On Writing ‘Tell the Girl’ by Sandra Howard
I’ve wanted to write this story for years. I’d had some unique experiences and wild old times in the Sixties that cried out to be told, but what had always put me off was the thought of writing an autobiography. I’d have felt very inhibited, trailing out my whole life for inspection, and would have left out all the juiciest bits, making for a very dreary read.
And so the idea for this novel was born. I love the freedom of fiction: getting to know my characters, watching them grow and develop, often in ways I’d never have anticipated. I love the way they take me over and rule my life, how they lead me by the hand down unexpected paths; writing fiction is always a roller-coaster ride of surprises.
Tell the Girl draws heavily on personal experiences, real people are mentioned, some historical events and true situations too, but the principal characters are all fictional. Susannah Forbes, my heroine, who relives her past, her Sixties heydays, isn’t me. She’s a whole lot more successful for one thing, far more glamorous, better looking, better legs . . . need I go on?
The book is set both in the Sixties and the present day with Susannah as a girl in her twenties and also a much older woman. And Daisy, the other principal character, is nearing forty, which gave me a wonderful chance to write about women at three different stages of their lives.
Researching the Sixties reawakened old memories in the most fascinating way and there could never have been enough room for all the wild anecdotes that came to mind. The fun, wacky goings on, the excesses of smoking and boozing, all the liberties taken . . . The ad-men of Madison Avenue were straight out of Mad Men, pouncing almost before you were in the door. But they were never as drop-dead gorgeous and sexy as Don Draper (no such luck!).
It was such a creative, action-packed decade. Susannah models in London and New York, but I think we had the edge on creativity all round. I remember once going to see the designer Oleg Cassini. I had on a Mary Quant mini-dress, red felt with a triangle skirt and a saucy bib front; Oleg whipped out a large sketchpad and copied the Quant dress exactly, then and there, without turning a hair.
Writing novels is addictive. I’m lured up to my stuffy little study at the top of the house on the sunniest of days and love nothing better than to be alone with my characters, no one about, no calls or callers. It’s bliss. I work best in the mornings; afternoons are a sleepier time – possibly because of the second wind that often comes late at night. The big decision is whether to get the chores out of the way first, the emails, shopping, hair-washing, or postpone the draggy stuff and risk being distracted all morning by feelings of guilt. Tweeting too, though good for keeping up with the world, is dangerously moreish and time-consuming – and how do other authors who pen long blogs every day ever find time to write their books?
I read as much as possible, novels and biographies, often far into the night. Getting stuck into a marvellous, beautifully written story is like being in love, it’s all-consuming. It can give rich new slants and lift horizons, and as an author it’s sometimes hard not to start writing in the same vein. My characters have their own voice, though, and I soon find the rhythm that belongs and expresses what I feel.
People often ask about my favourite authors. It’s a difficult question. Writers of classics that have lived on in my mind are up there, Thomas Hardy, George Elliot, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald. Books like Doctor Zhivago, Brideshead Revisited and Lolita too, have stayed with me. In my teens I was hooked on Dorothy L. Sayers, Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie.
But when it comes to present-day writers it’s a tougher call. An author whose book I’ve just finished often becomes my favourite overnight, and then I will read every other book they’ve written. Sebastian Faulks is an obvious example, I’ve read almost everything he’s written, ever since Birdsong. His novel, The Girl at the Lion d’Or, is my favourite, the most sad and exquisite story, a masterpiece.
Sometimes I can almost feel one of these literary giants looking over my shoulder as I write – but as to whether that fires me on or makes me more inhibited I really couldn’t say.