As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the local newspaper where I grew up and where my extended family still lives are very kindly going to do a piece on Testament and me. As I’m guessing most of you don’t take The Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser on a regular basis, I thought I’d give you the benefit of the e-interview I did with the Tivyside’s Bethan Lloyd.
BL:Who would you say the book is written for - who would it appeal to?
AH: Who is Testament written for? You tend to write the kind of books you like to read so I guess the silly answer is it’s written for me, or at least people like me. But I supose it will appeal to people who like books with a strong storyline but which also make you think and, maybe, take you into a world you’ve not experienced – in this case the world of the fourteenth century mason and an Oxbridge-type college community. It will appeal to people who like mysteries as there is a strong element of mystery at the heart of the book and it will also appeal to fans of historical fiction.
Also, it will appeal to anybody who likes a happy ending!
It’s been read by people who are 17 and 70 and was satisfying to both. Testament has been described as appealing more to women but actually my strongest positive reactions have come from male readers. [OK, they were related to me, but still…] There are strong characters of both sexes for readers to identify with so, in that sense, it’s not a ‘man’s’ or ‘woman’s’ book.
BL:It seems that the plot will have a few twists before reaching a climax, is there a shock ending and will readers be suprised with the outcome (without giving the ending away!)?
AH: There are definitely twists and turns as Simon keeps facing mounting odds against getting his college built and Damia is knocked back constantly in her attempts to resurrect the college’s ailing finances and stop it being taken over by the more successful Northgate college (not to mention the messy issue of her love-life). The ending is surprising in that it sees all the different threads in the novel, both historical and contemporary, gathered together in a climactic scene. The reader has – hopefully – not seen it coming but, at the same time, once it’s happened, I hope readers will feel that nothing else could have brought everything to such a satisfactory conclusion.
BL: Where did the inspiration come from for this book?
AH: The inspiration for the book… Well, the college community is not a million miles away from what I experienced myself when I was studying at Oxford (Corpus Christi College), though, obviously, I had no experience of the high-level stuff that goes on in Testament.
As far as the fourteenth century strand is concerned, I’ve always been fascinated by medieval buildings and building techniques – how much they achieved with very primitive mechanisms like block-and-tackle pulleys and treadmills.
But I suppose the actual moment of inspiration was when the image of a ghost in an Oxford college lodge came to me. Who was the ghost, where had he come from? In answering those questions – though there isn’t a ghost in the book – I found the story of Simon of Kineton. The contemporary strand followed because history has always been most fascinating to me in the effects it has on us, in the present. I wanted to see what effects all Simon’s agonising six hundred years before would have on a modern-day person and the college he had struggled to build
BL: Who inspires you in the literary world?
AH: Joanne Harris writes brilliant, multi-sensory books where you can taste, touch, feel and smell her world – I find the way she writes very inspiring. Tracy Chevalier, like me, is fascinated by the past and her novel Virgin Blue is also a split-time novel. Philippa Gregory is one of the most accomplished historical novelists writing at the moment, though her period is the Tudor era rather than the medieval period when Testament is set. Minette Walters is my favourite crime writer and I have learned a lot from her about how a story is constructed and moved along. Jodi Picoult, an American writer, produces books so gripping their pages virtually turn themselves. She also writes with great emotional depth about her characters which is what I try to do, too.
BL: The title -'Testament' - does this have a close link to the plot line and will the choice of word become clearer towards the end?
AH: Testament. Yes - you have no idea how long it took me and my publishers to find a title which worked! It’s important to have a title which not only reflects something of the book’s content but also gives the reader an idea of the book’s general genre. This is popular fiction, not literary fiction so it had to be bold and direct. (If it had been literary fiction, I would have called it Steadfast like the Crane – you’ll see why if you read it!) Does it have a close relationship to the plotline – yes, but you can only see that at the end of the book! There’s no point halfway through when you think ‘Ah, that’s why it’s called Testament!’
BL: Also, just to add some local interest, I wondered whether you could let me know a bit about your time back in Cardigan.
AH: I went to primary school in the village where my parents still live, then to secondary school in Cardigan.
I think the last time I was in The Tivyside was probably for winning the crown in the school eisteddfod in 1980 when I was 17 (for a sonnet entitled Winter if it’s of any interest!) Other write-ups I would have had would be for a small part in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ when I was in the 5th form (I was the Duchess and a bystander – such varied talent!) and – possibly – for singing (along with three other altos when we were horribly short of tenors) the part of one of the house of peers in Dafydd Wyn Jones’ translation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ which the school put on in summer 1980 for the Gwyl Fawr.
My other claim to fame whilst at school is that I had the great good fortune to have Menna Elfyn as my Welsh teacher. Menna is, now, of course, a world-famous poet and author.
Sadly, having not lived in Wales for the best part of 27 years, my Welsh is pretty rusty these days!
So there you have it – my interview for the Cardigan and Tivyside Advertiser. Now you don’t have to order a copy in January…