But first, another NEW feature for the blog! Not only am I interviewing author of The Wedding Cake Tree, Melanie Hudson, but she has very magnanimously offered a paperback copy of her book. Simply leave a comment on today's post to be entered into the draw to win it.
This week, we have a special Christmas-themed Q&A, as well as the usual book related one. Enjoy!
I adore trees. To me, they symbolise a great deal – permanence, strength, shelter, protection – I could go on. Grace’s mother, Rosamund, plants a number of trees throughout her life in different locations. She sends Grace to find the trees. The most important tree in both women’s lives is a wedding cake tree which Rosamund planted in the garden of the family home when Grace was born; it’s Grace’s tree – it’s the family tree. Bearing in mind Grace is sent on a journey of discovery to uncover her family history which has been kept a secret from her, it seemed apt to name the book after ‘the family tree’. Also, a wedding cake tree grows in layers (it’s a beautiful tree). The layers symbolise the stages of Rosamund’s life.
The book has a strong military focus. I know you have a background in the military. What can you tell us about that and why you chose to include this element in your novel?
I joined the Royal Air Force in 1994, worked with the Army for two years in operational environments, and then transferred to the Royal Navy in 2004 – so I’ve had a colourful military career. My own identity has been moulded by my time spent working with the armed forces. There is an old adage that you should ‘write what you know’, so I should imagine any book I write in the future will have a military thread running through in some guise or another. I didn’t want to write a war story though; I wanted to touch upon the emotional side of modern day soldiering. One of the main characters (Alasdair) is a Royal Marine. Rosamund (the mother) is ex-military too. I loved the idea of having a strong female military character, even though this aspect of her life is only a small part of the book.
The mother is quite a character, even though she speaks from beyond the grave. How did you manage to bring her to life so well? (pardon the pun!) Did you employ any particular techniques?
Rosamund seems to be the character readers appreciate/like the most. I think the reason for this is because she speaks to the reader directly through her letters. I wanted the reader to ‘become’ Grace while they are reading the letters, and, therefore, feel that they are on the journey with her. Rosamund is absolutely honest about love, regrets, achievements and failures. The letters are, at times, a heart- breaking portrayal of her life, which makes them/her endearing.
The passages set in Scotland are particularly evocative. I know you have visited some of the places, but as you managed to describe them so well, I wonder if you have visited all of them? if so, which was your favourite and why?
I adore Scotland. I lived there for three years (Ayrshire and Moray) and got to know the Cairngorm area particularly well. I’m an avid hill walker so the whole of the Highlands is like manna from heaven. The walk that Grace and Alasdair do on Ben Macdui is one that I have done many times. I took a group of Navy junior ratings on a two day hike across the Cairngorms a few years ago. When we got to Loch A’an, they all stripped off and jumped in (which is where I got the skinny dipping idea from); I won’t be telling whether or not I joined them! Favourite part of Scotland? Impossible to answer. On the one hand, my immediate response would be the Loch A’an/NethyBridge area. But then I would feel guilty about not including the west coast. Grace and Alasdair go to Arisaig. To me, the west coast of Scotland is the most romantic place on earth. Having said that, I spent a couple of days there alone this summer, and that was heaven too.
Would your hero, Alasdair, be your ideal man and is that the image you have of who the perfect soldier is?
Oh, Alasdair – women find him completely dreamy. Was I so transparent? Basically, yes, he is my ‘ideal man’, but I don’t have an image of the ideal soldier; they are all heroes in their own way. Having said that, I never wanted Alasdair to be perfect – who is? He has his own demons, but that’s all part of his character. I wanted him to be neither James Bond nor Bear Grylls. I wanted him to be a genuine, kind, gritty and utterly loveable kind of a guy. I wanted him to be the sort of man who could be rescuing the Prime Minister from a burning building one minute, and then taking the kids swimming the next. I also liked the idea of a strong male character who is capable and in tune with nature. Having said that, he has his weaknesses like everyone else; and there is a power shift at the end…but I can’t say more as it will give the game away.
I particularly liked the scene at the wedding with the young man in the wheelchair, as it lent extra depth to the story and the main characters’ attitudes and personalities. How much did you consciously try to weave extra layers of the military in this way into the story and can you give a few examples?
Initially the book was fairly political in places. Grace and Alasdair had in-depth conversations about modern day conflict. But I realised that it was the only part of the book where I was consciously pushing across my own opinions - my own feelings of frustration and confusion and my desperate desire to hope that every military life lost during the past few years hasn’t been in vain. But although literature should enable the reader to sit for a moment and ponder, this book was never intended as something that was overtly opinionated or political, so I deleted all of the scenes that had become a little too intense – they slowed the book down and weren’t in keeping with the story. As for Alex and Alasdair, I wanted to illustrate the unbreakable bond of a solid military friendship, and I wanted to show that it isn’t just those with physical injuries that suffer.
Which do you prefer to write, description or dialogue and why?I don’t have a preference. Both are enjoyable. I find description easier than dialogue, which means I have to cut great swathes of it in the edit.
Who is your favourite minor character and why?
Grace’s Aunt Annie, no question. She’s a no-nonsense, ‘tell it how it is’ northerner – like nearly every member of my family. I loved creating a character that was both brusque and incredibly kind. I also wanted the reader to decide upon their own opinion of her – not to be swayed by Rosamund’s description of her in the letter. Basically, she’s good fun.
Why did you choose the European country you did as a part of the quest? (I am trying to be vague here to avoid spoilers!)
I lived for six months in the ‘European location that shan’t be named’. One of the things Rosamund is trying to teach Grace, is that location and landscape can play a huge factor in determining your actions in life. If you move away from the norm temporarily (i.e. from your own town, your own country) you may act/make decisions you wouldn’t usually make…we all get a little carried away on holiday don’t we? That is what happened to Rosamund, and she wants to show her daughter why she made some of the decisions she made in her life (which weren’t necessarily based on common sense!).
As you wrote about Grace’s mother being a person having a life before being Grace’s mother, did you think about your own mother, or indeed yourself seen from your children’s point of view in the future?
I didn’t think about my own mother at all… I don’t want to think about her in any way other than my perfect mum; it would destroy the image (which is exactly how Grace feels initially). The inspiration for the mother/daughter relationship came from the fact that my son saw a photograph of me wearing army fatigues while I was in Iraq. He asked who the person in the picture was. I told him it was me, which he didn’t like – it wasn’t how he has pigeon-holed me in his mind. I doubt he’ll ever really know anything about the life I lived before he was born (oh, the irony!).
Fun stuff - a Christmas themed question base today!
I know, like me, you are a huge Rupert Penry-Jones fan, but I believe he has been usurped of late. Tell us who you would like to find wrapped up under your Christmas tree?
Hilarious. Yes, Rupert is to die for, isn’t he? I kind of like the Ben Ainslee look, but (and I’m afraid it’s a cliché) Daniel Craig was particularly sexy in Skyfall. Unfortunately, Alasdair is pure fiction, or else I’d be happy to find him under my tree. I think attraction is just as much emotional as physical.
Christmas carols or rock music?
Love or hate Christmas and has this attitude changed with having children?
I ‘like’ Christmas personally, and I ‘love’ Christmas for my son; I try to make the house all ‘Christmassy’. But I don’t go mad on the present thing (and that’s not because I’m tight or anything). We lived in Dubai for a while, and everything seemed to be about money and possessions. I don’t want my son to grow up that way… although he does do particularly well at Christmas. I’m very proud of him. He never asks for lots of possessions because he’s completely loyal to his old toys. Oh, and I HATE the Christmas music they play in the shops – especially Slade! I worked in Burtons Menswear during the day and behind a bar at night during the holidays when I was a student. Burtons played that horrendous 1980s Christmas album all the live-long day (Slade, George Michael, Wizard, Band Aid, Shakin’ Stevens etc … you know, that horrific song where that Nobby bloke shouts ‘It’s Christmas!’… yeah, I hate those songs). And then I would go to work in a bar in the evenings and hear them all again - but under Karaoke conditions; I don’t know how I survived it!
Is Halloween too early for Christmas decorations?
Too early - fact.
If you go out for a meal prior to Christmas in a restaurant, do you have turkey and Christmas pudding or not?
No, never. Life’s too short.
Big family celebrations for Christmas or intimate gathering?
My family is massive. In the past, we all got together at Mum’s house on Christmas Eve (although, because of my life in the forces, I haven’t always been able to get there). But Mum and Dad live in a tiny house now, and Dad was critically ill earlier this year, so it’s just not possible anymore. I always said I would only be in my own home for Christmas once I had a child (for the magic), but this year we will be in Yorkshire at my parents – which will end up being one of those fraught family Christmases. But Dad has been ill and I don’t often get the opportunity to see my parents. I know it sounds awful, but I don’t want to say, ‘I should have made more of an effort’ one day. Quite a few of us are going to a restaurant in Leeds for lunch which should be good. I have about 12 nephews and nieces and we’re going bowling on Christmas Eve – it’s good for my son to see everyone. We live in Devon, but my family are in Yorkshire, so he doesn’t know his family very well, which is a shame.
Favourite toy you remember getting as a child for Christmas
I remember a favourite, but I can tell you the worst… a bloody doll and pram! I never had that ‘little girl’ desire to have dolls, I just didn’t have the ‘gene’. I could have wept when I ripped open the paper and saw a Tiny Tears doll…in fact, I probably did weep. My parents didn’t have much money so I had to be grateful and ‘pretend’ to play with the thing, but I just didn’t see the point. I was so jealous of my brother's Action Men – I know they are ‘dolls’ too – but at least they came with tanks and parachutes and caterpillar tread trucks, and swivel eyes and clinging hands (I think you may have hit on a raw nerve here!).
What have you asked Santa for?
A dart board, but I know he’ll forget.Would you ever write a Christmas themed book and if so, what element of Christmas do you think it would incorporate?
If I wrote a Christmassy book it would be about the build-up to Christmas rather than the day itself (I find Christmas day to be a bit of an anti-climax…bah humbug!).
Are you a traditional Christmas person or have you added your own traditions along the way? What’s your favourite?
Mum has this fairy on her tree that is fifty years old. Three of us (out of six) want her. Mum said the only solution is that she will have to get buried with her as we will all fall out over the fairy when possessions are divided out. This all sounds petty, but that threadbare, discoloured, scrappy fairy represents everything we hold dear about Christmas…family, home and happy memories – which is why we all want her (I’m thinking kidnap!). I’m in the village Christmas choir – Away In a Manger is my favourite. Oh, and I love the Nativity. My son is a ‘wise man’ this year. If you knew my son, you would know that I will walk into church with great trepidation – ad-libbing is his forté!
And that's it for today. Remember you can win Melanie's book by posting a comment on today's post. Winner will be drawn on Monday.
You can follow Melanie on Twitter at melanie_hudson_
Tune in on Sunday - my 40th birthday, for a special surprise!