Fancy life as a writer? Let Barbara tell it as it really is
I’M visiting the novelist, Barbara Erskine at her 17th century home in the Essex hinterlands.
Some of her readers may possibly imagine that she lives in a spectral Scottish castle which only appears once every seven years. Or, perhaps, that she spends part of the year having time-shift holidays in the early medieval period.
Nothing of the sort. She’s very grounded. Although she does also have a cottage in the Black Mountains in Wales, she’s been in north Essex for over 20 years now. She has roots in the area too, as her family ancestors on one side were Scots clergymen who settled in Essex and Suffolk several generations ago.
On the first day that she moved to her present house, she was burgled. She hadn’t even unpacked, she says. They were professionals, apparently. The police told her that the haul had probably gone straight to Harwich to be sold abroad.
Among the things that were stolen was a chest containing all of her family papers – documents and letters going back generations. It was a heartbreaker. She’d moved to a house full of history, only to lose much of her own.
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Despite this shocking start, she settled and got to work on her next book and on the garden. She’s also, since she’s been here, had six acres of mixed deciduous woodland planted. Her house is a magical rambling old pile that itself would make a good setting for a novel. You wouldn’t be surprised to find a portal to Narnia in one of the upstairs wardrobes – or David Copperfield’s Mr Dick working on a history book in the attic.
I can’t remember how we got onto the subject of Mills & Boon but it transpires that, in her early days, as soon as Barbara was signed to a literary agent, she was set to work on bodice rippers for them. A great training, she assures me.
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“It’s not as easy as you might think,” she adds. I tell her that a friend of mine told me that Mills & Boon once used to send their writers a sort of ‘kit’ to get them started. This included strict-ish guidelines, designed to prevent novice authors from straying off the path of romantic passion into any kind of shocking beastliness.
“Ooh, you can now,” she says. “I was working there when the first orgasm happened – I didn’t write it!” she laughs.
With 11 novels, and three books of short stories to her credit, Barbara Erskine knows a lot about the business of writing. Since her first historical novel, Lady of Hay, hit the stands 25 years ago, it’s never been out of print. She writes definitive page-turners which have been translated into 26 languages and which have a devoted and diverse following. This, I discovered days later, includes my bandmate, Tai Chi Dave, former London cab driver and a generally manly sort of fellow.
“Oh you met her, did you?” he says, quietly impressed. “I’ve read quite a few of her things.”
Barbara’s work is strong on historical detail – she trained as a historian – but her stories also feature romance, mystery, time-slips and a dash of ghostliness. The combination has proved to be devastatingly popular.
She could probably be swanning around with celebs if she wished, guesting on chat shows and attending premieres. But she isn’t. She’s not a recluse or anything, but as I talk to her, I begin to realise that she’s one of those rare creatures – a pure writer. She’s been writing since she was a schoolgirl – the late 1950s, at a chivalrous guess – in Harpenden, Herts, the town, coincidentally, where your correspondent was born.
When you talk to her about the subject, a core of passion for books, coupled with a certain steely professionalism quickly emerges. It’s a thing I’ve discovered about writing and writers. People who fancy the idea of becoming a writer, or think that it might be easy often don’t realise what self-disciplined workhorses most successful novelists are. You can’t just dibble away at it, you have to lock yourself in and really graft. And then, of course, you’ll have to rewrite it.
Barbara said that when her first novel went stellar –“The paperback rights . . .” she begins, still marvelling at how much they brought home – it actually took years to sink in.
“And then the publisher said: ‘Right. We want the next one within two years!’ ” She was incredulous. “Another one?” she asked them. And she breaks into peals of laughter at the memory. She says she sometimes meets people who say they would like to be a writers. “Have you written anything yet?” she’ll ask them. “Oh, not yet,” they say. The comedian, Peter Cook, once drew a crude cartoon summing it up nicely. In it, a man says to another man. “I’m writing a novel.” The other man replies: “Yes – neither am I.”
Barbara is also interested in legends, ghosts and the occult. Her grandfather was a member of the Society for Psychical Research.
She also has a huge, boisterous standard poodle called Fergus who sleeps by the stove in her kitchen. I comment that excercising him must be like taking Black Shuck for a walk and she laughs.
And then, with the air of a woman wondering whether she’d turned the oven off or not, she suddenly remembers that the deadline of her latest book – set in Suffolk – falls in two months time.
Tea break over, then. Back to your desks please, everyone.