LIZ TRENOW: THE FORGOTTEN SEAMSTRESS TOOK 15 DRAFTS
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Liz Trenow’s life was always linked to the silk. Her family has been related for ages with it. This is one of the reasons how she found a very interesting case that inspired her latest book The Forgotten Seamstress. The novel was published in 2013 and was accepted very well by the readers. Currently the book stands with average 4.5 Amazon stars from 270 plus reviews.
We are proud to introduce to you our next guest Lady Liz Trenow.
– What is your next book The Forgotten Seamstress about?
– At its simplest, the book is about how the events of the past reverberate into the present and future. In this case, the past events are the story of an extraordinary woman, Maria, growing up in the early 20th century. Like so many women of the time, the path of her life is very much in the hands of others. But she uses the one power she has – her ability to sew beautiful things – to tell her story, through a quilt.
The present and future are embodied in the character of Caroline, a thirty-something metropolitan woman who, like many of today’s women, has almost too many choices. But her life is at a crossroads – her relationship has finished and she’s been made redundant from her well-paid but soulless job – and it takes the distraction of inheriting the quilt, and unearthing its story, for her to discover what she really wants from life.
– How did you decide to write the story?
– I have always been fascinated by quilts and the way that they hold hidden stories in their fabrics and designs, but it took the discovery of a particular piece of fabric to inspire me a novel in which a quilt is a central ‘character’.
I was visiting the internationally famous Warner Textile Archive in Braintree, Essex to research the history of my family’s silk weaving company, when I chanced upon a case of the ‘May Silks’: beautiful cream and white damasks and brocades, some with interwoven gold and silver threads, hand-woven for the trousseau of Princess May for her wedding to the heir to the British throne in 1893. Sadly, the Duke of Clarence died just six weeks before the wedding and, with typical royal pragmatism, it was decided that she should instead marry his younger brother George, who later became King George V and the May silks were used for this occasion instead. The silks were so entrancing and the story so intriguing that I knew they would have to feature in my next novel.
To ensure that the quilting details were right, I needed an expert, and was fortunate enough to be introduced to the internationally-acknowledged Suffolk quilter, teacher and author: Lynne Edwards, MBE. Lynne has also written guidelines for anyone wishing to make ‘Maria’s quilt’, which are available for free on my website at http://www.liztrenow.org.
– What was the biggest challenge during the writing process?
– The main challenge was to ensure that the ‘voice’ of each character was consistent and true to the period.
For Maria’s story, I steeped myself in Victorian literature and other novels set in the time, as well as books of social history. All that research reaped wonderful rewards: her narrative seemed to flow onto the page and I could almost hear her voice in my head telling me what to write. However, my contemporary character, Caroline, was more elusive, since I am neither. For this I turned to my two daughters, both of whom are around that age, and live and work in London.
The basic plot challenge was in making sure that the links between the narratives make sense and didn’t give away too much of the mystery. If you introduce too much mystery through unlinked narratives, and readers will soon get confused and turned off. Making the dates work properly, especially if they need to fit with actual historical events, is also sometimes quite tricky – you can be sure an eagle-eyed reader will find you out if you don’t!
Because of the passage of time, my two characters could not have actually met, so I had to find a way for Caroline to learn Maria’s life story. Maria’s was definitely an ‘aural’ or spoken voice and I still hadn’t worked out how Caroline, would have been able to ‘hear’ her, a century later.
While researching the history of Severalls Mental Asylum, the model for Helena Hall in the novel, I came across a remarkable piece book by the sociologist and author Diana Gittins called Madness in its Place (Routledge 1998), in which she quoted from her recordings with staff and patients. These first-hand accounts really brought the place and the people to life and, in one of those light-bulb moments, I realised that this was exactly what I needed to do with Maria.
So I created a character – Professor Patsy Morton – who had undertaken a research project not unlike that of Diana Gittins’, although a couple of decades earlier. This was the perfect way of allowing Caroline – and the reader – to hear Maria’s story first hand. This was my ultimate reward: although we never properly ‘meet’ her in the book, the tapes enabled me to feel that I really knew her – I hope this is the same for you.
– Tell us something more about your main character Caroline and Maria? Are they close to someone from your real life?
– I am often asked this question but the truth is that most writers are like jackdaws: we steal physical looks, personality characteristics and verbal rhythms from everyone we meet or observe, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and put them together to make an entirely unique whole
Maria is unlike any specific person I have ever met, but her character and her voice just seemed to come into my head. She is strong and feisty in the way that many working women from that era seemed to be. Life was stacked against them but they won through, somehow, against all odds.
Caroline is named after my literary agent and my English editor, both of them strong, clever and ambitious metropolitan women in their thirties. But she isn’t really like either of them, because they are clear about what where they are going, while my character is at a crossroads in her life.
– How much time did you need to finish the story and to publish it?
– Maria’s voice was so compelling that I wrote her sections very quickly. But making it work as a whole took longer – 15 drafts in all – and the whole writing time was around a year. The publication process usually takes another six months for proofing, cover design, pre-promotion etc.
– Give us some insight about your other two books The Poppy Factory and The Last Telegram?
– The Last Telegram was my debut novel, and for inspiration I turned to the history of my family who have been silk weavers for nearly 300 years. The plot was inspired by the memories of my father about weaving parachute silk in the Second World War and the true story of how, before the declaration of World War Two, the family saved the lives of five German Jewish boys by sponsoring them to come to England and work as silk weavers.
The Poppy Factory was written in response to the anniversary of the start of the First World War in 2014. Instead of writing a ‘trenches’ novel, I wanted to try to reflect the impact of that terrible, bloody war on people at home: the wives, mothers and the returning soldiers themselves. The main source of inspiration was the red poppy, which has become such a powerful symbol of remembrance in the UK, and how in 1922 a remarkable man called Major George Howson MC, an engineer and veteran of the Western Front, set up the real-life Poppy Factory to give work to disabled veterans. The organisation is still going strong today, producing millions of poppies, wreaths and crosses at their base in Richmond, Surrey.
– Who are you (Would you describe yourself with few sentences)?
– I was born and brought up in Suffolk, England, living next door to the family’s silk mill in which my father and brother worked, and which is still weaving today. The company can be traced back to 1720 so you could say that silk is in my blood! My artist husband and I have two grown-up daughters and I have spent much of my life working as a news journalist for newspapers, BBC radio and television.
We now live in Colchester, Essex, the first Roman capital of Britain (we still have a Roman wall and lots of temples!). When I’m not writing, I love spending time with friends and family, going to the theatre and to concerts of classical music – ah yes, and I am a singer (choral, not solo!)
– What are your writing habits?
– I write each day from about 9am to 2pm, then stop for lunch. After lunch my creative brain slows down so I will then do research, further reading or administrative tasks. Writing has become addictive for me. If I don’t write I feel itchy and restless!
– Are you satisfied by the sales of your books?
– I am delighted! The Last Telegram sold very well in the UK and then was picked up by publishers in America and Germany. The Poppy Factory has been a best-seller in the UK too. But The Forgotten Seamstress has sold better than I could ever have imagined: a few weeks ago it was at #18 in the New York Times best-seller list, and is currently topping the Amazon Kindle charts in the US. It has also been translated into German, Italian and now Bulgarian!
– What are you doing to promote your book by the best possible way?
– I spend a good deal of time on promotion: doing interviews, writing articles, blogs, appearing on radio and television, using Twitter and Facebook. I also do many book festivals and other talks – people are so much more likely to buy your books if they meet you face to face. I would love to do a book tour in Bulgaria!
– When we will see your next novel and would you unveil something more about it?
– I have just completed my fourth novel, The Master Piece, which is set among the Huguenot silk weavers in 18th century London, where my family’s silk business started. I have thoroughly enjoyed researching the background history for the book because it was a time of great social and industrial unrest. It has not been offered to publishers yet, so I don’t have any publication dates.
– Did your journalistic experience help in your writing?
– Yes and no! When I started writing fiction I thought, perhaps naively, that my experience as a journalist would help. But in fact journalistic writing is so different that I had to ‘unlearn’ a lot of my old habits. For example, I had to learn how to spend time describing people and places, so that the reader can really visualise them, and become a part of them. I had to learn how to write dialogue in a naturalistic way (having worked in radio helped with this) and how to pace a piece of writing far longer than anything I had ever written before.
I also discovered, paradoxically, that instead of writing dramatic events in a faster, more pacey way, you need to slow down – in the way that big moments in our lives seem sometimes to happen in slow motion!
On the other hand, having been a journalist means I am not afraid of a blank page or a deadline!
– You’ve been raised next to the silk milk. Would you tell us three interesting facts about the silk that are not so popular?
– Silk is one of the strongest and toughest fibres in the world. It has a strength of between around five grams per denier compared with three grams per denier for steel wire.
The fibre has antiseptic properties and was often used for surgical dressings before the advent of chemical antiseptics and antibiotics.
The Caterpillar Club is an international organisation whose membership is limited to those whose lives have been saved by parachutes. It is so named because the caterpillar of the silk moth can lower itself to the ground by the silk thread it spins.
– If you may ask yourself one question in the interview what it will be?
– Did you ever anticipate that after a long career in journalism and at an age when most people would be retiring, you might become a bestselling author whose books have been translated into half a dozen languages? Answer: Never in a million years. I still don’t really believe it!