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Interview with Penelope Evans 2007

 

Image: Author, Penelope EvansSilence perfect for Penelope
By Chris High

Writers are often to told to develop their individual voice. How then does an author develop a character who does not have a voice with which to express themselves? This is a problem that has been intriguingly solved by Buckinghamshire based novelist, Penelope Evans, in her fifth book to date, My Perfect Silence, recently published by Allison & Busby in paperback.

In the book, the central character, Rose, is 29 years old and has been haunted by the death of her baby brother for a quarter of a century. As a schoolgirl, Rose takes a vow of silence and nothing since has broken through. The only constant in her life has been her older brother, Max. He looked after her then and looks after her now, but his own life is turning upside down, despite his fame and success, as his fiancée is murdered and the inevitable finger of blame points again to Rose.

‘I liked writing Rosie’s silence because it made her a watcher and a listener,’ Penelope explained. ‘Through her eyes, the reader can observe others as closely as she does. She sees and hears everything, even when she doesn’t understand. There’s a mystery in the book, but the solution is being paid out right from page one, simply in what Rosie has observed.’

My Perfect Silence took a year to write from conception to completion, thanks in no small part to Penelope’s pre-planning and her ability to draw from experience. ‘I’ve become faster with the last three books I’ve written – mostly because I now map them out in some detail beforehand. It means that even when my characters become wayward and complicated, there will always be a basic thread keeping everything from falling apart. I am embarrassed to admit that the idea for this book came from life. I was a year and a half old when my brother was born and brought home. I tried to feed him a banana when my mother was out of the room and the result was very nearly tragic. I grew up with the story of how I almost killed him and hated it. I used to wonder what would have happened to me if I had killed him, whether my parents would have still loved me. I never talked about how it worried me, but I suppose it came out in the book.’

Penelope’s characters are beautifully drawn, if somewhat multi-faceted. Does the author have any difficulty with getting into the mindset of her creations? ‘I don’t have a problem with getting into a mindset - not once I know who I’m writing about,’ she said. ‘I have worried that maybe I’m just writing different versions of me. It’s the old question really – where does any writer get their characters? I might base a person on someone I’ve met or read about, but the connection invariably gets lost within a few pages of writing. I don’t actually know how to write un-complicated characters. It’s one reason I need my synopses. Without them, the people I write would take the books in all kinds of directions and just never come home. Rosie and Max in particular were always going to be troubled. From the earliest age they have had to adjust to a world that they were responsible for changing.’

Penelope – a former barrister – also used to combine writing with journalism in order to pay the bills. ‘I haven’t done so much journalism lately. I’ve been trying so hard to write a book a year and something had to give. I used to write travel and the odd historical piece, and once had a weekly column reviewing health farms for the Sunday Telegraph. It was the best job in the world and a crying shame it had to end.’ In the book, Max’s fiancée, Caroline, is a very glamorous, very famous TV journalist intent on dragging her subject’s darkest secrets into the light. ‘There is nothing of me in Caroline. She’s much more driven and efficient, whereas I just bumbled from assignment to assignment, trying not to miss something important.’

My Perfect Silence is somewhat difficult to categorise. It isn’t Crime, although there is a crime involved, and it isn’t really a Thriller, despite it being a thrilling read. The need to be “placed”, however, does not seem to be too much of a problem for the writer. ‘I understand the reasons for categories. Readers need to know the sort of book they’re buying and publishers need to sell authors to the shops and shops need to know where to place them on the shelves. I see the point of it all, but I don’t know how to help anyone place me. For a crime writer, my body count would have to be appallingly low. I write intensely plotted novels, with intensely written characters. I write about obsession and the complications of families, which can be more murderous than anything that happens in a procedural crime story. I kill people off, but not often, and never just to move the plot along. At the same time, I’ve had plenty of readers tell me they’ve been more scared reading one of my books than anyone else’s. I think women readers like me. In a world where everyone needs a category, I’m my own worst enemy.’

On page one, Rose kills her baby brother. Was the risk of alienating the reader a risk? ‘I remember being unable to pick up Jane Hamilton’s entirely wonderful A Map of the World because the starting point was the death of a toddler and my own children were tiny. But there was no other way to tell Max and Rose’s story without an account of the stranger whose very brief arrival and departure changed their lives forever. So yes definitely, I think, it was a big risk to have a child die on page one, but it was also a risk that had to be taken.’

Max, Rosie’s brother, is a former junkie-turned-Priest of a “new-age” religious sect that becomes popular through liberal ideas and music. As a result, My Perfect Silence might be taken as a direct swipe at “organised” religion. Penelope, to an extent, disagrees. ‘This is difficult to answer. I have no faith, and in that I am like Rosie. At the end of the book, however, something happens which may change her mind. The event directly reflects Max’s own view of God, who is about love and forgiveness and inclusion at every level of existence. But that’s all by the by. How churches “sell” God is their own business. I just know if I were young, a mindset that loathes the idea of women priests, or gays with enough love left over to adopt a child, would leave me cold. It would have nothing for me.’

There are many obstacles facing aspiring authors today, not least being the number of books being published each year. How then does Penelope see a way through the difficulties for aspiring authors? ‘I should say the biggest obstacles to writing for a living are time and money. If there was an infinite supply of both, we could all write what we want, for as long as we want, until finally someone notices us. So, three tips for overcoming all obstacles? First - make time to write, every day if possible, even if it’s only a diary. The more you write, the easier it seems to be. Second - finish what you start, it’s good for the soul. Third – ignore the above. If you get a better idea, give up what you’re doing immediately and write that one instead. David Shelley, my first publisher at Allison and Busby, told me that. I think he was right.’

2007 looks set to be a busy year for Penelope Evans. ‘My new book, Saving Grace, comes out in July, again with Allison & Busby. Meantime, I’m finishing another book – a ghost story. I’ve been re-reading Daphne du Maurier and she’s been there, in the back of my mind, all the time I’m writing. I’m enjoying myself.’

My Perfect Silence by Penelope Evans is available from June 25th in paperback from www.allisonandbusby.com

Read Chris High's review of 'My Perfect Silence' here

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

  
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If you would like to comment on this interview with Penelope Evans, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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