I’d delighted to share with you an interview with debut author Vanessa Lafaye. Vanessa’s novel, Summertime was released this January (click here if you’re still yet to get hold of your copy) and it’s a completely amazing, mesmerising story which I immensely enjoyed. My review will be up later on today, but for now it’s over to Vanessa as she tells us a little more about Summertime, why she decided to write a novel set in 1930s Florida and what how she went about researching such an interesting period of history…
Hello Vanessa, a huge, warm welcome to Bookaholic Confessions! Thank you so much for participating in this interview. Would you like to start by introducing yourself…?
Thank you very much for having me. I’m 51 and live in the beautiful market town of Marlborough in Wilts with my husband, James, and 3 furry children. I have worked in academic publishing in Oxford for nearly 30 years. My other preoccupation is music. I sing in the acapella sextet www.mothersjam and am the leader of www.marlboroughcommunitychoir.org . I was born and raised in Florida but left the US straight after university. I never intended to settle in the UK, but not much about my life has followed any kind of a plan! It’s been a crazy year, consisting of the book deal for ‘Summertime’, a recurrence of breast cancer, and marriage to James on a cruise ship.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut novel, Summertime (released 15th Jan 2015 by Orion)?
I’m gripped by Summertime just from the synopsis alone, it sounds incredible. What gave you the idea for the story?
Thank you. It happened through a series of random chances (see what I mean about a lack of planning?). I was visiting my family in Florida in 2010 and read in the morning paper about a horrific lynching in 1935. I started thinking about dramatizing it, because no one has ever been prosecuted for it. Back in the UK, research on the web took me to the story of the hurricane and the veterans, and it completely captured my imagination. As a Florida native especially, I was appalled at my ignorance. I realised that, if I knew nothing about the story, chances were that it was also true of people elsewhere. I searched for novels about it but could find none, only factual accounts, so decided to attempt it myself.
Set in 1930’s Florida, Summertime is based on the real Labor Day hurricane in 1935. What made you decide to write a novel around this event in American history?
I felt it was wrong that the story was either unknown or long forgotten outside of a small part of south Florida. These traumatised, desperate veterans changed the course of US history. They brought down one President and almost did the same for a second. The events themselves were a scandal at the time; that they’ve been forgotten is another scandal. I also think that it’s a very modern story, in terms of race relations, the treatment of combat veterans, and our response to extremes of weather.
How did you go about doing the relevant research for your novel? Did it help that you used to live in Florida yourself?
Yes, enormously. I plundered my childhood memories for a lot of detail—although I hasten to add that I grew up in the 1960s, not 1930s! I also relied on some excellent factual accounts, and of course the online history available. And I have a good friend who is a social historian, who supplied a lot of fascinating lore about the food, drink, and customs of the time. I’ve experienced several hurricanes—they were almost annual occurrences when I was growing up—but nothing on the scale in the book.
Now you’re living in the UK do you miss Florida? How have you found life to be different over in the UK?
I’ve now lived for longer in the UK than the US. It’s home, although I love visiting Florida. I have one of those mid-Atlantic accents which sounds pretty ridiculous wherever I go. I came to the UK seeking adventure, found it and stayed. I really believe that it was only possible for me to write the book because of the distance and perspective which come from living in the UK all these years.
What does it feel like to have your debut novel out in the big, wide world?
It feels like magic is happening. People are reading my words, that I wrote to shine a light on something that I thought should be remembered. Every time someone reads the book, it makes it worth writing. No matter how many more books I write, it will never feel like this again. The first one is so, so special.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to publication?
In 2004, I wrote my first novel, about a group of women who all have breast cancer (which was 5 years before I got the disease for the first time; oh, the irony). It came very close to getting published, but it was not to be, although I did get signed by an agent. I was inspired to try again, with another work of women’s fiction, but it didn’t get taken up either. Then the big C came along in 2009 and I stopped writing all together (here’s a blog post with more about that). I had pretty much given up on my ambition to publish a novel, when I happened to open the morning paper on that visit to Florida in 2010. So you see, ‘Summertime’ is the book that almost wasn’t! I had never written any historical fiction, but was so gripped by the real events that I decided to try. Fairly soon, I realised that it was my best work. My UK agent brought in a US agent and historical fiction specialist, who helped me to improve the last draft. The offer from Orion came in January 2014, followed by the US, Norway, France, Germany, and Italy. Four months later, cancer returned, and it’s been pretty surreal ever since. Juggling surgery, chemotherapy, copy-editing, cover designs, and promotion is not the typical debut author experience! But the excitement of the book has been the most marvellous contrast to the other stuff. Whenever I felt really low, there would be some fun or interesting book news.
Who are your favourite authors and what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I have to credit Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks for opening my eyes to the history of WWI through their books. I still enjoy reading fiction about the period. I do love a bit of escapism, especially tales from the medieval period, but they have to be done really well. So many are riddled with anachronistic speech and references, it drives me completely insane. I don’t do realism, especially urban, because I’m easily depressed. I seem to have told you more about what I don’t like! I’m having a really interesting experience right now, because I’ve joined a group of other 40+ debut novelists. I’m reading their books, as part of our mutual support thing, which is taking me into lots of new territory.
And finally – can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m working on the idea of a prequel for ‘Summertime’, because the back stories of the characters could easily fill a book, and the early 20th century was a fascinating period. But I didn’t write ‘Summertime’ with the intention of having a prequel, which is making it much more of a challenge than I realised.
A huge thank you to Vanessa for participating in this interview and to Lucy Richardson at Orion. ♥