Thank you to all the thoughtful Gransnet contributors who commented on the book and raised interesting questions. It has been one of the joys of having my work published that I learn how other people react to it, and this gives fresh life to the characters and makes me think again about some aspects of the book that I hadn’t appreciated would carry such meaning for some readers.
The main question, and one I have been asked in events as well, is whether there will be a sequel. I do not plan to write one, and the reason is exactly what one of the contributors wrote in their feedback: ‘I think it is the right place to leave Tina and Anders, we can each visualise our own preferred future for them’. This was the conclusion I came to, too. I know what my preferred future for them would be, but I am happy to hold that in my imagination, knowing other outcomes are also possible. I feel I have taken them on a journey of discovery which has given them new possibilities and new perspectives on life; it is up to them now, whatever they decide.
There is undoubtedly a question about the moral dilemma Tina faces, of whether she was wrong to be engaging in a correspondence with a stranger her husband knows nothing about. This is another topic on which I would anticipate that readers would have different opinions. I think she was right to be concerned that this was disloyal. Relationships depend on loyalty, emotional as well as physical. However, she had demonstrated true loyalty to the partnership with her husband over a number of years, so the lapse, if that is what it was, needs to be seen in the
context of the many failings that both of them had – as everyone does – that meant the partnership was never perfect.
When I started to write the book, I did not have it in mind that this would be an epistolary novel; I thought the exchange of letters would take me so far, and then I might need to find other ways to move the story forward. But there was never a moment when it stopped working; the form was never restricting and I realised the power of showing what these two people were saying by, as it were, eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. So the question of whether I would write another novel in letter format must depend on what that novel sets out to do.
There are very clever tricks a novelist can play with letters. I would pick out Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, a comic novel in which an oppressive regime starts to ban the use of certain letters of the alphabet; the impact of this would be hard to describe unless the communication between citizens was written. Also The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch, written in 1910 about a family in Russia, in which the thoughts and motivations of the members of a family and a visiting secretary are understood by the reader, because they are all writing letters to people outside the family, but hidden from each other. So, if I have an idea as good as either of these, then I might write another epistolary novel, but the one I am working on now does not involve letters.
The background to the story, the two places involved and the occupations of the two correspondents, arose because of the inspiration from the Tollund Man who, as one of your contributors assumes, was indeed the starting point for the story. I have wanted, for a long time, to create something from the thoughts that occurred to me when I looked at his picture and read the poem Seamus Heaney wrote about him, but I could never work out where to start.
When I read the book by Professor Glob, which is dedicated, in a letter, to East Anglian schoolgirls, I had at last the hook I needed. One of these girls, I thought, might naturally pick up a pen when she reached the stage of wondering what life had all been about, and write back.
From this point, as well as the letter format, where Tina and Anders lived was fixed. I could have moved Tina anywhere in the country but I liked the idea of the emptiness and huge skies of East Anglia, the peace and yet the loneliness of the countryside; and I wanted her to be a farmer’s wife because it meant she was grounded in the soil, as the Tollund Man had been. I knew enough about Suffolk and farming, although I have never lived there, nor farmed. I had never been to Denmark either, but obviously Anders had to live in Silkeborg and be a museum curator, so for this I did need to do research, initially on the internet, by reading books and finally by visiting. None of this was a chore; I am pleased to have come to know Denmark in this way.
I have asked myself one of the questions a contributor asks me: do I regret not having started my publishing career when I was younger. On the one hand, the whole experience has been so interesting, so eye-opening and above all such fun, that I think I could have had more of all this if I started years ago. On the other hand, there is a buzz about doing something for the first time.
On this basis, I feel incredibly lucky to have saved up this amazing new career until a point when it might otherwise have been hard to find new things to do. I am also quite sure I could not have written this book when I was younger.
It is because I like to find new things to do that I am studying for a PhD. A creative writing PhD involves producing an original piece of prose, of novel length, and an academic analysis of that writing and whatever overarching theme is being explored. I am looking at how stories start – how do the first words, sentences, paragraphs impact on the way the story unfolds, and on the reader’s relationship with the story. For this, I am writing a collection of short stories (when I started ‘Meet Me at The Museum’ I thought it might turn out to be a short story, but there was little hope of that!).
I have enjoyed both sides of the work for the PhD, and have also valued meeting other research students and finding out about the truly amazing topics they are studying.
One of the questions was about a film. My writing mentor, who is also my tutor on the PhD course and a best-selling author, told me quite early on in the writing process that he could see it as a stage play. No one has suggested that to me, yet, but I have met with some interested parties from the world of film; though I know very little about how films are made, I do know that there are no certainties, so it is unlikely to happen any time soon.