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Elizabeth Wilhide Q & A

Elizabeth Wilhide

Elizabeth Wilhide answered questions on Ashenden, our August 2012 book club novel.

Q: I loved this book and have done little else but read it for the last two days. It moved and amused me in equal measures and I loved the little commentaries about the house at the start of each chapter which made it seem a living character in its own right. What intrigued me was the contrast with the last club offering, State of Wonder. Ann Patchett said she had made everything up out of her imaginings, but Ashenden is based on quite a lot of real people and stories. I wonder which is easier to write? Boomerbabe

A: I’m so glad you liked it, Boomerbabe! I think all writing is hard, whatever your starting point. Ashenden does include characters and stories that are based on real people and real events, but a lot of it is also pure fiction. Writing about characters who come solely from your imagination gives you freedom. But it’s also reassuring and grounding to have something to spark off your ideas. I like a bit of both.

Q: My friend read this at the same time as me and commented that, at times, it felt more like a short story collection than a novel. I can see what she means - is that something you considered doing when writing the book? bakergran

A: It sort of snuck up on me. I had it in mind right from the beginning that the novel was going to be episodic but I wasn’t fully aware of what that would entail until I finished the first draft and realized that for all the episodes to work, they would have to be short stories in themselves, or self-contained in some sense. This meant that I had to go back to a few of the original chapters and rework them substantially. My publisher was a huge help with this, as was my brother, who is my First Reader.

Q: Why did you take so long to write your first novel? Have you always written and been trying to be published?Ashenden I've only found a love of writing in my fifties which is why I'm asking. annemac101

A: Oh, I’m a slow learner! Seriously, I have always written, ever since I was a child, partly because I have always loved reading. Somehow I have also managed to make my living in books, first as an editor, then as a non-fiction writer. Ashenden wasn’t my first attempt at fiction, by a long way. But I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I wrote it after my children were grown – one of the many ways midlife can send you off in new directions. Good luck with your writing!

Q: There is so much fine detail about the house, Ashenden, and the lives of the characters who lived there, in this novel, that keeps the reader interested until the end. I would like to know what inspired the author and how the research was managed. For example, were several stately homes personally viewed before writing began and how were the characters devised? If stately houses were viewed did Ms Wilhide imagine who had walked before in those spaces or did she research public archives for descriptions of people from Census returns over the centuries? Rowena

A: Ashenden was in one sense the product of years of research I had to do for other books I’ve written – about classical furniture, William Morris, Lutyens and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I had a lot to go on about the way these houses looked at any given time, how they were used and how they were run.

The immediate inspiration, however, was a visit I made to Basildon Park where my reaction and that of my architect husband’s was pretty much the same as Maria’s in The Book of Ceilings (chapter three). I haven’t been back since because I didn’t want to dislodge that first impression.

I think you do get a great sense of the people who went before when you visit these houses, particularly when they aren’t preserved in aspic. Basildon Park’s restoration after the war was very sensitively done. You have room to breathe and imagine in it.

The only census research I’ve done has been on my own house in Hackney, when I discovered that a nineteenth-century tenant here was a certain Lily Snowball, described as a laundress from Whitby. You couldn’t make it up.

Q: Lots of people have been comparing your book to Downton Abbey - do you watch the show (new series started last night!) and how do you think it compares to your book? proudnana

A: Funnily enough, I finished the first draft of Ashenden just before the first series of Downton aired. At that time I was wondering whether anyone would be interested in the book where the main character is a house, then when I saw how Downton had caught on, I thought it might have a chance! I do watch Downton and enjoy it (who could forget Matthew’s ‘twinge’ or was it ‘tingle’?). An obvious difference is that my book has a much bigger time span so you see changes happening to the house over a longer period.

Q: The ending really surprised me - did you agonise about it? There's a feeling that you didn't want the house to end up in the wrong hands. Did you try several endings? praxis

A: I’m really interested that the ending surprised you – and pleased too. The first draft started and ended differently but by the time I came to the second draft I knew that I wanted a happy ending for the house and Ma’lita popped up right on cue to supply one. I saw the ending as a kind of letting go.

Q: What I thought made it feel like Downton was the stories of the servants just as much as the rich people. Did you find it harder to research the lives of servants? jessieg

A: And as well as Downton, there’s also Upstairs, Downstairs, of course. I’m really interested in social history and over the years I’ve done a fair bit of research into how these houses were run. "Life in the English Country House" by Mark Girouard is a classic. Then there are the household manuals, such as "The Servant’s Directory", written in the eighteenth century by Hannah Glasse, who was an early Mrs Beeton.

Contemporary cartoons are also a good way of finding out how servants lived and how they were treated. There’s a nineteenth-century Punch cartoon, for example, which shows a tall, strapping footman wafting up the stairs carrying nothing heavier than a small silver plate with a letter on it, while a tiny chambermaid heaves up a coal bucket.

Q: What made you decide to expand some stories more than others - did you get more involved with some characters, like the American woman Reggie? Her death is very moving. Is she based on anyone you've known or met? Are any of the characters based on real life? damealice

A: The stories were the length they needed to be – perhaps, on reflection, some of them could have been shorter. Reggie is very loosely based on Lady Iliffe who restored Basildon Park after the war with her husband. So far as I know, however, Lady Iliffe, who was French, never sat on a horse. There is something of my mother in Reggie. I’m glad you found her death moving. I was moved writing it.

A closer portrayal of real people and real events is in the chapter The Portrait. Georgiana More is based on Henrietta Sykes, who had an affair with Disraeli and subsequently with the portrait painter Maclise, which ruined her. There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that the vicious Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist was based on her husband. Dickens was a friend of Maclise’s. If you visit Dickens’s house in Doughty Street in London, you can see a portrait Maclise made of Dickens’s children.

Q: Why did you call the book Ashenden? Were you worried about possible confusion with the Somerset Maugham spy novels which were on the telly not long ago...? Grannyruth

A: I chose the name Ashenden because I liked the way it sounded and what it evoked – the ash grove and so on. (The ash tree was sacred to Druids, so the name of the house seemed to anchor the house into the far distant past.)

It wasn’t until the book was being copy-edited that someone pointed out that the title was the same as the Maugham spy novel, which I hadn’t heard of, or read, or seen. I didn’t really want to change it by that stage and we decided it didn’t matter too much.

Q: I liked all the stories in the book, but I liked some more than others. (I think The Janus Cup was my favourite). Do you have favourites yourself? sofasogood

A: I do and I don’t. The two chapters on the First and Second World Wars came out very quickly and were changed very little throughout the whole editing process, which pleases me. The Boating Party, on the other hand, went through several versions, took a lot of work and that pleases me for a different reason.

The Janus Cup was another chapter that I had to work hard to get right. So I’m glad it’s your favourite.

Q: Were you worried about making all the stories hang together? Or did having lots of separate stories seem an easier writing task? typo

A: Ah, you put your finger on it. Yes, initially I did think separate stories might be easier. I quickly found out I was wrong. Separate stories means lots of different plots and plotting was the one aspect of novel-writing I felt less comfortable with. Talk about a rod for your back!

Q: Is it very different, writing fiction and non-fiction? Which presents the greater challenge for you? fredoir

A: Fiction is definitely more challenging, but more rewarding too. It took me a long time, however, to realize that fiction and non-fiction aren’t chalk and cheese. In both cases you have to be clear, think about getting things down in the right order and generally write, on a sentence by sentence level, as best as you can.

 Q: Did you find it easy to get published? What was the process? Presumably you already had an agent? appletree

A: I was very, very lucky that the book was picked up straight away by Fig Tree, which is an imprint of Penguin. This was chiefly down to my agent, who thought it might appeal to them and offered them an exclusive first look at it. Years ago, I wrote another novel which went round the houses and got rejected every time, so I do have experience of what that feels like – and was expecting to go through it again.

Q: Do you write every day? crisisgran

A: Yes, I try to. If not write, then rewrite. If not rewrite, then think. I find it’s the only way to keep a story alive in your head. But I do admit to being a bit obsessive…

Q: I loved the way the chapters were threaded together, even though they were separate stories. Was that difficult to do? Did you have to plan it all out beforehand? tinglytoes

A: Quite a few people have asked me if I used a whiteboard or post-it notes to plan the book. The answer is no. I am not that organised. Scribbles on the back of till receipts is the extent of my planning. I do keep notebooks, though.The connections that link the chapters together were one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book. I did have quite a tussle getting characters and dates to work together the way I wanted them to, but some of the echoes that recur seemed to come naturally. I am a great rooter-around in junk shops and I like the fact that objects you pick up have an unknown history.

Q: It sometimes seems that more novels are set in English country houses than not. What do you think is the enduring appeal of country houses in fiction? firenze

A: What a good question! The short answer, I suppose, is that the country house at any given time could be seen as a society in miniature, with different characters and classes interacting with one another. This provides great potential for drama and conflict. The long answer is that there’s probably a whole study to be made of the house in fiction, from Manderley in Rebecca to Brideshead, not forgetting the role of the country house in crime fiction.

Q: Who is your favourite character in the novel? And what have been your favourite books recently? stopgap

A: I try not to have favourite characters! But I do have a lot of affection for some of the minor ones who strolled in and made a brief appearance. I am fond of Pudge, who comes and goes in a few pages, also Bunny Anstis. But a lot of people have said they like Reggie, and I think that the heart of the book is in her generosity and grace.

As far as favourite books are concerned, don’t get me started! This year I have read and loved: The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, Caitlan Moran’s How to be a Woman and Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Parade’s End is superb.

Q: I was interested in the way a lot of the owners of the house weren't "posh" even though the house itself clearly is. Does that reflect reality - were a lot of English country houses like that, changing hands and being bought by the new rich of the time? lolling

A: There are many country houses, particularly the "great" ones, where the same family has been in occupancy down the generations. Ashenden (as was Basildon Park) is an example of a medium-sized house, however large it may seem to us. These tended to be a bit more vulnerable, not only to changing family fortunes, but also to changing times. They were also very attractive to the nouveau riche, who wanted to carve out a place in society.

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But not all these houses had happy endings. One, I forget which, was demolished after the war. The rubble from the building was used as hard core under the M1. So many of these houses were lost.

 Q: Are you writing another novel? Did you want to write something completely different when you finished, or are you the sort of author who is happy to write another similar book if people liked your previous one? scribblegranny

A: Yes, I am writing another novel and I can tell you that it’s not episodic and not based on a country house. It is set in the Second World War, a period that has always fascinated me. I think subjects or themes choose you to some extent. It takes a long time to write a novel (it takes me a long time, anyway) and you have to be totally gripped by the story you are trying to tell. You can’t write to order. First and foremost, you write for yourself.