Q & A with Kate Furnivall
What is the best thing about writing for a living? And the worst?
Writing is an inexplicably strange obsession. I call it the agony and the ecstasy, because every page is an intense mixture of both. I’m tempted to say that writing The End on the last page is the best thing. The sense of relief is enormous, but it also brings with it a huge feeling of emptiness – like mourning the loss of a much-loved friend. I hate saying goodbye to a book and its characters.
But instead I am going to say that the best thing is being given the opportunity to live so many different lives. Most people only have their own, but an author can be a plantation owner one day, a servant girl or a criminal the next, a child or an adult, a woman or a man – an amazing array of personas to take on and learn from. Every day is a revelation.
The worst thing? That’s easy: deadlines. For some unaccountable reason that baffles authors, publishers want to know when you’re going to finish a book. They breathe down your neck, very gently of course, but it’s always there, that reproachful breath, as your deadline looms closer.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. Unlike most of my writer friends, I had no burning desire to become an author when I was young, though I was always an avid reader. Despite studying English at university, I came to writing late, and frankly I was astounded to find how much I adored it and how many others became passionate about my stories. That’s one of the joys of a website – instant reader feedback.
I might never have got round to writing at all if it weren’t that my husband was a crime novelist – Neville Steed. So the whole process of constructing a book was already demystified for me and I knew how to set about it. Now, I am totally hooked and would no more consider not writing than I would not breathing.
What is your writing day like?
Each day starts with excitement. I begin early. When I’m in the middle of a book I don’t sleep well, and often lie awake from 5 a.m., full of adrenalin, planning my next scenes and writing a first draft of them in my head. Around 7 a.m. I seize a pen from beside the bed and start putting it all down on paper before it vanishes. At that point I just grunt at my husband and the cat, reluctant to let anything disturb the early flow of words, and only after I have been brought a cup of tea in bed and have set down my night’s imaginings on the page, do I become vaguely human and sociable.
Words are so elusive. They are powerful and yet strangely fragile. They can vanish from your head altogether when confronted by a blank page or screen, but once I have got over the early morning hump, they seem to behave better. I can then venture downstairs to my study where domestic distractions like cats, faulty washing machines, crosswords and emails etc lie in wait – though my friends know not to telephone me in the morning. In theory I am then ‘in the zone’. Not that it always works out like that. Some days the words stick together like mud.
I dose myself with ginger tea all day – just because the act of making myself a drink allows my brain a brief respite from its labours and gives my legs a reason for activity. Around 4 p.m. I go for a brisk walk down to the beach or a tramp through the woods to shift any logjam in my head. If I’m feeling energetic I’ll go for a bike ride or to the gym, to assuage my conscience for all the hours I’ve wasted staring out of the window at the wood pigeons splashing around in the birdbath.
In the evening I deal with the day’s emails and phone calls. I used to type my handwritten scrawl on to the computer after dinner, a chore I hated with a passion, but now I have the lovely Marian to do that for me. Instead I can enjoy a glass of wine with my husband, totally devoid of grunts.
Where did the idea for The White Pearl come from?
My brother-in-law spent four years in a prisoner of war camp in Java and though he talked little of his experiences, the few incidents he did describe made my hair stand on end. They haunted me for a long time and when I was researching China for my first book, The Russian Concubine, I started to read about Malaya too and became fascinated by this exotic and vibrant world.
One of the themes I am repeatedly drawn to in my books is how a small community reacts to sudden stress and trauma. I like to explore where the fracture lines open up, how relationships change when the veneer of civilisation is stripped away. What more enclosed community could I find than on a boat? What greater stress could I inflict on them than a war and the stormy South China seas? I just sat back and watched my characters go for each other’s jugular.
Did The White Pearl end up where you thought it would when you started writing it?
Yes . . . and no. Yes, because I had established in my mind a skeleton for the plot, with the story following a pre-planned arc. But no, because so much happened that I did not expect. That’s what makes writing so much fun – you never know what’s coming next.
Which character in The White Pearl did you enjoy writing the most?
That’s an unfair question! It’s like asking a mother to choose between her children. I loved writing them all. Each has something that endears her or him to me. But if you twist my arm, well . . . it has to be Connie. She is so complex. A real challenge. I loved seeing her develop as the story progressed, the events changing her so much that she reached out and grabbed life by the scruff of the neck.
But I also adored the young native girl, Maya, who virtually wrote herself. She just scampered across the page with a will of her own, and words tumbled from her mouth that constantly took me by surprise. Her scenes zipped out as if they had nothing to do with me – which was weird.
What are you working on at the moment?
A new place. A new time. 1932 Egypt. A taut and complex story of a sister haunted by the loss of one brother, while she is searching for her other brother, an archaeologist, among the pyramids and desert of a bewilderingly alien and dangerous country. It is set during the excitement following Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and draws Arthur Conan Doyle and Oswald Mosley into the convoluted twists and turns of the plot. I am very excited about it.
Which book do you wish you had written and why?
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Brilliant, devastating and so funny.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Nothing. I become seriously slothful. When I finish a book, my brain is so tied in knots that I’ve learned to let it go into freefall. So I go beachcombing for hours on end, and just when I think I will never have another creative thought ever again, ideas start to sprout and a new book emerges. I don’t know how the process works but it astonishes me every time. Writing is such a sedentary occupation that I force myself to do something energetic most days, to get the heart pumping. I used to play a lot of tennis but a few broken bones recently have put paid to that for the moment. So I make do with watching Wimbledon and eating strawberries instead. I like to walk – on Dartmoor if I can – but I’ll also happily waste a rainy afternoon in front of an old black-and-white film on television with a box of tissues and a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. Blissful sloth.
I am constantly plagued by the need to know how the creative process works in other people. So I spend as much time as possible in theatres, cinemas and at exhibitions, or at lunch with other writers – as if by osmosis I can absorb some of their inspiration and energy. Deadlines bring me out in a sweat, but in the lull after a book is finished I love to get out there and meet my readers. I want to hear what they have to say about my latest book. That kind of input is invaluable and helps to focus the mind for the next. So when the writing starts again, I am ready for it, pen poised, raring to go.