As soon as author Jan Harvey made contact to tell me about her debut novel, The Seven Letters – published by Matador in November 2016 – I knew it’d be a perfect read for me. Sincere apologies to Jan for keeping her waiting so long, but I’m really delighted today to finally share my review and our interview. Many enthusiastic readers have already discovered the book: there are over 100 reviews on Amazon, most of them five-star, and I’m pleased to report that I’ll soon be adding my own.
When Claudette Bourvil is recruited to the French Resistance the last thing she expects is that she will be sent to work in the heart of Paris to spy on senior Nazi officers.
Claudette learns how to survive in a city ravaged by war, where the citizens are murdered on the whim of the occupying force. Constantly under threat of discovery, and in danger of losing her life, Claudette risks everything when she falls in love with the wrong man, the worst kind of man.
Over seventy years later, in rural Oxfordshire, Connie Webber discovers seven letters linked to a famous playwright, Freddy March. The letters will eventually lead her to Paris where she discovers the horrific reason behind Freddy’s life long depression. As his mother’s story unfolds Connie uncovers a dark past that the city has tried to erase from history.
I adore books with a dual time-frame – a modern story, a well researched historical one, with links between the two. The historical thread to this book was enthralling, a slice of hidden social history I’d never come across before, the story of the wartime “horizontal collaborators”. But it’s far more than just a slice of history well told – there’s a strong heroine at its centre in Claudette, working as a maid in a brothel to help the Resistance, a moving and engrossing love story and one of exceptional bravery. Every character in this story is magnificently drawn, vividly described, their back stories richly detailed, and in many cases those background stories are emotional and harrowing. There are moments throughout this excellent book that will long remain with me, searing and stark images that are indelibly etched in my memory. The research is exceptional, the detail included but the narrative wears it lightly, and the writing has an ease and flow that makes it easy to become totally immersed in the story.
The modern story is equally strong – the shocking scene at its start, Connie’s sad history, her quest to discover playwright Freddy’s history, alongside a developing love story running far from smoothly. I liked the way the stories converged – and, although I’m not always a fan of stories told in alternating chapters, both stories were strong enough to support the structure and keep my attention and interest.
My instinct was right – this was a book I really enjoyed, a page-turner with real originality, the strongest of story-telling, and a historical background that was just fascinating. A book I’d highly recommend.
And I’m delighted to be able to introduce you to its author – Jan Harvey…
Hello Jan, and welcome to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself?
Hello Anne, thank you for inviting me to your blog. I am a former freelance designer and editor with twenty-five year’s experience working on business magazines. I changed career following redundancy and, thanks to the support of my husband, decided to do what I have always dreamed of doing, I wrote a novel. I also became a tutor in art and creative writing and still coach people now. My oldest client is ninety-five, he has just taken up art seriously.
The moment I read about your debut novel, I wanted to read it. Can you tell us a little more about it, and where the spark came from? I suspect others might want to add it to their lists too…
As a child I was fascinated by black and white films, indeed I went on to study Hollywood costumes as part of my degree at university. I remember watching 633 Squadron one afternoon and the scene where a resistance fighter is being tortured. When he hears the sound of the bomber planes coming to kill him he smiles. As a child this impacted on me and I remember thinking to myself ‘what are they doing to him that is so bad he’s smiling because he knows he’s going to die?’
When I finally had the time and space to research the French Resistance I discovered images that were very disturbing. They gave me a lot to think about and very soon the story emerged and a plot began to form in my mind.
The structure is a challenging one for a first-timer – how difficult was it to manage?
Actually it wasn’t. It literally flowed out of the end of my fingers and I wrote the whole thing in one straight run. I think, on reflection, I had done so much research (two years) that the wartime story was ready to come out. The modern story seemed to fit easily alongside it. I still don’t know how it all came together because I am a wanderer rather than a plotter. I knew my beginning and my ending, but everything in the middle came as a complete surprise!
I enjoyed reading about your research on your excellent website – from the Avon Valley Railway to the Musée de l’Erotisme! Was the research something you enjoyed?
I was not prepared for just how much I loved the research. It included trips to Paris, lots of war museums and endless note taking. I’m a great believer in seeing the settings for my novels so I immersed myself in all the sounds, sights and smells around me. My husband sometimes has to make apologies for me as I sniff inside old cars, nip inside buildings without permission and I have to feel everything! I find the social side of World War Two fascinating. The people who lived through that time suffered in so many ways. I have now interviewed quite a number of nonagenarians who have my utmost respect and whose stories and reminiscences have left me humbled.
Which parts of bringing the book to the marketplace perhaps weren’t as enjoyable?
It’s been a journey of incredible highs and lows. The marketing has been incredibly hard work, but I am extremely fortunate to have had a background in design, journalism and publicity. You have to launch a book with a well thought out strategy in place and there is an enormous amount of learning to be done. Social media is extremely valuable to an author, but you have to develop a lot of tricks to make it work in your favour.
What has been wonderful is the people I’ve met and the huge support from my friends, local people and bookshops such as Madhatter in Burford and Borzoi in Stow-on-the-Wold. Having a supportive bookshop onside makes all the difference in the world.
The lows are varied, but my biggest disappointment has been Amazon and the amount of commission it takes. It’s a necessary evil and we now need it as an outlet yet we get so little from sales. That’s why I champion small indie bookshops and libraries. I really appreciate them.
You must be thoroughly delighted with the reviews the book is receiving. Did you ever imagine this would happen when you started to write?
I have literally been left speechless at times by the reviews. As an author you really have no idea how your book will be received and I have always been under-confident about my writing. My first reviews came through Net Galley and I was completely taken aback by them. I would like to take each and every one of those people out for a drink to thank them for taking time out of their day to write so positively about my book, they can have no idea how much help they have been.
I always think history and romance go together rather well – which element do you enjoy writing the most? Would you think of writing one without the other?
I’m not a romantic novelist; I love social history the most. I would have to say history first and if romance follows well that’s good! I know my readers enjoy it. They have imparted this to me even if they are all annoyed that I didn’t plump for the predictable ‘romantic’ ending.
And how about you, the writer? Have you always wanted to write fiction? And when you decided to do so, did you simply sit at your keyboard and write?
Since I was a little girl I have written stories and loved English and Art best at school. I have never had the time and space to do it until now and with the book being launched, with the exception of a short story, I haven’t done any writing this year. It’s been incredibly busy. I’m delighted to say that the short story, “Ghost,” just won me a prize at The Chipping Norton Festival, which makes me a very happy author.
And how do you write? What’s a typical writing day?
I have a strict rule. On the laptop by two, for two hours. I cannot write creatively for longer than that without getting tired.
I notice you’ve previously written short stories. How different was the discipline required to write a novel?
I found writing a novel easier than short stories. Doesn’t that sound strange? Short stories are an art. To contain all you need to say, tell a story, find a style and wrap it all up neatly in a limited number of words is a huge challenge. I love short stories that achieve that with great competence.
Your website is excellent – something you enjoyed putting together, or just a necessary piece of a toolkit these days?
Thank you for the compliment Anne. A career in design, laying out magazines helps. A website is a very necessary tool and all authors need one. I think a lot of them make the mistake of thinking they can do the design themselves, but there are definitely certain areas were a professional can set you apart. For example, it saddens me to see amateur cover designs in a world where there are specialists who can do a fabulous job and without breaking the bank.
And what writers do you particularly admire? if someone said “your writing reminds me of…”, who would you like them to mention?
I have always loved Daphne du Maurier’s work and she’s been a big influence on me. A lot of people write her off as a romantic author, but they are way off the mark. Her stories are often dark and disturbing. Often I will read a paragraph of one of her books and then re-read it immediately to enjoy it again such is the beauty of her prose. When one of my readers told me she had re-read sections of my book because the writing is so beautiful I felt, in all honestly, that I’d been given the highest praise possible.
A modern writer I adore is Patrick Gale. I think he is a real talent because his writing has huge depth and is exquisite. The same goes for Nicole Krauss, her book The History of Love is my number one.
And now I see you’re working on your third book – so not long to wait for your second? Tell me more…
The third book, a novella, is written. Technically it was my first book but a full-length book is best for a debut.
The second book is half written and once again it is a time-split novel based in the modern day and newly liberated Paris in 1944. My readers have been asking for a sequel to The Seven Letters, but I feel there is nowhere to go with that, I wanted to leave my character Connie in her beloved world of books after all that hard work of uncovering Claudette’s story!
Thank you Jan – I’m really looking forward to that second book! Jan Harvey’s debut novel The Seven Letters is available on all platforms, and signed copies can be bought through her website. You can also find Jan on Facebook and Twitter.