Elizabeth Buchan is a British writer of non-fiction and fiction books since 1985. In 1994, her novel Consider the Lily won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists' Association. Her novel, Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman (2001), was made into a television film for CBS. More recently Suffolk readers will be familiar with Elizabeth's books The New Mrs Clifton (2016) and The Museum of Broken Promises (2019). Elizabeth's latest book Two Women in Rome is due for publication in June 2021 and will be available from Suffolk Libraries.
1. Who were your literary heroes as you were growing up and when did you first realise that you wanted to write?
Growing up I read anything I could lay my hands on. I tore through Enid Blyton and Rene Guillot books on animals and series such as the Chalet Girls. I was lucky enough to live within walking distance of the town library and I was usually in there every day. The library visits allowed me to become ambitious in what I read and I tackled whatever I could, from Dickens to Zola. The standout novel that gave me everything I could wish – superb characters, a terrific story fleshed out with Gothic elements and, by the finish, an affirmation of the individual and the achievement of happiness was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
2. Before you became a novelist you worked in the publishing industry. What was that experience like and did it help you become a better writer?
They were wonderful days. I began my publishing life in the blurb department at Penguin Books which meant I was paid to put my feet up on the desk and to read through the Penguin treasure house. I couldn’t believe my luck. I ended up running the department which dealt with publisher’s material for upcoming publication and reprints which gave me a brilliant overview of what was going on in the publishing world. Iris Murdoch once wrote me a letter, which I have kept, saying that ‘blurb writing is a mini art form’. To write a good blurb you must identify the intent and the theme running through the book, have an idea of its context and be prepared to be a tiny bit economical with the truth – an excellent primer for a writer’s education.
3. What is your writing routine? Do you have a favourite desk and a view? Do you keep particular hours?
The day starts with what the family consider ‘eye-wateringly’ strong coffee which they try to wean me off, followed by a power walk. Then, it is straight to the novel. In the days of the first draft I will write in the mornings and part of the afternoon. Towards the delivery date, and panicking, I am probably at my desk from early morning to late evening. My study overlooks the garden which is a typical London one but we have much garden theatre. Cats prowling, squirrels jeering, birds feeding and, occasionally, awful incidents with frogs and the cats.
4. You have written about the period around the Second World War and recently set a story in Communist Prague. What part does research play in your books and when do you know that it is time to start writing?
Research is crucial … but it is tricky to handle well. It should never be too evident and, sometimes, that can be hard because the material is so fascinating there is the natural wish to include it all. Over my writing life, I had discovered it is better to read extensively around a subject until it becomes part of the mental geography and, at that point, to put the books and papers aside and just stick to one or two facts taken from that research and work with them. I remember going to a lecture by Anne Tyler where she explained she adopted the same approach which was great to hear.
However, in the case The Museum of Broken Promises it was the other way around. Twenty years ago, I was on a weekend visit to Prague and fetched up in the Museum of Communism and stepped into a mock-up of a windowless cell. On the table was a black Bakelite phone which gave a piercing ring as you entered. I jumped out of my skin… but the idea to investigate what went on in Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution took instant root.
5. Your new book Two women in Rome is due to be published in June. Can you give us a flavour of it?
Two Women in Rome has a dual timeline linking two women who never meet but have the common experience of living in Rome. Nina Lawrence worked there as a landscape gardener throughout what came to be known as the ‘Years of Lead’ when political strife led to violence and assassination. But is Nina all that she says she is? Are there other things going on in her life?
Thirty years later, Lottie Archer has taken up the post as archivist in an archive housing expatriate papers where she comes across a trove of Nina’s papers in which is discovered the painting of an Annunciation which could be medieval. What happened to Nina, and the story behind the painting, causes Lottie to rethink her experiences and attitudes. Yes, politics and work are crucial in a life but so, too, is forgiveness.
6. Is there anything you can share with us about your latest project?
It is still stewing in the pot of ideas and not, as yet, formed. I have an idea it might be called The Three Lives of Sophie Wolf.
7. What was your best book read/best music/best TV of 2020?
Best music was lacking this year. I love opera and rejoiced in the screenings but they are not the same as being there. Best TV included A Suitable Boy, Normal People, Schitt’s Creek and Harlots. Best reads include Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton, Sonya by Ben McIntyre and the upcoming biography, Ethel Rosenburg by Anne Sebba, which I was lucky enough to read in proof.
8. What are you looking forward to doing most when we finally emerge from this lockdown period?
A hair cut! But, best of all, gathering with friends and family. Can’t wait.
9. Can you tell us one thing about yourself that your readers may not know?
I love stale crusty bread with lashings of butter and dried-up oranges. I don’t know why. I guess its the chewability.