Which living author do you most admire?
Harriet: Lots of them, too many to answer. In my publishing career I was lucky enough to work with three women, Lesley Pearse, Sue Townsend and Penny Vincenzi, and they were all inspirational in their own way. They all work extremely hard, they’re incredibly talented and their books are brilliant, and most of all they’re great people, which is possibly the hardest bit of all!
What advice can you give writers starting out?
Harriet: To actually write! Quite often people talk about it and don’t actually get down to it… they come up to you and say, ‘I’ve got this idea’ and I say, ‘well go away and write it then…’. And don’t be afraid to throw it all away and start again. Don’t be precious. Be tough. The rewrite is the most important process of the book: the sections you think are best are always the bits that need to go, in my experience. (That’s the editor in me talking, obviously, not the writer… I HATE doing rewrites!)
Do you plan out the whole book before you write it?
Harriet: No – I think it can create more problems than it answers if you’re too rigid about the plot before you get to know the characters. When you start writing about them, they take on a life of their own and might do things or be different people which means the plot you’d laid out doesn’t fit with them. It varies from book to book how much I do actually plan out before I write it, though.
Describe a typical writing day.
Harriet: Now I write full time (I gave up my job as a book editor which was three days a week in May), I don’t really have a typical day. I don’t like being at home all day, I get lonely, so I work in various libraries nearby. Often I’ll have a lunch in town with someone, a friend, ex-colleague, or a meeting about something, and that throws the day out. You have to be much, much more disciplined when you’re working by yourself, I’ve found it…interesting. Downsides are that you get cabin fever being in the flat too much and start to think you’re going mad. The upsides are that it’s pouring with rain outside and I’m writing this in bed with a cup of tea. And you can go to the cinema in the afternoon by yourself (if you’ve never done this before, do it. It’s brill. Get a Ben and Jerry’s sundae and a Coke! It’s great.)
How do you come up with the initial idea for a book?
Harriet: I always have a central simple image at the heart of each book. Often it will be something really silly that only means something to me and I can’t explain why it links to the final result. Or it will be a memory, or a sudden realisation. With I Remember You it was that I was in Portofino, a beautiful fishing village (now very glamorous, stuffed with Louis Vuitton shops but it used to be very simple and lowkey) for dinner about two years ago and we were walking around the beautiful bay, stunning views, and it was so Italian and gorgeous and I thought: you have to write a book set in Italy. Or about people’s romantic notions of Italy. With A Hopeless Romantic, which is about a girl on a dreadful family holiday meeting and falling in love with a Marquess who owns a huge estate, the idea came when I was on a family holiday and I did meet a Marquess when we’d gone on a day out to his stately home. Nothing happened though – he just asked me if I was lost…
Are your books and characters autobiographical?
Harriet: No, they’re not, but people will always think they are, and there’s nothing you can do about it, I’ve learned. Along with ‘is there loads of sex in your books’ that’s the question people ask me the most! What’s strange is that there’s a received wisdom that it’s easier to write something autobiographical, ie if you just wrote about your friend and her boyfriend it’d be simpler than creating a character. But it’s much harder and it would completely get in the way of the world you’ve imagined, to have a real person bobbing up and down in the background… But I definitely write about what I know, as I think that’s the best way to get it right, even though there are situations and sequences set in the past of which I have no experience. If you believe in your characters as people in their own right, you can make them do what you want.