Hazel Gaynor met Santa Montefiore in Dublin for writing.ie, and found out how she stays inspired after writing thirteen bestsellers…
Santa Montefiore has a lot to talk about, which is perhaps no surprise as she is the older sister of society girl, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and with her connections to the Royal family, may soon get to visit the Royal baby, Prince George. But, she doesn’t really want to talk about any of that. She wants to talk about new book Secrets of the Lighthouse. Her thirteenth. And her passion for her latest offering is infectious.
Set among the rugged, sweeping landscape of Connemara, Secrets of the Lighthouse is a very different setting for Santa, for whom location always comes first when writing a new book. So, what drew her to Ireland this time?
‘My previous books have been set in locations such as Italy, France, Argentina and Chile and the tone of those books is very much determined by the balmy, herb-scented, warm breezes. I wanted to set this book somewhere completely different. I’d never considered Ireland before but suddenly I saw those wild, Connemara beaches of my childhood holidays, then the floodgates opened and I imagined a ruined lighthouse. Connemara provides such a different tone: haunting, gothic, melancholy with a soulfulness which I hadn’t felt with other settings. So, Ireland was a choice because I wanted to do something different and I’m so pleased I did because I loved writing it.’
Having written twelve, international, bestselling novels, I wonder how an author like Santa continues to motivate herself. She laughs.
‘I look on what I do as an adventure,’ she explains. ‘Writing is a hobby for me. An indulgence. It is like paying a sweet addict to go into a shop and choose whatever sweets they want! There is work involved, of course. I usually find the middle of the book challenging, when I am holding lots of threads together, but on the whole, it is usually a pleasurable experience.’
Interestingly, she goes on to explain that she writes firstly for herself.
‘When I think of my plot and place it is with excitement – what am I going to give myself now? Of course I want to give my readers a great experience and a great story, but I really write, in the first instance, for myself. I’m going to be with the book for a year, so I have to take myself somewhere where I really love. I am a huge believer in the energy of a place and how it affects you.’
Santa is clearly a woman who is in tune with her surroundings and it is this, I suspect, which draws her towards the ruined castles and buildings of Ireland. She has experienced tinnitus and low levels of inspiration when writing in a room in her house which was subsequently discovered to have very negative energy flows within it. She also makes no secret of the fact that she has seen spirits from a very young age. It is little wonder then that she portrays the frustration of a woman in spirit so effectively in her character of Caitlin Macausland.
‘This is the first time I have written in this way and I really enjoyed the experience. When I started with Caitlin’s voice it just spilled out of me. I didn’t even have to think. At this point I didn’t really have a plot. I knew I wanted a woman in spirit and that she wanted to remain behind with her children. That was all I had. The other characters hadn’t been thought of at all. I now realise that I have to accept that I don’t work by plotting and planning but I just write instinctively. I would love the certainty of a fully plotted book, because I would know how it was going to end, but that’s just not for me!’
Having used her memories of childhood holidays and a mood board of images to recreate the landscape of Connemara, I’m interested in what else Santa did to capture the authentic voices of the characters which inhabit her imaginary Irish community.
‘I had a friend who helped with the dialogue and Irish phrases. There is a definite tone and rhythm to the language. If I’m writing about a foreign place, I always get someone from there to run their eye over it. You want it to be authentic. It can be very jarring for a reader if a turn of phrase, dialogue etc. is incorrect. They start focusing on that and stop reading the story.’
With thirteen novels published, it is clear that the recurring themes of romance and love are very much at the heart of Santa’s writing. I ask her why this is.
‘There’s nothing more important in life than love,’ she explains. ‘We are all motivated by love, whether to do terrible or wonderful things – it is all based in a type of love in one form or another. All the greatest books ever written are about love. It’s hard to name a classic book that isn’t about love and it doesn’t have to be love between people, it can be the love for a particular place. Love can have many different forms.’
As an author with so many fans and who, no doubt, is an inspiration to other writers – aspiring and established – I wonder who she takes her own inspiration from.
‘I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. He taught me how to create a sense of place through the senses. When I wrote about Argentina I used the smells of the place – I really wanted people to feel that they were on that pampa. I definitely got that from Garcia Marquez’s description of almond trees, orange blossom and lavender in his book. Daphne du Maurier has also been a huge influence. There is a very haunting quality to her writing. Edith Wharton is also a beautiful writer.’
But does she still find time to read?
‘Yes! I read a lot on holiday. I recently read Restoration and Merivel by Rose Tremain. Merivel is such a wonderful character. I love Philippa Gregory too. So, yes, I do find time to read and I think those great writers and books inspire me to write. I think ‘Oooo, I want to do something like this. Another big story.’ They inspire me to get back into it again because I always feel a bit drained after finishing writing a book.’
And the writing never stops. While she is currently promoting Secrets of the Lighthouse, Santa is just finishing edits on her next novel The Bee Keeper’s Daughter which she describes as, ‘two love stories intertwined, based in Dorset, England during the war and on an island off Massachusetts in the 1970s and 80s.’
Which leads me back to the beginning. How does she keep doing it? How does she keep writing such successful novels – and still clearly enjoying it!?
‘I have a bit of a shopping spree to treat myself as a reward for finishing a book!’ she laughs. ‘I actually feel quite depleted in terms of ideas and I always worry if I’ll be able to write another. I’m about to sign for another two and the thought of writing another book for delivery next summer makes me think ‘Can I do it?’ But, you know, when I start thinking of the place and I open myself up to creative ideas, the inspiration just comes. It just happens. I have to trust that it will happen.’
She glances across the room we are sitting in.
‘Suddenly you see someone across the room,’ she says with a twinkle in her eye, ‘who would make a great character, and there’s the nugget of an idea again.’
I leave Santa with a recommendation that she try a pint of Guinness. Like her character Ellen in Secrets of the Lighthouse, I suspect that she may give it a go, but won’t be ordering a second one!
About Secrets of the Lighthouse
Ellen lives in London and is due to get married to a man she doesn’t love, has a job she doesn’t like and an interfering mother who is driving her crazy. So she escapes to the one place she knew her mother won’t follow her – to her aunt’s house in Connemara in Ireland. Once there, she uncovers a dark family secret and perhaps a different future for herself …
Meanwhile, Caitlin Macausland is mourning the future she will never have. She died tragically in what the village thinks is suspicious circumstances, and now she is stuck in limbo, unable to move on.
Between the two of them is an old lighthouse – the scene of so much tragedy. Can each woman find the peace she so desperately longs for? And can they find the way to live again?
About the author
Santa Montefiore was born in England to and Anglo-Argentinian mother and grew up on a farm in Hampshire; she then spent a year teaching on an Argentine estancia before reading Spanish and Italian at Exeter University.
She worked as a PR for Ralph Lauren and Theo Fennell, the society jeweller, before writing her bestselling first novel, Meet Me Under The Ombu Tree, inspired by her life in Argentina, she has written a subsequent 12 novels published globally with over 2 million copies sold.
In 1998 she converted to Judaism and married Simon Sebag Montefiore, the historian and writer. They live with their two children in London and Hampshire.
Visit www.santamontefiore.co.uk or follow Santa on Twitter @SantaMontefiore
(c) Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynor runs writing.ie‘s Carry on Writing blog and is an author and freelance writer. She started writing when she left her corporate career in March 2009; initially focusing on her award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog, Hot Cross Mum. She has since gone on to write regularly for the national press, has appeared on TV and radio and writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as guest blogging and writing regular features for writing.ie.
In March 2012, Hazel self published her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’ , which quickly went on to become a no.1 bestseller on Kindle and was recently made available in paperback format through Amazon Createspace. The Girl Who Came Home will be republished by William Morrow (HarperCollins) in April 2014, with Hazel’s second novel ‘Daughters of the Flowers’ to follow in early 2015.
Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel now lives in Kildare with her husband and two children. She was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012 and appeared at Waterford Writer’s Weekend in 2012 and 2013.
Hazel is represented by Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management, New York.