Liz Fenwick has been on my radar for some time. I first got to know her, online, when we both joined the same writing group. Liz is one of the hardest working writers I know, fitting in writing whenever and wherever she can. Her hard work has paid off and she has been rewarded with an agent, then a book deal. Her fourth book, Under a Cornish Sky, has just been published as a trade paperback.
Her novels are based in Cornwall, specifically around the Helford area. Liz paints an evocative sense of the county, so much so that, eighteen months ago in the October half-term, I packed my family up and we had a holiday down there, just outside Helford. We visited some of the places Liz mentions in her books: The Shipwrights Arms and Down by the Riverside Cafe. We even met Liz in the cafe. Meeting Liz, in that cafe, by the view of the Helford River, near the sailing club, where many of the characters had been was a surreal experience. I did think I’d just stepped inside one of her books. (Ignore the clouds in the sky. It was the end of October, after all.)
Needless to say, I am delighted and honoured that Liz has agreed to answer some of my questions about her writing and Cornwall.
Hi, Liz, and welcome. Firstly, congratulations! The paperback of A Cornish Stranger has just been published and the trade paperback of Under a Cornish Sky is just about to be published. Your third and fourth published novels respectively. Where has that time gone?! Can you tell us a little about each of these books?
A Cornish Stranger grew from an old Cornish saying – save a stranger from the sea, he’ll turn your enemy. I knew almost instantly that I wanted to write a book playing with that saying set in a remote cabin at the mouth of Frenchman’s Creek following the lives of two very different women – a grandmother and granddaughter. The saying goes against expectations and it was an intriguing starting point.
In Under a Cornish Sky Victoria, in her sixties, finally has the one thing she has always wanted, her ancestral family home. Her husband Charles has bought it for her. Life is good. She has her home and its garden but Under A Cornish Sky asks the question what happens when you think you have everything you want but then you have to share it – not just with anyone – but with your husband’s love child.
Your love for Cornwall, and the Helford area in particular, shines out from every page. What is your relationship to Cornwall and when did it begin?
People find it hard to believe that I first visited Cornwall in June 1989 and although I’d heard of it I knew little or nothing about it. My then boyfriend, now husband, took me down to meet his parents but in truth it was the ‘Cornwall test’ (I have since seen my eldest do this with his girlfriend…but don’t tell him I know!). If I hadn’t fallen in love with Cornwall and the Helford that weekend I wouldn’t be looking forward to my 24th wedding anniversary this summer. And fall in love I did…if I’m honest – a bit like Jude in A Cornish Affair does. Of course – it wasn’t hard to on a glorious June weekend with not a cloud in the sky and the blue so bright it hurt. I even went for my first swim off a Cornish beach and I’m not sure if I’ve got my breath back yet!
Did you always plan, when you first started writing, to base your books in Cornwall?
No, I didn’t. I began writing very young and followed that through with a degree in English Literature. For my senior thesis I wrote three quarters of a novel – The Irish Woman, which spoke of an Irish immigrant to Boston in the 1920s. I never finished it. After that I tried writing several short romances but I put writing aside to try and earn a living and find love of my own. It was only back in 2004 when I decided to write fiction again that Cornwall began to become my muse. Once I set stories there…everything began to fall into place. Now the Duchy inspires all the story ideas that come into my head.
Your descriptions of Cornwall are so vivid and breathtaking. (Your books are, after all, the reason why we holidayed in Cornwall a few years ago.) I’m interested in how you do this. Do you, for example, take a pen and paper and go and sit looking at the land and sea scape? Or, can you just close your eyes and see it?
When I’m in Cornwall I drink it all in…I occasionally jot something down but I’m always looking, smelling and feeling. Sometimes I take pictures but I rarely refer to them when I’m writing. It’s as if the process of taking the picture sets it in my mind…weird I know. When I write I don’t see the computer, I have the scene in front of me like a movie. It is fully formed down to the weather and I am viewing it from the character’s eyes – so for Maddie in The Cornish House everything is viewed through colour, for Gabe in A Cornish Stranger through music/sound… Having said that I almost always had a notebook to hand and if not that then I email myself notes and visual clues that I see. I have noted that doing the research on the next book The Returning Tide…I’m actually dreaming the book, which is quite cool but slightly scary too!
Did you always intend to use real places? Or did you ever consider making up a place name? Personally, especially now I’ve visited, I love the fact that I have walked where Jude, Mark, Maddie and Hannah have walked, across the bridge at Helford and up the road to the Shipwright Arms – even the name of the pub you use is real. Did you always intend to use real places? Or did you ever consider making up a place name?
To be honest it never crossed my mind. I know in some ways I walk a minefield every time I write…writing about where you live, but I think writing about a ‘real’ place grounds the stories. I write fiction but my characters have problems many women have faced. I hope that by setting my stories in ‘reality’ gives them an extra layer. It’s still a fictional world because these people only exist in my readers’ heads and mine. Not that I wouldn’t love to bump into any of my heroes or have a chat with my heroines.