Date posted: 15th November 2016 / Interviews
Literature Works caught up with Cassandra Parkin, author of the recently published (and Lit Works reviewed) Lily’s House to discuss the importance of the South West in her writing, how ‘magic’ and reality can blend in fiction and her number one tip for new writers…
We thoroughly enjoyed your latest novel Lily’s House. As a South West literature agency, we were particularly intrigued by its setting in Cornwall. Why did you choose to set your novel there and how important was a coastal location to your plans for the novel’s plot?
Thank you so much – I’m so pleased you enjoyed it!
My dad’s a Cornishman, and when I was growing up we spent every summer with my grandparents in Falmouth, five minutes from the beach and six minutes from the ocean. All my best memories are of the times we spent there, and the adventures we had, and the stories my parents and grandparents told my brother and me. Those memories are a part of everything I write, and now my parents have retired and moved back home to Falmouth, my and my brother’s families all pile down there to visit them at every opportunity we get. The sea is always there in my work, like an extra character in the plot; I don’t think the stories could work if they were too far away from the water.
All of my novels so far are set in real places in Cornwall that I’ve grown up loving. The Summer We All Ran Away was inspired by that beautiful / terrifying view that you get from the top of Quay Hill looking straight down a steep slope onto Custom House Quay in Falmouth (they’ve installed railings on the end of the Quay now, which I suppose makes sense from a safety point of view, but it still seems like a shame). The Beach Hut takes place mainly on Perranporth Beach, where we once had to run away from the Spring tide and where my mother was almost washed away.
Lily’s House is set in and around Grovehill House in Falmouth – a gorgeous, elegant building that’s been turning up in my dreams for literally as long as I can remember. I never name the places where my novels are set, because like all writers I have to make occasional small changes to suit the plot, but the real places are always there in my head while I’m writing.
Magic, witchcraft, connection to nature and elements of folklore were all key devices and themes in the novel. Can you say, do you feel that inclusion of these, particularly ‘magic’ or the elements of witchcraft allow you to explore certain plot points which may not have been realised or explored without them?
“Witchcraft” fascinates me because it’s such a feminine concept. For hundreds of years, “witchcraft” was a blanket pejorative used by established (male-dominated) authorities to suppress female knowledge and learning. A lot of traditional midwifery skills were designated as “witchcraft”, and women who practiced medicine were also condemned as witches – even women who knew about the properties of plants for dyeing or cooking could also fall under the “witch” label. But if you take away the special incantations and the nine-times-widdershins, what you sometimes find is some surprisingly effective pharmacology. That’s very much the character I wanted to create in Lily – someone who stands outside established authority, who has a wisdom of her own that comes from a totally different tradition, and who isn’t afraid to choose her own path.
At the same time, the magical, witchy elements of the book definitely provide a way to explore the strangeness and the mysteries that we all constantly encounter in our lives and can’t quite explain. One incident in the book – when Jen breaks her arm at school, and Lily calls her parents because she has a feeling Jen has been in an accident – actually happened to my mother. She fell over and broke her arm (I think she was climbing a tree or something), and about half an hour later her father called the office to ask if his daughter was all right. He’d never called the school before, and never did it again; he “just knew” something had happened.
Is that magic? I don’t know what it was really. It could have been anything, from simple coincidence, to unconscious observation of small clues, to some kind of genuine psychic connection between family members. I just know that moments like this seem to happen to most of us, throughout our lives, and I find it beautiful.
The novel features two children as central protagonists in the story: Jen (of the past who visits Lily’s house) and Marianne, Jen’s daughter. Both characters have been sheltered or to an extent over protected in their childhoods and both experience a new found freedom at Lily’s house. How important was it to have children at the centre of this novel which features quite dark and complex adult themes and just why is Lily’s house so symbolic to both characters?
What a great question! I think there are probably a few reasons why I felt so strongly that the children’s voices were important. For Jen, her relationship with Lily was formed and cemented during her childhood. Her life would have been very different without Lily in it, and a lot of who Jen is as an adult comes from her time with her grandmother.
Marianne is important because she’s the person who sees things most clearly. She has that surprising wisdom that we often lose as we get older. I think it’s easy for parents to think that we can somehow control or filter the world on behalf of our children – that their minds are blank pages, and our job is to fill them in. Of course, that’s not how it works, because children are people, and people watch other people, and form their own judgements and opinions. The moment when Jen discovers just how much Marianne has really seen and understood about her life is one of the most important in the book for me.
But for both Jen and Marianne, Lily’s house is a place of unexpected strength and new possibilities. Throughout her life, Lily showed Jen that you can make your life into whatever shape you want – you just have to find the will. Of course, with that power comes the potential for great darkness. If you’re going to be in control, you have to accept that you may also do damage. I didn’t realise it while I was writing it, but when I look back on it I suppose “Lily’s House” is a book about female autonomy and power.
At Literature Works we like to get a writer’s advice on completing that first draft. If you could offer one tip to new writers looking to get their first novel published, what would it be?
Ernest Hemingway rather comfortingly pointed out that “the first draft of anything is s***”. This is the truest and most beautiful piece of writing advice I know. Your first draft will, indeed, be s***. Doesn’t matter. Write it anyway. Keep going, keep going, just a little bit every day, and don’t look back until you reach the end.
Congratulations! Now you have a hot mess of words that only faintly resembles a finished novel. And that’s okay, because now you start the editing process, which is where your book becomes good. (Seriously. You’ll be amazed how much the process of editing will transform your work.) But no-one ever published half a novel, and you can’t edit what you haven’t written. Finish that first draft.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on next?
I’m currently editing my next novel, “The Winter’s Child”. It’s set in my home city of Hull and begins in a fortune-teller’s caravan on the last night of Hull Fair, where Susannah Harper receives an eerily specific prediction: her son Joel, who has been missing for five years, will finally come back to her on Christmas Eve.
Thank you Cassandra!