Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Interview: Santa Montefiore

Hi Santa, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Let's start with an easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
I’m re reading Room with A View by E M Forster

Can you tell us about The House by the Sea?
It’s a mystery, love story based on the Tuscan coast in the late 60s and the Devon coast in present day. Two stories that intertwine. In Italy a little orphan girl spies on the beautiful villa from a part in the wall that is low enough to climb. Seen by the son of the Industrialist owner, she is invited in and soon becomes the family ‘pet’ and falls in love with Dante, the son. It’s an impossible love, of course….fast forward to the present day, Marina, married with step children owns a hotel on the Devon coast that’s fallen on hard times due to the financial crisis. In an effort to boost the hotel’s appeal she advertises for an artist to come and stay the summer to teach the residents how to paint. The man who responds is a charismatic, mysterious Argentine. As he turns the fortunes of the hotel around he also affects Marina and her family in unexpected ways…but who is he really….the plot thickens….

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

I wanted to write about Italy and Devon, loving both those places. I adore the sea, so I set both plots on the coast deliberately for reasons I can’t disclose in order to avoid spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it. The plot evolved as I paced my kitchen floor…I wanted a mystery and when I’d found these two story lines I couldn’t work out how to pull off the twist. Fortunately, I bumped into an old university friend who is a private investigator. We had lunch and he helped cut the Gordian Knot. It’s a very simple thing in retrospect, but I couldn’t have made it work without him…and I certainly couldn’t have thought about it on my own!

Did you spend lots of time in Tuscany doing research?
No, I didn’t have to. I spent so much time in Tuscany as a teenager and I lived in Italy when I was 21.

Can you tell me a little about the time you spent living in Argentina?
How has that experience informed your writing?
I left England straight after leaving boarding school, so I had very little experience of the world and certainly little independence. Argentina opened my eyes to a new culture and gave me my independence. It was the most wonderful year. I lived with this enormous family of cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters etc who all live in the same apartment building in Buenos Aires and share a magnificent farm on the pampa. They each have a house and share the pool, tennis court, polo fields…and it’s breathtakingly beautiful! I left after a year and went to study Spanish and Italian at university in England.  A year later I returned to Argentina to find that I didn’t fit in any more. I thought I could slot straight back into my old life, but that’s simply not possible. I was no longer working there so I had no role and lots of the people I had hung out with had moved to study in the States or simply didn’t go down to the country any more as they had grown up and wanted to be in the city…I was desperately sad that I couldn’t recapture that incredible experience and felt that I had lost something precious. So that’s what I based my first book on..it’s an allegory of my love affair with Argentina….My first four books are based in Argentina and Chile. A person is a sum of his experiences, so the more I experience the more interesting I can make my novels. Argentina was an invaluable experience for my writing!

What are the best things and the biggest drawbacks of being a full-time writer?
I can’t think of any drawbacks…it’s all positive. I get to write where I want, when I want, and I choose what I write. I don’t have a boss telling me not to take a long lunch break and I get paid well!

Who are your literary influences?

I’m influenced by every writer I read…boring books teach me how not to write, beautifully written books inspire me to do better! Writers I love: Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquival, Elizabeth von Arnim, Fannie Flagg, E M Forster, Dumas, Zola, Jane Austen, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Arthur Golden, Jilly Cooper, Rosamunde Pilcher, Mary Wesley…those are the ones I can think of off-hand – there are many more….

How do you approach the writing process?

I first think of location. That inspires me to dream up a story. I then work on the plot, which is very simple, like a skeleton, then I don’t really plan anything else. I put on beautiful music, chosen for that specific book, light my candles, close the door and drift into an imaginary world, creating the characters as I go along. Once I’ve got the book written I go back and develop the characters, as I don’t really know them at all at the beginning, but know them intimately by the end, and polish. 

What are you working on next?

I’ve just finished my new book for next year, although I’m sure my editor will have suggestions on ways to improve it! It’s based on a grand country estate in Hampshire with a few chapters in Klosters, Switzerland where I have skied all my life. It’s another mystery, love story with a good twist – stunning gardens and ancient bluebell woods, glorious mountains and lively characters….my usual ingredients because that’s what entertains me – and I write primarily for myself!!!

The House by the Sea by Santa Montefiore will be released in September, and is available to pre-order at Shearer's Bookshop.

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