Monday, April 11, 2016

Interview with Clare Flynn, author of Letters from a Patchwork Quilt

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Clare Flynn to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Clare. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Letters from a Patchwork Quilt. 
Hi Erin, thank you for interviewing me today – I'm delighted to have the opportunity.

Letters from a Patchwork Quilt is the story of Jack and Eliza, who fall in love but are parted. They are desperate to be with each other but fate, in the form of a bad apple priest, conspires against them. Eliza ends up alone and penniless in America while Jack is forced into a loveless marriage when wrongly accused of impregnating his landlord's daughter. After being dealt such a bad hand the book is about the different ways they face up to adversity. Will they ever be reunited?

This is your third book, but the first set in the nineteenth century. What about this period appealed most to you? 
The Victorian period is one of the most dramatic periods of change in both Britain and the United States – a period of unprecedented innovation and invention, of empire building and of industrialization. It was a time when some individuals created and amassed huge wealth, yet also a time of great deprivation and suffering for others. Both the main cities where the story takes place, Middlesbrough in England and St Louis in the US, were undergoing massive growth, the former from the explosive growth of the iron and steel industry and the latter from the brewing industry. 

The story centers on Jack Brennan. What kind of person is Jack?    
Jack is a man who starts out with a passion for knowledge and learning, a stated ambition to be a teacher and a secret ambition to be a poet. His large Catholic family want him to be a priest like his brothers before him. A fight with his drunken father precipitates his running away to follow his dreams. He starts the book full of hope and hunger to succeed but life deals Jack some very hard blows and, despite his good intentions, he becomes, like the father he despised, increasingly dependent on alcohol. His life is shaped by his love for Eliza and his separation from her and the challenges of making ends meet while supporting his family. Modern eyes can be critical of some of the choices Jack makes – but it was a very different and tougher world then.

Jack’s life is impacted by two very different women. How do Eliza Hewlett and Mary Ellen MacBride differ? 
Eliza is the love of his life. She is a fellow teacher, has no family, but is optimistic, joyful and resourceful – and very much in love with Jack. Until she is separated from him she has never set foot outside Bristol – although she had always dreamed of travelling. She is ill-equipped to be cast adrift alone in America – but discovers inner strengths to adapt to her new circumstances. 

Mary Ellen comes from a more privileged background. Her widowed father is a tobacco importer in Bristol, a wealthy man and a benefactor to the Catholic church. Mary Ellen has some learning difficulties – she struggles to read and write, and lacks what we would nowadays call emotional intelligence. She has lost her mother and has a difficult relationship with her father, who both spoils her and belittles her. The tragedy for Mary Ellen is that she wants to be loved, but is incapable of offering the marriage of minds that Jack craves. 

What theme from the story do you most hope strikes a chord with your readers?
All my books deal with the theme of displacement, of people being plucked out of a comfortable life and flung into new challenging circumstances. Both Jack and Eliza are thrust out of a happy life where they were looking forward to a shared future. The difference in how they deal with that is the core theme of the book. How much of that difference is down to character and how much to their circumstances? It is easy to be critical of Jack – he is a flawed man – but I would like my readers to empathize with him, warts and all. 

What sort of research went into Letters from a Patchwork Quilt? What sources did you find most valuable? 
I take a lot of inspiration from location. I visited both Middlesbrough and St Louis. But just going there is not enough - especially in the case of Middlesbrough, as so much of the Victorian housing was demolished in the 1960s in slum clearance programs. My start point was historian Asa Briggs's Victorian Cities – Middlesbrough is one of the five cities he features. From this I stumbled on an out-of-print book, At the Works by Lady Florence Bell, (published 1907) which tells the stories of the Middlesbrough iron workers and their wives and families. This fascinating book offered insights into housing, poverty, the Temperance movement, earnings, pastimes, illness, education and more.  I also had books of 19th century photographs of the cities and one on the history of the brewing industry in St Louis. I backed up all this with online research into all manner of things including contemporary maps of all the cities involved, train travel in the period - including timetables and routes, transatlantic shipping, horse-drawn trams and much more. I also made a collection of images on Pinterest.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
It's hard to answer that - I've just finished my next book so that's more fresh in my mind. I enjoyed writing the scenes between Jack and Gertrude, the woman he meets on the beach. I liked Gertrude and even though her role was relatively minor I wanted her to have a real voice. I also wanted their relationship to be problematic and ambiguous and for Jack to be unintentionally cruel to her. She has lived all her life in Middlesbrough and longs to escape but knows she never will – as such she is a lens through which we see the town. She is also the means for Jack to temporarily escape the squalor and ugliness of the town, introducing him to the nearby coastline. His treatment of her destroys this one outlet she has to make her life bearable.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
The scenes onboard ship were a challenge. I rewrote them several times. In the first draft Eliza toughened up too quickly and Dr Feigenbaum was too assertive. It was important to strike a balance between her grief at being separated from Jack and her determination to make the best of things and between Dr Feignebaum's evident fascination with Eliza and his natural introversion. 

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
I would have liked to spend more time with Clementina, Jack's youngest child. I may return to her one day and let her have her own story as an adult. 

In my first drafts of the book I had a contemporary 2015 story including a character I killed off altogether. This was on the advice of my editor who got it spot-on. It was a classic case of 'kill your darlings' and pained me at the time but I'm so glad I did it.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Letters from a Patchwork Quilt and if so, what did you alter? 
As I don't write about real people I have less of a problem with this. I use the historical period as a backdrop to the fictional story. I often invent places based on real ones, using invented names to give me more leeway, but as Letters from a Patchwork Quilt is set in large cities I felt less constrained and decided to stick to real places. I hope I have been true to them.

I worked hard to find an exact timetable and route for Eliza's rail journey from New York to St Louis including writing to transport historians but in the end couldn't pin it down exactly, given the plethora of different railroad companies at the time, so I took my best guess. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
It would have to be Jack – but not over drinks! I'd feel guilty offering him a glass of wine – probably better to join him for a coffee. We'd talk about alcohol and whether the tendency for excess is in the blood (especially for those of us with Irish ancestry!) or is it a controllable weakness. In his case how much of his drinking was an act of defiance and self assertion over Mary Ellen? I'd ask him about Clementina and what was it about her that made them closer than any other of his children. Was his failure to follow through with his plans in Liverpool down to his weakness with drink or his fear that he might be disappointed?  If there was one single thing he would do differently in his life what would it be?

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, who would you hire? 
Ooh yes! For Jack it has to be James Norton who is the hot property over here in Britain - he's just starred in War and Peace for the BBC. I'll go with Carey Mulligan for Eliza as she combines vulnerability with toughness and looks great in period costume. Ruth Wilson to play Mary Ellen as she can be mean and sulky! And Bryan Cranston as Dr Feigenbaum.

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
My next book, The Green Ribbons, went to the editor last week – always a mixture of joy and terror! It will be published in the spring. I haven't started on book number 5 yet – I'm about to move house so I'm giving myself a break – and hoping that my new surroundings by the seaside will inspire me. Right now I haven't a clue what it's going to be about.  

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"The story is different, original and touching. It's interesting to read how the lives of Jack and Eliza unfold in different countries. The plot is powerful, the characters are well sketched, memorable, and their personalities will remain in the minds of readers even after they finish the story. It's a story of love, loss and tragedy; a heartbreaking and moving tale where readers will wish to see Jack and Eliza reunited and happy together. The narration is descriptive; it also speaks about the society that existed during that age and pulls readers into the story. It's well written and the story is not predictable, making it a engaging read." - Readers' Favorite

"I could almost feel the heat of the blast furnaces as I was reading! This is what I love about the author's writing style. She sets the scene with vivid descriptions, giving you a not only a visual feel for a place but also the smells, sounds and atmosphere. She is also not afraid to give her characters weaknesses which makes them all the more believable. A very poignant story with well written characters, it kept me reading until well after my bed time." - Debbie Richardson, Goodreads Reviewer

"It was a emotional journey following the turbulent lives of Jack and Eliza. Their paths lead the reader from Bristol, England to New York city and St. Louis. It is a must read for lovers of stories about star crossed lovers and how they are forced to face their destines." - Elaine, Goodreads Reviewer

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A former global marketing director, Clare lives in west London and now runs a successful strategic management company although much of her time these days is taken up with writing. She is a fluent Italian speaker and loves spending time in Italy. In her spare time she likes to quilt, splash about with watercolours and travel as often and as widely as possible.

Her first novel, A Greater World, is set in the Blue Mountains of Australia in the 1920s. Kurinji Flowers is set in colonial India on a tea plantation in the years before Independence 

Clare is one of the founders of Make it and Mend it, a website dedicated to living creatively and sustainably by making and mending things instead of the endless cycle of buying and then binning things. Make it and Mend it, written jointly with her co-founders, Hilary Bruffell, Clare O'Brien and Anne Caborn is published by David & Charles.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads ❧  Pinterest ❧  Blog

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1 comment:

Clare Flynn said...

Thank you for interviewing me, Erin, and asking such great questions