I first heard about Gladstone’s Library in 2011 when I picked up a leaflet at the Hay Festival. I am a huge fan of William Gladstone, a Prime Minister who, for all his failings, really tried to improve the lot of ordinary people. So I was delighted to discover his library existed, and furthermore that it was possible to stay there. I was in the midst of writing my novel Echo Hall at the time and the idea of a writing retreat at Hawarden was very tempting. But, it’s a long way from Oxford and being a busy working parent it wasn’t until 2013 that I finally managed to make the trip.
At the time, I was part way through the third edit of my book which tells the story of three generations of women who experience love, loss and conflict during times of war. Having thrashed out each separate story arc, I was now focussing on the quality of writing. So I arrived at the library ready to tackle my 1940’s section, which involved eliminating as many clichés and as much banal dialogue as a I could, whilst changing the tense from past to present. I only had two and a half days to spare; I needed an environment free from distraction and conducive to an intensive period of work. Gladstone’s Library did not disappoint.
The moment I walked up the rickety stairs to my writing desk in the library’s wooden gallery, I knew I was in the right place. Though there was WiFi, I was not tempted to use it. The light, airy room, jam-packed with books and the quiet calm proved to be the perfect place to write. Because my stay was so short, I took advantage of every minute. I was up early, and worked late, stopping only to eat and drink (particularly enjoying the cream tea at 4, and wine from the honesty bar in front of the roaring fire at the end of the day). There were plenty of people around and I’d normally have been quite sociable, but I mainly confined myself to chats over meals. Otherwise, I sat in the library, working and reworking my material, or back in my room listening to a CD of BBC news broadcasts from World War Two (which were excellent for establishing period detail).
When I did take brief breaks, I enjoyed wandering through the Library building - the oak panel walls and leather arm chairs provided a conducive atmosphere for writing a novel with gothic elements. I also enjoyed checking out the Gladstone memorabilia: cartoons mocking his stance on Home Rule for Ireland (one of the many reasons I love him); the magnificent chair he was given (I think) by fellow Parliamentarians; photographs of him cutting down trees and wheeling his books to the Library in a handcart in his 80s. I think my favourite was the description of family parties and how he sang and danced with his wife. All of which served to prove to me that not only was he a fine Prime Minister, but a decent human being, one from whom modern day politicians could take a few lessons.
At one meal I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with that year’s writer-in-residence, Richard Beard. I had vaguely heard of him, and what he told me about his novel Lazarus is Dead (the back story of Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus, it is both blackly comic and deeply spiritual) was enough to make me buy it immediately. He was at the Library working on the book’s follow up, Acts of the Assassins, which sounded equally interesting. There was something absolutely magical about sitting opposite him later, watching him write words that would eventually become a book. (Coincidentally, I saw the novel in Waterstones at the weekend, and so am currently fully immersed in his wonderful narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection told as a police procedural. Highly recommended).
As for my own novel, those days spent in Gladstone’s Library, brief as they were, proved enormously productive. I deleted words, paragraphs, chapters even, as I found better ways to tell my story. I honed the language, and was delighted by the immediate effect of changing tense on the text. What had been a fairly flat narrative burst into life finally doing justice to the characters I’d been thinking about for so long. When I left, exhausted, and keen to see my family, I did so with a sense of pride that I was making real progress, and keen to return as soon as I could.
Three years later and that trip is long overdue, but in the meantime, the novel is done. This January, I was delighted to be signed by the crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. Unbound is a bold new way of publishing novels that puts readers at the heart of the process. The author pitches their work, by means of a video, and an excerpt of the book, and readers pledge to support it for a range of rewards. As a result, instead of having to wait for book sales to recoup publishing costs, Unbound is able to have the money upfront, which in turn enables them to produce beautiful books of very high quality. I am very proud to be part of the team, and although crowdfunding is hard work, I am very much enjoying the opportunity to talk about my novel in advance of its publication. And if you are a reader who likes to find new authors, I highly recommend Unbound as a place to discover them (though be warned, pledging for books can be addictive!)
If you are interested in finding out more about Echo Hall and how to support it you can follow me on Twitter (@aroomofmyown1) and Facebook and visit my page at Unbound. I look forward to hearing from you.