Tuesday 16 May 2017

A Conversation With Abi Oliver

Abi Oliver is the daughter of an Antiques Dealer and has spent much of her life in the Thames Valley. She studied at Oxford and London Universities, has worked for a charity, as a nurse, on Indian Railways and as a writer. She has also raised four children and lives in Purley-on-Thames. This is her first novel as Abi Oliver.

Every few years characters come along who you feel you’ve known all your life.

Ernest Pettigrew never gave up on love, and Jack Rosenblum wrote a list in his quest to become an English gentleman. Harold Fry covered the length of the county in search for answers, and a man called Ove proved that there was life in the old dog yet.

Now it’s George Baxter’s turn, and he’s going to discover A New Map of Love.

George Baxter has settled for a comfortable life, content as the years unfold predictably – until Win, his wife of twenty-six years, dies.

With his loyal dog Monty by his side, George throws himself into his work as an antiques dealer. His business is at the heart of the village and all sorts pass through the doors, each person in search of their own little piece of history.

When George meets local widow Sylvia Newsome, he imagines a different kind of future. But life has more revelations to offer him. Over the course of an English summer George uncovers some unexpected mysteries from his past, which could shape his tomorrows…

We'd like to thank Abi for taking part in A Conversation With... and look forward to reading A New Map of Love, as well as wishing her much luck with her future writing.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I wrote my first ‘novel’ when I was seven on the typewriter in my father’s office. My childhood was rather solitary – only child and we travelled a lot - so there was plenty lot of time for reading and dreaming. At eleven I was sent away to boarding school and writing stories was a refuge there. It’s always seemed the most important and meaningful thing to do for me. I studied English at Oxford University and trained as a journalist – purely because at the time I couldn’t think what else to do. In fact I pretty much loathed it (and wrote stories in my lonely lodgings in Portsmouth!) So afterwards I got a job with a charity in Birmingham instead of working on a newspaper as I had been trained to do.

In Birmingham I joined a writers’ workshop almost as soon as I arrived, and later, Birmingham’s Tindal Street Fiction Group – really my ‘university’ of writing. We wrote short stories and some of us then embarked on novels. Later, I won a competition sponsored by SHE Magazine and Richard and Judy’s ‘This Morning’ and through that, was taken on by my excellent agent, Darley Anderson. That was in 1991. I already had three of our four children then, all under three at the time. I also had a novel, which was auctioned, but failed to find a buyer.

It was Darley who enquired as to whether I had ever thought of writing a saga? I had not, but I found the social history very interesting and no one was writing stories of that kind about Birmingham. So for many years now I have been writing novels as Annie Murray, about Birmingham, such as Chocolate Girls, My Daughter, My Mother and War Babies. It’s been a wonderful way of learning a huge number of things, as well as having a relationship with the city and some lovely people.

In the middle of all this, we, as a family, had to move back south for my husband’s job, to the Thames Valley where I come from originally. Over time the place has worked on me and I have found myself wanting to write about my own area – and to write in a slightly different way. Also, because of all the pressures of raising a family and writing, I found I had become very isolated from other writers. I took myself off to Oxford Brookes University in 2011 to do an MA in Creative Writing. Through that I have met a great team of other talented writers, so that we run workshops and can give each other support. And on that course was born George Baxter, the main character of my first novel as Abi Oliver- A New Map of Love, published, as are my other books, by Pan Macmillan.

It's been a lot of fun, both the writing and meeting so many new people. And Abi is full of ideas now as well!

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

I suppose I see it as giving people somewhere to go. Stories, even if not ‘escapism’ – something they are at times accused of being - give us ways of amplifying our experience. We are taken to another place, we learn things, we experience emotion and also the kind of shaping of experiences that we all seem to require but which does not always happen in daily life. What I especially like about it, as someone who does not find it easy to plan every detail before I begin, is that each novel is a journey. It’s like starting off with a rough sketch map and filling in all your discoveries as you go along. A lot of what happens depends on how the individual brain works in terms of integrating – or not – the material. Because of that, there is something really satisfying about reaching a point where you can finally feel that you have done that and can say right, this is THE END.

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

Yes – several times. In fact the novel I am working on now, is about one of them. I enjoy writing stories about a long trajectory of the life of a person or family. My character, Eleanora, is 65 in this story, though much of it is about her younger life. I want to know how she became who she is. No one starts off their life as such a crusty, iron-clad old trout!

What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

Over time I have written about a great many characters. In general I would say that it is a case of feeling your way into them. This involves knowing quite a lot about where they have come from, details of their early life, what are their wounds, what do they long for, what has been hardened in them or been brought to the fore? With some characters it can take several runs through before you think, oh yes – I think I know you now.

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

India. I would say Kolkata, though it would be quite hard to find a quiet spot there and I don’t think I would want to spend all my time in any city now. In my fantasy I would divide my time – spend some time in this fascinating city and then go to somewhere in the hills, like Assam or Mussoorie, where you can walk and get some space and a little peace. For all its challenges, I have come to love India – there is an energy and ingenuity there which inspires me and there is always, always something going on. Life is still more textured than it is here. As my research is also currently involved with it, it would be the best place to be.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

The four volumes of The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott – not that I’d be capable of it. It’s got everything – history, deep human interest and insight, complex, sympathetic, truly memorable characters, layers of understanding and great story lines – and volume one, ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ has one of the most beautiful opening pages of any novel I can think of.

What advice do you have for would be novelists/writers?

Persevere, find your thing – and please, please remember that you started doing this because you enjoy it!

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

As Abi Oliver I am working on a novel about the crusty woman I mentioned above, in which she is invited by her newly married nephew to stay on the tea garden in Assam where he is working. This is 1965, quite some time after Indian independence, but when some Brits (such as one member of my family) were still going out there to work in the tea gardens, which seems extraordinary now.

Eleanora’s early life was spent in India and the book is one of secrets, the recovered emotion of someone who has had emotion schooled out of her, surprises – and I hope redemption. But I am only just beginning the journey…

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

My reading was not guided very much when I was young so I read shedloads of Enid Blyton (though other things too!). I tried reading some of this to my own kids, but they found it hard to get past their bemusement at the way everyone talked to each other – ‘I say, shall we have some of that spiffing tomato soup? - Let alone that there were characters called Dick and Fanny!

But I did have an especial sympathy with George in the Famous Five – a girl who did not get stuck with the domestic stuff, got into adventures and had a dog. She had it all.

A New Map of Love is published by Macmillan.

You can follow Abi on twitter: @AbiWriterOliver

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