Back in 1816, Jane Austen (yes, I always try to bring her into anything if I can) commiserated with her nephew when he reported that he had lost 2 whole chapters of his own tentative novel. She hadn’t stolen them, she promised. “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”
Being Jane Austen, she was, of course, being ironic, suggesting that her own writing was on such a slight and insignificant scale. Sir Walter Scott recognised that her work was fair more powerful than a little bit of ivory would allow. “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”
And yet critics have dared to complain that Austen’s novels are too limited, confined to “three or four families in a country village,” when all around her, the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, the French Terror, the Napoleonic wars were playing out. She knew well enough what great dramas were happening out there. A cousin’s husband was guillotined, an aunt was hauled off to prison, two brothers were serving in the navy, and yet she chose to concentrate on a small group of people interacting on a tiny stage as if the outside world didn’t exist. But what Jane Austen appreciated was that there is just as much emotional and psychological drama to be found in closed families as on wide battlefields.
I write about crime. My genre has been defined as Domestic Noir and it always focuses on the dark dynamics at work within a family, a neighbourhood, a close circle of friends. Does that mean it lacks the drama of a crime novel set, say, among Columbian drug barons, or the Mafia, or human traffickers or crooked financiers in the city? It probably lacks the extreme gore of a hard-boiled thriller. I work on the assumption that lashing out wildly and causing a loved one’s death with a misplaced blow is just as tragic and dramatic as a gruesome plot involving a victim’s head being chewed off by a bear.
Domestic drama might lack the fast pace of mainstream crime fiction too. It tends to be a matter of a slow burn, rising gradually to a rolling boil, scalding oil and an all-consuming blaze. That’s what I like, because it is what goes on in families – and with isolating lock-down, even more so. You don’t have to look to the scheming world of international crime or the grimy nastiness of the underworld to discover every facet of human emotion – thundering passion, consuming rage, seething jealousy, love, hope, disappointment, despair, joy, triumph, resentment, remorse. They are all there, simmering behind lace curtains.
Judith Barrow’s latest book, The Memory, proves the point exactly. Following the story of Irene from young girl greeting the birth of her beloved Downs Syndrome sister to aging carer of a mother with dementia, it is an exquisite study of how family ties and stresses stir up every possible joy and anguish from deep protective love to long-nursed hatred, with sheer bloody exhaustion nudging inexorably towards a fatal brink.
Read it and tell me a domestic drama can’t shake the reader as much as a shoot-out in bank vaults or torture in a cellar.
My greatest support has come from the group of authors published by Honno. We have a Facebook group where we can chat and ask for help, information and generally boost moral when it’s needed. And we’ve met up in real life on many occasions. About three years ago I shared interviews with some of them. Since then there have been other women writers who have become Honno authors. So this is the first of a new set of interviews and today I am with my friend, Thorne Moore.
Hi Thorne, glad you are with us today.
It’s good to be here, Judith.
Let’s start by you telling us a little about yourself, please.
I was born in Luton, but my mother came from Cardiff and I went to Aberystwyth University, so it was a bit like reclaiming my Welsh heritage when I moved to Wales in 1983 to run a restaurant with my sister. I live now in north Pembrokeshire, in an old farm cottage on the site of a mediaeval mansion, overlooking forests and valleys and very nearly in sight of the sea. I am just retiring from 40 years of making miniature furniture for collectors, and I write, garden, write, cook, write, walk… oh, and write.
When did you start writing?
I was certainly writing seriously when I was at school, because I remember sitting on a radiator during a wet break (prefect’s privilege), telling a friend I was writing a book – and I was enormously relieved that she didn’t laugh. In a way, I began very young, though not by putting the words down on paper. I was a daydreamer. Every Sunday we went for a drive around Bedfordshire and I would sit in the back, daydreaming long elaborate stories. I was always slightly irritated if my brother or sister wanted to talk to me. By the time I was at university, I knew that writing was the only thing I wanted to do.
What genre do you write in and why?
I began with fantasy, moved into Science Fiction and now drift between contemporary domestic noir and historical mysteries. But really there isn’t much difference in my mind between the genres. All my books of any genre have two underlying themes. How do people react, psychologically, when they are confronted by a traumatic situation that shakes them out of their comfort zones? And what are the consequences of an event? Not just the immediate consequence but consequences in the far future. Someone once said history is just one damned thing after another. In reality, it’s one damned thing leading to another, a never-ending stream. Situations are never just resolved and put to bed. They leave footprints out to the horizon.
How important is location in your novels?
Extremely important. In fact, when my books are set in a particular house, like the cottage of Cwmderwen in A Time For Silence and The Covenant, or Llysygarn, the mansion in Shadows and Long Shadows, they are almost the main character in the books. But the general location is also very important. It gives me an excuse to breathe in and breathe out the spirit of a place. Some of my books are set in north Pembrokeshire, where I live, which is a very isolated and enclosed area, utterly rural, all wooded valleys and high open hills – and, of course, the sea – and I couldn’t imagine those books being set anywhere else.
In contrast, others of my books (Motherlove and The Unravelling) have an urban setting, the fictional town of Lyford which is based very closely on my birth town of Luton. Even though it’s a wide web of Victorian terraces and suburban semis, I find myself automatically focussing the most emotional moments on the green places, which are always imbued with a certain mystery of their own, whether it’s Portland Park (closely modelled on Wardown Park in Luton) or an old farm lane, still clinging on in the midst of post-war expansion.
In The Unravelling, I do take my character Karen on a tour of England and Wales in search of old friends, finishing up on the Chilterns, in an area based on Ashridge, where I spent many childhood Sundays. I live in an area of igneous bluestone, forested with oak and ash, but I still nurse a longing for chalk downs and beechwoods
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?
Jane Austen. It’s her scalpel wit, her elegantly precise language, and her powers of observation of personalities, reactions, impulses and inhibitions, along with economic realities, all played out on settings so minimal they could be chessboards. Her novels are not romances, they are studies of how people reach decisions while navigating between personal desires and public pressures.
Where do you write?
Physically, in my bedroom, with the laptop on my lap in bed, or at my desk. Mentally, while walking up and down my lane after dinner (the joys of having a farm lane to walk along, at this physical distancing time).
Who is your favourite character in your books?
Now you know that’s like asking a mother who is her favourite child. How can I possibly say? I am inside all of them, feeling with them, even when they’re annoying or slightly insane, or even wicked. Which one would I actually like to spend time with? Possibly Angharad in Long Shadows. Or, if I were cast up on a desert island with one of them, it would have to be Leah, in my new novel, The Covenant, (to be published in August), because she might be rather waspish, but she’d be extremely competent and sort things out.
What was your favourite bit of research?
I am disgraceful in that I usually do very little research because I’m mostly concerned with what’s going on in people’s heads. When writing anything historical, I mostly rely on my past historical studies (school, university and general reading). Occasionally, when I have to be specific about things, I force myself. My latest book, The Covenant, required a fair bit of research to match my story (set between 1883 and 1922) with events in the wide world, or the narrow world of Pembrokeshire. My third novel, The Unravelling, shifts between the present day, 2000 and the mid 1960s. The 1960s, seen through the eyes of a child, didn’t require much research at all: I just dredged up my own childhood memories of home-made frocks and pink custard. But the millennium needed real research. It seems such a short while ago but the world has changed utterly. That part of the book involves searching for long-lost friends. How would it have been done back in a time when we didn’t have broadband or Facebook and mobile phones were still a novelty.
My favourite research was for A Time For Silence because, although it was published in 2012, early versions of it were written quite a few years before, when the internet was an erratic thing of limited use, so I had to get out there on my hind legs and look for information, so, searching for information about Pembrokeshire in the 1930s and 40s, I spent many happy hours pouring over old newspapers in the National Library of Wales – something I make my character Sarah do although, in reality, she could probably have done all her research on-line.
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses.
It’s a small press, which means it’s personal. Maybe famous sportsmen or ex-cabinet ministers can be lauded (promoted) to the skies by big publishers, but most of their less famous authors tend to be lost in a very impersonal ocean, with very little one-to-one attention. They are names on a spreadsheet. With Honno, you know the team and they know you. You feel far more valued, even if the big bucks aren’t there.
And there’s the fact that Honno is a Women’s Press, run by women, publishing women (as well as being Welsh, of course). It’s not an anti-man thing, but I grew up in the era of the rising tide of women’s lib, when women didn’t just sit around arguing their case but took really positive actions to prove themselves, such as setting up publishing companies like Virago. Unlike others, Honno is still going strong and flying the flag.
I’ve heard a whisper that there will be a new book coming out soon?Would like to give us a hint about that?
Well, Its the Prequel to Time for Silence andHonno have given me a publication date of August 18th
Ah, yes, I found this tantalising description of it.
“The Owens are tied to this Pembrokeshire land – no-one will part them from it dead or alive.
Leah is tied to home and hearth by debts of love and duty – duty to her father, turned religious zealot after the tragic death of his eldest son, Tom; love for her wastrel younger brother Frank’s two motherless children. One of them will escape, the other will be doomed to follow in their grandfather’s footsteps.
At the close of the 19th century, Cwmderwen’s twenty-four acres, one rood and eight perches are hard won, the holding run down over the years by debt and poor harvest. But they are all the Owens have and their rent is always paid on time. With Tom’s death a crack is opened up and into this chink in the fabric of the family step Jacob John and his wayward son Eli, always on the lookout for an opportunity.
Saving her family, good and bad, saving Cwmderwen, will change Leah forever and steal her dreams, perhaps even her life.”
The Covenant is the shocking prequel to the bestselling A Time For Silence: