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Hazel Gaynor Talks Liberty Silk with Kate Beaufoy

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews

By Hazel Gaynor

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There are many different ways for novelists to find inspiration for their books and their characters, but writing a novel based around a member of your family is a very different, and uniquely challenging, premise. Hazel Gaynor spoke to Kate Beaufoy about her wonderful multi-era novel Liberty Silk, a book which was inspired by Kate’s grandmother and the letters she wrote in 1919.

‘The novel is a construct of what might have happened after the last of my grandmother’s letters was written from a beach in Finistère in Brittany in 1919 (the original title was After Finistère),’ Kate explains. ‘The back story is based on fact: my grandparents’ honeymoon – and the characters they encountered during the three months they spent travelling through France and Italy – is documented in the letters, extracts from which are quoted in the novel. But Jessie’s story thereafter is fictional, as are the stories of Lisa and Cat. It was very moving to read my grandmother’s letters (there are forty), because for the first time I saw her as an independent young woman. She was a Cambridge graduate (one of the first women to be conferred with a degree), and she was at the centre of a bohemian, liberal set in Edinburgh. I remember her only as an old lady.’

Creating memorable characters set in one historical era can be challenging enough, but Kate’s three female protagonists, Jessie, Lisa and Cat, are set in three different, consecutive periods of history. I imagined that in order to keep track of and develop each character, Kate must be extremely organised. I will admit I was relieved to hear the opposite! ‘I am very disorganised! My work room is a jumble that only I can make sense of, and when I was writing Liberty Silk it was littered with research books covering the three eras over which the story unfolds. I wish there was some practical advice I could share, but as Lisa says in Chapter 4 of the film she is working on, Liberty Silk ‘just sort of happened’. I tend to let my characters lead the way, and sometimes they take me in directions I don’t anticipate.’

kate_beaufoy140x210Liberty Silk is a novel steeped in family history and has clearly been excellently – and lovingly – researched. I am always intrigued by other writers’ research processes and asked Kate if she had discovered anything surprising during her research for the novel. ‘I discovered that I had in my possession items name-checked by Jessie in her letters. The ring, the Egyptian charm, the beautiful leather-bound sketchbook and the eponymous Liberty silk evening dress were all originally hers. They inevitably assumed a totemic status for me, and that’s why they became key narrative devices. Incidentally, they are all available to view on the Liberty Silk Pinterest page: www.pinterest.com/libertysilk/

When authors have several central characters in their novels, I always wonder if they have a favourite, in terms of which character they relate to the most, or which they enjoyed writing the most. I can’t say I was all that surprised to learn that Kate does, indeed, have a favourite from her three leading ladies. ‘I love all three heroines, but I guess I have a soft spot for Jessie since her voice inspired the novel.’ And where would Kate take Jessie for lunch in modern day Dublin? ‘The Merrion Hotel, where they have an outstanding collection of Irish Art. This would be fitting since my grandfather was an artist (he was the model for Teddy Lloyd in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), and Jessie worked by his side for their entire married life.’

As a writer who exists in disorganised chaos, I wanted to know about Kate’s writing day (I basically wanted to know that other writers’ offices are as disheveled as mine). ‘An ideal day would be: exercise, potter, write, revise. Latterly, because I have been working to a deadline, a typical day has been to start work as soon as I wake in the morning and keep at it for twelve hours or more without a break, fuelled by homemade banana bread and flasks of strong black coffee.’ Oh to have the luxury of a twelve hour writing day (please can someone mention this to my children!).

Also of great interest to me is the fact that Kate writes under two different names. She explained why. ‘As Kate Thompson I was known as an actress and writer of contemporary women’s novels. I was keen to start writing historical fiction, and a name change seemed like a good idea. Since my debut novel in this new genre was inspired by my Beaufoy grandmother, it’s in homage to her that I took Beaufoy as my nom de plume.

And a couple of final questions – the quick-fire round, if you like.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given? ‘Write the book you want to read.’

Which book do you wish you had written? ‘Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s beautifully written, it’s a cracking good story, and I would love the luxury of having an entire decade in which to leisurely research, write, red-pen and refine.’

What are you working on next? ‘A novel set mostly in 1840’s Ireland and London. It came to me when I found out that William Thackeray visited Ireland in 1840 with his wife who was suffering from severe post-natal depression. In 1842 he returned to write his Irish Sketch Book, and in 1847 – the year Vanity Fair was published – he hired a governess named Eliza Drury. I wove these facts into a novel which I have called Another Heartbeat in the House. It’s due next year.’

Thank you so much to Kate for taking the time to answer my questions. Liberty Silk is an intriguing novel, with the hopes and fears of three fascinating women at its heart. I enjoyed it immensely and look forward to Kate’s next.

(c) Hazel Gaynor

Liberty Silk is in all bookshops now, or you can pick up your copy online here.

About the book

One beautiful dress is the key to three brave women’s destinies.

France 1919: Jessie is celebrating the last heady days of her honeymoon. But when her husband suddenly disappears she finds herself bereft. Until a chance encounter thrusts her into the centre of the intoxicating world of Parisian high life.

Hollywood 1945: Lisa has come a long way from her quiet, unassuming life in London and is taking Hollywood by storm. But all that glitters is not gold, and as the smoke and mirrors of the lifestyle she so longed for shatter around her there are some secrets she can never escape.

London 1965: Cat, headstrong and independent, drawn to danger and passionately opposed to injustice, has no idea of the legacy that precedes her. Once past secrets are unveiled, she has the chance to find out what liberty really means…

An evocative story of survival, betrayal and the invincibility of love.

About the author

Kate Beaufoy has an MA in French and English literature from Trinity College Dublin. As Kate Thompson she has had a dozen novels published, including the Number One bestseller The Blue Hour, which was shortlisted for the RNA award. Liberty Silk is her first historical novel. It was inspired by real letters written from Europe by her grandmother, Jessie Beaufoy, in the aftermath of the Great War.

Kate has contributed to numerous publications and broadcast media in both Ireland and the UK. A former actress, she was the recipient of a Dublin Theatre Festival Best Actress Award. She lives some of the year in Dublin and some on the West coast of Ireland, and is happily married with one daughter. Kate is an advanced-level scuba diver, a wild swimmer, and the fond keeper of a bewitching Burmese cat.

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