As part of the featured author Q&A sessions, I am very pleased to announce that the featured author for the current session is Dinah Jefferies.
Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. Her idyllic childhood always held a special place in her imagination, and when she began writing novels in her sixties, she was able to return there – first in her fiction and then on annual research trips for each new novel. Dinah is the author of four novels and is currently writing her fifth. The Tea Planter’s Wife was a Sunday Times number one bestseller.
Hi Dinah, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your background? I was born in Malaysia and lived there during the 1950s because my father had taken a job there, and we only returned to England when I was nine. I missed the warmth and colour of Malaya and found England cold and damp. I think that’s the main reason I set my novels in the heat of the East and enjoy visiting the countries I write about so much. Having said that I now love England and live on the edge of The Cotswolds with my husband and Norfolk Terrier. It’s a great place to walk and I’m very happy here, close to my family. Although we live in the middle of a town we have gorgeous parks and countryside all around us.
What are your ambitions for your writing career? It’s simple. To enjoy writing books that people enjoy reading, and if a book does well I’m overjoyed. Both The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter were Sunday Times Top 10 Bestsellers. So that was lovely.
So, what have you written? The Separation, about a mother searching for her missing daughters, set in Malaysia. The Tea Planter’s Wife, about a life changing secret, and set in Sri Lanka when it was Ceylon, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, a love story set during the French war in 1950s Vietnam.
What is your most recent novel? My latest book, just out, is Before The Rains and it’s set in Rajasthan, India. I wanted to bring to life the colour and atmosphere of Rajasthan: the palaces, the jewels, the incredible luxury and wealth and contrast that with the raw emptiness of the desert and the poverty there. I wanted the pages to shimmer with spice, silks, festivals and in that way it’s very romantic. However, there are also some disturbing scenes, especially concerning the treatment of women. My readers often say they enjoy being transported to an exotic setting where they can actually feel as if they are there, and I always try to include the social and political background so that the book feels authentic. This is what Liz Robinson at Lovereading said about the book: “It is the relationship, with the different customs and cultures, and how it affects the people surrounding Eliza and Jay, that really provoked my feelings. With the issues affecting women taking centre stage, ‘Before the Rains’ is a beautiful novel, subtle yet striking, full of impact, and full of love.”
Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special? Eliza is a photo-journalist in 1930s, who experiences the sheer excitement of going out to India armed only with a camera. She arrives in Rajasthan to photograph the Royal family and life in a Princely State where she meets Jay, the ruler’s younger brother. Although the book has a love story at its heart, there is an edge, as it explores both forbidden love and the cultural differences Eliza finds as an outsider. It’s a spicy, thought provoking story about destiny and how three people are inevitably linked together. I aim to use all the senses so that my readers feel as if they are there.
What genre are your books? Historical.
What draws you to this genre? I like to shine a light on the past and find the human stories there. Just because a book is historical doesn’t mean the characters don’t have the same frailties and vulnerabilities we have now. A human dilemma is a human dilemma, no matter when it takes place and that’s what readers connect with. I aim to make my readers feel what the characters are feeling as though they are right there in the action.
When did you decide to become a writer? About eight years ago. We were living in Andalusia and once our house had been restored I had time on my hands to finally get down to it. I wrote a book and sent it out but it got rejected. So I tried again and the second book, The Separation, was bought by Penguin.
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured? I write in the mornings while I’m fresh and use the afternoons for emails, blogs, research and editing. I don’t work in the evenings.
Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day? No. I just write what I can. Sometimes it’s loads, other times very little. It’s important to write something every day if you can. You can always edit afterwards. You can’t edit a blank page.
Where do your ideas come from? That is an impossible question! My mother-in- law was born in India and, as a child, lived in Delhi. The idea for Before The Rains was partly inspired by the stories she told about India. But also I loved the monsoon as a child and I wanted to write a story where something had to be completed before the rains washed it away. My mother-in- law also influenced the writing of The Tea Planter’s wife. Her mother was mixed race, Indian/Irish, and so she knew how challenging it could be. I try to write what I feel so that, as the main characters go through a moral crisis, the books are full of emotional depth.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you? I write a long synopsis and do my best to stick to it. Of course, new ideas and plot twists do occur to me as I go along, as well as problems I hadn’t foreseen. So I have to be flexible.
How long on average does it take you to write a book? If you include all the editing, copy editing and proof reading about ten months but it can be longer.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively? I try to learn from each book and also try to make each one very different from its predecessor. But each book offers a brand new start and just because I’ve had books published already doesn’t make it any easier. In fact writing to a deadline can be very inhibiting.
Do you read much and if so which writers inspire you? I love Sarah Waters and have read all her books. She is hugely inspiring as is Julia Gregson. But recently I’ve enjoyed The Essex Serpent and The Muse. I also love Anna Hope’s books.
What is your favourite book and why? My all time favourite book has to be Jane Eyre but I also loved The Remains of The Day. The exquisite detail was what made that book so incredible and Jane Eyre is the ultimate in emotional depth and drama.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Keep writing and if something doesn’t succeed just chalk it up to experience and learn from your mistakes. That’s what I try to do. The important thing is not to be defeated until you have given it your very best shot. And keep reading.
Thank you very much Dinah for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.