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Kate Hamer Q&A: ‘Write the story that is burning inside you’

‘Writing makes you tune into the world in a way that I might not have experienced if I didn’t write’

Kate Hamer: I find Edna O’Brien an absolutely extraordinary writer – her work is so lucid and accomplished it’s almost like she’s recasting a vision. Photograph: Mei Williams

What was the first book to make an impression on you?
It was a book called House for Sale – I’ve no idea who it was by and I’ve tried searching for it since and can’t find it. I’ve searched because I was completely obsessed by it and read it over and over but I can’t for the life of me remember how it ended. I was very, very young when I had this – I can’t quite remember my age but I do remember part of the plot. Some animals – I think maybe squirrels need to find a house. They find a lovely little house that’s for sale and decide to go in. It’s clearly occupied – there is a lovely, refreshing salad on the table and home-made lemonade which they quickly guzzle down. I think the plot might have involved the owners coming back but I don’t know what the upshot was. In retrospect my obsession with this book seems strange – but I think perhaps it was something to do with house and home and how important that felt. The illustrations of the house are what I remember most – I totally fell in love with it and wanted to live there.

What was your favourite book as a child?
I think it must be the old-fashioned book of Grimm’s fairy stories I had as a child. The evil witch Hansel and Gretel, the mean little Rumpelstiltskin, talking mirrors and genies – I found them thrilling, terrifying, exotic and a world that I could immerse in completely.

And what is your favourite book or books now?
That changes all the time. I love the work of Donna Tartt, Graham Greene, Maggie O’Farrell and Edna O’Brien. I find Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro one of the most profound books I’ve read. I’ve just been swept away by the American writer Nicole Krauss and her book Great House. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

What is your favourite quotation?
Absolutely anything from Shakespeare.

Who is your favourite fictional character?
Probably Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. The way Dickens writes makes him absolutely clear and present in the reader’s mind, as is his world. The transformation he undergoes throughout the book is one of the most complete and satisfying in fiction.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I can’t really answer that, I just know one of my favourites is Edna O’Brien. I find her an absolutely extraordinary writer – her work is so lucid and accomplished it’s almost like she’s recasting a vision.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I keep teetering on the brink of buying a Kindle and not quite jumping in. I went on holiday recently and I took about 15 books with me in my suitcase. That was OK when I could wheel it along but where we were staying was up four flights of stairs and I just couldn’t carry the suitcase up there. My husband had to heave it up, all the while extolling the virtues of the ebook! While I think the Kindle looks great – light, portable etc. – I have a certain avariciousness about real books, having them in my hand. I kind of know that if I read a book on Kindle I’d want the physical thing too and would just end up buying everything twice.

What is the most beautiful book you own?
It’s an old copy of The Book of Common Prayer dated 1862 that my mother gave to me. It is still beautifully sturdy and clear despite being so old and there are pressed leaves from the site of Napoleon’s tomb, wrapped in tissue, labelled and slipped amongst the pages. The words from The Book of Common Prayer are resonant and poetic and I’m sure have influenced many writers. Whether you are religious or not, the love of language there is a powerful thing.

Where and how do you write?
I wrote The Girl in the Red Coat mostly on a little net book either sitting on my bed, at the table when the kitchen was quiet, or squeezed at a tiny desk in the living room. Now there is more space in the house and I’m lucky enough to have a study that I’m making my own. I write every day except Sundays. I start reasonably early – about 8.30/9 and write without breaking all that much till mid or late afternoon. By then I’m cramped up and in desperate need for a walk or some stretches. It goes on, though – the thought processes. If I can’t sleep at night, which is often the case, I carry on turning over whatever I’m doing in my mind – reviewing what I’ve done that day and planning the next.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?
I think it was actually Stephen King’s book On Writing – I’d recommend it to anyone with ambitions to write. The way he describes the process of writing at once feels real, challenging but also something that’s doable if you let your guard down and trust in your imaginative instincts.

What is the most research you have done for a book?
Actually I think it will be the book I may plan to write third. I already have the broad sweep of it in my mind and it will need quite a lot of researching.

What book influenced you the most?
Probably that book of fairy stories I had as a child.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
I’ve been pondering this quite a bit recently as I set a similar question for a book competition and my choice keeps changing. I think it would really need to be something with a positive message so my most recent vote goes for Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. The theme of the book is that almost anything can be sorted out by a strong will and the application of good sense which I think would be a wonderful message to have at that age.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Probably more of the classics – I think your teenage years are the best age to soak these up.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
To write the story that is burning inside them – not what they feel they “ought” to write or what the market wants. To see a novel through you have to be passionate about it and, for me, this is the way to keep the flame alive.

What weight do you give reviews?
A great deal. Each review – whatever they are like – means I’ve connected with a reader and that is ultimately what it’s all about.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Perhaps traditional and self-publishing might begin to merge more with authors doing both.

What writing trends have struck you lately?
It has to be domestic noir – which I’m absolutely loving.

What lessons have you learned from life from reading?
Probably – because reading gives you an insight into other people’s lives and stories that you wouldn’t get otherwise – that everyone’s life on this planet is full of twists and turns.

What has being a writer taught you?
A kind of awareness of the world around me, I think. Writing makes you tune into the world in a way that I might not have experienced if I didn’t write.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Stella Gibbons, the author of Cold Comfort Farm, and Betty MacDonald. Betty MacDonald is a mid-century American writer whose books such as Anybody Can Do Anything and The Plague and I mirrored her own life. I love all her books inordinately, they are comfort reading which in no way demeans their literary merit. The same goes for Cold Comfort Farm. The affectionate humour in the way the characters are portrayed is an absolute joy – and I must have read it at least 10 times. I think both women would get along with each other very well and be fun company. I imagine we’d be sitting up, drinking champagne and talking well into the early hours.

What’s the funniest scene you’ve read?
When Flora Poste finally confronts Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm – up till that point Aunt Ada had been confined to her room where, as Flora cleverly surmises, she has run her family with a rod of iron by threatening to lose her mind if questioned by any of them. When Flora finally decides to take her on, the comic writing just flashes off the page.

What is your favourite word?
Bamboozle.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Probably Boadicea (Buddug in Welsh) the queen of the Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupation of Britain by Roman forces. She was eventually defeated but only after destroying the Ninth legion and taking Colchester, then the capital of Roman Britain. In school in Wales we had images of her with flaming red hair driving her chariot into the Roman soldiers and she was regarded as a real hero. I think she’d make a fabulous character.
Kate Hamer’s first novel The Girl in the Red Coat’(Faber & Faber) was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, the British Book Industry Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, the John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger and the Wales Book of the Year. Her second novel, The Doll Funeral (Faber, £12.99), is published today