Author of Truth Games and recently published Love Revenge & Buttered Scones, Bobbie Darbyshire talks to ReaderIReadIt about her books, some great tips for starting a novel and what she would ask her favourite author.
…about your book
What was your first flash of inspiration for this novel?
I was in a writing workshop at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. In three hours we would plan a novel using a pack of cards, a kitchen timer and a piece of string. Thirty of us had turned up to brainstorm. Cards from the pack suggested characters and motives, the timer pinged for us to report back our ideas, and the string showed the shape of the narrative. We imagined characters – Henry, Peter and Elena – and how they would collide in the Inverness public library, but we had wildly different ideas and angles on how the story would go. My flash of inspiration came at the very end of the three hours. I thought: wow, my narrator will be the romantic novelist who is running a workshop in the library, who is helping them to invent a novel using a pack of cards, a piece of string…
Love and revenge are two major themes in the story. So how did ‘buttered scones’ get added to the title?
The title was the hardest five words to write! My publisher and I spent three weeks sifting through dozens of ideas: Nobody’s Perfect, Stranger than Fiction, The Real McCoy, A Tight Circle of Chairs, Fools Outing, A Rusty Tin of Stale Biscuits… nothing clicked. We kept circling around Love, Revenge & … Henry is motivated by love, Elena by revenge, but what could possibly encapsulate Peter? My publisher pressed for Chocolate Biscuits. Peter is angry, and what he finds neutralises his anger (I mustn’t give too much away!). Chocolate biscuits, said my publisher, would suggest this. I resisted, and we debated by telephone. ‘There’s only one chocolate biscuit in the book,’ I objected. ‘It’s stale, and Peter isn’t even there when it’s eaten. If we’re after something edible, we’d be better off with buttered scones!’ Short pause for breath. ‘I think you just solved it,’ said my publisher, and I thought for a moment and saw he was right. The most dramatic revelations take place in a back parlour with a log fire, and all the characters are eating Buttered Scones.
Henry’s obsession with the author is a very interesting take on how people can be affected by literature. Where did the idea come from?
It was suggested in the Cheltenham workshop as Henry’s motive for going to Inverness. Great stuff, I liked it! But when I came to write, it was something I had to examine more deeply. Why on earth would a 41-year-old man fall for an author he’d never met? How could that be convincing? Childhood loneliness suggested itself. This guy hadn’t been loved. Books offered the emotional nurture his mother and ex-wife had denied him. In a fictional world, he could imagine himself as romantic hero, transcending his loneliness and ineptitude. Gradually I was uncovering facts that would lead to more questions and take the story in new directions.
The story would make for a great TV or film production. If it were to be adapted who would you see as suitable to play the three main characters?
Thank you so much for saying that—I’m open to offers! I’d love to see Martin Clunes play Henry, though some choose Hugh Bonneville. For Peter, Alan Cumming perhaps? For Elena, Penelope Cruz? For Angus Urquhart, I’m torn between Sean Connery, Ian McKellen and Peter Capaldi!
When asked to book-readings, which part is your favourite section to read?
Aarrgh, that’s a sore point! It would be so mean of me to read almost anything after chapter 4 because it would give away too much of the plot. I mustn’t spoil the surprises. So I’m stuck reading material from the opening, before Henry, Peter and Elena reach Inverness and the story gets into its stride. I feel frustrated that my readings don’t give a true flavour of the book, so any suggestions you and your readers have for a later section that wouldn’t give the game away would be most gratefully received.
…just for fun
Which book have you thought ‘I wish I had written this’ about?
There are many, and I’m always adding to the list. Thinking which one do I most envy the craft of, well George Eliot is dead, so I think I’ll go with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I envy his ability to tear the reader out of one story and hit the ground running with a completely new story, so that within a page you’ve forgiven the wrench, you’re enjoying the ride again. I envy the prolific characters and plots he comes up with, the variety of voices and writing styles he can throw out with such apparent ease. I enjoy his simplicity and humour masking complexity and profundity. And, hearing him interviewed, he seems like such a regular nice guy, wanting to share his craft rather than bask in it. I’m a fan.
You are granted a wish to meet any author, dead or alive. Who would it be and what would be your first question?
If you were to identify yourself with any character from a novel who would it be?
I have more humour and libido than this woman, and much less stoicism, but I have her earnest, blinkered romanticism and sincere desire to do the right thing. Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch.
You take part in a number of writing groups and discussions. What is your favourite technique to use for writing? When you sit down to write a book is there any particular way you like to create the plot or the characters?�
The short answer is no. My first novel Truth Games was based on times I’d lived through (1970s London), so there’s a strong element of autobiography at the core of it. Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones grew out of a brainstorm by 30 people in a workshop. For the next one I was stuck for an idea until I attended another workshop at the Winchester Writers’ Conference. This time we were given a sentence – The secret was all she had that was hers – and we were asked who is she, what does she lack, what is the secret? This gave me the idea. Sorry, I can’t say what it is because it’s a plot surprise.
Once I have the germ of an idea, the best technique for creating plot and characters is to ask questions. I’ve mentioned how Henry grew after I asked how come he was in love with a romantic novelist? One question leads to another, making plot and characters more interesting and real until I can step into the fictional world, observe it rather than have to struggle to invent it.
So, what do I do? I sit down with my germ of an idea and I write a creaky scene about two-dimensional characters. Then I’m dissatisfied and start asking a few questions. Then I rewrite the scene, whereupon new questions arise. I question and rewrite, question and rewrite. Gradually the characters deepen, feel real to me and give me access to their four-dimensional world. When that happens, the rest of the book is much easier to write.
With such strong characters and story lines in Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones is it difficult to leave them behind and start something new?
It’s tempting to hang around in a familiar fictional world to which I have easy access. It’s daunting to push at the stiff and creaky door of a new one. But I’ve actually no place in the old one; it’s fully formed and no longer needs me. I can visit but I can’t make waves any more. The new world is imperfect, bristling with holes and inconsistencies that need filling and fixing, but I can do anything here—my word is law—and that’s what attracts me.
Are you able to share what is in store for your next novel?
I don’t want to jinx it by saying too much. We’re in Battersea, London in November 2008. A conflicted young man is having marital problems. His mother dies suddenly; he moves into her house to escape his pressures and begins to uncover secrets. I’m keen to get on with it: it’s been on hold while I’ve been promoting Truth Games (2009) and Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones (2010)—I need to get writing!
If you have enjoyed this interview, take a look at ReaderIReadIt’s book review of Love, Revenge and Buttered Scones.