Saturday 22 February 2020

Guest Kathy Shuker of Devon, UK.

Kathy is a British author with four published novels. When you visit her website, she says this about her stories:

“And, though they (her novels) have a strong plot line, it is the characters, their relationships and their passions which drive the stories forward.”

I like that. Her novels have striking covers and intriguing titles that are certain to make you want to have a look. There’s no doubt in my mind that these are exceptional stories.

Kathy had graciously agreed to a 4Q Interview and is sharing an excerpt of her writing.

Kathy was born and raised in the north west of England and trained as a physiotherapist but had to give the work up early due to a back injury. She studied design and took up a career as a freelance artist, painting in watercolours and oils, exhibiting, supplying galleries and teaching, but started writing several years ago and quickly became hooked. She now writes full-time.

As well as an ongoing interest in art, Kathy is a keen amateur singer and musician, playing piano and acoustic guitar. She also loves learning foreign languages and reads widely. Kathy lives with her husband near the sea in Devon in the southwest of England.

4Q: Four published novels, all with great reviews. Which of them was the most difficult to write, the one you worked hardest at?

This is an interesting question. With every book I write I complain that I’m wrestling with it, that it’s not working out and I’m not sure I can pull it off. My husband always laughs and says, long-sufferingly, we’ve been here before – every time! I have to concede that he may be right.

I’m not a great one for planning the details of a novel before I start. I have a broad outline, the main characters and the thrust of the plot in my mind and roughly how it will end, but not how I will get there. I think some of my best ideas arise from just writing it, especially when I start to understand my characters and how the plot and sub plots should weave together. It means that a first draft is often a slow, painful process but that seems to be the only way I can work. So every book is a challenge.

Having said that, I think my third novel required the greatest amount of research because the story revolves around a family who run a vineyard in Cornwall, UK. I had to learn a lot about vines and wine-making in order to make it authentic. Not that doing wine tours including wine-tastings around all the local vineyards was too onerous! As far as the story was concerned, that book also was more emotional to write because it involves the disappearance of a young girl which made it harrowing at times. It also meant that I felt I had to get it pitch perfect.

4Q: You took up painting before deciding to steer your creative pursuits toward writing. Is there any correlation between the art of painting and the art of writing? Looking at a blank canvas or a blank page.

Fortunately, I don’t have an issue with blank pages or canvases! Just before I start, I’m still in the optimistic ‘I know what I want to do with this’ phase. I’m excited. Of course, it’s usually short-lived. But there are definitely correlations between the two arts. When you start a painting or a story, the image you have in your mind – odd details but more an impression, the tone of it – is wonderful. It is always going to be the best thing you have produced. Inevitably, it always falls short; it’s never quite as perfect as the creation you had envisaged. You may be pleased with it but there’s a feeling that you could have made it even better.

Which brings me to another: if you stay too long at a painting, you can lose the original concept and it ends up looking overworked and muddy. The same applies to writing. I’m a perfectionist and tend to keep picking at a manuscript but at some point, you have to walk away and accept it for what it is, keeping, hopefully, the original creative sparkle.

And there is the need to give your work space. When you think you have finished a painting, you need to step away from it, maybe put it out of sight for a while so that, when you see it again, your perceptions will be fresher and you’ll notice anything that might need doing. With a novel, it’s the same. Finish a draft then set it aside for at least a few days if not weeks, then read it again. It is amazing what clarity that can bring and you will see errors and inconsistencies that you had missed before. You also have a better overview of the whole work and how well the story runs, especially the pacing, rather than getting caught up in small details.

4Q: Please share a childhood memory or anecdote.

I grew up in a house full of books. My late father was an academic, a theologian with an amazingly hearty laugh and a broad and eclectic taste in music and books. There were books on the major world religions, some illustrated with wonderful paintings, and books on art – from the Renaissance to the Post-Impressionists. The shelves were groaning with fiction too from cheap thrillers to poetry and the complete works of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. He was interested in language and had a surprising collection of foreign language dictionaries (some for languages he had never learnt) plus the inevitable thesaurus to help him do crosswords. For me it was like living in a treasure trove. I loved all those books and regularly took them down and picked over them, sometimes with dad at my shoulder, explaining things to me.

And then there was the piano which he taught me to play, and the vinyl records, as they were then, which we would all listen to – jazz and blues, gospel and country, classical and pop. I accepted it all as normal since it was all I knew, but I can see now how lucky I was to be exposed to such a broad range of creative work growing up. As a young child, my father told me stories at bedtime, tales he made up as he went along, and I thought they were magical. I couldn’t do that but I can, with time and work, draft a story and I think that’s thanks to my dad along with so many other things. He taught me, by example, to wonder at the world. I hope it’s something I never lose and maybe that I can pass on.

4Q: On the home page of your website, you tell the readers art, music and wildlife show up in your stories. Of particular note, your novel - Silent Faces, Painted Ghosts - (love the title) there is an image of an easel and frames. I’m not sure if it was intended but it’s a great teaser. How do these figure in the story?

Yes, it was intended. I love those empty picture frames. I’ll explain their significance.

This novel is set in Provence at the large hillside home of Peter Stedding, a celebrated but reclusive portrait painter. For his forthcoming retrospective exhibition at a Nice gallery, unwilling to trust the gallery staff, he employs his own curator, Terri, to organise his work. Keen to escape a controlling romantic relationship, Terri has jumped at the job despite Peter’s reputation for being a volatile, difficult person.

But Terri arrives to an atmosphere. There’s Peter’s second – and much younger – wife and his eccentric sister Celia, with undercurrents running between them. And Sami, the gardener cum handyman who watches everything. And there’s a mesmerizing portrait on the wall of Peter’s first wife which no-one mentions. There are secrets in that house.

When Terri starts to explore Peter’s paintings for work to exhibit, she finds tantalising suggestions that there have been other portraits, personal ones, now destroyed. Whose were they and why have they gone?

4Q: Music and Wildlife are particular interests to you. How do you intertwine your passions as part of the story? Which of your novels would be an example?

My first published novel, Deep Water, Thin Ice is the best example of the intertwining of these two interests. The main story revolves around Alex, whose husband, Simon Brook, a well-known and flamboyant conductor has recently killed himself. Alex, a classical soprano with a successful career but now guilt-ridden and grieving, escapes to Hillen Hall, an old house by the sea, trying to come to terms with her loss.

Hillen Hall is an old Brook family home, once a fine manor house but now creaking and unloved. Keen to do something, she sets about renovating it and is puzzled when Theo Hellyon, Simon's cousin, turns up and offers to help because she didn’t know Simon had a cousin. Theo is charming though, too charming, and he reminds her of Simon and there’s history she doesn’t know about. Theo is not what he seems and we watch with baited breath, waiting and hoping Alex realises too.

Alongside this edgy and intriguing thread is Alex’s secretive friendship with Mick, the solitary and touchy man who runs the wildlife sanctuary down on a tidal inlet by the sea. He lives in a converted railway carriage on the site and keeps himself – and his secrets – to himself. Alex finds the sanctuary therapeutic. Sitting in the hide that Mick has built, watching the birds and other wildlife pass before her, she starts to find some peace again. It’s an antidote to everything else that is going on in her life. These two threads and the two relationships weave in and out of the story, counterbalancing each other until…well, you’d have to read the book!

It was a pleasure to write about someone creating a wildlife reserve, particularly managing and extending areas of reedbed so that bitterns would nest there again. I was able to indulge my interest in birds and it gave me an excuse to visit more reserves myself and learn more. The bittern – a highly reclusive type of heron – had badly diminished in numbers in the UK due to loss of its habitat through drainage in order to reclaim land. But there has been a reversal in recent years with a number of new reedbed reserves created and the shy and elusive bittern is slowly returning. I have been thrilled to see one a couple of times myself and I judge it a worthy minor character for my book!

4Q: What’s next for Kathy Shuker, the author?

I am currently working on another novel which is set back in France, up in the hills of Provence. It’s an area I love for the light and the landscape, the Mediterranean climate and culture, and the heady scents of lavender and herbs. I also think that more remote settings enhance the intimacy and ‘pressure cooker’ feel of a story. And art figures heavily in this story too but I’m still exploring it and dare say no more at this point for fear of jinxing it; there’s a long way to go yet.

4Q: Anything else you’d like to share with us?

My novels provide interesting topics for book clubs to discuss and, on my website, each one has downloadable questions, should your book club wish to choose one to read. (Please be aware that book club questions may contain spoilers.) 

I love to chat with readers on my Facebook page. If anyone would like to keep in touch or find out about special offers, events or new publications, please like the page.

My books are available across multiple e platforms and in paperback. The links at the end will take you to your preferred vendor.

And I’d like to thank you, Allan, for the generous invitation to chat on your blog. It’s been a pleasure to answer such insightful questions.

**It's my pleasure to have you with us this week Kathy. 

An Excerpt from Silent faces, Painted Ghosts

(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)

Le Chant du Mistral, Provence

Angela Stedding watched her husband struggle to cut the piece of beef with his fork but said nothing. If she offered to help, he’d tell her she was fussing. If she’d made a meal which he would have found easier to manage, he’d ask why she was giving him baby food. It was lunchtime on the first Saturday in April. Corinne, the bonne, cooked Peter’s lunches in the week; Angela usually did it at weekends. It had seemed like a romantic thing to do when she had first started the routine all those years ago but now it was a tedious chore, a habit which seemed to bring neither of them any real pleasure. Would Peter care if she stopped doing it? She doubted it. He appeared to like Corinne for some reason – or at least he tolerated her - and the French woman would surely agree to take on the task; she regularly worked extra hours to earn a little more money.

Angela continued to eat her salad, ignoring her husband’s grunts of exertion. He’d get frustrated eventually no doubt and lose his temper. For a little over four weeks now he’d had his left arm in plaster from his elbow to his knuckles, the result of a fall. Though the fingers and thumb were free, he was unable to use the hand in any practical way and was obliged to eat all his meals with either a fork or a spoon. Given his advancing years, there was something faintly admirable about his fierce independence, his determination not to let the accident slow him up, and he had complained little about the pain he must have felt, just the inconvenience. But it certainly hadn’t improved his temper. Fortunately he generally reserved the worst of it for the studio.

‘Oh, for God’s sake. Damn and blast this bloody hand.’ His patience finally snapping, Peter dropped the fork with a clatter onto the plate and swore again, more colourfully this time. ‘I’ll starve if I have to go on like this.’

‘Peter, please.’

‘What? Oh, mm. Sorry.’ Tight-lipped, glaring at the plaster on his wrist, he appeared not remotely repentant.

‘About this girl you’ve invited to stay with us.’

‘Who? Oh her. What about her?’ He picked up the salt cellar, sprinkled more salt over the remaining potatoes on his plate, grabbed the fork again and returned to fumbling about with his food.

‘You didn’t give me much warning,’ she complained.

‘Only just decided really. I nearly called it off. Then I thought I might as well take a look at her, see if she might be of any use.’

Angela ate another mouthful of food then laid her knife and fork down on the plate, pushing it away. She dabbed the corners of her mouth on her napkin, folded it and put it on the table. There was the distant ringing of the house phone. She wondered where she’d left it, thought of getting up to go and look but then the ringing stopped and she assumed her daughter had answered it.

‘So who is she exactly?’ she pressed.

‘The curator? I’ve told you already: Terri Challoner. Odd name. Short for Theresa I suppose.’

Angela tutted impatiently. ‘I know her name, Peter, but…’ She shrugged. ‘…I don’t know…how old is she?’

‘Mid-thirties.’ He forked the last piece of meat into his mouth, chewed and swallowed.


He puffed out his lips in that offhand French way she so disliked. ‘She’s got a good CV. Involved in some decent exhibitions. Specialises in portraiture mainly but she’s done other work too, I believe, ranging…’

‘Peter, please don’t tell me her résumé. You know it means nothing to me. Is she English? Or perhaps American?’ Angela had a soft spot for people from the States. If the girl was American it might make her more appealing.

‘English I think.’ He finished eating, put the fork down and pushed the plate away. ‘Yes, English.’

‘Do you want dessert? Tea then? No?’ She sighed. Even after all this time, she couldn’t get used to him drinking water with his meals. Another of his French habits. ‘We’re going to have this woman in the house for six months; I’d like to know something about her. You’re usually so protective of your privacy, I’m surprised you’ve done this.’

He frowned at her as if that issue had not previously crossed his mind. She wondered if he was going senile; his sister certainly was and she was six years younger.

‘She’s here to do a job, Angela,’ he said. ‘That’s all. Don’t make a fuss about her. Anyway, you’re putting her in the annexe aren’t you?’

‘Yes, but it’s very small and it’s still attached to the house. We can’t expect her to stay in her room for six months like a monk or something.’

‘A nun more like.’ Peter unexpectedly grinned which suddenly made him look much younger. It occurred to her that he was still remarkably handsome in a craggy sort of way, a thought which obscurely made her more irritated.

‘Well she can’t do all her cooking with a microwave. I’m going to have to let her use the kitchen sometimes.’

‘Are you? Well…’ He waved a dismissive right hand. ‘…as you wish, my dear.’

As I wish, thought Angela. Hardly. She toyed with suggesting that Terri could eat with him each lunch-time but knew that would go down badly. In any case it seemed rather strange to have a member of staff regularly installed at the family table. She fixed him with a wary gaze.

‘I’m still not sure it was wise to offer her accommodation.’

He hesitated, frowning, and began to look rattled as if the full implication of his decision had only just sunk in. ‘I did think it through, Angela,’ he said, irascibly. ‘She’d be more likely to talk if she stayed in the village and you know I won’t have that. It’ll be easier to keep an eye on her here, you know, control her. Anyway, as I said: she’s come to do a job. End of story.’ He stabbed at the table with an emphatic index finger. ‘Just make it clear to her where she can go and where she can’t. I’ll leave that to you.’ His tone softened; he almost smiled. ‘The house is your domain after all, dear: your rules.’

That’s only partly true, thought Angela, though she suspected that in the unfathomable workings of Peter’s mind he might genuinely believe it. But Peter had his own rules, rules which were never even voiced, they just existed, as if they were part of the very fabric of the house and the air which they breathed.

‘She’s going to be late,’ said a husky voice behind her.

Angela turned quickly in her chair. A white-haired woman wearing blue dungarees had appeared silently at the kitchen door. She was standing flicking an artist’s brush back and forth across the gnarled index finger of her left hand. Her frizzy hair fell to shoulder length and a splodge of red paint was smeared across her left cheek.

‘What are you talking about, Celia?’ Angela demanded.

‘Terri is going to be late. There’s some problem with her flight.’

‘How do you know?’

Celia wandered across to the island separating the long pine table from the kitchen proper and took an apple from the bowl of fruit. She bore a striking resemblance to her brother: tall and rangy with the same icy, pale blue-grey eyes. She could also be similarly evasive and irritating. Now she was polishing the apple on her less than clean dungarees. Angela’s lip curled in disgust.

‘She’s just rung from Gatwick,’ Celia replied, after closely examining the apple. ‘She’s not sure what time she’ll arrive. Sometime this evening probably.’

‘You answered the phone?’

‘Someone had to.’

‘I thought Lindsey had.’

‘She’s just left for work.’

‘Oh? She didn’t come to say goodbye.’

‘Well she’s a big girl now,’ said Celia, and bit into the apple.

Angela’s eyes narrowed and she glanced towards Peter who was staring out of the window as if the conversation were not taking place. ‘I’ve asked you before not to answer the phone in the house,’ she snapped at Celia. ‘What did you say to her?’

Peter glanced shiftily between the two women, pushed his chair back and eased himself to his feet. ‘I’m just going to rest for a few minutes,’ he said, heading past Celia towards the door and pausing briefly as if he’d just remembered something. ‘I’ve got something particular I need to finish Angela. I’ll be working late tonight.’

Celia watched her brother out of the room and turned back towards Angela who was now on her feet, facing her. ‘I wished her bon voyage, of course,’ said Celia. She smiled blandly, took another bite of the apple and strolled out of the room.

Angela sighed, looked heavenwards and cleared the table. She had made plans for the evening and now she would have to shelve them to sort out this Challoner woman. So Peter would be working late. That was no surprise; he always was. No doubt he was now upstairs, stretched out on the bed for his routine siesta.

She loaded the dishes into the dishwasher, straightened up and leaned against the kitchen unit, her thoughts returning to Terri Challoner. Exactly what position was the woman going to have in their household for the next six months? Angela felt a growing unease. It wasn’t that it was unusual for Peter not to tell her things, far from it – he was a secretive man - but still there was something odd about this whole situation.

Out of the window to the front she saw Celia pushing that ridiculous pram across the terrace, the apple now apparently finished. She’d probably thrown the core into one of the huge flower pots and Sammy would complain.

Thank you so much for being our featured guest this week Kathy. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and your writing better.

For you wonderful readers that are interested in discovering more about this talented lady, please follow this link:

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