International bestselling author Joanna Trollope joins us to talk about her latest novel. Balancing Act tells the story of Susie Moran, founder of a successful female-run family business, based in the Stoke-on-Trent potteries. But what will happen when the men in the family start to meddle? Joanna Trollope has written 17 bestselling novels, and was made an OBE for services to literature.
Q. What was the first book that you would say really struck a chord with you, and why?
A. Like so many people who grew up before the age of television and the ubiquitous screen, I can’t really remember NOT reading… And being a newly reading child immediately post-war, there weren’t a huge number of childrens’ books around, as books in general had been sent for salvage as part of the war effort. So, I ended up reading the books my mother and grandmother had grown up on, and I do remember being extremely struck by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, partly because the idea of having a respectful Indian servant seemed more fantastical than anything that happened in the story... In fact, over six decades on, I still think that!
Q. Was there someone, or something, who inspired you to first get into writing?
A. I don’t honestly think so. I was always spellbound by story itself, by narrative, and I didn’t really mind if I was being told stories or telling them myself. I think that realising that story is how we all live our lives – public as well as private – is probably what got me into writing.
Q. What role do you believe books and literature have to play in an age where so much of our time is dominated by technology?
A. I think books and literature are more important than ever. A screen – which renders the viewer essentially passive – doesn’t feed the imagination or expand the mind in the way that something on a page (paper or electronic) does, because on the latter, one is required to visualise people and places, and thus engage and participate. Technology will, I’m sure, calm down in a few years’ time to take its proper place as both a fantastic tool and just another way of reading or acquiring knowledge – but it is essentially limited, and therefore not as enriching to the heart and mind as works which demand more from the reader in the first place.
Q. What can people expect at your talk/event at the Plymouth International Book Festival?
A. I hope they will be entertained, stimulated and encouraged to read and discuss and argue and generally be reminded that books are where all the great ideas are.
Q. Do you look forward to talking to people about your work, and what is the one message you hope the audience will take away with them?
A. Always. I love meeting readers.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you could give to someone who thinks they have a story to tell but is unsure of how to go about it?
A. I think what aspiring novelists have to do is train their powers of human observation, because often the smallest details are the most telling in indicating thought or motive or character. So I always suggest carrying a notebook with you, in which to scribble down ideas, or snatches of conversation you might overhear, or descriptions of things you see, in order to make you acutely aware of what people give away by what they say, or wear, or do – or even by what they appear to be trying to hide! You have to become a sort of benevolent human sleuth – but never forget that you are on the side of humanity. You have to understand, even if you condemn some actions, that novelists are always at their most convincing when they make the reader see WHY someone behaves as they do, even if the behaviour is reprehensible. That way, the reality – and therefore believability – of fiction lies.
Q. If you were to recommend one book that people should read this year, what would it be and why?
A. I would recommend a wonderfully written non-fiction book, which is as easy and compelling to read as a good novel. It’s Charlotte Higgins’ Under Another Sky, which is her journey round the country discovering what remains of Roman Britain. It is extremely engaging, and makes one realise how powerfully the Roman occupation influenced even our lives here today.