From the white doe appearing through the dark wood to the blue-winged butterflies rising in a cloud as a poignant symbol of happier times, the creatures of the Suffolk landscape move through Rosy Thornton’s delicate and magical collection of stories. The enigmatic Mr Napish is feeding a fox rescued from the floods; an owl has been guarding a cache of long-lost letters; a nightingale’s song echoes the sound of a loved voice; in a Martello tower on a deserted shore Dr Whybrow listens to ghostly whispers. Through the landscape and its creatures, the past is linked to the present, and generations of lives are intertwined.
I very rarely read and review short stories – I always find collections quite difficult to tackle. I’m just never entirely sure how to approach them. Do you dip in, read them one-by-one, doing other things in between? And when you review them, how do you best do it – story by story, or as a collection? But I so love the writing of Rosy Thornton – you might have seen my From The Vaults feature on her novels a couple of months ago – that when I heard about her new short story collection, Sandlands, published by Sandstone Press on 21st July, I just had to give it a try. And when I finally put it down, having read every story back-to-back, quite breathless at the extraordinary beauty and originality of the story telling, tearful at the final story, I wondered quite what I’d been frightened of. This collection was absolute perfection.
My review follows below – and it wasn’t at all difficult to write. But first, I’m really delighted to welcome author Rosy Thornton to Being Anne.
Hello Rosy, and welcome to Being Anne. I could probably appear on Mastermind with you and your books as my subject, but maybe a little introduction for everyone else?
That’s very kind, Anne – and at least marginally less dull than my own Mastermind specialist subject, which I fear would be assured shorthold tenancies or the prescriptive acquisition of easements! By way of a day job, I should explain to your readers, I lecture in property law at the University of Cambridge. But for the past ten years or so I have been moonlighting as a writer of fiction – first novels (of which I have published five) and now short stories, my first collection of which, Sandlands, is due out on 21st July.
Tell me where the idea came from for Sandlands…
Coming up to five years ago now, I moved my centre of operations when not actually teaching from Cambridge to Suffolk, and a small village called Blaxhall in the coastal area, just inland from Aldeburgh, that they call locally the ‘sandlings’ or ‘sandlands’. I was brought up in Suffolk and have always retained links there through family and friends (and, for my sins, a season ticket at Ipswich Town FC!) so in many ways it was a move back to my roots. Gradually, inexorably, the place got under my skin, in much the same way the Cambridgeshire fens had done when I wrote my last novel, Ninepins. I started writing stories, and found they were all taking place in and around Blaxhall. So they became a collection.
Other than through your writing, the Suffolk landscape is unexplored territory for me. Why do you find Blaxhall and its surroundings so inspirational?
It’s funny how the nature of a landscape determines the character of the story that unfolds there. The fens are beautiful in their way but desolate, with the water always ready to rise up and reclaim the land, and Ninepins was permeated by that sense of underlying threat. The Suffolk countryside by contrast feels more solid and more permanent: the word that comes to mind is ‘timeless’. The stories which emerged, I found, reflected that sense of the past always there in the present and ready to break through, of the repeating turn of the generations as of the seasons, and of old ways retrodden.
Who do you think would enjoy Sandlands? Do you have a picture of a typical reader in your mind as you write?
Um, not really, no. I don’t have any sense of writing for ‘a market’ – which is probably why I’ll never be a bestseller! I write… for me, I suppose, if that doesn’t sound too selfish? But I hope a range of people might enjoy these stories, which, although they’re closely linked in terms of theme, are also quite eclectic. Some are magical or ghostly, some poignant and sad, and one or two (I hope!) are funny.
You have a wonderful piece on your website about short stories and the “joyful promiscuity” of writing them. I’d love to hear a little more about that…
Ha ha, yes! A novel, I’ve always thought, is like a demanding love affair: intensely absorbing of time and emotional energy. My partner, I fear, would certainly agree, having had to play second fiddle to the characters in my head for months on end when I’ve been writing my novels. But a short story is a whirlwind fling: one weekend getting down and dirty and you can have a first draft in the bag.
And does discovering the joy of the short story mean you won’t be tackling the “long committed slog” of a novel again?
Oh no – I’m sure I shall. There’s a deep and lasting satisfaction to writing a novel which is different from the pleasurable diversion of short stories. Short fiction, I’ve decided, is like doing the most interesting middle bit of a jigsaw without needing to fill in the grass round the edges or all of the sky – fun to do, but without affording quite the same sense of fulfilment as when you complete an entire puzzle.
It’s been a few years now since Ninepins – did real life take over for a while?
I did, rather. My dad died unexpectedly in 2014 – Sandlands, in fact is dedicated to his memory. He had been apparently hale and hearty, and caring for my mum, who has Parkinson’s and associated dementia, so that his death meant making other arrangements for her care, and a lot of time spent over in France, where they’d been living since their retirement. I’ve now moved her back to Suffolk to be close to me – and where the restorative air can work its soothing magic.
And how did your new publishing arrangement with Sandstone Press come about? I find they’re becoming one of my publishers of choice these days, with a really exciting list…
Sandstone are indeed wonderful! After publishing four books with Headline (one of the ‘big boys’, an imprint of the Hodder Hachette group), I was looking around for a smaller independent press, and stumbled across Sandstone when I saw that an author I much admire, Jane Rogers, had gone there. I submitted Ninepins to them, and to my delight they said yes – and they were amazingly encouraging with Sandlands, too.
They’ve never published a short story collection before but have taken a punt on me with this one, for which I am immensely grateful, and my editor, Moira Forsyth (herself an author and a jewel of the Sandstone list), was reading the stories as they came along and offering the benefit of her acute editorial eye even before we had signed the deal. The sheer love of books of everyone at the firm shines through in all they do. That, and two Man Booker long-listed novels in the past five years, is no small recommendation for an independent outfit!
How do you write? What’s a typical writing day? Are you still fitting your writing around a busy life?
Things are not quite as manic now as they were when I first started writing fiction, since back then I was being a mum as well, to two young girls. But I still have to fit the writing round my full-time job as a university lecturer and tutor, so it means early mornings, or else weekends. Not evenings so much – my brain tends to default to power-saving mode after about 7 pm.
Will you indulge me for a moment, and look backwards? Which of your earlier books is your personal favourite? Or is that a “favourite child” question?
I suppose if I have to pick one, I’d say I have a particular soft spot for my fourth novel, The Tapestry of Love. It tells the story of a divorcee who moves to a remote hamlet in the Cévennes hills of central France to start a business as a seamstress. It was written over one gloomy winter in the damp, grey Cambridgeshire fens, and every time I sat down at my keyboard it was like an escape – from the demands of students, and lectures to prepare, and the frustrations of daily life – to my own secret mountain hideaway.
You have a simply wonderful website I’d urge everyone to take a look at. Something you enjoyed putting together, or just a necessary part of being an author nowadays?
More the latter, I’m afraid – a thing you’re expected to do. But I enjoy the process of writing, in any form, so website content is really no different, once you actually sit down to it.
I know you’re a reader as well as an author. What writers do you particularly admire? And if someone were to say “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you really like them to mention?
When I think of my ‘favourite authors’ it’s the 19th century that comes to mind first – Austen and Eliot and Gaskell – and then the 20th, with the period fiction of women like Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. But there are many, many contemporary authors I love and admire as well – Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith…. As for whom I wish I could write like – well, someone in a review did actually once compare a novel of mine to Barbara Pym and, although I know it was nonsense, my feet didn’t touch the ground for a week!
And what’s next for you? Are you working on something new?
I might be…. But you don’t expect a person to reveal the nature of her new love interest, do you?
Rosy, thank you so much – and thank you also to you and Sandstone Press for providing my advance reading e-copy of Sandlands for review.
My review of Sandlands
When I put down this wonderful collection, tears flowing after finishing Mackerel, the final story, I wrote the author a slightly breathless e-mail, telling her how much her work had moved me. It’s something I very rarely do – but I was enthralled by this collection from the very first glimpse of the white doe through the low mist in the first story to the empty room and spiralling dust at the end of the last.
There are sixteen short stories here, every one thoroughly perfect and complete, all linked by descriptions of the Suffolk countryside so vivid and detailed that you experience them through all your senses. Every story evokes an emotional response – while I particularly loved Mackerel for the personal memories it triggered and the story teller’s clear voice, the same applied to so many of the other stories, particularly The Watcher of Souls and All The Flowers Gone.
Some are shot through with perfectly judged and gentle humour. The Interregnum made me laugh aloud, with its events as seen through the eyes of Dorothy, the secretary to the Parish Council. The different “voices” are so very well done: one of my favourites was in High House, the lady who “does” for Mr Napish, with her observations on the surrounding countryside and candid asides about the people (and what an excellent ending this story has).
I loved everything about this collection – descriptions that brought the Suffolk setting to life, vivid imagery, characters that continue to live in my memory, the perfect completeness of every one of the stories, the wonderful blurring of past and present, the recurring themes, the acute observation, the humour, the touches of magic, the poignancy. But when a collection – and the individual stories within it – moves you as deeply as this did, you know you’ve come across something really rather special.
Maybe you don’t usually read short stories either. But please, try this collection. You might just love it as much as I did.
Do follow the other stops on the Sandlands blog tour…
Rosy Thornton is an author of contemporary fiction, published originally by Headline Review and more recently by Sandstone Press. In her novels and short stories she enjoys exploring family relationships (especially mothers and daughters), and the way people relate to place and landscape. In real life she lectures in Law at the University of Cambridge, where she is a Fellow of Emmanuel College. She shares her home with her partner and two lunatic spaniels.
Visit her website at http://www.rosythornton.com: she can now also be found on Twitter (but do be gentle!).