Nicki Herring is an MA student at West Dean College, studying Creative
I was fortunate enough to read this when I was in hospital last year and it iswonderful, even in draft form. I really look forward to seeing it on the shelves soon.
Hi Nicki. I am really delighted to chat with you. I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance.
If you could afford to leave midwifery and concentrate on writing full time would you do it?
If your latest book,This Place of Happiness, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
If I had my choice of leading ladies I would have Emilia Clarke as Rabia, Leila Bekhti as Amal and Elyes Cherif Gabel as Ali. I think Emilia has one of those lovely mobile faces that hide nothing, and I imagine Rabia like that. Leila comes across as far more serious, much like Amal, and Elyes is Algerian but also very English, and exactly how I imagine Ali.
|Elyes Cherif Gabel|
What made you choose this genre?
I never sat down with a cup of tea and chose a genre, and I find it hard to define novels like that. I had a story I wanted to tell, but if you want a few pigeon holes think family sage… coming of age… LGBT…
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
I get my ideas in two ways. Initially through daydreaming. Lots and lots of daydreaming. When I go to bed at night I make up stories. I see my stories like films and my aim in writing is to convey what I imagine as clearly as possible. Later, as a story develops and I research the people and the location other things come together that might affect both plot and character. In This Place of Happiness the grandmother had been a café bomber during the Algerian War of Independence, and this reaches out into other parts of the story, affecting and changing them; but I didn’t wake up one day and decide that I wanted a café bombing granny in the story.
If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
I would like to write the sort of romance where you arrive at the end in tears, and feeling emotionally wrecked. I have a big hang up about writing them though. The worst mark I ever got for creative writing at school was a B when I went off-piste and turned a piece of description into a love story. I was devastated because if there was one person in the world I wanted to impress it was my English teacher. Maybe one day…
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
I remember the first time I wrote creatively. I was eight. It was a ghost story, and a moment of discovery when I realised that words could be played with. I nearly got myself into gear properly when I was twenty five, and seriously considered leaving midwifery and going to University to study English Literature, but then I got married, there were bills to pay and life was busy and I had a son to raise. I have spent the past two years on the MA in Creative Writing and Publishing at West Dean College. It has completely changed my relationship with writing, because having taken time to take it seriously other people have realised that I am serious too.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
I wouldn’t say no to Marmite if I was starving; but thankfully I’m not. :-D
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
In a perfect world it is between eleven o’clock at night and four in the morning. I’ve got some sort of documentary in the background, and I have a cup of spicy chai tea. The house is quiet, and there is no chance of being disturbed.
I write most productively in my study, but write anywhere. All I need is a pen. I’ve written notes on my hands if I’ve nothing else. I’ve even used the blunt end of a knife to emboss a napkin in a restaurant so that I wouldn’t forget an idea.
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
My family wins every time; but that isn’t to say I don’t get grumpy if I have to choose. When my study door is closed they know they can only come in to offer top-ups in a tea cup.
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
My dream job was being a community midwife; but after being ill a few years ago I work in a hospital. I don’t have a dream job other than writing, and am planning on taking early retirement at 55 so that I can see what I can achieve if writing full time.
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Tea, weak and milky with no sugar, thank you. A very occasional glass of red.
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I have a plan when I start but am open to change, and I write in steps of around 1500 words. When I settle down to write I know where I want to go, and spend the next couple of hours getting there.
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
I like Cambria, but all I would insist on would be serifs! As the daughter of a letter press printer I’ve never had a favourite, because all those little pieces of type have their place.
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
I would love to find a document that explained where my Huguenot ancestors came from in France. My family tree gets stuck in the late seventeenth century, and I would love to get further. (Note from Diana. So would I!! Nicki and I share these elusive Ridout ancestors!)
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
None of my characters have ever shocked me, but thirty years of nursing and midwifery has left me fairly unshockable. I relish when they are real enough to start doing their own thing. Writing is a constant adventure in finding out what happens next.
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I love research, and spend hours exploring… from the armchair. I haven’t been able to go on a research trip for This Place of Happiness, because although Algeria is trying to promote its tourist industry the government website here does talk about foreigners being kidnapped. I’m not very brave. I would like to go to Morocco to get a sense of place and culture.
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
In my first draft I killed off over 300 people in a massacre, a bombing, a few run-ins with the French authorities and a revenge attack or two. My current draft is far quieter. I’ve only planned one death so far.
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
In This Place of Happiness there are references to things that didn’t happen, but to me the important thing is that they could have happened, and that similar things did often happen. I want it to have an authenticity, which is different from accuracy.
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
Midwives write accurate, contemporaneous records reflecting actual events and decisions. As a writer I have a complete freedom to do anything I want, and there are no lines between fact and fiction. There’s just story. It’s superb to have so much freedom.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I am rather in love with my character Ali, the baker’s son. But he would never notice me. He’s gay.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I read constantly using a kindle. It means that I can carry three or four hundred books in my bag, and I will give up the smell of ink and the rustle of the page to be able to do that. My kindle goes everywhere with me. Any spare two minutes are filled with reading.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
A really decent neat whisky. Something smokey.
Last but not least... favourite author?
My favourite author at the moment is Umi Sinha. Her novel Belonging is a breathtakingly lovely look at the relationships between different generations and cultures across two continents.
Nicki, this has been brilliant. Thank you.
© Diana Milne January 2017 © Nicki Herring May 2017.