Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. She is the author of three novels published by Penguin and, after a lifetime of wandering, now lives in Gloucestershire. Her novel The Tea Planter’s Wife is a Sunday Times bestseller
When did you realise that writing was going to mean something in your life?
I felt it might mean something from the moment I began writing my first novel because although I really didn’t know what I was doing I knew that I loved it. It’s the love of it that has meant everything. Success has been an added bonus.
Did you always dream of having a novel published or was it something that came to you later in life – your first book was published after you’d reached retirement age?
It came when we lost a lot of money in the financial crisis of 2008. Rather than dwell on my worries I wrote the novel I had been thinking about for several months. There’s nothing like being absorbed in another world to keep you sane.
Tell us the background to your first book, how you acquired an agent and how you found the submission process?
My very first manuscript was rejected. I did the usual sending round to agents and one of them asked me to send my next attempt. I did just that and she took me on and then got me a great publishing deal within 10 days. That book was The Separation set in Malaysia where I was born. You have to develop a thick skin when it comes to submitting your work, though it isn’t easy.
All of your books have a touch of the exotic. Do you think this helps the appeal of your books – an escape from the cold and the rain for UK and Irish readers?
I’ve heard from readers that they do enjoy being transported to a different time and place so perhaps the exotic settings do help. But the reason I use exotic settings is that I’m continually drawn back to the East where I began my life. I feel it’s in my blood and in my heart.
What is your writing routine? Do you aim for a word count a day?
I write whenever I can and loathe word counts. I write as much as I’m able to write. Sometimes a lot, sometimes not. And I do that until the first draft is finished. It works for me, though having a good plan before you begin does help that process
Tell us about The Tea Planter’s Wife, your second novel and a novel that was chosen as Richard & Judy Book Club pick. How did this help sales?
The Tea Planter’s Wife is set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the 1920s and 30s and tells the story of a young woman who sets out for a new life at her husband’s tea plantation. At first everything seems wonderful but she soon discovers the plantation is a place of dark secrets. As a result of being a Richard & Judy book club pick, the novel had high visibility and went on to become a Sunday Times Number 1 bestseller in 2015 and stayed in the top ten for 15 weeks. It’s also going to be available in 20 foreign editions.
Are there any plans for TV or film adaptation of your works?
Not yet. Unfortunately my books would be pretty expensive to film.
What projects are you working on at the moment? Your third novel was recently published?
My third novel The Silk Merchant’s Daughter is set in 1950s French Vietnam and is all about a mixed race woman caught between two worlds. And at the moment I’m working on my fourth novel set in India and due out in January 2017. My publisher wants a book a year and I will have delivered four. Book five may take a little longer.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I have no idea what it is. Some days writing flows, some days it doesn’t flow.
How important is research for your novels? You travel a lot before you write. Is it possible for writers who don’t have the means to travel to imagine the settings of their books realistically?
Research is at the heart of all my books. Not just the place but the political climate of the period. I’ve found that travel has given me detail and insight I couldn’t have found any other way. I’ve also discovered amazing books that weren’t available in the UK or on the internet so I would always choose to travel if I can. That being said I’m sure it’s possible to write about a place you haven’t been. I just haven’t done it.
What would you say to writers who are trying to break into publishing?
It’s pretty simple. You just have to keep going and keep learning. If a book is constantly rejected let it go and start another.
What do you personally like to read?
I have so little time for reading these days but I like to read books that engage the heart as well as the mind. I loved Sarah Waters The Paying Guests for example.
Where do you write?
In my overcrowded back bedroom but I’m getting lost beneath a sea of books and paper, so this summer I’m having a garden room built and that is where I’ll be moving to. It’s very exciting and I can’t wait.
LadyNicci comment: As a historical fiction nut myself I love to get my teeth stuck into a good, descriptive novel and there were many things I enjoyed about reading The Tea Planter’s Wife. The setting transported me out of my house and over to the steamy scenery of Ceylon, the characters and their complications, so far removed from what I have experienced, but ideal of their time. There was a gentleness about the novel – with few social gatherings and no distractions of modern technology for the main character, I found myself relaxing as soon as I began reading. As a writer, I studied how Dinah weaved the novel and there are many things I will take into my next foray of historical fiction writing, particularly in how she used detailed description and local wildlife. It is heartening to hear that it was Dinah’s second novel that secured publication for her – she went through the rejection of her debut work like so many others and had to come to the difficult decision to move on. And not only that, but coming to it later in life, shows that the dream of publication can always be in your future, it just might not be when you expect it.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email email@example.com with How I Write in the subject line.
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