Liz Trenow takes readers to 1760s in latest book
- Credit: Archant
‘I love writing strong women characters,’ says Essex novelist, back with her sixth book
“And just as soon as Miss Charlotte appeared as a minor character in my earlier book, I realised her backstory was begging to be told. She is a happily-unmarried independent businesswoman in the days when this was most unusual, and I couldn’t get her out of my head.”
This “minor character” thus takes centre stage in the Colchester author’s follow-on story to 2017’s The Silk Weaver.
“After The Silk Weaver was published, lots of people said how much they’d enjoyed reading Miss Charlotte, and the idea of returning to that world to write her story began to germinate.
“Although there were many jobbing seamstresses in the 18th century, often working for pitiful wages, you were allowed to employ others, and make real money, only if you undertook an apprenticeship – and unless you were born into the trade, that would be expensive.
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“It cost many times more to apprentice a girl than a boy and most families couldn’t – or wouldn’t – afford it. So how did Miss Charlotte, a foundling (an infant abandoned by its parents and discovered and cared for by others), manage to set up her own business?”
Why is Charlotte vital to the tale?
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“The Silk Weaver was my first book set in the 18th century and it was only once I’d started writing it that I realised a young society lady simply would not have had the freedom to socialise with anyone unchaperoned, let alone with someone of a different class. So how was my heroine, Anna, going to meet and fall in love with Henri, a lowly journeyman silk weaver?
“It was when her aunt ordered new gowns that my solution arrived: Miss Charlotte, the dressmaker. A dressmaker’s customers would be ladies and gentlemen of the highest order, but her suppliers would be ordinary silk weavers.
“She made the perfect go-between, and once I’d started writing her I realised she was going to play a critical role in the book, becoming Anna’s friend and helping to save Henri.”
Silk is key, again…
“Being born into a family of silk weavers, I suppose it runs in my blood and has often inspired my novels. I’d visited the Foundling Hospital (in London) a few years before and been fascinated by the displays of tokens: small items left by mothers who kept the other half so that if or when they became able to reclaim their child, they could prove their parentage.
“Many of these tokens are pieces of material, and just a few are of silk. What if, just what if, one of those pieces proved to be of royal provenance?”
I get the feeling this story was just waiting to be told and almost flowed through your fingers.
“Thank you; that’s very flattering! It is the first book since The Last Telegram that I’ve written in the first person, and while that has drawbacks (you see the world from only one perspective, and only what your character sees) it suited Miss Charlotte’s story perfectly.
“Also, I was by now very familiar with the artisan world of 18th century London, and so I found it much easier to write than my first foray with The Silk Weaver.
“But never be beguiled into thinking that any novel ‘just flows through your fingers’! Every single one represents at least a year of solid writing, editing, rewriting, restricting, and editing several times more. The writing sometimes flows but more often feels like struggling through treacle. It is always hard work.”
It’s not all plain-sailing for Miss Charlotte…
Something is missing from her life. The discovery of an unusual piece of silk prompts a heart-breaking search.
This angle was inspired by the experiences of two of Liz’s friends, who spent their lives looking for their birth parents. Their quest to find someone to whom they truly “belonged”, and the sadness they felt when they failed to do so, showed her how vital it is to our sense of identity to know where we come from.
Is that it for these characters and this period, or is there more to come?
“For the moment, that’s it. But I never say never. It is, after all, the place and time where my family’s silk firm began and next year, in 2020, they will celebrate their 300 years of being continuously family-owned, which is no mean achievement.”
Stephen Walters & Sons, based in Sudbury, is one of just three firms in the country still weaving today.
Would you have liked to live in the 1760s?
“In a word, no. If economic inequality is bad these days, it was a hundred times worse then. And don’t even get me started on gender inequality!”
You’ve got a new book coming next year. Do tell.
“Sorry, I can’t. It’s about an extraordinary set of events and I don’t think anyone has ever written about it in fiction, so I’m terrified someone else will steal my idea. But here’s a clue: it is almost entirely set in my much-loved home county of Suffolk.”
Do you ever get itchy feet and think about branching off in a different direction? What chance a sci-fi novel?!
“Yes, I do get restless sometimes – every writer does. Other genres – like crime, chick lit and romance – far outstrip historical fiction in terms of sales, but hold no interest for me. I can only write what I really enjoy reading. But after the 2020 novel I genuinely have no idea what’s next, so watch this space.”
It’s seven years since your first novel, The Last Telegram. How do you think you’ve changed as a writer? Are there things that have got easier… or harder?
“Most novelists worry about sales, and I’m no exception. Bookselling has become harder and harder. Independents are closing by the minute and supermarkets reducing their shelf space for books. So it’s more difficult in that respect.
“You are always worrying whether your current contract may be your last if the sales don’t hold up. But I am fortunate in having a great agent, and my foreign sales have risen and risen. I’m published in dozens of countries and in 10 other languages, which is wonderfully reassuring.
“The writing side of it is less daunting now that I’ve six books under my belt and a seventh written. You’d think I would know how to do it by now but every one is different and presents new challenges. It is never easy.”
“Personal: for myself and my loved ones to stay happy and healthy.
“Authorial: one of my books becomes a best-seller, wins the Man Booker or Costa and is made into a Hollywood movie. So not a lot to ask. There was talk of my 2017 novel In Love and War being almost optioned for a film, but nothing has yet come of it.”
What do you most love about the process of creating a book?
“1. Research, when you discover a wonderful link – as when I visited (artist William) Hogarth’s House in Chiswick and realised what a wealth of fascinating characters he and his wife socialised with. 2. Those days when a character like Miss Charlotte arrives and takes on a life of her/his own. 3. Lying in bed in the morning in a half-awake state, thinking about what my imaginary friends (my characters) are going to do today.”
The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane is published by Pan Macmillan, at £7.99, on February 21
Where can we see and hear you?
Wednesday, February 20: Book launch at Red Lion Books, Colchester, 6.30pm to 8.30pm. Booking essential at email@example.com
Monday, February 25: An Evening with Liz Trenow at Waterstones, High Street, Colchester, 7pm to 9pm; £2 including drinks and nibbles
Thursday, March 7: An Evening with Liz Trenow hosted by Harris and Harris Books at Clare Library, The Guildhall, Clare, 6.30pm for 7pm, £3 including drinks and nibbles. Tickets from bookshop only.
Tuesday, March 26 at Essex Book Festival at Wickford Library, 7pm. www.essexbookfestival.org.uk
Sunday, June 30 at Felixstowe Book Festival, 11.30am to 12.30pm. www.felixstowebookfestival.co.uk
Liz was born and brought up in Suffolk.
She is an ex-journalist who spent 15 years working for regional and national newspapers (including us), and on BBC radio and TV news.
Her books – often inspired by her silk-weaving heritage – have been published across the world. The Forgotten Seamstress made the top 20 in the New York Times best-seller list.
She now lives in Colchester with her artist husband. They have two grown-up daughters and three grandchildren.