Today I’m delighted to host Ann Bennett on my blog. Ann and I got to know each other online nearly four years ago, when we critiqued our respective uploads on the peer review site YouWriteOn Since then, we’ve been beta-reading each others’ work and have even met in person.
I love reading Ann’s writing, and was so proud when her debut novel Bamboo Heart was published by Monsoon Books this month. Here’s the review I wrote on Amazon for it: I met Ann Bennett through the peer review site YouWriteOn and have watched her wonderful book grow through several drafts to become the beautifully written historical novel you can read today. Harrowing at times as it deals with the horrors of the Death Railway in Thailand during World War II, Bamboo Heart’s main theme is the human spirit and how the characters fight to survive against all odds. It’s a story that needed to be told. Tom is a fantastic protagonist and Ann Bennett really brings him to life in the sections that deal with the past. His daughter, Laura, grows as she learns about her father’s experiences and seeks her own path in life. A truly riveting read and I’m looking forward to more novels from Ann Bennett.
Welcome to Douglas Bland Artist’s studio in Italy, Ann. So glad you can join me in an aperitivo. What can I offer you? A glass of Prosecco? A spritzer? A Bellini? Or perhaps some Pinot Grigio or Bardolino?
I’m happy with any or all of those Siobhan! But Pinot Grigio is my particular favorite.
Ooh, think I’ll have one too. (Pours two glasses). Cheers!
Okay, my lovely, make yourself comfortable! I’m over the moon you’ve been able to join me and would like to start by asking, ‘What inspired you to become a writer?’
I don’t think I ever really took a conscious decision to become a writer. I’ve always loved language and wanted to write stories, ever since I was quite small and used to write and illustrate little books about witches. I wrote some (not very good) short stories after I travelled to India and South East Asia in 1988. When my first son was born in 1992 I wrote whenever he was resting during the day. I have just kept going in any spare moment I’ve had since then!
Sounds like you’ve definitely been bitten by the writing bug. (Laughs.) Please can you tell my readers something about Bamboo Heart and about your research for the story!
Bamboo Heart tells two stories in tandem; that of Tom Ellis, a prisoner of war enslaved on the Burma Railway, and also the story of Tom’s daughter, Laura, who decades later embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about her father’s past.
It was inspired by researching my own father’s experience as a prisoner of war. The ordeal shortened his life and he died when I was seven. I knew some vague facts from my mother: that he had been in a shipwreck and lost a lung through breathing in burning oil, that he had worked on the railway, had suffered from malnutrition and malaria and returned home weighing about six and a half stone. As I grew older I wanted to find out more, but it was not until 2010 that I discovered his ‘liberation questionnaire’ in the National Archives in Kew. He had written it himself in pencil when he was repatriated; dates and names of camps on the line he had been in, events he had witnessed, the date of the shipwreck and what had happened when the ship had come under fire from US aircraft.
I wanted to make some sense of this, and my natural instinct was to write about it. From the events Dad described I created Tom’s story. I wanted to tie it to the modern day and also break up the darkness of the wartime sections, so I wrote the contemporary story in parallel.
I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.
It’s a wonderful story, as I said, and part of a trilogy, isn’t it? I’ve read the first draft of Bamboo Island and loved it too. I’m sure my readers would like to know something about it.
I hadn’t finished writing about the second world war in South East Asia when I completed Bamboo Heart. I had read so many personal accounts when I was doing the research; it had made me realise how the war and the Japanese occupation of South East Asia affected the whole population. I wanted to write about it from the point of view of a woman; a British ex-pat who had settled in Malaya and whose life, like so many others, was transformed by the fall of Singapore. So I wrote Bamboo Island, about Juliet, a plantation owner’s wife, who lived a reclusive life since the war robbed her of everyone she loved. In 1960 the sudden appearance of a stranger disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories.
I’m also working on a third novel: Bamboo Road, about Sirinya, a member of the Thai resistance. Through her story I want to explore how the influx of prisoners-of-war into that remote jungle region affected everyone there. The biggest challenge for me is trying to write from the point of view of someone from another very different culture. I have been to Thailand countless times and am learning Thai myself, but it is still a big challenge.
I’m reading the first draft and am enjoying it. As far as I’m concerned, you have “nailed” Sirinya’s voice. Ann, you seem firmly rooted in the South East Asian historical genre. Will you continue writing in that genre?
Not necessarily. I have lots of other stories in my mind. They are inspired by looking at old photos, reading snippets in newspapers, overhearing conversations on trains. I have a half-finished time-slip story called The Soul Within on my computer, which you have read, Siobhan. When my husband and I were first married we bought a shabby old farmhouse deep in the Norfolk countryside. I stayed there alone during the week as Nick worked in London. The place was definitely haunted. Even my mother, the ultimate sceptic, woke up in the night and sat up to find a woman pushing her back down onto the bed. The Soul Within is inspired by that house.
Ooh, spooky! I loved what I read of that story and can’t wait for you to finish it so I can read on. Please tell us something about your writing process, Ann. For example, do you plot your novels beforehand or write by the ‘seat of your pants’?
Yes I plot my novels carefully. With Bamboo Heart I just sat and thought about it for weeks before I even planned anything. Then I sketched out the plot in a notebook. Plot normally comes first with me, although for Bamboo Island the character of Juliet came first, then the plot. Usually I write a rough plan of how the chapters will pan out. Next I write a plan for each chapter. I plan chapter one then I write chapter one. I write first longhand in a notebook then write it up on the laptop. I go through and write the first draft of a book like that from beginning to end. I like to get as much right as possible in the first draft and spend a long time editing as I go through. I don’t really like rewriting huge chunks or putting extra bits into the plot once the first draft is finished. I find that really hard to do.
That’s interesting, and certainly works for you. Tell us, Ann, how have you found the road to publication? Is there anything you’ve done that you’d do differently now with hindsight?
The road to publication was long and tortuous. I tried to get agents interested in some of my short stories, my first book Shivaji’s Ladder (finished in 2002), and my second book, Silom Road (which I wrote as part of a London School of Journalism correspondence course under the tutelage of novelist Margaret James.) I got some positive feedback from agents, and one asked to read the full manuscript of Silom Road, but ultimately my books were rejected. When I discovered YouWriteOn I began to have some confidence in my writing. Bamboo Heart, or The Pomelo Tree as it was then, got to the number one slot and was reviewed by Nathalie Braine of Orion. At her suggestion I completely rewrote the modern story. I decided to publish Bamboo Heart myself, because my sisters were interested in reading it, and because the opportunity to do it at minimal cost presented itself with FeedARead. On the way home from Thailand in 2013 I bought a book in Phuket Airport published by Monsoon called Amber Road. I loved it and on the off-chance sent my own manuscript to Monsoon. Within a month an email popped into my inbox saying they would be delighted to have Bamboo Heart as part of their list. When I went back to Phuket airport bookshop this year, my own book was there on the shelves! A very proud moment.
I couldn’t have done anything very different even with hindsight. If you don’t have contacts and aren’t a celebrity, your only choice is to keep submitting. I might not have self-published though, if I had known the book would eventually interest a professional publisher.
I’m so proud of you, Ann. On a personal note, what do you get up to when you’re not writing?
I love travelling, as you know, but don’t get so much time for that nowadays. I work full time as a lawyer, commuting from Surrey to London, and I also have three sons and a husband who keep me quite busy. I love cooking and am learning Thai, as I mentioned. My favorite pastime (apart from writing) is walking my ageing black Labrador, Rebel, in the beautiful Surrey countryside.
I am not looking much further forward than crossing my fingers that the other two books in my ‘Bamboo Trilogy’ will be published. I have lots of other ideas though, and now I have a bit more experience, I might go back and revisit my old manuscripts and try to improve them. I have made numerous false starts on other books, and could develop any one of them if only I had more time!
I wish you every success in achieving your dreams, my lovely. It’s been great chatting with you and sharing an aperitivo. Thanks again for joining me. Before you go, please can you leave readers with three facts that might surprise them about you?
I am the youngest of six Bennett daughters, and I live within ten miles of Alton in Hampshire where Jane Austen lived and wrote (that’s two facts really but they are linked). I have never bought a lottery ticket (although in my own perverse way I’d be delighted to win it). I love watching action movies.