Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
Author Jan Harvey shares her route to writing her first novel, and her inspiration behind her latest latest book.
My name is Jan Harvey, I am an author and artist living in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. I moved here twenty-one years ago and live in a small, but thriving, village with my husband, Paul and flat-coated retriever, Byron.
I write historical fiction and love to immerse myself in the social history of both England and France. I am an avid reader and enjoy everything from the classics to modern gritty novels but, above all, I love a mystery.
When did you start to write?
I used to design, write and edit business publications, but as websites became the ‘new media’ I lost my job. I had been working in magazines all my life, (I had even helped to design the school magazine as a nine year old) and it was a fantastic career. I loved every moment, so losing it was very hard indeed.
I was very low but my husband, Paul, saw it all as an opportunity. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I said ‘write my novel.’ He encouraged me to crack on and do it although obviously I had to take a huge cut in income, which was hard. I re-trained as a creative coach teaching students both art and creative writing part time, but I had the space I needed to devote most of my time to my research. Slowly, the ideas began to form in my mind and the story eventually came to me.
What have been the challenges for you?
Writing a book is a huge challenge. As my friend Mike said, ‘Everyone can start a book, but few get to finish one.’ I attended every workshop and seminar I could and had a stroke of luck when The Chipping Norton Literary Festival was set up seven years ago. I had the opportunity to listen to publishers, authors and tutors in my local town, which was a joy. I read, researched and wrote copious notes and, in fact, the actual ‘writing’ of the book was the shortest and most stress free part of the process. The ideas just flowed and I wrote The Seven Letters in one go. It took about eight weeks and I was writing all day every day. What I did not realise was how much work there was to do after it was written. I drew on my career in marketing and public relations and applied everything I knew into getting my book out to its readers. That took the true grit and determination.
When was your first book published?
It was February 2017. I held a launch the previous autumn in The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock they were very accommodating and made the evening very special. I had done research there and we still have a lovely relationship. They took part in my most recent launch too and I raised money for them through a raffle.
The Seven Letters is about a female member of The French Resistance who is working under cover in a brothel in Paris. The idea came from a picture I found on the internet. I used it in the back of the book, I kept looking at it and seeing more and more detail until the story emerged in my mind and, as I read more about the women of the city and how they survived the Occupation in any way they could, I uncovered a part of history that the city has worked hard to erase.
What is the title of your latest book?
The Slow Death of Maxwell Carrick.
I wanted a completely individual title and you would not believe how hard it is to find one that has not been used. Its working title was The French Apartment but that had been usurped. The final title came to me towards the end and then I found out that using a person’s name in the title of a book is no longer the ‘done thing.’ So I thought, great I’ll do it!
What was the inspiration behind your latest book?
Many and various strands have come together for this book. Alongside the French Resistance I was learning about the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, who were working undercover in France. I wondered how what they were made to do as spies impacted on their lives in the long term. After all, they were mainly ordinary citizens made to do extraordinary things. I found out that many of them suffered mental health issues after the war and so I began to look at the after effects of combat and stress. My main character and narrator, Maxwell Carrick, has PTSD. Of course, in 1945 it was an undiagnosed condition, and I wanted him to have a voice on behalf of those people whose injuries cannot be seen.
The other big inspirations were my two lifelong passions; stately homes and horses. I knew I wanted to bring both together in my second book and I threw a flat-coated retriever in there too for good measure. He is based on my own dog Byron, who is extremely badly behaved when he’s out walking, but an angel in the house. He is a sort of Jekyll and Hyde type of a dog. Bringing all three elements together and using my own village has been a winning combination and having to make quite a few trips to Paris hasn’t exactly been a hardship either.
What can you share with us about the plot – without spoiling the ending!
It’s a time split novel about a newly retired woman called Martha who, after a life in publishing is faced with a feeling of loss. (They do say write about what you know!) Her husband and best friend, who are both still working, cannot relate to her feelings at all and are unsupportive.
Martha reluctantly becomes involved with a coffee table book the village history society are working on and discovers Lapston Manor and the Amsherst family who lived there during the war. Slowly she learns about the mysterious Madame Cécile Roussell and discovers that this close-knit family is torn apart by the very visitor they so warmly welcome into their midst.
Who are the key characters – and how do you hope readers over 50 will relate to them?
I know from early responses to The Slow Death of Maxwell Carrick that many people can relate to Martha’s situation. If you have loved your job and it has given you so much reward and excitement it is very hard to be forced to retire. I personally felt like Martha did and I knew the sense of loss she was experiencing.
The thing is you have no choice but to pick yourself up. What I didn’t realise then that I now understand is that a new career was awaiting me. Whilst I don’t advise people to write a book unless they have 100% commitment to the enormity of it as a project, I would say for certain that there are more opportunities out there than you can possibly imagine. Just working in your local community can be extremely rewarding and if it doesn’t exist then why not invent it?
What do like the most about the character/s you have created?
I admire Connie from The Seven Letters and Martha from the new book for their sheer tenacity. They are very like me, they both possess the journalist’s instinct to get to the heart of a story. Neither can give up until they have discovered the truth. I admire people like that, I worked with their sort in the past and I loved the film Spotlight for that reason.
I’m in love with Maxwell Carrick. Like the character Alice I want to wrap my arms around him and keep him safe. I also like Henry, the character we get to know through other people’s eyes. He is bold, strong and determined and he is my own personal tribute to the SOE.
Writing for an older audience
You have written in the main for an older audience, why is that?
I attended a workshop some years ago led by a young enthusiastic emerging author who possessed a high level of self-confidence. He told us that the last thing anyone wants to read these days is a book about a woman who is newly retired and having emotional problems whilst her family don’t understand her. He mocked the idea and said ‘don’t even go there with that plot!’
I was a little perturbed because I had just started writing a book about a woman who is newly retired and having emotional problems whilst her family don’t understand her! I went home and felt a bit, shall we say bruised?
Then I remembered the piece of advice I have held onto all my life. C S Lewis said: “Write the book you want to read.” It was sage advice from a truly great writing hero of mine and I stuck with it. That’s why The Slow Death of Maxwell Carrick is now published and why I am being thanked by ‘older readers’ for producing a book with characters to whom they can relate.
What do you want readers to take away having the read the book?
The bravery of the SOE and what they did along with how they suffered afterwards. The other message is that life does not end in your third age, it is full of possibilities and the chance of personal fulfilment.
What’s next for you – will there be a sequel with the same characters?
Next, is a family saga! I am currently researching my family history and have found something very interesting. I won’t spill the beans here but already the characters are forming and they are strong and feisty. It will be set in Anglesey, where the family come from and I have already fallen in love with the island. Visiting it was like coming home for me.
What 3 tips would you offer women looking to write their first book?
- Meticulous research. You have to get everything right particularly historical novels. However, research is fun.
- As CS Lewis said, ‘Write the book you want to read’ and the old maxim; ‘Write about what you know,’ is still the best piece of advice.
- Don’t expect to be snapped up by an agent or publisher. These days they have very set, market led ideas of what they are looking for in a novel. It’s very hard work getting their attention – unless you are a celebrity of course!
Signed copies of The Slow Death of Maxwell Carrick are available through Jan’s website:
You can follow Jan on facebook for all updates.
The Seven Letters and The Slow Death of Maxwell Carrick are both available on all platforms including kindle.