Jill Glenn meets local writer Katharine McMahon, whose novel The Rose of Sebastopol was included in the Richard and Judy’s Book Club 2008 list and subsequently became a bestseller. Her next, The Crimson Rooms, is to be published on 11 June.
Katharine McMahon’s advice to would-be novelists is stark: don’t. She smiles as she says it, but I suspect she’s only half-joking. She tempers the harshness, however, with some advice that incipient writers can lap up and live by: Just write. Keyboard or pen. Write because you love it, not to make money. Don’t give up your job. Find a critical reader, to whom you can return time and again, who will engage with the process, whose judgment you trust. The distinguishing mark of a writer is the determination to write; the willingness to revise, rewrite, cut, change. “It’s the craft that makes the difference.”
Katharine loves the physical process of writing, even though these days she mostly uses a keyboard for speed. She’ll revert to pen and paper if she’s struggling with a particular passage or scene, though, finding that the flow from brain to pen is different through the hand; this simple change can be just what’s needed to prompt some fluency “although I have terrible hand-writing”. And most of her research notes are taken by hand – so she has to decipher her scrawl on a regular basis. Katharine does masses of research. For The Rose of Sebastopol, she not only read as much as she could about the Crimean War, but travelled to the area as well. “I couldn’t have written it,” she explains, “if I hadn’t visited the site of the Battle of Inkerman.”
Her seventh novel, The Crimson Rooms, is published next week. It’s the culmination of around two years of research and planning, note-taking and thinking, writing and rewriting. And at last she can talk about it, celebrate it. “When you’re working on something,” she explains, “people ask you how it’s going, but they don’t really want to know the detail… It interests you, of course, but… their eyes glaze over.” She laughs. “It’s a relief, now, to have something concrete to share.”
The Crimson Rooms is a rich, absorbing read that focuses on a pioneering female solicitor in London in the 1920s. Many of her heroines are firsts in their field: a nurse in the Crimea in The Rose of Sebastopol; a schoolmistress in Confinement. Her ideas for a novel are often sparked by the discovery of such a person, and then, “You’re interesting,” she thinks, “and why weren’t there others like you…?”.
Katharine writes for three days a week, from 8am to 6pm, in a room overlooking her small but impressively green garden, and on to the allotments beyond. It sounds both idyllic and extremely disciplined – which comes, she says, from years of trying to cram in her writing around bringing up her children. Her daughters are grown and gone, now, and only son Jake, 15, remains at home with her and her husband Martin, a headmaster. She’s trying, she says, to be less rigid – so we’re talking at two in the afternoon on an official ‘writing day’… but I’m aware of a restlessness, a slight unease, as if the keys or her conscience are calling her.
On her non-writing, non-researching days Katharine teaches (although she finds the creative energies required for teaching can rob her of those required for writing), or mentors, or works as a magistrate. It’s important, she believes, to have other outlets. “You can’t just invest your status in being a writer,” she declares. “Variety is essential.”
Words, though, are really her thing. Desert Island Discs? No, thanks; she’d rather have all novels instead of the music. Her favourite writers include Rose Tremain, Penelope Fitzgerald, whom she describes as “astonishingly good”, and Jane Austen “of course”. She admits, too, to an early obsession with Georgette Heyer, writer of Regency romances and detective fiction. Heyer was herself famed for her assiduous research and attention to detail – an inclination that Katharine McMahon has inherited.
She begins each new novel by extensive reading, to explore the germ of an idea. When we meet, in late May, she’s been immersed in the French Revolution since January. Much of that work was preparatory, investigative – the proposal for her next novel went forward in April – but, now that she has “a feel for the area”, she’s already started to write the book itself. The process of creating the story will in turn lead to requirements for more research, as characters come out of nowhere, or the plot turns in an unexpected direction.
She has a fear of getting something “horribly wrong”; checking and double-checking serve both as a safety net and a comfort blanket, and as a source of endless fascination. There are trails to be followed, unlikely details to incorporate, a web to be woven, sometimes from the barest of facts.
Place is hugely important. “The reader has to feel safe, and committed to the world you’ve created,” she explains. The locations may be real – in The Crimson Rooms the woods and hills above Chesham feature prominently, for example – or invented; what matters is that you believe in them, believe you’re there. It’s the same with the people. The hallmark of Katharine’s books is the interweaving of real events with imagined lives, and the inclusion of genuine historical characters. The Crimson Rooms features, in the background, the first woman solicitor in England – Carrie Morrison – whose trail-blazing experiences helped Katharine begin to mould her invented heroine, Evelyn Gifford.
What she loves is the actual writing (even though she hates being on her own…). Like the rest of us, she wants to know what happens – and it unfolds as much to her surprise as ours. “As long as you’re convinced and relaxed, you can carry the reader along with you.” She creates – or finds (of a secondary character and plotline in The Crimson Rooms she says “I don’t know where Meredith came from…”) people and stories “that go somewhere”, adding “and then I just see what I find.”
Experience has taught her when she’s going off in the wrong direction; she’s keen, each time, to turn out a “better” work. It strikes as a pragmatic approach, but it’s clearly been successful. The Rose of Sebastopol, her sixth book, was selected for Richard and Judy’s Book Club, when it came out in paperback, despite a conspicuous lack of reviews for the hardback edition. “Richard and Judy? I won’t hear a word said against them…” – and who can blame her? As a result of exposure on the show The Rose of Sebastopol went on to sell over 200,000 copies. It was, she says, “a gift from the gods.”
Will she ever revisit any of her characters, I ask, thinking regretfully of all that research gone to waste when a novel is over. “Life’s too short to go back,” she says – although she does admit that there is potential in the heroine of The Crimson Rooms. “I might just take Evelyn forward a couple of years… 1926, the General Strike… and a really exciting divorce case, perhaps.” If that turns out to be novel number ten, remember… you read it here first.
Katharine McMahon will be talking about The Crimson Rooms and taking part in a dramatised reading from the book at Waterstone’s, 174-176 The Harlequin Centre, Watford, on Thursday 11 June, between 7 and 9pm. Entry is free.
Also taking part will be members of the Abbey Theatre, St Albans, plus Katharine’s best friend, the TV presenter Mary Portas (right) whose new series, Mary Queen of Charity Shops, has just started on BBC2.
Readers of Optima may order copies of The Crimson Rooms for the special price of £10.99 (rrp £12.99) by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref no: PB029. UK postage & packing free; overseas add £1.60.