I’ve always been interested in what lies at the heart of each of us: why we do what we do and, specifically, what makes us tick. I’m a person who gets told a lot of secrets (& I’m very good at keeping them) and it makes me realise how complex human beings can be, how no one is exactly what you think they are on the surface.
I started The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton as a final project for my Masters in creative writing at the Manchester Writing School. Back then, it seemed to me that women in literature were supposed to conform to roles set by either Lady Macbeth or the Madonna and that there wasn’t really much in between. I wanted to write about real women: women don’t always do the ‘right’ thing, not even the right thing for them; about women who carry the whole of their history with them and who often let themselves be defined by that. I am drawn to writing ‘issue-based’ fiction, to explaining those parts of the world I don’t understand or that I feel are unjust – I don’t know whether I’m explaining them to my readers of to myself, but I hope it works for all of us.
Ultimately, I want my writing to carry a message of hope and of redemption: to tell the readers that very few mistakes are completely and fundamentally undoable. Humans can get over all kinds of difficulties – given enough love.
I set my story in Paris, Cremona in northern Italy, and Kent where I live. Paris is one of my favourite places, and I’m lucky enough to live close enough to it to drive there and back on one tank of petrol. I love the way you can visit it over and over and yet always find new tiny streets, new districts that you’ve never seen before. When I was in my teens, I was offered a job as a nanny for a French family in Paris. I didn’t take it – with the stupidity of youth – because the, very lovely, family I would have been working for didn’t want their boys’ nanny to have blue hair and I was very proud of my multi-coloured ‘do’. I’d definitely tell the younger me to take that job and just dye my hair a year later when I got home… So all the elegant Paris streets I might have lived in, I’m still exploring – that’s fun too, but I so wish I’d lived there.
Cremona is the other city described in the book. It’s the home of violin-making: Antonio Stradivari lived and worked there all his life. It is a very tiny city, and enormously charming: I heartily recommend visiting it. The people, food, and weather are fabulous and the Museo di Violino will really bring to life all of Grace’s working practices.
I think the public imagine that musical-instrument-making is a mostly male profession, but that’s a long way from the reality. There are a lot of very successful female violin makers and restorers working around the world today and the gender split isn’t the issue it might be for other professions. There is a school of thought that Catherine Guarneri, wife of the famous maker Giuseppe Guarneri (contemporary of and – some say – equal to Antonio Stradivari, made and varnished many of his instruments. It would have been career-suicide for Guarneri to have admitted that in the 17th century but more and more evidence is coming to light that it was true. I liked writing what is very certainly a feminist text about a profession where being female hasn’t meant you are paid less or held in less regard: at least, hasn’t since the 17th century.
I hope you enjoy Grace, her learning curve, and the friends she leans on: I still miss them all terribly.