Rachel Hore looks nervous. Dressed in shades of grey that accentuate the pristine whiteness of her publisher's clinical offices, the 50-year- old author stands out like a country girl at a City soirée, desperate to disappear but condemned to draw every gaze.
It is not that she lacks confidence or sophistication – Hore cut her teeth in London publishing, as a highly respected editor of novels that made an easy transition from bookshop to beach without losing literary cachet. No, it is not that. It is an awkwardness at odds with modern publishing's obsession with marketing and "brand extension". It is the unease of an author more at home with writing than hustling her work.
Writing excites Hore. Her craft is something to feel passionate about. Talking about it makes her self-conscious – as though she's boasting at school. Deep into the interview, I ask about the theme of adoption in her latest novel and whether this was a self- conscious nod at 18th-century fiction. For the first time she unknots her body and laughs: "Oh yes, the 18th-century romp; galloping across the countryside, highwayman and that sort of thing. I wanted a bit of that." The caution that marked earlier answers is gone.
We have met to discuss her fourth novel, A Place of Secrets. Like the others, it is an up-market romance split between interlinked stories set in the present day and the past – in this case, the 18th century.
Jude, a valuer for a modern-day London auction house, is called to a remote part of Norfolk to assess a 300-year-old collection accrued by solitary stargazer Anthony Wickham. As she catalogues the contents of Wickham's library, she discovers a memoir by his adopted daughter, Esther, whose existence had been ruthlessly wiped from history by relatives with an eye on his estate. In its pages, Jude unearths a mystery that has repercussions within her own family. Central to the two narratives is a mysterious folly, a tower built by Wickham in the heart of ancient woodland, from where he and Esther would chart the night sky.
Esther leaps from the page with a swish of skirts, so it comes as a surprise to hear that a place, and not a person, inspired the novel. "I went to a party when I was 21 at a ruined folly in a wonderful landscape in Wiltshire," Hore recalls, wrapping her right arm around herself and leaning her chin on her left hand. "It was one of those amazing nights; romantic and atmospheric." As the other guests moved through the forest in 1920s fancy dress, Hore stood transfixed, transported, she says, to the party in Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes. "The idea of this enchanted place that you are trying to get back to drew me, and when I started this book I just had a vision of this tower. The characters came next."
The author likens the creative process to a stage on to which characters step. Nothing is planned – that would spoil the narrative and deaden the prose, she believes. All she knew of Jude was that she would go to the tower and it would start a healing process that would resonate across families and generations. Esther, by contrast, came into her head unbidden but vivid.
In part, Hore, a trained historian, was inspired by the rural Norfolk of James Woodforde's 18th-century Diary of a Country Parson. Hore was fascinated by the clergyman's ignorance of the wider world. "There are all these things going on – the French Revolution, the War of Independence, the Industrial Revolution and kings and queens coming and going – but you wouldn't think it reading his accounts of what they had for dinner or his latest hand-out of alms to the local poor." She laughs, amused that the momentous birth of the Modern Age could so easily be ignored. "You get this picture of how remote life in Norfolk must have been from any political events."
Her own life in Norfolk, with her husband, the writer and IoS columnist DJ Taylor, and three sons, also sounds idyllic. As Hore
describes it, the two swirl past each other when working, immersed in their own internal worlds – although, as the fierceness of last winter bit hard, they abandoned their separate offices and worked around one another in the dining-room, the only warm room in the house. "We got through that by ignoring each other," she jokes.
Isolation in A Place of Secrets is confined neither to larder nor landscape. Practically every character is bereaved. Jude's husband Mark was killed in a climbing accident four years earlier; her sister Claire was ditched by the father of her child; Esther has been abandoned by her mother; and even Jude's love interest, Euan, is emerging from divorce.
The dislocation of loss and the desperate need in those abandoned to find purpose and resolution is a poignant undercurrent to a book that is at heart a romance. In
the hands of less accomplished writers, Jude's exorcising of ghosts would be trite and the resolution twee, but Hore pulls it off – complete with the kind of happy ending that one expects from a 2010 Romantic Novel of the Year nominee.
Hore is one of the few up-market writers at ease with the use of the "R" word to describe her work. "I was very proud to be on the shortlist," she proclaims. Romance may be a dirty word in some circles, but for Hore it is about optimism – and what's wrong with that? Blame it on her upbringing, which was, she says, "quite romantic". Her parents – a scientist and a chartered surveyor – instilled in her a sense that things can and do work out in the end. "It was particularly the way my mother thought. She had a protected upbringing and probably I had too," explains the writer who includes "splashes of joy" in an eight-word description of herself on her publisher's website.
So she is "not bothered" by the romance tag, but she is bothered by the way that good writers in the genre are dismissed along with the bad. "I've always felt it was a shame that thrillers and crime novels receive an enormous amount of press," she says. "To call a book a romance tends to be a derogatory thing. I accept that my books are romantic, in that they are love stories, but they are also slightly playful, with fairy-tale and Gothic elements." They are also better written than many of their pastel-clad neighbours on the bookshelves of Waterstone's and Smiths.
What does make Hore uncomfortable are inferences that a recurring dream in A Place of Secrets reflects new-age beliefs. "I wouldn't want to make too much of the dream theme," she says, bristling when I ask about it. The dream is "a MacGuffin" (a mere device to trigger the plot). When I observe that the book juxtaposes an 18th century racing into rationalism with a contemporary world slipping into magical belief, she looks surprised and responds: "I hadn't thought of that at all."
But Hore's beliefs do seep into her fiction. Her previous novel, The Glass Painter's Daughter, had a strong religious thread. (Though the author, who describes her upbringing as "low church Anglican", prefers the word "spiritual".) "I feel very easy with the language of spirituality, and suppose that I have always backed off from anything that seems like trying to preach at people." Her beliefs are "not doctrinal" but about the way people should behave toward one another, she adds.
A belief she holds strongly is that historical fiction should be rooted in reality. This is a symptom of her training as a historian – as is her research – and the book brims with detail about 18th-century astronomy. But this conviction has also created problems: "I got in a terrible tangle at one point with the coaching routes across Norfolk, because I was trying to work out how the characters would have got from the hall to Yarmouth. I wanted them to take in certain points, but in the end I had to take the odd liberty." Hore winces at the confession.
Into my mind pops an image, of facts being torn from her fingernails. "But readers wouldn't know," I point out. It does not matter. Hore is not comfortable with lies, even in fiction. "I need that sense of detail," she answers. Why? "Because I like to be convincing."
With that, the interview comes to a close and – although barely audible – I hear Hore heave a sigh of relief.
A Place of Secrets, By Rachel Hore Pocket Books £6.99
'... That night we swept the skies together with a new sense of closeness and endeavour. Lyra, I remember, the great lyre of Orpheus, was particularly bright, as though it sang not to lure the dead from hell but the living into new life and happiness'
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