Isabel Wolff was born in Warwickshire in the English Midlands, and studied English at Cambridge. Her ten novels are published in 30 languages. She lives in London with her family. For more information about Isabel, please ‘like’ her Isabel Wolff Author Page on Facebook, follow her on Twitter – @IsabelWolff – or visit her website, www.IsabelWolff.com.
1.What got you into writing? I think I was already half way to being a novelist, because I was working for the BBC World Service as a radio reporter while also writing for newspapers and magazines. I’d always hoped that I’d be able to write a novel but didn’t think I’d ever be able to afford to take six months off work in order to do it; but in 1997 I had a stroke of luck. The Daily Telegraph commissioned me to write a comical ‘girl about town’ column. It was called ‘Tiffany Trott’ and within a fortnight of it first appearing, publishers were trying to find out who Tiffany Trott really was and whether she would be interested in writing a book. So I wrote a synopsis for ‘The Trials of Tiffany Trott’ and an agent friend, Clare Conville, sent it out, and sold it to HarperCollins. The novel took about four months to write and I remember enjoying the process immensely. As a journalist I’d been able to report only what was factual and true; now I was writing fiction and was free to invent, a process I found liberating and exciting. From time to time I re-read it and am happy to say that Tiffany’s trials and tribulations still make me laugh. It was a big success, selling a million copies round the world. I was very happy but assumed, once it was all over, that I’d go back to being a journalist; but HarperCollins wanted me to write more books, so I did, and have just finished my tenth novel which they’ll publish in March.
2.What is a usual writing day like for you? I walk the children to school, then charge round Kensington Gardens with our black cocker spaniel, Alfie. I then go home and start work. I have five hours, in which I try to write at least a thousand new words, though very often it’s less. In the afternoon I edit what I’ve done and try to make it as good as it can possibly be. Then Alfie and I go and collect the children. I try to do a bit more writing late at night, when the family are asleep, but it’s tiring working at this time. Sometimes I wake to find my forehead on the keyboard, and nothing but fdsjkdjklalkdjfalskdjfaldkfjasldklskdjf on the screen.
3.Do you get writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it? I don’t get writer’s block – I find the actual writing reasonably easy. But I do get plotter’s block. I have to know where I’m going when I write a novel, otherwise I feel insecure. So I plan my books as meticulously as I can, and this is the hardest part. Working out a storyline that hangs together in a satisfying and credible way is very hard. Essentially it’s problem solving, and requires analytical skills. When I get stuck gloom descends, and I get a horrible feeling that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. But I just keep chipping away at it in my mind, trying to find a way through the creative maze to make it all work. Usually, given a bit of time, I can.
4.Are you a plotter and planner when it comes to writing a story? Yes, definitely and absolutely. See above. Some writers just start and then see where the story or the characters take them. I could never ever do that: it would freak me out.
5.What is the publishing process like for you and do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I enjoy the publishing process a lot as long as I have not delivered the manuscript late. Once or twice I have let time slip, then found myself racing to finish, with the publication date looming dangerously close. This is not ideal either for the writer or the publisher. It’s far better to keep to their schedule so that there is time to do bound proofs that can be sent out to newspapers and magazines, as this helps to get coverage and reviews. So the main advice I have for aspiring authors is to deliver the book on time. If something happens and you know you won’t be able to, then let your publisher know well in advance so that they can re-schedule you for a later slot. You’ve worked so hard to write you novel – you want to allow enough time for it to be published well.
6.What has been your highlight since becoming a published author? I’ve been an author for sixteen years now, and there have been a few highlights along the way; being a Sunday Times bestseller was one; learning that I’ve now sold 5 million books round the world was another. And I had a very exciting response to my eighth novel, ‘A Vintage Affair’ which was translated into 26 languages, was an international bestseller and is still selling very well, five years on. A lot of women from all over the world have contacted me on Twitter and Facebook to tell me how much that book moved them and I do feel very happy about that.
7.Can you share a little of your most recent book with us – and any other books of yours? My most recent book, my tenth, is called Ghostwritten and is set in present day Cornwall, and on wartime Java during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. The main character, Jenni, is a ‘ghost writer’. She loves to immerse herself in the lives of others, because it leaves less time to think about her own life, and her own painful memories of the childhood tragedy which still haunts her, twenty five years on. One day Jenni is commissioned to write the memoirs of an elderly woman, Klara, who has lived in Cornwall for 60 years. But Klara didn’t grow up in Cornwall, but on a rubber plantation on Java. During the Japanese occupation Klara was imprisoned in an internment camp with her mother and younger brother. With many thousands of other women and children, they had cope with starvation, illness and the brutality of their captors. Klara’s is a story of survival – a story that she has never told before. As the two women get to know each other Jenni realises that she and Klara have a lot in common. Their friendship may help Jenni to find peace at last.
The novel before Ghostwritten was The Very Picture of You which is about a portrait painter, Ella, and the people that she’s commissioned to paint. It’s about the secrets – and lies – that they tell her during the sittings. Before that was A Vintage Affair which is a story of fashion and friendship, regret and redemption. It centres on Phoebe Swift, a textiles expert who opens a vintage dress shop in south London. One day she goes to buy a collection of lovely old clothes from an elderly French woman, Mrs Bell. Amongst the suits and gowns in Mrs Bell’s wardrobe is a child’s blue coat, made in 1943 that she says she will never ever part with. Phoebe uncovers the poignant story of that blue coat, and of the little girl for whom it was intended, in Nazi-occupied Provence. As for what I’m going to write next, I’m not sure, but I think that it will another semi-historical, past/present novel, possibly set in India.
8.Apart from writing what do you do in your spare time? I have children, step-children, and a dog, and so I don’t have much spare time. In between taking the children to their various activities, and looking after our spaniel, Alfie, I try to go to the cinema and theatre as often as possible with my partner, Greg. I love playing tennis, though I don’t play as often as I’d like. I don’t like to boast, but I’m very good at table football.
9.If you could trade places with any other person for a week, famous or not famous, living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be and why? If I could have chosen any life in the world, I’d love to have been an opera singer. When I go to the ENO or Covent Garden and hear the mezzo sing with such emotion and power that it makes the hair on my neck stand up, I am in total awe, and more than a little envious. How wonderful to be able to move people so much that you make them cry; what a privilege to touch someone’s soul with the beauty of your voice. So I think I’d like to have been Kiri Te Kanawa, Renee Fleming or Elisabeth Shwarzkopf – but a week would be more than enough, because being an opera singer must be very hard.
10.Do you have anything that you want to say to your readers? The only thing I’d like to say is that my novels are changing. The early contemporary romantic comedies such as The Making of Minty Malone, Rescuing Rose and Behaving Badly have given way to stories that are set in the present and the past. This began with A Vintage AffairandGhostwritten continues that process of change, and it’s my hope that my readers will like these later, semi-historical novels too.
Ghostwritten will be published by HarperCollins on 27th March.