Kathryn Hughes’ first dual time line novel, The Letter, became a word-of-mouth best seller that knocked Gone Girl off Kindle’s Number One spot.
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Kathryn talks about her stories of family secrets and deep emotion, and having actress Joanne Froggart – Anna Bates in Downton Abbey – voice her third book, The Key – for audio.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- The difference between writing a book and being a writer
- The fascination of the story idea
- Men like them too: ‘dual time line mysteries with emotional depth’
- Her latest book – set in Spain and Manchester
- The page-turning writers she admires most
- How she’d like to give herself a ten year head start
Where to find Kathryn Hughes:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Kathryn. . Hello there Kathryn and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Kathryn: Thank you very much for having me, it’s my pleasure.
Jenny: Beginning at the beginning – was there a “Once Upon a Time” moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction?? And if so what was the catalyst for it?
Kathryn: I don’t think there was an actual catalyst for it. I think, looking back, I’d always wanted to write a book, not necessarily be a writer. Those are two very different things. And in my 20’s I had a go. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Mills & Boon in New Zealand, the romance publishing house offering formulaic and extremely popular stories. I was mistaken in thinking it might be easy to write – it’s not, it’s extremely difficult, and they have very high standards, but nevertheless I did write about 50,000 words – it was probably terrible and I have no idea where it’s gone to, I hope it never surfaces ..!
But back in 2007 I did have an idea for a book and it was around an old un-posted letter. Who wrote the letter, but never sent it who was intended to receive it, but didn’t, and why it never got posted, I had absolutely no idea. I just had the idea, and all I had to do was expand it to 90,000 words. . . Easy!!!
Jenny: Yes – we all know how easy that is! But just tracking back a little to your remark about the difference between writing a book and being a writer. Could you expand on that?
How Kathryn got started
Kathryn: Well I was very naive. I thought if I wrote a book a publisher was going to say ‘Oh a book, wonderful’ and publish it. I didn’t realize, “No” One book deals are hardly ever heard of…. I’m talking about commercial fiction They want to know you can keep producing, ideally for most publishers, at least one book a year. Publishers, quite rightly, don’t want to invest in you unless you can do that. Quite understandably because they have to persuade supermarkets to take your book, they have to help build your brand. Naturally, it’s a lot of hard work for them, so you have to be able to followup with more books and then it’s great for everybody.
Jenny: It seems quite amazing to me that you say you had this one idea, about an unpublished letter, and nothing else and you managed to expand it into a 90,000 word novel, especially as an inexperienced writer. Perhaps now it would be easier to spin out the story lines… But how did you get from that kernel to a whole tree, and what kept you focused in the hard times.
Kathryn: I think it was because I thought it was a really good idea. I liked the fact that the letter had not been posted, even though it had a stamp on, and it was all ready to go. And then the idea of someone finding it, and the distraction of what was going on in her life at the time – the mystery – taking the reader back to what was going on in the history, and then the reader is ahead of the story. . .
I didn’t plan it, and it took me six years, to be honest from start to finish, because I was working fulltime as well. So it wasn’t quick. I knew where I wanted it to end. Sometimes with a book, you know where you start, you know where you want to end, but sometimes the characters drive the narrative more. As you go along you think ‘Oooh that character wouldn’t behave in this way.’ So you have to think of something different to get to the end.
There is a kind of organic thing really. It is for me anyway. It isn’t set in stone and it changes as you go along. But as for it getting easier, it absolutely doesn’t.
First book a runaway best seller
Jenny: You had remarkable success with your first book, The Letter – it was downloaded 10,000 times in five days and became a runaway word of mouth best seller. . To what do you attribute that amazing result?
Kathryn: Well in terms of it being downloaded 10,000 times in five days – because it was free. It had been on sale in the Kindle charts because I couldn’t find a publisher, and so I self-published it myself, and there were more than 2 million books in the Kindle store. There was more chance of people finding it in the back of my filing cabinet than online – those odds are insurmountable.
It was a matter of bringing people’s attention to it, when there are just so many books out there. So I did make it free for five days and 10,000 people downloaded it. Now it didn’t matter that it was free, because all of sudden 10,000 people had it on their Kindles and as they began to read it, review it, and more importantly, recommend it to friends, sales took off. Eight months later it got to No 1 in the Kindle store. It knocked Gone Girl off the top.
Jenny: Of my goodness, that’s amazing. I must pay tribute to you, though, because today there are masses of free books and most of them don’t get 10,000 downloads. It must have also had something to do with timing, you were right at the head of the curve in indie publishing.
Kathryn: Definitely. I am talking about 2013, six years ago. There are probably more than 2 million books now, and anyone can now publish and they do. Having said that though, I would not deter anybody. It happened to me, and it could happen to you. You never know, do you?
Jenny: That’s absolutely right. But you found a publisher pretty well immediately, obviously that success attracted attention. And now you are traditionally published, is that right?
Kathryn: It was only when the book reached Number One that I was contacted by an agent directly from Headline asking if they could take over publication of the E Book – because I had only published an E book, I hadn’t self published in paperback, so Headline took over from there. It was a case of them saying “Let us take it from here” and me saying “Let me think about this for a minute… Oh OK then!!” Only thing was, it was a two book deal, which is great if you’ve written two books, not so great if you’ve only written one.
Dual time women’s fiction her niche
Jenny: And now you have followed up with two other dual timeline stories, dealing with family secrets and heart touching emotion. Would you classify them as “women’s fiction” rather than mysteries per se? They are deep on the emotion, aren’t they?
Jenny: And at least with the last two, the story has some foundation in an historical event or incident to launch the story from. In The Secret it’s a Welsh mining disaster, and in The Key it’s based on something that happened at a New York asylum . . . Are you always looking for ideas?
Kathryn: I know when people ask me I usually say yes they are women’s fiction, but I do get a lot of men readers as well, and I think “What are you doing, I didn’t write this for you! Everybody can enjoy anything they want to… but yes in the stores it’s on the shelves in the women’s fiction section. In my publishing contract my work is described as “dual time line women’s fiction with emotional content.” You have to have some guidelines in your contract, I couldn’t just suddenly write crime; understandably, it has to be in the same genre.
Kathryn: Absolutely! With the Welsh mining disaster, we were in Wales at the time and my friend Dave was telling me about his grandfather, who was in this mining disaster in North Wales. There was this massive underground explosion and in the end it became so unsafe to continue to try and rescue the miners that the rescue effort was called off. The mine was sealed with the bodies still inside. There is memorial there to this day. So The Secret is about that.
And The Key was based on the Willard Asylum in New York which closed in 1995. Some years later it was being cleared out and a cleaner discovered an attic full of 400 suitcases that had belonged to former patients and just been locked away. The people who owned them had most probably died in there.. and it got me thinking.
What do you pack to take the asylum, what do you need when you don’t know how long you are going to be there? And the answer of course is very little, because you can’t even wear your own clothes you wear communal clothes right to the underwear. And when I started researching our Victorian asylums in Britain I found the same thing happened, right down to the suitcases being locked away. and years later slippers under the bed, virtually staff in many asylums – well they were losing their job, so cleaning up was not regarded with great enthusiasm shall we say – things were just left as they were. It seemed quite a good premise for a story.
‘Uplifting’ but realistic endings
Jenny: It’s quite a dark premise, isn’t it, and those people were stripped of any identity from the minute they walked through the doors. There’s been quite a surge in books that are seen as offering “uplifting” stories and from some of the comments in the reviews it seems a lot of readers do them just that – uplifting. Was this something you deliberately planned for or something that just comes naturally to your writing?
Kathryn: I want to give readers a realistic ending. Not necessarily a fairy tale ending, but a realistic one. Especially with The Key it has a bitter sweet ending. I could have tied it up with everyone being happy, but without spoiling anything I can say, it’s not a fairytale ending. Life doesn’t always work out, and it doesn’t mean we can’t be happy with what we’ve got. In the end, ‘it is what it is’ and I think the character is happy with it and that reflects on life itself, we are very stoic aren’t we, we are really saying we accept the things we can’t change.
Jenny: Yes, and that gives me a little more insight into why people say they find them uplifting. You’re really saying to them that even if it doesn’t work out one hundred per cent how you’d want it to, that’s OK, we can live with it. We won’t spoil it by telling how The Key ends, but when you get right there you feel a little sad but it there is really something great about accepting it and taking some joy and closure from it.
Kathryn: Yes as the character says in the final line, it’s not a fairytale ending, but it’s enough. And I always wanted to end the book on those words because it is “enough”
When the going gets hard . . .
Jenny: You’ve described writing as “like filling a swimming pool with a syringe” What keeps you going in the hard times?
Kathryn: Oh, I have pinched that from somebody else. I read it somewhere, I can’t remember who wrote it, but I totally agree! And even worse than that, you’re pulling the plug out as you go along, which is even worse!
Jenny: So what keeps you going?
Kathryn: Oh so what keeps me going? I just have to look around my office, I can’t really show you what it looks like, but I’ve got a massive pile of books, all my foreign editions, translated into over 30 languages. I only have to pick up The Letter in Mandarin and think, ‘Gosh I wrote this, and now someone in Beijing is reading it.’ That keeps me going. And a friend of mine, she made a canvas for me with all the lovely things that people said about The Letter, from actual readers, and I have got that on the wall. Sometimes I just stop working at the computer, I push back the chair and I read those again and I think ‘Yes, I’ve got to carry on.’ It always works.
Jenny: Your books are all based around deeply held family secrets….What is it about secrets that readers find so compelling? Have we all got them?
Kathryn: I think that is what it is Jenny, because in my books the people are just normal, living in normal communities, and things are going on that we don’t know about . . and even in our own families.
Jenny: And also they are very much focused in community and family life. Is this the kind of world you grew up in in Manchester?
Kathryn: Yes and you’ll have heard of the saying “write what you know.” Or what you can find out – with the internet of course you can find out a lot of stuff. But when you think of the writers of the past like Thomas Hardy, and the Bronte sisters – they all wrote about the world they knew. It makes their writing more authentic.
A little help from Downton Abbey
Jenny: I see that Joanne Frogatt – who plays Anna Bates in Downton Abbey – has voiced the audio book for The Key – and if listeners are curious about it they can hear excerpts from the book on your website . . . That was quite a coup?
Kathryn: Yes, The Key, the third book was done by Joanne. The first two books were done by the actress Rachel Atkins who I thought did a terrific job, I would have been happy for her to do the third, but the publishers wanted a more high profile actor to read it…
And so Joanne agreed to do it, fortunately she liked it, so that was a very surreal moment for me, because I went down to Amazon Audible’s offices in London to watch her reading it – not all of it because it takes two or three days – but watched her record part of it and I thought this is unbelievable, she’s sitting in a sound booth reading my work!
And even though I’d written it, and I knew the next line that was coming, she said it in a completely different way and made it come alive – she’s an actress, that’s what they do. And Joanne is from the north like I am, she’s got the right kind of accent – she’s from the other side of the Pennines, she’s from Yorkshire, and I’m from Lancashire, but we are both from the north. . .
Jenny: You might even get a blip in sales when the new Downton movie comes out later next year! I must admit I’ve been binge watching Downton because I interviewed Jessica Fellowes who has written several mysteries set around the famous Mitford sisters, and she also wrote some of the best selling Downton Abbey books. She’s Julian Fellowes niece. I got really hooked in and so I’ve got myself ready for the movie.
Kathryn: When is it due to come out?
Jenny: Later this year. I think it was originally September but I’m not sure if they are still on target, you know how it is with movies, they often change their launch dates… I think later this year though. As an author you think how are they going to pick up all these story lines and make something new? I’ve got a professional interest in how they do that.T
Turning to Kathryn’s wider career
Jenny: You’ve said that if there was one day of your life that you’d like to live over again it would be your wedding day when you married your husband Rob in Vancouver, Canada. You described that as “The most fabulous day of my life.” That strikes me as being incredibly romantic. Sadly I doubt that many woman would say the same . . You were living in England and got married in Canada, is that right?
Kathryn: Yes exactly. We knew someone who had been on a round the world cruise and they said it was the second best place they had ever been to was Fiji. That raises the question for us of what was the best place? And they said Vancouver. And we thought, well why not?
Happy wedding day in rose garden
Obviously we are talking 27 years ago. We had to be resident there for five days. We chose the rose garden in Stanley Park and we went there to check it out and there were masses of people around. We went back the next day with the minister and the photographer and there was noone there – the place was deserted. However we did manage to find two ladies to act as our witnesses. And it was just fantastic – one lived there, and the other was her sister visiting… We tracked one of the ladies down 16 years later when we returned with our children. It was lovely.. It was all about us, there was no drama .. it was a great day.
Jenny: That’s fantastic isn’t it? It’s the closest thing to eloping without actually eloping isn’t it?
Kathryn: Yes it is! It was great . . . but I don’t want my daughter doing it!
Jenny: Is there one thing in your writing career more than any other, that’s been the secret of your success?
Kathryn: I think really just persevering. You need to develop a Rhino skin, because not everybody likes your books. You’ve got to accept criticism, learn from it, and not give up. If you’ve written something you’re proud of, just keep going. If you’ve written a book that’s something to be proud of.
Jenny: Tell us a little about your method of working. Are you a workaholic and if so how do you unwind and de-stress?
Kathryn: I am definitely not a workaholic. You hear of writers getting up at 5am and working for three hours. that’s not me. If I am at my desk by 10am, the morning is off to a good start, and I’m back in the house for a drink.. I do work in a converted garage, because I do feel its important to have somewhere away from the house otherwise it doesn’t feel like work. But there’s no kettle, there’s no toilet, and the only internet is for research, no emails, but I can’t write for twelve hours and call it a day. I’m very slow. . . Having said that, when you’re writing a lot of time is spent looking out of the window thinking about what is next – but that’s still writing isn’t it?
Jenny: Very much so.
Turning to Kathryn as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series. Who do you binge read?
Kathryn: When I was in my teens, definitely, I used to binge read authors like Sidney Sheldon, and Jeffrey Archer. They are never going to win literary prizes, but they know how to keep the reader turning pages. I used to read them over and over again. And now all sorts of different genres. I get sent a lot of books by publishers to read and review and I enjoy that. All kinds of books. and I like to read debut authors too, because I know how hard it is to get published. Just a very wide variety. I read more on holiday, otherwise its more little snatches in bed at night. I always love it when someone tells me they have taken my book on holiday.
Circling back to the beginning
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Kathryn: Ultimately yes, but sort of wish I hadn’t started ten years earlier. I had the idea for The Key 2006 – 2007 and the book wasn’t finished till 2012. I am a procrastinator. I realise I was working fulltime as well, but there are people who work on their writing as well as working. I could have had a ten year start.
Jenny: So now you are working on one book a year, is that right?
Kathryn: Yes although I have negotiated an 18 month delivery for the next book . Book Four is coming out in June this year. This one is called Her Last Promise. We were in the middle of a family cycling holiday in rural Spain and we came across an old abandoned hermitage on a peninsula high in the
Duraton River National Park in the province of Segovia, about an hour from Madrid.
It made me wonder, what would make someone give everything up and live this lonely isolated existence. So it’s set partly in Spain, and partly in Manchester. We meet a young single mother in Manchester in 1978 who is caring for her young daughter. She meets a new man who is not what he appears. She goes off on holiday and never returns. It’s set in the present day and in 1978.
Jenny: Do you enjoy interacting with readers and where can they find you online?
Kathryn: I do I have a website, but if they contact me on Facebook, I definitely respond to them there. Having a lot of international readers, I have to rely on old Google translate, so sometimes it’s a lot of fun!
Jenny: I wondered when you said about all your translations how you got on with relating to readers in other languages . . And now with this new one set in Spain – you’ll probably get a lot of Spanish readers . .!
Kathryn: My husband speaks Spanish so he’ll be a great help there!
Jenny: We have now run out of time, so thanks so much for talking with us today, and all the best with your writing.
Kathryn: Thanks so much Jenny. Bye. . .!
- If you enjoy Kathryn Hughes’ dual time line series you may also enjoy dual time line stories from Lily Graham
- or Camille di Maio
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