An Evening of Novels, Inspiration and Other Tales with Santa Montefiore

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Report by David Eadsforth. 

Barbara Large welcomed everyone to the first talk of the new HWS season and said how pleased she was with the numbers of people who had turned up; and that we had a super night ahead.  Barbara welcomed Joan McGavin, the Hampshire poet, and Santa Montefiore, the novelist.

Joan spoke about the Winchester Poetry Festival, which is to take place between the 12th and the 14th of September.  Friday begins an exciting and varied programme that will feature Slam Dunk Hants, a student showcase, Hogwords, Hampshire poets now, and the main reading comprising Imtiaz Dharker, Matt Harvey, and Brian Patten.

Sep 14 Joan McGavin_1570Sunday will feature a city walking tour with sites of special interest, The Wilfred Owen International Poetry competition, and “Poets from Hampshire”, Edward Thomas.  Also, “Things being Various”, Christopher Reid on the poets craft.  There is a Commemorative Reading in Winchester College War Cloister, and the Main Reading will be Ros Barber and Jackie Kay.  There are also a number of workshops and competitions. Saturday will feature Young Voices; Zena Edwards and friends, “The Singing of the Scythe”, the best of World Poetry, “So Too Have The Doves Gone”, the poetry of conflict, and “Telling Tales, Patience Agbabi. There will also be “New Voices”, Liz Berry, Olivia McCannon, and Jacqueline Saphra, and “Those Timeless Things”, the poetry of John Arlott.  The main reading comprising David Constantine, Julia Copus, and Michael Longley.

Joan encouraged us all to try writing poetry, and offered a tip: if you are getting “poet’s block”, try writing some prose.  If getting “writer’s block”, try writing some poetry!

David Eadsforth then introduced Santa Montefiore:

Santa was born in Winchester and grew up in Dummer, Hampshire.  Due to her mother being Anglo-Argentinian, she was able to teach English in Argentina for a year before taking a degree in Spanish and Italian at Exeter University.  She went back to work in Buenos Aires for some years before returning to Britain and marrying historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore.  Her first novels were set in Argentina and Chile, but many other countries have now provided the settings for her books.

Sep 14 Santa Montefiore_1571Santa started by wishing everyone good evening and saying how delighted she was to see so many people.  She was not going to deliver a lecture about how to write, but would like to recount what had inspired her writing over the years.  Santa said that locations and settings were very important in her books. She found the greatest inspiration from the places she had visited.  Smells can be very evocative; Buenos Aires has wonderful scents from the flowers, and caramel from the sweet stalls – and diesel fumes from the buses.  Santa has visited everywhere she has written about, apart from Polperro, which was the one bit of Cornwall she couldn’t make, but she was able to construct a satisfactory picture from the internet and other references in the end.  (This was our secret, and we were not to let on…)

Santa started writing at school, where she created stories for her schoolmates. These were romantic, but were not drawn from life as the only specimens to hand were spotty schoolboys; not a very suitable model.  Later, however, she did manage to include one character from real life from her school, a schoolmaster who was Scottish but who affected an Italian accent.  One day, he invited Santa and a couple of her friends to his home for afternoon tea (unlikely to be allowed these days…), and on a tour of the house threw open the bathroom door to reveal the bidet, where, he announced proudly, he liked to “boil his botty”.  He did become a character in one of her books!  Another teacher, who was a very large lady, actually wanted to become a character in one of her books.  Santa obliged, and then worried about what the teacher’s reaction would be.  The teacher loved her fictional character so much that Santa wondered if she had actually recognised which she was.

Then there was Bernie, the family Saint Bernard, who would be let loose at the end of a garden party to herd the last of the visitors away.  On one occasion, a lady appeared to be indulging Bernie by letting him press his sticky jowls on her suede trousers.  However, when Bernie followed his “new found friend” around a corner he got a kicking for his pains.  A lesson for Santa; people who like animals are generally nicer than people who do not.  That lady turned up in a book as well, as did an early Argentinian boyfriend of Santa’s.  Argentinian men are supposed to be darkly good-looking and courteous, but this one was not.  A very controlling person, he would even check that Santa had used the soap after having visited the bathroom; the “soap-checker” also went into a book.

Sep 14 Santa Montefiore_1572The great thing about putting nasty people in books is that they think that they are so perfect that they never recognise themselves.  Santa has noted that people who have been scarred by life’s experiences will quite often have an unattractive persona, and it can take some effort to find a more likeable nature beneath.  Santa also liked older people, and the slightly eccentric views they often hold.  She hoped that such eccentricities were not dying out but might be constantly maintained by people who, as they age, grow less inhibited and less likely to continue to follow convention.  Santa said that her novels do, of course, introduce the views of her characters, which may or may not reflect her own views.  However, many people believe that a view expressed in a novel must reflect the view of the author, so care must be taken.

Writing at the same time as your husband can be problematical if both of you like to write to music.  Santa creates a playlist for each new book as it helps create moods and emotions.   Typically, this would be something wonderfully evocative of the location she is writing about.  At the same, “Ground Control to Major Tom” would be belting out from the next room.  Even though “Major Tom” may now be played through earphones, the problem has not gone away; her husband has started singing along to it – rather badly…

A noisy environment can be dispiriting.  At the time she and her husband lived in a flat, a yuppie couple lived in the one above, and would often put their washing machine on late in the evening.  One night, Santa’s husband decided to tackle them about it, so went out, in pyjamas and dressing gown, only to meet an elderly lady from another flat intent on doing the same.  They knocked on the door together and were confronted by their puzzled neighbour.  They explained that it was really too late to be running a noisy washing machine and Santa’s husband added that the offending machine was “right above their bedroom and they had a baby only one year old”.  Their neighbour’s eyes went from one to the other in growing incredulity…

Santa believes that the writing room should be a beautiful place to work; it should invite and inspire you, and for her this means flowers and candles etc.  Her advice is:  “Make your office your sanctuary – a room you long to get to every day”.  This will help you get on with the writing process.  Following the advice of her husband: “don’t get it right, get it written”, her method of working is to write the book from start to finish before revising; if you go back over what you have written and revise as you go, you will make appallingly slow progress.

Santa happened to meet Joanna Trollope about the time she had finished her first manuscript, at the age of twenty-five, and asked Joanna for advice.  “Put it in a drawer until you have had more experience of life.” was the reply; wise, undoubtedly, but not terribly welcome!  But Santa has indeed found that the older you get, the better you write.

After Santa had been published, a US book tour did not work out quite as planned.  On one occasion, Santa found herself in a bookstore in Chicago, ready to address an audience.  She was quite fired up by the news that Isabelle Allende had pulled a crowd of three hundred there a short while before, but when Santa entered the room there was only one man in a baseball cap, sitting at the back reading a book: and not one of hers.  But with her belief in the “stiff upper lip” she approached the man, quite prepared to devote the session to him.  Unfortunately, he was only there waiting for his family to return from shopping.  However, Santa did manage to have a chat with him long enough to sell him a signed copy of her book.  Lesson: Americans are only interested in big names.  However, this story says a lot about the kind of fortitude everyone needs to become a successful author!

Her book tour experiences are quite different in the Netherlands, where she is very well-liked and draws large audiences, and can almost feel like JK Rowling (if one ignores the difference in royalties…).

Santa then took a few questions.

  1. Does Santa relate to her own characters?

Yes, indeed, but she also writes about characters who she knows she won’t relate to. This is very difficult, but often quite necessary; and a particularly challenging part of writing fiction.

  1. What is her production target?

Santa is happy with writing one book per year.  She has to maintain this schedule to satisfy the publisher, and on completion of a book often wonders if she can write another – but she has always managed to do this so far!  If she ever found that she could not keep up with the demands of writing, then she would probably give up.

When in the early stages, daily progress will be 1-2,000 words.  In the later stages, she will be writing up to 5,000 words per day; once the narrative has begun to progress, the writing comes easier.  Santa has a disciplined writing year.  She only writes in term-time, and hands her completed manuscript to her publisher in July, just as last year’s book is being published in hardback.  She takes the summer off then, in September, she goes through her editor’s notes for her finished book, and makes the necessary changes.  During this time she will begin planning for her next book, which she starts writing in January, the manuscript being ready for the July deadline.

  1. What would Santa liked to have been if she hadn’t become a writer?

A singer: recalling her time in Argentina, she projected herself as singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from the balcony of the Shakespeare Room where we were all sitting.  And ultimately . . . a teacher – which was the right thing to say as the questioner was herself a teacher!  Both Santa and her questioner were keen to emphasize how much there is a ‘performance’ element to teaching, and to writing and public speaking as well.

  1. Any advice on how to end a book?

Santa acknowledged that endings are often very difficult.  But, as a rule of thumb, if you find you’re getting bored with the story or book you’re writing it’s best to end things quickly (or even move on to another project).  This discussion of book endings was a natural place at which to bring the Q&A part of the evening to a close. Santa rounded everything off by telling one last story – a rather explicit, but highly amusing, story – about the difficulty of getting some anatomical details right when writing about the opposite sex . . .

To conclude the evening, Barbara thanked everyone for coming and invited them to “keep writing” and to “bring a fellow writer” next time.  In October, we would have Andy McDermott, the thriller writer, so it would be worth coming back.

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