Cuckoo in the Writer’s Nest: Guest Post by Sarah Vincent

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Today I am delighted to welcome Sarah Vincent, author of ‘The Testament of Vida Tremayne’ (which I review here) to my blog. Sarah is responding to some questions I asked about her key characters, their relationships to each other, and her creative process. I love that she has wrapped up her answers in this fascinating post.

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Most fiction writers I know get questioned about their main characters. Where did he or she come from, how did you think of her, and most worrying of all – she isn’t based on me is she? Of all the characters I’ve written about, none has aroused more curiosity than Rhiannon. So it was no surprise when Jackie, sending me possible themes for this blog, asked: ‘I wondered where Rhiannon came from.’

One lovely friend of mine thought I’d based Rhiannon on her. I had trouble reassuring her otherwise.

‘But the hazel eyes and the hugs’ she said. Yes, but apart from the hazel eyes, now gazing at me in a distressed fashion, and the comforting hugs they had not a thing in common.

The truth is that Rhiannon isn’t based on any of my family, friends, and acquaintances – honestly folks. She walked into the novel uninvited much as she walked into Vida’s cottage. And yet I knew she was there all the time. Kind of. It took me a while to realise this. Maybe I was three chapters in to building her character when it came to me – oh oh – it’s that woman again!

Looking back over my fiction, I saw that Rhiannon has turned up in various guises. There she is in a short story: ‘The Centipede’ published in an edition of Best New Horror, masquerading as Elsa the ex-pat living in rural Spain who annihilates her sister-in-law. In fact she turns up in my work with alarming frequency.

In ‘The Testament Of Vida Tremayne’ she is many things: the caring earth-mother, the fan who turns friend, the creative guru, the new-age counsellor, the saviour, the fiend. It took me a while to recognize her for what she actually is – an archetype of the Dark Mother, capable of both nourishment and destruction.

So why do I keep returning to this theme? Female relationships; friends, sisters, mothers and daughters, intrigue me, perhaps because women are more likely to conceal their true face to the world than men are. But I suppose it’s this business of female power which I find so interesting. What is it that makes one person able to dominate another to the point of extinction? Even more interesting, why does the weaker party allow it to happen? The controlling male who bullies his wife and kids is familiar in film and fiction, and we all know how that one ends. With women such power-games are more insidious, and ultimately more chilling. Just think of Zoe Heller’s brilliant ‘Notes on a Scandal’ for instance. In my work, this game tends to take on a supernatural aspect, but I’d guess the origins are rather more prosaic. In my younger days, I was a timid soul, shrinking in a corner at parties, blushing and tongue-tied. Probably for this reason, I seemed always to attract, stronger outgoing personalities, who I then found hard to shake off.

Another reason I brought in Rhiannon is that I’m naturally drawn to cuckoo-in-the-nest scenarios. Rhiannon’s purpose is unclear at first, yet she’s very much the cuckoo. The fact that the ‘nest’ belongs to an author heightens the stakes further. Vida is one of those novelists whose home is a place of retreat, so any invasion of her sanctuary is even more unsettling.

This is one of the reasons Vida needed to be a writer. That said, I’ll make a confession; Vida needed to be a writer because I also wanted to explore the creative process. Where does it come from? And trespassing into dangerous territory here I know, do the constraints of today’s publishing industry dampen creative freedom? That’s a topic I had a bit of fun with in this novel.

Back to the nest though, and daughter Dory is left to guard it whilst Vida’s in hospital. Which brings me to the mother-daughter relationship, another aspect people, including Jackie have commented on. So, mothers and daughters. Best friends or enemies? It’s rarely that simple and I wanted to cut through the sentiment and deal with the often fraught undercurrents as honestly as I could.

Finally, I hope I haven’t made Vida’s story sound like a tick-box process. In truth, it was, as someone once put it rather like, ‘setting off to sea without a compass.’ For me at least, it can take several drafts to see the themes emerge. Analysis comes later. That’s what makes writing a novel so exciting. I don’t know what I want to write until it’s written.

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The Testament of Vida Tremayne is published by Three Hares Publishing and is available to buy now.

Book Review: The Testament of Vida Tremayne

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The Testament of Vida Tremayne, by Sarah Vincent, tells the story of a faded writer and a supposed fan who inveigles herself into Vida’s life to offer practical care and help reignite her stalled creativity. It also explores the sometimes difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, the grudges that linger from childhood.

Vida’s daughter, Dory, felt sidelined by her mother’s writing, resentful that their family life revolved around Vida’s need for peace and solitude in order to work. She believes that a character in Vida’s best selling novel – a spoiled, selfish, nasty piece of work with few redeeming features – is based on her.

Dory runs a successful property search business in London. She lives alone having recently separated from her boyfriend who struggled to accept that she would always put her business first.

The story opens with Dory returning to her mother’s lonely cottage on the Shropshire-Welsh border, “a no-man’s land of misty horizons fit only for sheep.” Vida called it the Gingerbread Cottage as it reminded her of the setting of her prize winning novel and was bought with the proceeds from this book.

That was before, when Vida lived with her family and sought a peaceful sanctuary in which to write. Now her daughter has moved away, establishing herself in the city. Last year Vida’s husband left her to move to France with his new partner. Vida has written nothing of note since.

It is a cold and desolate January. Vida lies catatonic in a hospital. Worried about her mother Dory had reluctantly travelled to the cottage and found Vida on the floor of the kitchen surrounded by blood and feathers. She has no idea what caused this breakdown. The doctors cannot yet say how likely it is that Vida will ever recover.

Dory enters the cold, damp cottage and finds it occupied by a stranger, an earth mother type who introduces herself as Rhiannon Townsend. She tells Dory that she is a friend of Vida’s who has been staying to help out. Shocked and upset by recent events Dory accepts Rhiannon’s presence, pleased that her mother had a friend but discomfited by how at home this unexpected guest appears to be.

Dory struggles with her desire to return to the business she has worked so hard to build in London and her concern for her mother’s health. Rhiannon encourages Dory to leave if she wishes, assuring her that she will care for Vida as she has been doing for the past three months. Each solicitude contains an undercurrent of criticism, each criticism hitting Dory’s suppressed guilt that she, the daughter, should have been the one to offer her mother care.

Through Vida’s diary the reader is taken back three months to the circumstances under which Rhiannon entered her life. She introduced herself as an avid fan at a time when Vida had few taking notice of her books. Insidious manipulations masked by flattery and concern hone in on Vida’s loneliness, on every failing she feels but tries to hide from the world.

The power play between the women is revealed gradually. The rooms in the cottage are as seats around the table of a king, occupation of the throne shifting and unclear. As rain and snow beat down outside, the isolation of each is palpable.

This is a tale where the journey is as intriguing as the denouement. The author lays bare the recognisable human weaknesses of Vida and Dory: their selfishness at odds with their desire to be better; their yearning for appreciation; the oft conflicting bonds of friendship and blood.

As the tension builds and Rhiannon’s motivations are revealed I wondered who would survive. Her ability to hide behind polite society’s unwillingness to probe too deeply into another’s life disturbs. The twists at the end were darkly perfect.

The layers of plot, perceptiveness and character development make this a difficult book to slot into a genre. It is a psychological thriller but so much more. As a mother and a daughter I felt uncomfortable with much of what was explored. It gets under the skin; it is powerful writing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Q&A with Three Hares Publishing

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Today I am delighted to welcome Yasmin from Three Hares Publishing to my blog. I discovered this publishing house through one of their authors, Sarah Vincent, whose book, The Testament of Vida Tremayne, I plan to review later this week.

The Three Hares website contains a mood bar to assist potential readers:

“The mood bar came from the inspiration that choosing a book is often down to how you feel and not think, books are a direct connection to how we feel.”

Let us find out more about a small press which aims to offer the book each reader will enjoy on that day.

1. Why did you decide to set up Three Hares?

Three Hares Publishing launched with 6 titles in May 2014. Three Hares was a concept I had been considering for a long time, having been a literary agent for 12 years and seeing how the industry was changing. I wanted Three Hares to have an ethos which embraced ebook technology and based the emphasis on choosing books back into the hands of the reader.

Three Hares website has a mood bar, this enables readers to choose books according to how they are feeling. Feelings are very much an integral part of reading. One can re-read the same book over and over, yet, feel differently each time, this makes reading the work subjective and it all depends on how the reader is feeling at the time.

2. What sort of books do you want to publish?

I love publishing books which are thought provoking in some way, whether they make you laugh, cry, shudder or evoke some emotion, this means you have really connected with the characters and you cannot put the book down! Characters with strong distinctive voices are vital, this means the reader is hearing the characters voice and not the voice of the author, this makes a huge distinction and it comes across instantly. Beautifully crafted stories will always have an immediate impact, as will stories touching on universal themes such as love, I am particularly interested in stories with a moral basis, such as One Thousand and One Nights, any story with a twist or moral will have me hooked immediately.

3. How do you go about finding and signing authors?

I receive submissions from new authors and some authors who are already published. Submissions are an integral part of discovering new voices. I am still very clingy about my submissions, discovering a new author is an incredible buzz. The anticipation of hearing their voice on the phone and meeting them in person and looking for their characters in them and being able to wax lyrical about their novel is a joy.

In February 2016, Three Hares acquired The Choice by Valerie Mendes. This is a philosophical and moving historical saga set in 1930’s Oxford. It very lightly touches on the abdication of Edward VII. The Choice has one of the most wonderful protagonists in Eleanor. Valerie, has woven a stunning spell through the novel.

4. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

I do consider Three Hares to be very different from other independent publishers, primarily due to the way it operates and because I never ever view it as an independent publisher, it is Three Hares and there is no limitation on it remaining an independent publisher. It’s all about the stories and not the status of Three Hares.

5. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

Three Hares has been fortunate enough to publish original titles and this has enabled it to grow organically. In response to your question, totally original please, I don’t believe in following trends, I am lucky enough to be able to publish books I truly believe in and absolutely love, trends don’t allow you to express yourself in that way. If I followed trends, I would be publishing books which I don’t necessarily believe in.

6. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

Both please! There is a huge market for ebooks and hard copies, both should be able to reside in harmony, I take a very mindful approach to this issue.

7. Do you consider Three Hares to be niche or mainstream?

I consider Three Hares to be very much mainstream, it’s all about publishing great stories and they are not niche stories, I love huge all encompassing universal themes. There are publishers who specialise in niche titles, because it is their area of expertise.

8. Collaborative or dictatorial?

Collaborative every time, even the way Three Hares is structured is collaborative, this was always the intention. Teamwork is so much more conducive to creativity.

9. Plans for the future?

Plans for the future involve looking into more global distribution networks. UK and Ireland logistics are in place. I will also be publishing a further 4 titles this year and have plans for many more next year. Onwards and upwards, without a backward glance!

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Thank you Yasmin for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: Three Hares Publishing | Original, hand-picked books

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: Threeharesbooks (@threeharesbooks)

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If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers