– A Review of her latest novel ‘All The Days of Our Lives’ –
What is it that draws you into buying a book? Is it the author? The cover? The blurb on the back or the title?
I think for me it’s the author every time. Then I read the short synopsis but this time it was the cover that caught my eye.
Annie Murray has to be one of my favourite authors. I first read her novel ‘The Bells of Bourneville Green’ and became hooked. She draws the reader into the lives of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. The story becomes so real, you almost feel you want to get in there and help them to overcome their anguish.
Annie was born in Berkshire and read English at St. John’sCollege, Oxford. Her first novel Birmingham Rose hit The Times bestseller list 1995.
‘ A Hopscotch Summer’ is the story of young Emma Brown growing up in the Nechells area of Birmingham in the 1930’s. Her impoverished life is turned upside down when her mother announces she is having another baby. Emma tries to juggle her childhood life with an adult world and her lack of attendance in school has the Board Man knocking on her door. To make things worse Emma’s best friend Katie O’Neill ostracises her and Emma is left alone to cope at home. Emma’s other friend, Molly cannot understand why Emma doesn’t have the time to be her friend. Molly has problems of her own and needs Emma’s comfort. All three girls have to find a way through life growing up in this era. Following on from this story is the sequel ‘Soldier Girl’ about the life of Molly during her time in the army.
I wrote to Annie and complimented her on her ability to make the characters seem so very real to the reader. It took me a couple of days to stop thinking about them after I finished reading. Surely a sign of the author providing a most engaging story.
During a recent holiday I searched the shelves of a local bookshop in Devon. I found ‘All the Days of Our Lives’ with the most amazing cover. A girl with dark hair and eyes that seemed say ‘ Buy this one’. Then I read the synopsis and it seemed I already knew the characters and needed to find out what happened to them all, now in their adult lives. The artist couldn’t have done a better job of portraying the character Katie on the front cover, she was exactly as I had envisaged her. http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/annie-murray/all-days-of-our-lives.htm ‘All the Days of Our Lives’ is one of those ‘must read’ books.
I spent the next few days engaged in the story and once again living with Emma, Katie and her friend Molly who are now all grown up and going through the war years. There are many twists and turns and each of the characters, through strife, come together from all corners of Britain in a reunion of friends.
Once again I had to write to Annie to compliment her on crafting an excellent sequel.
As my web site is fairly new I asked her if she would grant me an interview. She kindly returned with a ‘yes’.
My blog is to help new writers gain more confidence to push forward into the world of publishing. So forgive me if I ask you some basic questions first.
Q. We all have a moment when we say ‘I’ll write a book some day’ but few actually do. When was your moment?
I’d always been writing something for as long as I can remember, but I think that moment came when I was 27 and had a proper home of my own. My husband to be and I were buying our first little house in Selly Oak in Birmingham and I loved it. It was a bit if a state and I remember sitting down to write in a room upstairs with nothing but rough plaster on the walls and old floorboards – but there was sunshine coming through the window and I was quite happy!
Q. How long did it take for you to find your first agent/publisher? What do you think clinched the deal?
My first book was a different kind of thing from the Birmingham stories. It was called The Saloman Years and although it was auctioned it didn’t sell. I’m not that surprised – it was a bit of a mess. Later when I’d written Birmingham Rose, which is more in a genre, I think the publishers were more inclined to buy such a book because they knew that people like this kind of story and no one at the time was writing about Birmingham in this way. So it took a few years – but I made a conscious decision to try and write something that would be more saleable.
Q. If you were to advise a new writer about taking their novel to the next level i.e. marketing, what advice would you give before submitting?
Well, if you’re approaching an agent, firstly don’t forget to do as they ask. If they ask for 50 pages and a short synopsis, don’t imagine that doing something different will be ‘eye-catching.’ It might well be – but not in a good way. Don’t on any account use odd coloured ink – it makes you look deranged. Be professional and straight forward and try to say briefly what your story is about and whether it is written with a particular audience in mind. You don’t need to try to persuade them of anything – they will soon make up their own minds. And good luck!
I would like to move on to discuss your latest book.
Q. First though, tell me about that wonderful front cover for All the Days of Our Lives the artist has done an excellent job. It really does reach out to the buyer. New writers always dream about the perfect front cover for their novel, can you enlighten us on how it was done? The young girl looks so appealing. Do you have a say in how you want it to look?
Yes it is nice and I thought it represented the character very well. It’s hard to get that right always. My covers have altered over time and so has the amount of input I have had into them. In the past the publishing houses employed cover artists and my earlier covers were done by one such. Nowadays, with the vast number of images available from picture libraries on the web at a lower cost, they find it better to use those and design it in house, so that’s how the cover of All the Days was done. At the moment they are doing new jackets for some of my older titles. They send me rough ideas and I do get to comment and change things. It’s an interesting process.
Q. Have you always been interested in the era from the First World War up to the 1950’s or is it something you have grown into with each book you write?
Not exactly – I really didn’t like formal history, the way it was taught at school. And I still much prefer to learn about ordinary people and their lives rather than the over-arching politics and so on. The more I’ve learned, the more interested I have become, it’s true. It’s also reaching a certain age and having more of a feel for how people’s lives must have been – for example, how did they raise all those children in such tiny little houses? My father was technically an Edwardian – born 1909 – and like for everyone, this is family history, and most of us heard a lot about it as we were growing up.
Q. When you define your characters, do you know where they are going before you write them, do you plan it, or do you allow the story to develop as you go along with the research to hand.
I have some idea – that varies – but I usually know more or less where they’re headed. But I don’t feel I fully know the characters until I’ve finished a first draft, because part of the learning to know them is to live with them through their experiences. I also find there are extra things I need to know all the way through even though I do research as far as I can before I begin.
Q. On reading your novels I found you have a sympathetic knack of writing about subjects which some of us might find distressing. I had a scene in my own novel which I removed: I felt it might be too upsetting for the reader. How do you feel about your character Molly for example? (A Hopscotch Summer, Soldier Girl) She has really had a raw deal hasn’t she? How do you manage not to cross that border so the reader isn’t left with too much shock factor and yet still convey the message?
People’s reactions are very varied of course and I can’t predict them. I can’t ever be sure what effect something will have. All I can do is to try to be as truthful as possible without, I hope, being gratuitous. I have also been writing these stories for twenty years now – there may have been a change in the way I tell them, I’m not sure.
To some extent people self-select in their reading. If they find someone’s style of writing ‘upsetting’ then I guess they can choose not to go on with that story. There are a number of reasons for this. If someone finds a book disturbing because it reawakens memories of experiences they have had themselves, they may want to escape from those feelings – or they may feel comforted by reading it, feel less alone or understood in some way. Alternatively, if they are upset because they think it is ‘not quite nice’ to write about such things – well, they can stop reading and read something else. My sense of it is that a lot of upsetting things happen to people and if you are writing about a wide variety of aspects of life then these are bound to crop up at some point or you would be creating a very rose-tinted picture. I suppose I’m not just a hearts and flowers person! Some people’s lives are far worse than we can imagine – some of the conditions of the past made them especially so. While we don’t have to concentrate exclusively on that, there needs to be light and shade.
I think as a writer you have to try and be true to what you think you need to tell. You will never please everyone.
Q. I’d like to move on to the subject of research, because many of your stories in the Birmingham area are about real places. Tell me about researching your scenes and using real places and street names. Does it cause you any problems?
My main problem is just feeling overwhelmed by the detail of it all and all that I don’t know – and that’s just one city! There is a lot of material out there which is a help – personal accounts, photographs, maps and so on. And I go and walk around wherever I’m writing about, even if the changes have made it almost unrecognisable (like the area of Nechells in A Hopscotch Summer). Many tiny details go into the making up of a book – they come from all over the place.
Mostly I use real place names, except where it gets difficult. I do invent streets and insert them into the map, so that I don’t run into anyone who actually used to live there! That gives me the chance to take liberties with the place and I hope create something that feels ‘true’ even if the actual street doesn’t exist. But I would only do this with a small side street.
The other thing that is a constant dilemma is accent and dialect. My approach to it is to give a flavour where I can – I’m not sure it’s all that consistent.
Q. Once you have had many novels published and you know your voice and the pattern of your genre is working well, are you concerned the theme could go stale and you might have to diversify? How does an author overcome this?
I’m not concerned about it so far. For me it feels as if the thing to do is invest emotionally in every story and see things afresh. The danger does not feel like ‘staleness’ – more the fact that as inevitably there is a certain amount of the writer in the characters that you might end up somehow repeating yourself, repeating emotional traits for example. That may be more of a problem for the reader than for me.
Q. Tell me about ‘All the Days of Our Lives’. How did you find writing a sequel when your characters were once children in the previous book and then having to define them as adults? I would imagine you had to almost re-invent their personalities, was that a difficult thing to do?
I have enjoyed it a great deal. After A Hopscotch Summer I wrote Soldier Girl, which is Molly’s story – about her life and family and what happens to her when she joins the army. In the same story we hear more about Em and her life. Katie did not get much of a look in at this point. So in All the Days I wanted to show what had been happening to her as well as continuing to follow Em and Molly. If you write about your characters as quite young children and stay with them, you feel you know them very well indeed. It’s impossible to predict exactly how someone will grow up, whatever their circumstances. I try to feel my way into each character and make choices with them according to the experiences which have shaped them. In retrospect it doesn’t feel difficult but I’m sure it did at the time!
Q. How long would you say it took to write ‘All the Days…? It seemed to me you were writing it when we last spoke and then it was published in May this year. It was, after all, a very full length novel and took me around six reading sessions to complete. You must have worked very hard on it.
I write the first draft of most of my books now in about six months, over the winter. I have spent so many years working around children and their terms etc that that’s what works best. The novels turn out quite long as there seem to be a lot of people in all of them.
Q. Do you write every day? Are you a 9 – 5pm writer?
No, I don’t write every day – I’ve never worked ‘full time’ as a writer as I have four children. I almost never work at the weekend for example and in the holidays it’s been very patchy – a bit easier now they are older. ‘Work’ in writing is a hard thing to define – time spent away from the desk can be as valuable as time at it. Sitting staring at the sky’s pretty good too, and having a nap – that’s my story anyway, and I sticking to it!
Thanks Annie for your time and I look forward to reading more of your work very soon.