‘I did think about leaving Suffolk to move to Norfolk...’ Best-selling writer Erica James on the beauty of The Broads
- Credit: Archant
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You never know when inspiration will drop a golden nugget in your lap. It happened to best-selling author Erica James when she was in Norway, of all places.
She was taking part in a springtime book promotion in Oslo, and chatting to a man driving her around the capital city. Erica heard about a group of men, friends since school and now in their 60s. They were all still married to women they'd met early on, and none had moved very far from their roots. And, every year, they organised a holiday together.
Erica knew, immediately, that she had the germ of her 22nd novel.
Swallowtail Summer – a fictionalised tale, of course – is set on the Broads. Linston End (a made-up place, though likely to sound familiar to those who know the Horning area) has been a holiday home to three families for years and years. It doesn't feel as if anything will change.
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Then widower Alastair threatens to do just that, by telling his friends about the decisions he's made – decisions bound to shock them and send ripples through the still waters.
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Tell us more about how you came to visit the Broads, and where inspiration for the story came from…
'As with most of the books I've written, they've come about as a result of a chance encounter with a person, or a place.
'In the case of Swallowtail Summer, I had finished working on the manuscript for Coming Home to Island House and was in need of a short break. I had the urge to go somewhere completely new, but which wasn't too far away. The Norfolk Broads beckoned!
'The moment I glimpsed Wroxham and the River Bure I got the tingly feeling I always get when I sense a gift from heaven has just dropped into my lap. That sounds weird, I know, but it's happened to me so frequently I never ignore it.
'I returned some weeks later in July and stayed in lovely Horning for seven days. The holiday cottage I rented was right on the river and could not have been more idyllic. It was the perfect inspirational setting for Swallowtail Summer and, along with Horning, helped me create my fictional setting of Linston End.'
You were living in Lavenham when I came to see you at the start of 2015. Now you're closer to Bury St Edmunds. How come?
'I moved house last summer after I'd come to the conclusion that when I moved to Suffolk four years ago and downsized, I did so much too soon. I also wanted the creative challenge of a new garden.
'When I'm not writing, which is my main creative outlet, I can usually be found creating havoc in the garden with a spade and remodelling the space to put my own stamp on things.'
How did you decide where to go?
'I chose the village where I'm now living for its quiet rural setting, but really it was the house I fell in love with. It's the archetypal thatched cottage overlooking the village green – classic Miss Marple or Midsomer Murders territory.
'I keep waiting for my detective skills to be called upon, as I think, being naturally inquisitive, I'd make a very good Miss Marple!'
Was there ever a chance Suffolk might have lost you to Norfolk?
'I did think about leaving Suffolk to move to Norfolk, and I actually looked at a couple of properties on the Broads, having fallen for its distinctive charms while staying there to research my latest novel, Swallowtail Summer. But I decided it now wasn't the right time in my life to live that distance from London.
'Besides, Suffolk is where my heart is. I still have so much to explore; but the more I discover, the more I love the soft landscape with its uplifting sense of space, and characteristic colour-washed cottages.
'It's very different to where I've previously lived – Cheshire and Yorkshire, for instance – and of course the weather is much more amenable.
'If I had a magic wand to hand, the only thing I'd change would be the heavy clay soil in my garden, which is typical of this area.'
You've sold more than five-million books and had your writing translated into 13 languages. How does that feel?
'I don't really have time to dwell on the number of books I've sold; I'm too busy fretting over the one I'm presently writing.
'People assume that the writing process must get easier for me the more books I write, but it's not the case. With each new book I embark upon, it's akin to climbing another mountain, except the mountain is higher and steeper than the one before.
'With so many wonderfully loyal readers waiting for the latest book, there is always the internal pressure that I have to meet their expectations, or exceed them. Every time I finish a novel, there follows a period of great anxiety, but the only way to overcome it is to start work on the next book.'
Have you still got a glorious bolt-hole in Italy – and have you met a famous 'neighbour', yet?
'I'm so lucky to have my Lake Como apartment; I really do have to pinch myself that it's mine. For some years now it has been like a sanctuary to me, a beautiful place where I can write in peace and quiet, yet also enjoy the hurly-burly of the summer months when it's busy with tourists.
'And no, I have not yet bumped into its most celebrated visitor, George Clooney!
'Being close to water has a restorative effect on me; perhaps that's why I instantly felt so at home on the Norfolk Broads when I went there for the first time.'
When you've got a new book out, and set to sell well, can you take your foot off the pedal for a while, or are you always driven and pushing on?
'I know some authors who are able to take great chunks of time off between books, but I've never had that luxury. I take a good year to write a novel and when it's completed and sent off to my editor I'm then thinking hard about the next one.
'Sometimes I'm eager to lose myself in a new setting with new characters, but occasionally I'm reluctant to let go of the characters from the previous story because they've become so real to me, to the point of being good friends.
'I once did an interview in Oslo when I was promoting Song of the Skylark and when the interviewer started asking me questions about a particular character in the book who was very dear to me, I suddenly became quite tearful. Even now, when I remember writing the closing chapters of that book I get upset.'
Do you still adore Formula One motor-racing?
'Of course I'm still an F1 fan! How could I not be when Lewis Hamilton is driving so well, and when Kimi Räikkönen (a favourite) continues to get a seat in a car?
'It's going to be a terrific season with Charles Leclerc now driving for Ferrari. Things are going to be shaken up nicely.
'The only change I would make, and it's a selfish change, would be to alter the start time of some of the races – the ones which mean viewers here in the UK have to be up at crazy o'clock in the morning. I was up at 4.30am for the Melbourne Grand Prix, the opening race of the season.
'I'm hoping to go to the Japanese Grand Prix later this year, and, if the plan works out, I shall take my son and daughter-in-law, who live in Tokyo. They're not F1 fans, but they like the idea of doing something so completely different.
'My other son and his family now live in Seattle, so that's another place for me to visit and explore.'
'I'm working on a sequel to Coming Home to Island House, something I originally planned to do. I've moved the story along by 20 years, but with flashbacks to the years during the Second World War.'
You used never to read what people wrote about your books. Are you braver now?
'Call me a coward, but reviews are still a no-go area for me.'
Swallowtail Summer is published by Orion at £12.99. Other Erica James titles include Summer at the Lake, The Dandelion Years, and Song of the Skylark.