Thursday 18 February 2016

A Conversation with Hilary Spiers

Hilary Spiers has always loved to write and started at a young age with poetry. Her working life, however, has been quite diverse. Her career has encompassed law, teaching, speech therapy, the NHS and youth policy while her lifelong interest in the theatre has allowed her to work as an actor, director and playwright.

Hilary decided to give up a well-paid job a few years ago to concentrate on her writing career and this change in her life was reinforced after attending a writing course on one of the lovely Greek Islands.

Hilary’s literary career comprises a long list of plays, including First Do No Harm, which toured the Midlands in 2014 and Thaw, an extract of which was performed at the Hampstead Theatre, London, and many short stories – several of which have won competitions such as The Times Short Love Story Competition and the Sandi Toksvig’s Writing Challenge. A collection of Hilary’s short stories, The Hour Glass, was published in 2009. Through much of her writing Hilary gives a voice to ordinary women and has done so in her debut novel Hester & Harriet, to be published in March.

Hester and Harriet, two widowed sisters in their 60’s, will do anything to get out of spending Christmas dinner with their well-meaning cousin George and his wife Isabelle. Their avoidance tactics over the years have failed to work as George goes out of his way to ensure they are not lonely during the festive season.When they discover a young girl, Daria, and baby Milo, huddled in a nearby bus shelter, they have the perfect excuse. They take them home - allowing the sisters to remain in the comfort of their own surroundings on Christmas day. 

Then their truculent fifteen-year-old nephew arrives asking for somewhere to stay for a few days to escape his nagging parents and, very soon, Hester and Harriet’s quiet, ordered life, is under threat from their unexpected lodgers as the mystery of Daria’s background unravels and Ben stays longer than planned. 

We thank Hilary for participating in our Conversation and wish her every success with her new novel and look forward to seeing more of Hester and Harriet in the future.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

I've always written, always loved words and their infinite possibilities. I wrote excruciating poetry when young (that habit continued into adulthood and I have written poetry – hopefully slightly less excruciating – since); short stories; bits and pieces for performance (I've been involved with the theatre since I was 11). Writing is now my job.  Some years ago, I had a 'carpe diem' moment, and my decision to try to carve out a career in writing was strengthened after a week's creative writing course on a Greek island. (The sun, the wine and the excellent company may have had something to do with it too.) I gave up a well-paid job to concentrate on writing, knowing I would have to serve my apprenticeship. Which I have, my few early successes heavily outnumbered by the rejections. But I'm a stubborn body and I kept on going.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I hope my role is that of an entertainer, someone who can bring a smile, if not a laugh, to a reader or a theatregoer, while at the same time engaging them in a satisfying story. Nothing beats seeing someone smile or hear them laugh at something you've written. Although making them cry comes a close second.  That's not to say I write only comedy – far from it – but it's human nature to seek out those pockets of relief –- whether prompted by delight or shock – in the midst of the darkest tale and I see it as part of a writer's role to facilitate those moments. Provided, of course, they don't hold up the action.

Part of my writing mission (indeed a very large part) is to give ordinary women, particularly older women, their moment in the sun. There are frequent and increasingly high-profile complaints that as women age, they become invisible. Well, not in my writing they don't!  Hester and Harriet may be mature women, but they meet life head-on, they have huge reserves of experience and wisdom to call on, and they brook no nonsense. I love every moment I spend in their company, vicariously enjoying their boldness and spirit.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

That's an interesting question! (Later ... after a strong black coffee ...) I'm not sure I dislike any of my characters. I've certainly created dislikeable characters, with deeply flawed personalities, whom I doubt I or anyone else would wish to meet in real life, but they are often very entertaining  (in a sort of shock-horror sense) and wonderful sources of conflict. So I suppose I would have to say I relish those kinds of characters because they often serve to ratchet up the tension or create problems for my two doughty sisters to overcome.

4. GW recently organised #diverseauthorday: do you think literature accurately reflects the diversity of culture we have today?

The short answer is no, but I think things are improving. The world gets smaller by the day: the internet and social media bring us all into closer and closer contact with one another. At the same time, the deluge of images sometimes appears to dull our responses, to make us less able to empathise with people from different cultures and with different belief systems. The refugee crisis in Europe has brought these issues into stark and disturbing focus this past year. While some people, goaded if not supported by the media, defend their views and/or prejudices with ever greater stridency (yes, Mr Trump, I mean you), fiction can shine a powerful light on unfamiliar cultures and encourage us to stand in other people's shoes and see the world through their eyes. When the abstract becomes the personal (as it does for Hester and Harriet), attitudes change.

5. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Another teaser! Could I take my family, my friends, my computer, my cat and my coffee machine with me? I like to know I have all those to hand before I hunker down with my work. In the present drear weather, could we all be whisked off to somewhere warm – both in weather and welcome – like Raratonga in the Cook Islands, a paradise we visited at the end of a five month adventure in New Zealand some years back? I'd write, swim (my favourite way of unknotting a plot problem), write some more and then enjoy a fantastic meal under the stars with my nearest and dearest.

6. What is the one book you wish you had written?

Vanity Fair.

7. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

Everybody says this but it's true: don't give up. If you really want and need to write, write. Write every day: a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence. Read your work aloud. Learn to appreciate the positive things about your work that agents and editors pick out and not light immediately on the negative (easier to say than do). Surround yourself with critical but supportive readers and listen to their comments. Don't be precious: your editor has read and developed hundreds of books – they know what they are talking about. Live in hope.

8. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I've just completed the second draft of the sequel to Hester & Harriet, where the sisters embark on a life-changing holiday, blissfully unaware of some disturbing shenanigans going on at home in their absence. I've also recently finished two plays (one full length and one one-acter) and am currently working on a third.

Hester & Harriet is published by Atlantic Books

1 comment:

Nicola said...

Great interview! Thanks for sharing your experiences Hilary.