By Daniel Ford
Author Louise Walters’ Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase features a dual timeline novel set alternately in the early 1940s and modern-day Britain, love and betrayal, and rich, earthy characters. The novel, which comes out Aug. 4, was hailed by Kirkus Reviews as being “a breathtaking, beautifully crafted tale of loves that survive secrets.”
Walters recently talked to me about her love of reading, the inspiration for Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase, and how her writing process always starts with a character.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Louise Walters: At a young age. I have loved reading for as long as I can remember and attempting to write as well as read always felt like a natural progression. However, I lacked self-belief for many years and I didn’t begin to write seriously until I was in my thirties, when I wrote poems. In my forties I finally felt ready to seriously attempt a novel.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LW: Reading was, and still is, my favourite thing. Many writers and books influenced me—Noel Streatfeild, especially Ballet Shoes; The Chalet School books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer; L M Montgomery’s Anne books, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time. The Katy books by Susan Coolidge were particular favourites. I read voraciously. Childhood reading has influenced my whole life, not just my writing life.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
LW: I start with a character, always. I tend to think about them for a while, inventing them in my imagination. I juggle quite a lot of characters and stories at the moment! The writing process is quite difficult, especially the first draft. I find it hard to get going on a project and usually end up with around a 60,000-word first draft, which is a little too short. But I breathe a sigh of relief if I get to the magical 60,000 because then I have the material to work with, and can start the shaping end editing process. I usually have an ending in mind but have to find my way through to it.
I do listen to music. Sometimes for inspiration, I will listen to my favourites, just to make me feel good—Kate Bush puts me in a positive frame of mind—but I also listen to music for research and to help with the “feel” of a project. When writing Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase I listened to Billie Holiday constantly.
DF: As a history buff, I love historical fiction, so I’m always interested in up-and-coming writers who delve into the genre. Did your writing style mesh well with historical fiction or was it just something that appealed to you?
LW: I don’t regard myself as a historical writer, actually. But I can’t imagine writing a novel without delving into my characters’ pasts. We are all a product of every day of our lives so far and I love exploring my characters’ histories.
DF: How did the idea for Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase originate?
LW: I have a suitcase with a label inside which reads “Mrs. D. Sinclair” and I remember thinking Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase would make a great title for a novel. I started to wonder about this Mrs. Sinclair. I also found a letter in a book written by a Polish Squadron Leader during World War II. I kind of put those two unknown, unconnected people together and invented a narrative for them. I also once worked in a second hand bookshop, which was the inspiration for the bookshop in the novel. And I once lived in a cottage in rural Lincolnshire, which bore quite a resemblance to Dorothy’s cottage.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?
LW: I wasn’t really aware of any themes, at least to begin with. I was just trying to write the story. As I worked more on it and became more familiar with the world of the story, I became aware that motherhood, in all its guises, was pretty much the theme.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
LW: My characters are invention. I don’t base them on real people, certainly not wholesale. I borrow traits from people I know or have known. Also expressions. For instance, when Dorothy gives the baby a wash she refers to it as a “lick and a promise,” which is a phrase my mother used when I was a child. I think if I’m honest there is quite a lot of “me” in most of my characters. But essentially I make people up, which is such a fun thing to do.
DF: You’ve had a bunch of different jobs while you pursued your dream of becoming a writer, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you had a favorite or a story from one of them you hold dear (or not so dear).
LW: I worked in a secondhand bookshop for six years and that was my favourite job. I met a lot of interesting people during that time. A few famous people popped in from time to time, which was quite exciting! And like Roberta in the novel, I enjoyed finding things left behind in second hand books.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
LW: I think it’s important to love reading and to read a lot. I read whenever I get the opportunity and I read while I’m writing too. If I write and don’t read, I feel too disengaged from the art I’m trying to participate in. I know not all writers feel that way, but for me I have to read often while I’m working on a novel. I don’t worry about somebody else’s writing influencing mine. Actually, I welcome it. Never be afraid to beg, borrow and steal techniques, it’s the best way to learn and to find your way to your own voice and style.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
LW: I am currently working on a patchwork quilt for my daughter. I started work on it years ago but have promised it will be ready for this Christmas. It’s entirely hand sewn and I’m very behind schedule!