I always love a party, but this week I was especially miffed that I had to miss one. It was the launch party for Lily’s House by Cassandra Parkin, published by Legend Press on 15th October and available in paperback and for kindle. And I was particularly put out because it was a really special book, and one that I would have really liked to celebrate. I hadn’t read the author’s earlier novels – The Summer We All Ran Away and The Beach Hut – and I’ll certainly be putting right that dreadful omission. This book was quite wonderful.
When Jen goes to her grandmother’s house for the last time, she’s determined not to dwell on the past. As a child, Jen adored Lily and suspected she might be a witch; but the spell was broken long ago, and now her death means there won’t be any reconciliation.
Lily’s gone, but the enchantments she wove and the secrets she kept still remain. In Lily’s house, Jen and her daughter Marianne reluctantly confront the secrets of the past and present – and discover how dangerous we become when we’re trying to protect the ones we love.
I don’t often include quotes from other authors, but on this occasion I’ll make an exception – they sum it up so wonderfully:
Lily’s House is a beautiful story that carefully unravels the depth of love and lies in a family. Cassandra’s writing pulled me in from the first page and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished. Even then it stayed with me for a long time. (Heidi Perks, author of Beneath the Surface)
Lily’s House is a beautiful, rich, haunting and addictive read. Cassandra Parkin effortlessly weaves magic in this story of long-gone secrets, self-discovery, empowerment, and love. The book is assured, mature… a masterpiece. I’ll never forget it. (Louise Beech, author of How to be Brave)
Sadly, I haven’t been able to complete my review either – soon, I promise – but I’m really delighted to feature instead a lovely interview with author Cassandra Parkin…
Hello Cass, and welcome to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself?
I live in the East Riding of Yorkshire with my husband, two children, and two cats. I grew up between Hull and Cornwall – my dad’s parents owned a hotel in Falmouth, and we used to spend every school holiday down there – and a lot of my writing is influenced by the memories of those amazing summers.
I’m slightly ashamed that Lily’s House is the first of your books that I’ve read. Tell me a little about where the inspiration came from…
It’s dedicated to four women who were a huge and lasting influence on me – my two grandmothers, Audrey and Millie, and my two great-aunts, Dolly and Anne. I think when we’re little, we love our older relatives because they seem so fixed and stable. Their houses don’t change, their belongings don’t change, they have Shopping Days and Washing Days, they serve you the same meals that you love each time you see them. And of course, they tell you your family history – the stories that make you who you are. My family’s matriarchs did all of that for me, and I loved them for it.
Then as I grew up, they started to tell me different family stories. Stories about sex and sadness, about good and bad relationships, about rebellion and infidelity and laughter and estrangement. And I realised that, my whole life, they’d been choosing which stories to tell me, sharing the things they thought I needed to know at the time. They were the guardians of our family’s secret history. And when they died, the stories stopped.
I didn’t realise it until I’d finished writing it, but that’s where Lily’s House came from; the realisation that my grandmothers and great-aunts could still surprise me, and that everything I know about my family’s history comes from what they chose to share.
I’ve been looking at reviews of your two other novels, The Summer We All Ran Away and The Beach Hut. Along with lovely words like original, spell-binding, rich and haunting, everyone seems to agree that your books are difficult to describe by “genre”. How would you describe your writing?
The lovely blogger Linda Hill at Linda’s Book Bag recently described my writing as having a strong element of “modern mysticism”, which is one of the most lovely compliments I’ve ever been given. I think that’s definitely true – I’m drawn to the space between what we know, and what we experience – even when what we experience can’t be true. I don’t know if “magic realism” might be a good descriptor?
When you write, do you have a reader in your mind? A certain background, or age group maybe? Are they exclusively female?
This is probably a terrible admission, but I either imagine an audience of just one specific person (a friend or a family relative) or no reader at all! Like a lot of writers, I often feel as if I’m somehow discovering the story rather than creating it. Because of that feeling, I tend not to think too much about “would this appeal to a reader of this age / gender / background?” My focus is all on the story.
And Lily’s House is your third novel – is writing getting easier, or does the pressure of expectation make it more difficult?
There’s definitely more pressure in some ways. With your first novel, the only deadlines are those you give yourself. So if it takes you ten years to write, you can take ten years and not worry about it. For subsequent books, there’s much more time pressure, and also the feeling that you need to write something that’s similar (but not too similar) to your first book! Once you’ve been published, you also have lots of book-promotion-related work to do, and that takes time and energy as well. So you can’t be as ruthlessly focused as you are for your first book.
Saying that, writing my second and third novels was definitely a smoother process than writing my first. My experience is that the more you write, the more you can write. You get faster and more proficient at getting your thoughts down on paper. You learn to spot what’s not working more quickly, and you become more ruthless as an editor.
Also, I absolutely know and appreciate how incredibly fortunate I am to be in the position where I’m feeling that pressure. That’s something I think all writers have to be conscious of – how lucky we are. I don’t ever want to be one of those people who whinge about how tough it is to be in the position of having a publishing professional who is keen to publish their work.
Tell me more about Legend Press and how you ended up working with them…
Legend are an independent publishing house, who turned ten years old last year. Their list is focused on contemporary commercial and literary fiction – very eclectic and beautiful – and when I finished my first novel, The Summer We All Ran Away, they were top of my list of publishers I would love to work with. They’re also one of the very few publishers who welcome un-agented submissions.
I wasn’t sure if I was taking a huge risk by sending them my book before it had been “passed” and polished by an agent, but I went for it anyway and sent in my sample chapters. I was fully expecting it to sit in the slush pile for at least six months, so I was astounded when they called in the full manuscript within three weeks, and signed it very shortly after.
I know you’ve previously written short stories – prize-winning short stories, in fact! How different is the discipline required to write a novel?
For me, both short stories and novels have the same rhythm. There’s the excitement of writing the beginning, the horrible crappy part in the middle where I think “this is dreadful why am I doing this OH MY GOD THIS IS THE WORST THING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN”, the exhilaration of finishing the first draft, and then the joy of editing it into its finished form. The main difference is that novels take so much longer to get to the first draft! A novel’s awkward teenage phase can last for several months, and during that period it’s easy to lose heart and conclude that it’s not worth carrying on.
The one thing I’ve learned, and the one bit of advice I always pass on to aspiring writers, is that the first draft of the middle 40% to 60% of your novel will always suck. It doesn’t matter. Write it anyway. Then fix it in editing. (You’ll be amazed just how much is fixable; but you can’t fix what you haven’t written.) When you get past the first 20% and find the going gets tough, that doesn’t mean you’re failing. It means you’ve kept going long enough to get to the hard bit.
Planning, writing, editing, getting ready for launch, the publicity once a book’s out there – what’s your favourite part of the whole process? And what’s the most difficult?
The part I find the hardest is very easy to choose; I live in terror of sharing work that’s not finished! Some writers thrive on critique groups and writing circles where you read out your work in progress. I am most definitely not one of those writers. I am absolutely, 100% a hide-in-a-cave-and-deny-all-knowledge kind of a writer.
As my career’s progressed, I’ve had to come to terms with this fear – because obviously, the earlier I share with my editor, the earlier I can take on board her feedback. I still find it terrifying, but I think I’ve now finally accepted that she’s not going to reply with “HA HA HA HA NOPE SORRY” and never speak to me again.
And the part that I love the most…it’s really hard to choose, because it’s all brilliant. I love writing beginnings, and endings. I love the moment when I have My Book in my hand, and I can smell the paper and touch the cover. I love the excitement of starting a new project. And most of all, I love it when people tell me they’ve read my book and enjoyed it.
So much of the publishing and literary world is still focused on London – are there any challenges in being East Yorkshire based?
The one thing that I do find tough is that I can’t go along to support the launches of my fellow Legendary authors. They’re such an amazing lot and I’d love to be there to see their books making their debut in the world! But then, I’d miss out on all the fantastic events from the fantastic writers based in Hull and East Yorkshire – and there are so many of us these days.
What writers do you particularly admire? if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?
I think they would have to be Daphne du Maurier or Tove Jansson. I don’t know if I’ll ever write anything as chillingly beautiful as Rebecca or as darkly beautiful as The Summer Book. But it’s something to aspire to.
What’s next for you? Are you working on something new?
I’m working on my next novel, The Winter’s Child, which will be published in the autumn of 2017. It’s set in my home city of Hull, and it begins on the last night of Hull Fair when Susannah Harper visits a fortune-teller who makes an eerie and unusually specific prediction: Susannah’s son Joel, who has been missing for five years, will come back to her by the night of Christmas Eve. It’s following in the tradition of Christmas Eve ghost stories, and should be very gothic and sinister.
Thank you Cass – I’ve barely finished Lily’s House and already can’t wait for the next one! My thanks to Lucy at Legend Press for my advance reading e-copy of Lily’s House, and for her support for the blog tour.
About the author
Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011) won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories. She is also the author of The Summer We All Ran Away (2013) and The Beach Hut (2015). Cassandra’s writing has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.