Friday, May 17, 2013

Exclusive Author Interview with Penelope Wilcock

I was so thrilled when Penelope Wilcock agreed to help me conduct an interview on this blog! Recently my sister-in-law-once-removed-ish friend, Rebekah, ordered the first three books in the Hawk & Dove series for her personal library but sent them to my house so I could read them. When I was finished and told her how much I had enjoyed them, Rebekah ordered the next three, which are now sitting upon my shelf waiting for time to be read. You can find the details about the first three books here if you aren't so fortunate as to know anything about them. I hadn't even heard of the series before Rebekah posted a gripping quote around Easter time on Facebook and I demanded to know if I could borrow the book. At any rate, the Hawk & Dove series centers around the lives and relationships of a monastery in the medieval period of England. The authenticity of Penelope's voice was part of what made the books so lovely...and when I asked her about it, her answer was just as delightful! Read the following interview and you'll see what I mean. :) (my questions are in bold, Pen's answers are not, and any side-comments I make are italicized)

How are you doing on this lovely May day?

Enjoying the sunshine here on England’s south coast. Our garden is a haven of birdsong and roses, herbs and wild flowers.

You live in England and have a garden? Lovely! It's a dream of mine. 

Have you always been a writer, or is this a relatively recent foray?

I have written stories since childhood, but my first published book (1990) was The Hawk & the Dove, the short novel that began the series of that title.

How did you get the idea for your Hawk and Dove series, and do you remember where you were when it came to you?

Yes, indeed I remember. I have five children, who were all born within six years. When they were little, their father worked hard to take care of us all so I could be the home-maker for our family. A musician, he taught school by day and often worked in the evening teaching adult education classes, and playing or conducting in orchestras or dance bands. So I spent much time alone at home with little children – and though their company delighted me, still in a way I felt lonely. In a rather solitary childhood, I had always invented imaginary friends, and it occurred to me that I could do so again. Once I invented my band of characters and began to tell myself stories about them, I wondered if they might be worth sharing – if others would enjoy the stories too. The first three novels were written while my children slept or played, and the subsequent Hawk & Dove novels came much later, when I decided to revisit the series for fun after seeing it run for twenty years without ever going out of print.

What a neat story! I love it when books grow out of a interesting case and not because someone is originally a writer by profession.

Through the series I personally grew very attached to Brother Tom, and Peregrine. Were those men based off of real people you have met?

I feel as though I have met them, but the reality is they came into being by themselves with no help at all from real life.

Do you work better in silence and solitude, or do you prefer company of some sort, be it music, a pet, etc?

I work, and live, mostly in silence and solitude.

What do you drink while writing-- coffee? tea? lemonade? nothing?

Nettle tea. And sometimes Earl Grey.

What inspires you?

As a person, I am inspired by the ocean, woodlands and hills, beautiful architecture, music, and by light of every kind – starlight, sunrise, wood fires, candles, moonlight, sunset, and the light that shines from all living beings. In my life I have been significantly inspired and influenced by St Francis of Assisi. As a writer, I am inspired by human interactions that I observe randomly wherever I go.

Initially, was it hard to sell the idea of a book about a quiet, undramatic community of monks to agents and/or publishers?

Not at all. Our lodger at the time worked for a publishing house, and took my manuscript to the office. He left it on the desk of a commissioning editor who read it and loved it. There followed twenty years of happy professional relationship working with the same editor. Then I married him. After that it got harder because he can no longer commission books from me straightforwardly, as I am now his wife. They have to pass various tests-by-committee.

Haha, that's so funny. And what a blessing that you actually had a publishing-house employee living with you...definitely handy. And now an editor as a husband? Very nice. ;) 

The stories in the books are presumably actual accounts passed down from mother to daughter through hundreds of years till the "present day" when they reach Melissa. Is Melissa at all based off of you?

Ah, no. Remember I said I have five children? I thought they would enjoy to see their lives in print, so the modern-day frame tale is a kind of digest of our home life at the time, with some real family anecdotes. My second daughter’s second name is Melissa.

Makes me wonder about Cecily. I have a five sisters of my own and I had to laugh every time I read a bit about sounded so much like Anna!

I love the presence of Light all through your books, and the way you unashamedly present the Gospel, yet I never felt that your style is preachy or stifling. Do you think it is because the books occur in a church-setting and the subject is perfectly natural, or did you take pains to make certain you were not doddering along?

I like to think it is because Jesus is real, and my experience of Him is real, and if I write about that honestly my readers will catch a glimpse of the wonder of His presence in my life.

Well said! This is how I hope to come across in my own writing.

You portray medieval monastic life quite vividly and accurately--what were your research methods, and how long did it take you to grasp the era? 

At different times in my life I have lived and worked with both monks and nuns, and monastic spirituality has substantially influenced my own practice of Christian faith. And then I was greatly blessed to study at the University of York (I read English), where I walked every day through the ancient streets and worshipped at beautiful York Minster. During that time I got to know some of the Benedictine monks at Ampleforth, and I lived in an interdenominational lay community. My studies included the literature of the Middle Ages – Chaucer and so on – and I learned about the structures and language of those times.

Absolutely fascinating! It must have been so neat to read English in such an historic place...I think your story is the most authentic of all "research" methods I've yet to come across. This made me smile.

Who is your favorite character in the series?

I change my mind about this. Hard to say. I have a soft spot for Brother Cormac. I think you haven’t yet read books 4, 5 & 6, have you? A character is developed in those books whom I have come to love dearly.

They are on my shelf! Cannot wait to "make friends" with this fellow!

I won't spoil the series for anyone who hasn't read them, but we know that a certain beloved character is dispensed with in the third book--was this a hard decision for you to make?

I have worked as a care assistant in various places where chronically and terminally ill people are nursed, and as a hospice chaplain. In the third Hawk & Dove novel, The Long Fall, I wanted to give a voice to those hidden lives. In many novels and dramas, it is the doctors and nurses who are the stars, the people they care for having merely supporting roles. I wanted to give back centre stage to people who had been pushed by illness to the margins of their own lives. The character you refer to offered to be the one who would make the slow, painful journey.

What is your number one tip for aspiring writers?

What most people call “writing” – tapping out words on a keyboard – is but the end of a long process, the tip of the iceberg. Writing is holistic; it includes listening, thinking, dreaming, exploring, imagining. So, when people ask you: “Are you writing at the moment?” always say, “Yes.” Refuse to feel guilty in the long empty dream-time of gestating a book, when you feel restless and uneasy and have nothing down on the page as yet.

Again, well-said. Thanks for acknowledging those "awkward" stages of "in between books"!

And would you like to give us an entirely random piece of advice, writing-related or otherwise?

You can have two. Never walk backwards in a grocery store. Eat ripe peaches in the bath.

Hahaha! Thank you so much, Penelope, for your time, your words, and those two priceless pieces of advice at the end. They made me laugh aloud. :D Everyone else, if you'd please thank Ms. Wilcock for dropping by and visit her at Kindred of the Quiet Way, I am certain she'd be pleased to say hello! And don't forget to check out the Hawk & Dove books...they are going down on my personal favorites list. :)



Elaine J. Dalton said...

That is so cool!

Jack said...

I've heard of her books but never read them, though I've heard they are really good. I will have to see if I can find them.

Wonderful interview, it is always so great when authors let you interview them.

The Tasty Tomato said...

I love her books and have been reading and recommending them for neatly 20 years.
I have never met a person who has not handed back my copy of the first three who did not identify with one of the monks, and was moved by that. The next four are great, but nothing will move me as much as The Long Fall....up til 3am and sobbing my heart out as I came to the end.