Q & As for ‘The Midnight Rose’
1. You’ve said before that it’s often a place or a building that sows the seed for your novels. What was your initial inspiration for this book?
I’ve always been fascinated by India. Its differing cultures and diverse landscapes. In fact, the entire country presents such a vivid, rich tapestry that it naturally provides the kind of colourful, exotic background I so adore writing about. Also I vaguely knew that my ancestors had been resident in India at the turn of the last century, although I knew nothing else about them when I began the book … It’s my most ambitious story to date and when I started, I didn’t quite know what I was letting myself in for!
2. The descriptions of India are extremely vivid – how did you go about researching the setting to make it so realistic?
I read absolutely everything I could find about the locations and the real-life characters that existed in the last days of the British Raj. I also watched endless films and trawled the internet for information. At that point I began to form a picture in my mind of where the story should begin and it was then that I boarded a plane and flew to Jaipur and Mumbai. I visited the Moon Palace and actually stayed at the Rambagh Palace before journeying up to Cooch Behar in the far north of the country. The reality of modern India was a huge culture shock. It’s a country of such contrasts. The beauty of the landscape, with its stunning temples and palaces, yet coupled with so much deprivation for many of the human beings that live there, has had a lasting effect on me. It’s only when you’ve experienced the noise, the heat, the dust and the intense claustrophobia of so many human beings – many of whom live on the streets – that you can begin to understand the chasm that still exists between rich and poor. I wanted to touch on that in the story, contrasting the vast wealth of the Maharaja and Maharani of Cooch Behar with the hardships experienced by so many others.
3. Is Astbury Hall purely fictitious, or did you base it on a particular stately home that you’ve seen or visited?
Astbury is an imaginary amalgam of several stately homes, although the closest resemblance is Castle Howard in Yorkshire, famously used as the setting for both the original TV series and the recent film version of ‘Brideshead Revisited’. I also have plenty of experience of staying in draughty, freezing bedrooms with ancient plumbing when I’ve spent weekends with friends at their stately homes! So I really felt for Rebecca when she arrives at Astbury for the first time, used as she is to her five-star ultra-modern apartment in New York, replete with every material comfort money can provide. Even though these grand old houses look beautiful from the outside, it doesn’t necessarily mean they make comfortable homes. I live in an old Hall in Norfolk, where every floorboard creaks ominously and the air conditioning is provided by a 2 inch gap between the original Georgian windows and the frames!
4. Several relationships in the book explore the difficulties of bridging the gap between cultures, social classes and levels of wealth – do you think society has changed its attitudes compared to the world in which Anahita grows up?
At least in the Western world, I’d say that generally, yes it has. Few people these days bat an eyelid at a mixed-race marriage. The British class system is thankfully far less rigid than it was in Donald Astbury’s day. I think money and celebrity have largely replaced the notion of ‘breeding’ when it comes to someone’s status in society. Yet in the East, and of course in India, the caste system still continues and equality for women from poor backgrounds is not yet a reality. Many people in Europe complain about the influx of other nationalities into their society, but every person who does should spend a day on the streets of Delhi before they judge others for wanting to make a better life for themselves.
Also, I believe wanting to be ‘better’ is a product of our innately competitive human nature, whether it’s to do with wealth or class. If we’re honest with ourselves, nearly all of us have at some point felt the need to impress with money, or possessions or talents. Even in the days when we lived in mud huts, there was probably some neighbourly envy over the woman who had the biggest cooking pot, or which hunter brought home the largest woolly mammoth to put in it! So I don’t think that’s going to go away any time soon.
5. Although they don’t always have an easy time, your female characters always discover inner strength. Do you believe that suffering and loss can make us stronger?
Absolutely. If you never know any sadness, you can’t fully appreciate what happiness is. Of course there are degrees of suffering and loss which I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but experiencing hardship in life keeps us humble and makes us appreciate what we have. I’ve certainly had difficult times in my own life – for example I wrote my very first book while recovering from a severe illness and on the verge of having my house re-possessed. I think it’s made me all the more grateful for where I am now.
6. At least three of the characters have some kind of spiritual ‘gift’ that can’t be easily explained. Do you believe such ‘gifts’ exist in reality?
We’d be very arrogant if we thought that everything in life could be explained by hard facts and science. I’m very open to the idea that these ‘gifts’ exist and it’s just that we don’t fully understand them. I’ve certainly had some very strange experiences myself, things that can’t necessarily be put down to pure chance. For example, although I knew that some of my family lived out in India at the turn of the century, I knew virtually nothing else about them, not even their names. Yet, just after I’d finished the first draft of The Midnight Rose, my mother came to visit and told me I should sit down and prepare for a shock – she proceeded to show me a wonderful photograph album that she’d just found in the attic. It chronicles in photo form the experiences of my great-great grandfather, who was a British Army Officer out in India in the days of the Raj. Not only were there photographs of many of the places I’d used in the story, there were also numerous photos of family members called ‘Donald’, ‘Daisy’, ‘Violet’ and ‘Maud’ – names that I’d randomly chosen for four of the main characters in the book. Not only that, but from the photo’s it seemed that my ancestors physically ‘fitted’ the characters I’d created. How can anyone possibly explain that?!
7. A lot of the book is set in the 1920s – what is it about that period of history that you find especially fascinating? Would you have liked to have lived in that era?
I’ve always loved the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote so evocatively about that time. And ‘Downton Abbey’, the TV series of which is set in 1921, the same year as The Midnight Rose. If I’d been young and relatively well-off in those days, I would have adored the beautiful clothes women wore, and the fact that men were ‘men’ and treated women with respect. However, I would have hated the fact we girls were simply meant to be ‘pretty’ and docile and had almost no rights of our own. And of course, the inevitable and dreadful death toll of beloved male family members during the First World War. If I had lost my husband or one of my sons, I can’t imagine what the pain would have been like.
8. Who is your favourite character in the book and why?
Anahita. In fact, she’s probably my favourite character ever. She’s so gentle, loyal and clever, with an acceptance of the way we can only control our own destiny only up to a point. She also listens to her instincts, which is a way of living that comes naturally to me.
9. What would you say are the main themes of the book?
If I had to pick one, it would have to be love versus duty. Several of the characters fates hinge on the conflict that so often exists between these two things. I also wanted to escape the clichés of my genre by exploring through Rebecca how easy it is to believe what is put in front of us, when in fact, the reality is totally different. I’d call it the ‘smoke and mirrors’ effect.
10. Do you believe in alternative remedies such as the Ayurvedic medicine that Anahita practices?
I saw Ayurvedic medicine being practised in India, and began to learn a little about it. It’s still used and recognised across India as the main method of treatment outside conventional medicine. Of course there will always be cases where modern medicine and surgical techniques are needed. But I do believe that ancient remedies could only have survived for thousands of years if there was something in them that actually worked.
11. Do you believe that a mother’s instinct, as Anahita has about her son, is usually right?
Yes, I really do. It’s one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Every mother if asked could tell you a story about an instinct they’ve had about their child which proved to be correct.
12. How attached do you become to your characters?
Incredibly! I live and breathe them while I’m writing and I’m always bereft when I finish a book. I also never quite know how their stories are going to end until I reach it. With Anahita in The Midnight Rose, I sat down and began typing, not really knowing why I was writing what I was. I almost deleted it, but suddenly I knew what had to happen. I sobbed like a baby for about two hours after I wrote that epilogue. For me, it’s the most poignant ending I’ve ever written.
13. The Midnight Rose has a huge cast of characters – how do you keep track of them all when you’re writing?
The simple answer is, I don’t! It may sound strange, but it’s like the characters guide me. I don’t make notes, I don’t write timelines or make storyboards, it all happens in my head.
14. Rebecca in the book struggles with the impact of success and fame on her life and relationships. As a best-selling author, have you experienced any of the same issues?
I was a stage and television actress when I was younger, so I’d already had experience of being in the spotlight by the time I started writing. I also have a number of close friends who are famous in their field or married to someone who is so I’ve learned from their experiences too. The whole concept of fame terrifies me, so when I was writing about Rebecca, there were certainly personal parallels to the way she feels about her celebrity. To be honest, I have no idea why anyone would go out of their way to seek fame for its own sake, like today’s reality TV stars seem to do. I treasure and protect my private life and my family – they’re what keeps me sane!
15. Astbury Hall is, I believe, based on Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Have you visited it and how did you do your research for this part of the novel?
Yes I have visited Castle Howard, which was designed by Vanbrugh. Another beautiful house, Seaton Delaval in Northumberland, is a Vanbrugh house and owned by a great friend of ours. He recently had to sell it to the National Trust as the upkeep and restoration was so financially demanding. So Astbury Hall is a mixture of the two.
16. What an amazing ending! I cried after reading it. It stayed with me for a long time afterwards and still does if I’m honest. Without giving anything away obviously, what was it like to write it?
Gulp… I will never forget writing that ending. I’d finished the story and knew I had to complete the circle and bring it back to Anahita. Unusually, everyone in my ridiculously busy house was out. I began typing, again unusual as I normally dictate, and, after about a page, couldn’t understand why I was writing about Anahita and hospitals. I was literally just about to delete it when suddenly I knew. I wrote the last page with tears streaming down my face and sobbed on and off for the rest of the afternoon, because I just couldn’t bear the tragedy of it. I then gave it to my husband who’d read the rest of the book, and he cried too, and he never cries. I can’t ever imagine writing quite such a poignant ending again. Even my US and UK editors, who are both male, told me they were in floods of tears.
17. Do you think The Midnight Rose could have a soundtrack to place the reader even further in the setting? If so which two songs (one for each place) would you choose?
When I was writing The Midnight Rose I always had John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ in my head. Its lyrics are so fitting to the relationship of Anahita and Donald. Also, the music I use for the video I made for The Midnight Rose. It’s Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov, one of my all-time favorite pieces of music.
18. Why did you call the book The Midnight Rose?
In the book, Donald plants a rose bush at Astbury Hall for Anahita. Many years later Rebecca sees it and Anthony explains that the dark coloured roses have been flowering for as many years as he can remember…