woman&home asked Harriet Evans about her journey to becoming a bestselling author, find out why she proudly displays Golden Girls DVDs, and reveal tantalising details about her latest book…
Harriet Evans is no newbie to the world of writing. In fact, she’s written a whopping 12 books over the course of her career.
Writing, it seems, is in her blood. Her father was formally an editor at a publishing house behind some of the most successful and prolific writers, such as Jodie Picoult and John Grisham.
But, after decades working in publishing herself, Harriet decided she could no longer deny herself the time to write her own books and pursue becoming an author. Fast forward a few years, and she’s just finished her newest novel, The Garden of Lost and Found, which is out now.
The story begins with Liddy Horner in her happy family home, Nightingale House. The year is 1919, and Libby makes the shocking discovery that her husband, Sir Edward, has burnt his bestselling painting, just days before his sudden death. The painting was his greatest work. Years in the future, the couple’s great-granddaughter, Juliet, sets about uncovering the secret that shattered Ned’s happiness…
Intrigued? We certainly are! We chat to Harriet Evans about her career path, her writing methods and what issues play on her mind…
Tell us about your journey to becoming a published author…
I was an editor at a publishing house and started writing a book in the mornings before work. I’d get up at 6am and write for an hour and a half. Now I think I must have been mad, but I had to do it. I’d been wanting to write all my life, and it was just a thing of knowing I couldn’t put it off any more.
I was sick of reading awful books on submission that went on to sell for loads of money. I still write the books I want to read, that’s the thing.
However, I lost the first novel I was writing when my hard drive failed. I woke up one morning and turned the very old laptop on and the whole thing had gone. Yes. 30 000 words. So I had to buy a new computer and I had a year to make some money back. I started over again – and it was much better as a result – then submitted it anonymously to an agent, worked with him for a bit and then he sent it out to publishers, several offered, and I was lucky enough to get a deal.
I was lucky throughout as I worked in publishing and knew I was ‘allowed’ to do it. Lots of people think they can’t, that they’re not clever enough, they’re not right. They’re wrong.
How do you develop your characters and make them feel authentic?
A book is nothing if the characters aren’t utterly believable. I spend a lot of time thinking about them and, if the book isn’t working, I stop and spend a day getting to know a character who is troubling me. I’ll build up a past history for them, write something in their voice, find photos of someone who looks like them… it all really helps. None of it goes in the book, but it ends up making the story credible to me as author.
Tell us about three books that changed you and your outlook on life…
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – I read it when I was 22 and couldn’t believe such a glorious story existed and I’d never read it before. It is still my favourite book. It’s so comforting, but also really dark and odd.
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind – I was absolutely obsessed with it from the age of 14 to 18. Totally immersive fiction. I wouldn’t recommend it now though; it’s just too weird in its romanticising of the Deep South.
He’s Just Not That Into You – that book really did change me from someone who wanted to persuade people into liking me into someone who had the self-worth to believe I shouldn’t go out with men who were foolish enough not to want to go out with me! I owe it a lot.
What are the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve ever been given?
The best piece of advice came from a friend who works in TV. I was describing how I’d got stuck with editing my novel a few years ago: all I saw was how bad it was. He was trying to understand what I meant and he said thoughtfully, “So it’s a bit like when the camera is being moved after one particular shot, and you pull it up and out of focus to move it, and in that second you see everything in the studio. It’s really blurry and indistinct but you can see everything. I always like seeing everything, even if it is all wrong.”
I love that. It reminds me that writers panic too easily. You have to go wrong to go right. Enjoy the chaos of it being out of focus for a while, instead of panicking that it’s wrong.
The worst piece of advice? I did once have three sets of editorial notes from my editor, my agent, and a junior editor. They all pointed out different things that were wrong with the book and suggested different ways to fix it. It nearly finished me off as an author.
What feminist issues do you think are most pressing today?
Mainly that women are asked these questions instead of asking men for once! The women I know are tying themselves in knots about work/life balance, gender pay gaps, raising their girls in the ‘right way’ and I never once see men being asked: what can you do?
That, and the way the cultural gatekeepers are men. I grew up being told both insidiously and overtly that women weren’t funny, that books and music by men were worth more than women, and that decisions made by men were more likely to be right just because their voices were lower, basically. That is changing slowly, but in the meantime it is a vast relief to display my copies of Georgette Heyer and my Golden Girls DVDs with pride.
Bestselling author Harriet Evans’ book The Garden of Lost and Found is available from R180.00 at exclusivebooks.co.za.