In the gloriously hot summer of 1936, a group of people meet at a country house party. Within three years, England will be at war, but for now, time stands still.
Dan Ranscombe is clever and good-looking, but he resents the wealth and easy savoir-faire of a fellow guest, Paul Latimer. Surely a shrewd girl like Meg Slater would see through that, wouldn’t she? And what about Diana, Paul’s beautiful sister, Charles Asher, the Jewish outsider, Madeleine, restless and dissatisfied with her role as children’s nanny? And artist Henry Haddon, their host, no longer young, but secure in his power as a practiced seducer.
As these guests gather, none has any inkling the choices they make will have fateful consequences, lasting through the war and beyond. Or that the first unforeseen event will be a shocking death.
My Q&A with Caro Fraser
Please tell my readers a little bit about yourself and your publishing journey.
I’m 64-year-old retired lawyer, I live in South East London, and I’ve been an author for almost twenty-five years, although I’ve been writing all my life. My first novel, The Pupil, was published in 1993 and was the beginning of a very successful series of legal novels (the Caper Court series). There are seven books in the series, all featuring the brilliant, charming, but amoral barrister Leo Davies, and I’m hoping to start number eight next year. In between, I’ve published a number of stand-alone novels. My new book, The Summer House Party, opens in the summer of 1936, three years before the war, at the country home of Henry Haddon, a famous society painter, and his wife Sonia. A group of friends – some young, some old, some wealthy, some less so – have been brought together for a week to enjoy the country house pleasures of tennis parties, picnics, and tea on the lawn. As the warm, lazy days unfold, intrigues and rivalries develop among the younger guests, and then a sudden death, like a foretaste of the war to come, puts and end to the party. In the years that follow the events of that week continue to haunt their lives, and as the country heads into war they must try to reconcile the choices and mistakes they have made….
This latest novel is something of a departure for me, as all my other books are set in the present day. I hugely enjoyed doing the historical research and trying to catch the tone and feel of that pre-war world. I like to think this is the kind of big book you could take on holiday for a long, lazy read!
The Summer House Party is published by Head Of Zeus, and what is especially delightful for me is that reunites me with Rosie de Courcy, the wonderful editor who published my first novel when she was with Orion Publishing.
Describe yourself using three words?
Mother, child, writer
What inspired you to write your first novel?
The Pupil was the first novel I wrote, and it became the first in the Caper Court series of legal novels. It was inspired by my experiences in pupillage (which is a sort of apprenticeship on the road to becoming a barrister), and its hero, Anthony Cross, is a brilliant but hard-up pupil barrister who has to struggle against heavy odds to gain a tenancy in a prestigious set of barristers’ chambers. Halfway through the novel I introduced a character called Leo Davies, who becomes a kind of mentor to Anthony, but is also bisexual and has ulterior motives for befriending him… He was such a successful character that he became very much the ‘star’ of the novels that followed.
What time of day do you like to write?
I have a pretty regular routine – start at 9, break for coffee at 11, lunch at 1, gym or swim around 3 – but oddly enough, I find the most productive time of day to write is early evening. Things just flow then, for some reason.
What is your favourite book and why?
That’s a difficult one. I suppose my favourite from childhood is The Rose And The Ring, by William Thackeray, because it’s the book that first opened my eyes to wonderful writing. But for a desert island I would take Martin Chuzzlewit, by Dickens. I never get tired of it.
How did you pick the title of your book?
Actually, it was my agent who came up with the title for The Summer House Party. I suppose it’s quite an obvious one because the book opens with guests gathering for a week-long house party in the summer of 1936, and that house party is the catalyst for all the events that follow.
Are the characters in your book based on real people?
No. Real people are far too complex to put on a page. That said, I occasionally take aspects of someone I know – mannerisms, tricks of speech, and so on – and use them in creating a character. And because I think very visually when I write, and see events as though they’re unfolding on film, I might pick an actor who could portray the character I’m creating and use them as a physical template. I did that with Leo Davies in the Caper Court books – in my mind’s eye he was the young (and at that time very dishy) Anthony Hopkins.
What’s your favourite word?
Not sure I have one. But I quite like the word ‘ludicrous’.
If you were a colour what would it be?
If she wants to wind me up, my daughter will occasionally tell me I’m in danger of becoming ‘beige’. But I like to think I’m more a soft, yet vibrant shade of yellow!
Do you plan your story beforehand or go with the flow?
I generally have a rough idea of the story, but I never plot too tightly. I like to be true to my characters and allow them to shape things. There will be times in a story when I’m about to have a character do or say something, and I’ll think – hold on, she wouldn’t do or say that, she’d do or say this instead. Characters really take a hold of you in that way. They become like real people, and you can’t let them act in a way that’s literally out of character. So that can take the story in an unexpected direction. I suppose the answer is that I tend to go with the flow, though there is always a point in a book, about two-thirds of the way through, where you have to start weaving plotlines together to bring it all to a satisfactory conclusion.
Who is your favourite Author?
Bit of a chestnut, but I suppose Charles Dickens. He never lets you down, he is a genius of a storyteller, he can command humour and pathos with equal brilliance, and has created some of the most memorable characters in fiction. Mind you, I could say much the same of Stephen King, who is a master of his craft.
You are attending a dinner party with four fictitious book characters who would they be and why?
Top of the invitation list would be Flashman, the anti-hero of my father George MacDonald Fraser’s wonderful historical novels. He’s sexy, amusing, and would have some great stories to tell. I reckon he’d probably get on pretty well with Scarlett O’Hara – I love her independent spirit and her determination to look after number one – so I’d have her there, too. And as I’ve always had a huge weak spot for him, please could I sit next to Bertie Wooster? Maybe to inject some elegance, mystery and the possibility of intrigue among the guests, I’d like to invite the Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. How she and Scarlett would get along is anyone’s guess, so maybe they should be seated at opposite ends of the table.
What book are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I’m reading Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory, as it’s my book club’s choice. Apart from that, I’m reading Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant. Most people have seen the film starring John Hurt, but the book itself is well worth a read – it’s a brilliantly witty, elegantly written gem, and an astonishing insight into what it was like to be gay in the unforgiving era when homosexuality was illegal. Also on my bedside table is London Fog, The Biography, by Christine L. Corton. It examines the history of air pollution in London and the depiction and influence of London fogs in English literature, and is ideal for dipping in and out of.
Where in the world is your happy place?
We have a cottage in the Isle of Man, where my parents used to live and where I went to school for a couple of years. The cottage stands on a remote headland overlooking a bay with a little beach, and has a wildflower meadow. The views are stunning, the air is wonderful, and lying in the meadow on a summer’s day it’s so quiet you can hear the swish of a gull’s wing as it flies overhead, and the buzz of insects in the grass. That’s my happy place.
If you had one superpower what would it be?
Invisibility. I suppose I should say something like superhuman strength so that I could go around doing heroic deeds and rescuing people, but I’d much rather be able to slip unseen in and out of places and find out what’s going on….
If you could give any literary villain a happy ending who would you chose?
I think it would be rather nice if Satan from Paradise Lost (who is, after all, a fallen angel) could see the error of his ways and get back together with God and become a force for good, rather than evil. It would save the world a lot of grief!
Are you working on a new project?
I’m happy to say I’m working on the sequel to The Summer House Party. Everyone knows that feeling of getting to the end of a book and wanting to know more. That’s the way I want my readers to feel, so that they need to find out what happens next with the characters. I’m often quite curious myself! I’m already halfway through it, and I’m even hoping it may lead to a third novel.
Do you have any upcoming events our members can attend?
Yes, I’ll be at Romance In The Court, hosted by Goldsboro Books in the delightful Cecil Court just off Leicester Square on May 25th from 6 – 9pm. I would love to meet readers – yours and mine! – so I do hope people will come along. https://www.goldsborobooks.com/event/romance-court-2017/
Thank you to Caro Fraser and Suzanne @HoZ_Books for this wonderful Q&A, come back soon.
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