rosy Thornton links a human, county and national heritage to the present so convincingly that at times a memory, an echo, the present and the past knit together almost hypnotically. Reading Sandlands feels a bit like falling through space in a direction over which you have no control.
I’m sure I’ve missed so much from only having read these stories once so far. The references to mythology and literature that help create such a rich tapestry of narrative deserve several readings and Sandlands is a book I won’t be parted from. It is beautiful, intelligent and spellbinding.
About Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton is the author of four previous novels: More Than Love Letters (2007), Hearts and Minds (2008), Crossed Wires (2009) and The Tapestry of Love (2010). In addition to writing fiction, she lectures in law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. Married with two daughters, she lives in a village in the Cambridgeshire fens. Her book, Ninepins (2012), won the East Anglian Book Awards prize for fiction in 2012.
You’ll find all Rosy Thornton’s books here.
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