Why Susannah swapped law for literature
IT'S so difficult when you're nosy. You simply can't let a question lie. We last interviewed Susannah Bates five years ago, just after the publication of her second novel in little more than 12 months.
IT'S so difficult when you're nosy. You simply can't let a question lie. We last interviewed Susannah Bates five years ago, just after the publication of her second novel in little more than 12 months. And then it went a bit quiet. Her third tale is now out - so why the long gap?
Well, we need to rewind to 2001 - an annus mirabilis if ever there was one.
In the January, Susannah rekindled a romance with a former boyfriend from her days at the University of Durham. Her first book, Charmed Lives, was out not long after - and pretty quickly it seemed life was imitating art.
Her debut novel featured a smart, sexy and successful high-flying young lawyer called Kate, who has everything except a life outside the office - until she meets Tom. Susannah was a City lawyer who gave it all up in order to write, and who then met her beau.
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The author and Robin got engaged as spring turned into summer, and before Christmas they were married.
“It was a good year; a really good year!” grins Susannah.
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Her second book, All About Laura (featuring another city solicitor character) was by this time pretty much done and dusted, and would hop on to the bookshelves in the spring of 2002.
“I'd already done a bit of work on Honor & Evie, but not a huge amount because of preparing for the wedding. But then I kind of got down to working on it. It didn't come as easily as the first two books. The first two came out quite quickly, and then there's been this gap.
“I think when you get married everything changes so much, especially if you're writing. For me, I need to shut myself away and it's quite a sad, lonely activity,” she laughs. “But when life's looking up and you're busy, trying to get your home together, and having someone around - Robin's a freelancer and he's around a lot - I think I was very easily distracted and it took a long time for me to find my rhythm again.
“Just as I found my rhythm, I then got pregnant! But the publishers have been incredibly supportive and understanding - which is weird, because when I was a lawyer a deadline was a deadline. There was no question of breaking it, whereas the first time I rang the publishers and said 'I'm really sorry, I'm not going to make it,' they were fine. 'Don't worry; all writers do that!'”
Young Alec is now 14 months old and Honor & Evie - about two cousins who, despite being very different, are best friends - has been safely delivered to the bookstores. Much of the story is set in Suffolk, though it's not about Suffolk as such.
One of the happy by-products of marriage has been to renew Susannah's physical acquaintance with her native county. (She was born in Elmsett, west of Ipswich, in 1970.) Robin, a freelance editor of illustrated books, is The Honourable Robin Gurdon - the son of Philip Gurdon, 3rd Baron Cranworth, who lives near Woodbridge.
While she and Robin were waiting for their house in the Pimlico area to be sorted out, the family estate in Suffolk became home for 18 months or so, and some of the novel was written there. “It did suit my writing. There's something about being quiet.” She tended to work in the morning and then take spaniel Laska for a walk. (He's named after a dog in Anna Karenina. “That's going to sound really pretentious!”) The stroll also offered the time and space to work out what she was going to do the next day.
Being removed from one's own domestic environment also helped the creative process. “I was never thinking 'Oh, I should clear out that cupboard!'”
A reunion with Suffolk has proved a rich source of joy.
“It's weird when we drive past areas I know. I didn't really use to come back to Elmsett - my friends tended to live more towards Bures - and my memories of it are really 'big scale'; I was definitely a littler person when I was there! When I think of something like going from our house to the village, it seemed a really long way. When I see that now, it's a couple of minutes.”
Susannah's parents now live in Berwickshire, just into Scotland.
“The beauty of Scotland is drawn on a much bigger scale - bolder, and much more obvious, in a way - and coming here you have to adjust. It's so subtle: the slight changes in the rolling landscape and the little villages nestled away. Often you can see a long way - a church in the distance or a row of poplars. The more I'm here, the more I find it fascinating. I love the landscape; I love the big skies.”
The successful publication of three novels, with one to come as part of her current deal with Random House, certainly vindicates her decision to turn her back on the law after two years at law school, two years of training, and a year in practice in London.
Wisdom's about realising what it is that works for you. “It's as if I suddenly saw the light.” She has few regrets.
“I've got a friend from that time and I hate to think what he's earning compared to what I'm earning! But I don't really regret it. I don't regret doing it, either; I think it's a really great grounding, knowing what it is to be a professional, and obviously I've used different aspects (in her writing).
“Also, when I was trying to get published and taken on by an agent, I was treated more seriously because I was a lawyer; I suspect because it shows you can put your head down and do hard work.”
Very hard graft, in fact, legal work proved. With little time for anything else, and certainly no opportunities to write, “I decided I just wasn't temperamentally suited to it.”
Susannah came to specialise in banking law. “They didn't ever say you had to be that good with numbers, but I think it would have helped!” she laughs. “I'm not at all numerate!”
That department appealed because she liked the amusing people there. “You can have fun flicking elastic bands at everyone, having a joke or sending a fake email from someone else's computer, but at the end of the day you have to go back to your desk and do your work,” she smiles.
Those who stay in the industry do it because they love it. “They get a real buzz and think 'This deal's worth eight-million' or whatever. 'The deal we're working on is going to be on the front pages of the business section.' For me it could have been eight pounds. Eight million? It wasn't that big an issue. It didn't give me the same thrill.”
To an outsider, it seems a bit surprising that Susannah became a lawyer in the first place. As an English student at university, she co-wrote a couple of plays performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. One was nominated for the Guardian Theatre Student Award. So why didn't she follow a literary star at that stage?
“I never thought writing was realistic, especially this sort of writing, because so many people fail at it. Maybe it's my upbringing, but I really felt it was important, leaving university, to earn money, and I didn't see how I could ever earn money (by writing).
“I loved doing it, and could see that I had a feel for it, but I think you get to that stage in your life where you want to be independent.
“My mother's an artist and she's quite realistic; I remember her saying to me, when I was trying to decide what to do, 'Fine. Really great. Love it if you were a writer. Write a short story, send it to a magazine and see if you can get published.' And that terrified me!
“As a student, you're given a lot of openings to have your work looked at - fringe stuff and student drama. It's a fertile area: you write something and there's quite an easy audience. But the idea of going out into the big wide world and doing that was a bit alarming; I didn't think I could do it.
“I also thought that whatever I did I'd enjoy; I didn't realise the law would be quite so dry! It took a while for me to realise I was hitting my head against a brick wall with that one.
“I was incredibly naïve. I thought that if I put my head down I would enjoy it. There is a part of me that likes ticking boxes and jumping through hoops and getting approval. And I suppose I wanted to be responsible.”
But that's all in the past. Thoughts for the future centre on a fourth novel. “It is going to be difficult starting the new book, with a baby, but I've got help three days a week, so I'm hoping that will be enough and I'll find the sustained quiet time!”
There's no title as yet, but there are many thoughts swirling and settling in Susannah's mind.
“One of the themes I enjoy writing about is people at work. When we got engaged, the jeweller who made my ring was making jewellery for some very important people, as well as ordinary people like us.
“I love all the security, too - the fact that when we went to see her we had to press three buttons and they had security cameras. I'm hoping to set the book around someone who works in the jewellery trade, from the high-society side to the day-to-day dealings with the silversmiths and goldsmiths.”
She's already spent a morning with the jeweller, gathering material for research.
Long term, Susannah's dream would be to continue combining writing with motherhood. “I think if any job is compatible with being a mother, writing stands a better chance than I would have had as a lawyer! I hope to go on with what I've been doing.”
She pauses, thinks, and then smiles. “Yeah. Life's pretty good. I just want it to stay the same.”
Honor & Evie is published by Arrow Books at £7.99. ISBN 978-0099445432
SUSANNAH Bates's books are lauded by an online women's magazine called www.chicklit.co.uk. Does she mind that label being attached to her tales?
“No, it doesn't grate. I just feel so lucky to be published. What I think chick-lit has that I don't have is more of a cheery, comic side. Most chick-lit books think it quite important to give laughs; occasionally I've done that, but I think you can tell from the covers that even though they're feminine, they're not 'groovy chicks'.
“In a way, I think I'm less fashionable! There's something fashionable about chick-lit that I don't really do; so in a way I think mine is probably more traditional storytelling. But I enjoy chick-lit, though I don't get to read very much of it these days.”
When some of that rare commodity - time - does come along, she likes to re-read a classic. “I love Victorian writers, so maybe that's why I write in more of a straightforward, conventional way.”
What does writing do for her?
“I get a buzz from creating the actual sentence - the flow - and getting a balance within a paragraph: the wordsmith side of things; the craft, I suppose you'd call it.
“I love the editorial process: going back and reworking, and chiselling away. The amazing thing about English is there are so many ways of saying the same thing, so you can choose your rhythm almost before you choose the word.
“But I also get a thrill out of translating something that I've seen - someone sitting in a café, say - to recreate it: the challenge of trying to convey something visual that's excited me. The actual plot is more a framework or excuse for me to explore those two loves. I think I've got further to go, learning about plots.”
She's being self-deprecating here, as her tales are certainly not one-dimensional.
“I'm terrified that a reader is going to lose interest! I do feel it's important, especially for my kind of quite commercial writing, to give them what they want. Even though I love the poetry side of it, it's quite self-indulgent; I need to have a strong story.”