Inspiration, writing, books... Eve on The Birdcage
The Birdcage is your fourth Eve Chase novel. What inspired you to write this story?
I kept circling the idea of three half sisters, close in age but wary of one another, whose warring mothers consist of an ex-wife, an ex-mistress and a life model with whom the artist father once had an intense, haunting love affair. I was quite sure the grown-up sisters would keep secrets from one another, and that these would become their invisible cages. I also knew they loved one another deeply, sharing some of their happiest childhood memories—and their worst.
This novel is set at Rock Point, a rugged and remote Cornwall seaside Victorian villa. What role does the setting play in the story, and why did you decide to set your novel in Cornwall?
I needed a setting that was wild, beautiful and remote, partly to isolate my characters and make it hard for them to leave. This area of Cornwall also has a long history of attracting artists—St. Ives is a few miles away—and I felt the father’s summer home and painting studio should be here. The villa itself, Rock Point, is perched on a cliff top, overlooking the raging Atlantic, idyllic in the summer, less so in the winter. As grown-ups, the sisters are marooned at the house during a vicious cold snap—and in their own emotional weather, of course, which is just as dangerous.
You often write about complicated relationships between sisters. What draws you to this dynamic, and what makes the relationships between the Finch sisters unique?
I’m drawn to that delicious tension between love and rivalry, regression into family roles, and the need to carve out a new identity. The messy stuff every family has if you scratch beneath the shiny surface. As the Finch sisters also have different mothers, who explosively overlapped in their relationships with the father, well, it’s complicated! I love that.
This novel centers around a solar eclipse in 1999, when a horrific event happens that the main characters wish they could forget. Why did you decide to center the novel around that astronomical event?
I wanted the past storyline to be steeped in the febrile mood of 1999—a year full of excitement and apprehension as we tipped into a new century—and the total solar eclipse seemed to capture it perfectly. I watched that eclipse in London’s Kensington Gardens and it still felt otherworldly, in a mystical end-of-days way, and pressed modernity (‘99 only feels historic and analogue now!) against the ancient. It’s a great visual image, too, a sweeping story arc, with its movement from light to dark to light again.
At the heart of Rock Point is an aviary, which is shrouded in mystery. Why did you decide to feature birds so heavily in your novel and not another animal?
A caged bird is hard to resist on a metaphorical level—the sisters are all yearning for flight and freedom. But the lead character Lauren also has a bird phobia, so the birds bring a more disquieting Hitchcockian/Du Maurier overtone, too. The huge Cornish skies are alive with birds.
Charles Finch, the father of all three daughters, is a famous painter—best known for a portrait of the sisters painted during the summer of the 1999 eclipse. Did you have to do a lot of research about painting before writing the novel, and do you have a favorite work of art?
I’ve always been interested in art and loved writing about it. During lockdown, I had a great time virtually wandering through galleries online— research!—and was particularly drawn to a group of postwar abstract artists who lived and worked in this part of Cornwall and the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth. Oil painting is quite technical in lots of ways, so I read up on that but was mindful of channeling the information through the eyes of a child. Outside my novel, I’m always touched by the humanity of Rembrandt’s portraits and I’m a huge fan of Tracey Emin, an astonishing storyteller. But the painting that best encapsulates this novel is Thomas Gainsborough’s The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. It has a very small cameo role near the end of the novel.
Throughout the novel, each character slowly reveals some of their darkest secrets. Who was your favorite character to write, and why?
Oh, tricky one! I felt most attached to Lauren because she’s the most vulnerable, or at least seems to be. But headstrong, no-filter Kat was fun to write, although difficult, because she had to have such a powerful self-realization in such a short space of time.
You are most known for writing stories with deliciously dark atmospheres, and author Rosie Walsh has rightly said that you are “peerless in your ability to stitch together dark secrets and tantalizing twists with unforgettable characters and enthralling imagery.” What draws you to write these kinds of stories?
That’s very generous of Walsh, and you wouldn’t know it from my notebooks! My stories do become more complex, and knottier, as I write and layer. Any twists are character-led: I’m interested in what characters hide from one another, and themselves. I try to always end my chapters on a cliffhanger, however small, and make my novels as addictive as possible for the reader, while also keeping them rich and transportive. To achieve that, I rewrite a lot. There are many drafts.
If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be? A blackbird, commonplace, curious, busy, always foraging for something tasty to eat. Happy in a city or a field.
What is your writing routine like?
When I’m writing, as opposed to outlining or editing, I’ll go to my writing shed in the garden, edit what I wrote the day before then try to get 1000 to 1500 good words down. I can do more words than this, but find if I do, I end up deleting half of them, that any short cut is the long way round. Towards the end of my book, I work very intensely, and at weekends, because I’m running out of time—I’m always running out of time!—and I like to be immersed in the world of my book. For me, it’s only in that intense last stage when the story truly starts to knit.
EVE ON THE GLASS HOUSE
What inspired you to write The Glass House?
I was longing to write about a forest, somewhere lush, dark and ancient, where things can be easily hidden - but also a place of growth and hope. A setting with its own soulful character. I’d also been circling around the idea of an abandoned baby for a while. How would the discovery of this baby affect those who found her? How would she change the course of their lives? So it started with a forest and a baby, and the rest grew from there.
What was your writing process while creating these dynamic female characters? Did you draw on personal experience to craft them?
It’s pretty impossible to write without drawing on some personal experience - it all gets stuffed in the cluttered cupboard of the mind somewhere. But I consciously avoid writing about people I know. My characters tend to develop as I’m writing rather than emerge fully formed in the first draft. That said, I do know their backstory from the outset. I’m always asking myself, would she really say that, think that? And I have to want to hang out with them on the page. So they’re allowed to be bad, but not boring.
Was there one character in particular that you related to or enjoyed writing the most?
Big Rita, the family’s nanny, was a joy to write. Physically, she’s imposing, which makes her interesting to me. I’m five foot four: what does the world look like viewed from over six-foot? More importantly, she’s got such a good heart I really rooted for her. She’s a young woman with no family or money of her own, in a lowly paid job, devoted to a grand family who take her for granted. Over the course of the novel, she proves herself, finds her voice and grows up. There’s a lot of Big Rita to love.
How was writing The Glass House/ Daughters of Foxcote Manor different than writing your previous novels?
I deliberately kept the chapters shorter, and caffeinated the pace of this novel. The story demanded it - so much happens that I didn’t have time to linger. As ever, this involved a lot of painful manuscript cutting. But I hope that the forest setting is so rich the story never feels spare.
The novel alternates between the present and 1971. Was one timeline easier to write, and why?
In many ways the past is easier to write about because there’s no internet or cell phones to get in way of the plot. It’s a relief to lose our contemporary super connectivity. People can actually get lost. Or vanish. Or not know who called when the phone goes dead! And the police don’t have the sophisticated technology and testing that helps them snag criminals today. As an author, I appreciate those cracks!
What is your favorite scene in the novel, and why?
I’m fond of the pivotal scene when the baby is found. It took many rewrites because I didn’t want it to be sentimental - an abandoned baby is a terrible thing, we fear for her safety - or flippant. I knew how much the family inside Foxcote Manor was yearning for a child, and that she’d shine a light into that darkness.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope the take away is that families come in all different forms, that we can create them as they create us. A mother’s love, whether that mother is a birth mother or an adopted one, is a transformative force on the course of generations. Love shapes history too.
EVE ON THE VANISHING OF AUDREY WILDE/THE WILDLING SISTERS
What inspired you to write this story? Did you think of one of the storylines before the other?
Audrey’s story – her vanishing – is at the knotted heart of the book, the mystery that the main character, Margot, (and, hopefully, the reader!) want to solve. I’m not sure why I was so haunted by Audrey, only that the fear of a child simply disappearing is primal. Most mothers have experienced that moment of distraction – quickly followed by gut-clamping fear - when we glance around the supermarket or the park and can’t see our child. The world simply stops at that moment and doesn’t start up until we spot them. Audrey – or the absence of Audrey – is central to both the past and present day storylines, which had to evolve together to tease out the truth of her fate.
There are so many rich characters in this novel. Was there one that was your favourite to write?
That would have to be Pam, the stroppy opinionated sister, always the loudest person in the room even when she’s silent. She gets the sharpest one-liners. I know that in real life I’d warm to Pam simply because she can’t be anyone but herself. There’s something very endearing about that.
Is there a real-life Applecote Manor? Why did you choose to place Applecote in the Cotswolds? What defines that area?
There’s no real Applecote Manor. While I’ve kept the precise location quite vague – the village is fictionalized – it is set in a very idyllic part of the Cotswolds, a quintessentially English landscape, very lush, gentle and ancient. I went on a wild swimming weekend there with some girlfriends a few years ago and the bucolic river, the summer fields, the dragonflies…it felt like a world apart, a place where time was suspended. The pretty little villages still look like historical film sets. Of course, in the 1950s it would have seemed even more rural and cut off than it does now. It’s always attracted artists and writers. A wonderful manor house open to the public in the area - should any reader be lucky enough to visit - is Kelmscott Manor, the Arts and Crafts retreat of William Morris. Today, a lot of the bigger stately homes, once owned by English aristocrats, have become the luxury weekend homes of the international super-rich and celebrities. A few of them open their doors to show off their magnificent gardens in the summer – basically, a perfect day out for nosy writers.
Jessie’s difficulties with Bella feel so true to life. What was it like to write their relationship?
Jessie’s and Bella’s relationship is delicate. It was the part of the book I rewrote the most until it felt right. I have great compassion for Bella, the way she feels everything so intensely, her catastrophic loss. Jessie too: she desperately wants to be a good stepmother but doesn’t quite know how.
Without giving anything away, did you always know how the novel would end?
Yes, I did. I always know how a novel will begin and end. I’m not sure I could start writing it otherwise. The middle bits can wobble and evolve but the story has to be secured firmly at each end from the start – a bit like a hammock swinging between two trees.
EVE ON BLACK RABBIT HALL
Is Black Rabbit Hall itself based on any specific location or totally imagined?
It’s imagined but informed by some fantastic historic houses I’ve dragged my protesting family around over the years: Port Eliot and Pencarrow in Cornwall, Avebury Manor in Wiltshire for example. There’s something about those big old houses. I always end up wondering, who died in that four poster? How many babies were born here? What were the scandals? The glossy brochure can only tell you so much. I’m sure if you stand quietly in some of those ancient rooms you really do get a sense of the past – long-gone lives still jostling in the present. For this reason, I think I’d get far too spooked to ever live in one myself! But I’d love a boot room and my own wood, obviously.
I’ve always been intrigued by old houses, particularly the chaotic ones in the country with their boot rooms (oh, for a boot room of my own!) and gusty bathrooms, impossible to maintain, vast beautiful spaces for families to go wrong, but also for wonderful things to happen. An old country house is a perfect crucible for action.
Do you have a personal relationship with this area of Cornwall?
We go on holiday to the Roseland Peninsula a lot - it’s my favourite bit of Cornwall, a part of the country I’ve always loved for its remoteness, its sense of ‘other’. The Roseland is particularly lovely, wild but lush. The cliff tops are full of wild flowers, the valleys dense with woods. Because we’ve always taken the kids to Cornwall all my happiest family memories are tied up in the place, the kids on rain-swept beaches, collecting shells, building dams, sandy sandwiches…
Where did the story of Amber and Lorna start for you – which one perhaps, came to life first?
Amber’s story came first. I’d been dreaming about four children in a big house in Cornwall for a long time, mulling it over, visualising it, so by the time I actually wrote this book, it felt like I had a 360 degree stage set in my head: I knew my way around Black Rabbit Hall itself, which door led where, and I knew Amber, this sincere, bookish young girl, poised on the verge of womanhood, torn between her loyalty to her wild twin brother and the desire to cut free and fall in love. Only once I knew Amber, could I realise Lorna, because, without giving anything away, their two stories intertwine.
What did you do in the way of research?
A lot of poking around old houses! Powderham Castle in Devon, Pencarrow House and Port Eliot in Cornwall all informed Black Rabbit Hall. I also read up about the late sixties, which is when the historical heart of the novel is set, but ended up taking out a fair bit of historical detail as I felt it slowed the story. I wanted the pages to turn themselves, for the reader to be swept up in the characters’ world.
Which authors have influenced you?
So many! Kate Atkinson, Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, Lisa Jewell, Elizabeth Strout, Kate Morton, Maggie O’Farrell as well as old favourites, Daphne Du Maurier, Shirley Jackson and Dodie Smith. I’ve always read across all genres, and go through distinct phases when it comes to my reading. Sometimes I crave a really dark Icelandic thriller, other times a bittersweet love story.