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Noëlle Harrison was born in London in the sixties to an Irish mother. Most of her childhood was spent in the home counties - Surrey, the Cotswolds, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire – where her mother worked as a housekeeper.
Noëlle began writing plays in the early nineties. She moved to Dublin in 1991, and shortly afterwards set up Aurora, a collaborative theatre company, working with actors, artists, film makers, dancers and musicians. She has written four plays, Northern Landscapes, Black Virgin, and Runaway Wife, and most recently The Good Sister.
In 1997 Noëlle moved to the Irish midlands with her partner just before their son was born. It was this landscape of bogs, woods and lakes, and its dark brooding atmosphere, which inspired her debut novel, Beatrice.
Below is an Q&A with this author.
A major theme in your books seems to be childhood memories - what is your earliest memory?
My earliest memory would be when I was about four. I was standing at the top of the stairs, looking out of a landing window at an orchard, at the perfect green apples hanging on the branches, and I was thinking that I wanted to be a priest. I remember it was a very strong urge that I wanted to be the star of the show so to speak, and the only show I went to at that time was Mass. When my mother told me I couldn’t be a priest because I was a girl I will never forget my sense of injustice, something which has coloured my approach to the Catholic faith ever since.
Where do you get the ideas for your books from?
I am a magpie. I carry a notebook, and I constantly have my ears pricked, my eyes open for interesting stories, and wonderful sights. Usually it is something visual which will lead me into a story – a landscape, a painting, a person. Or I am intrigued by family relationships and secrets which are swept under the carpet for generations. I also find that a lot of ideas come to me when I am traveling abroad. A strange country or city might inspire me, and the process of displacement and being an outsider is always conducive to the writing.
What started you writing?
I dreamed of writing when I was a teenager but never had the confidence to believe I could do it until I was around 21. I was sharing a flat with my boyfriend at the time, a film student, and he would shut himself in his room and work on film scripts for hours. It was a combination of boredom and competitiveness which started me writing as well. I wrote my first play and was hooked.
What was the first book you remember falling in love with?
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
How I loved that book. I was a little girl who played on her own a lot, make-believe games and ethereal imaginings. The Little White Horse appealed to my romantic nature.
What book do you wish you had written and why?
It has to be Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I never tire of reading that book again and again. It is a perfect combination of beautiful writing and compelling story, with engaging characters and a very powerful sense of place.
If you were not a writer what job would you do?
Well I studied History of Art at college and worked in arts administration. I love contemporary art so I think I would run an art gallery. I also love teaching but would probably be sacked within a week for not sticking to the curriculum.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Two places make my soul sing. The city of Venice, and Tromso , which is above the Arctic Circle in Norway. Venice is my magical city, a place I feel so at home in. Every time I go there I am inspired. Tromso speaks to my more wild self. The snow, the Northern lights, the pale pastel skies feed my imagination.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in London but spent most of my childhood in Cookham-on-the-Thames in Berkshire. My mother worked as a cook/housekeeper for a family who lived in an old Mill House so we grew up on the river. I had a very happy childhood, spending long summer days by the river playing with my brother and the son of our employer.
What do you read for pleasure?
When I am working intensely on my own novel I find it hard to read other fiction because when I am immersed in a good novel it becomes my whole world and there is no room for any other world apart from that author’s. So I cherish the times when I can take a break from my own work and catch up on some good books – I love most fiction, as well as classics. My criterion for pleasurable reading is language. If the writing isn’t good it doesn’t matter how gripping the plot is I can’t read on, it feels like listening to music which is out of tune. When I am writing I tend to stick to non-fiction, I love history and art, and I also love reading good quality fashion magazines for style advice.
If you could be any fictional character, who would you be?
I am particularly fond of Snufkin in the Moominvalley series of books by the Finnish writer and artist, Tove Jansson. These books are full of tiny wisdoms, humour and inventiveness which appeal equally to adults and children. I love Snufkin’s contentment in solitude, and the almost zen - like serenity he displays in all of the stories. Sometimes he is part of things in Moominvalley, with all the zany carrying -ons, and magic, in the midst of the company of all the other characters, and sometimes he disappears for months, traveling through distant lands. I envy Snufkin’s self containment, and the simplicity of his life which contains no possessions, no home, no money, just his pipe, and the whole world beneath the stars.
Are you able to say what you are currently working on?
I have just finished a new novel called The Adulteress. It has been a big project which has taken me several years to complete. The book is an erotic ghost story set now and in wartime Ireland. It follows two main characters – Nicholas, a modern man in his mid-thirties, and June, an English woman in her late twenties in 1941. The story moves backwards and forwards fluidly between the two narratives and time periods hinging on parallels of love, loss and jealousy. I am also working on a companion book called The Secret Loves of Julia Caesar, which will be produced as a special limited edition at the same time as The Adulteress. The book tells the story of Julia, daughter of Augustus, who was exiled to an island for life for committing adultery.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
You need a combination of passion and tenacity, this is just as important as talent. Never forget your love of writing and the joy you feel when you are creating something. Writing is a skill, so it is something you need to develop just like any other skill. Try to write every day even if it is for a small amount of time and your craft will develop. Expect rejection, and persevere. You need bags of patience but with a little self-belief and hard work your dream can come true.
A gripping story from start to finish as we follow the young Barbara on her journey from rural Ireland to travelling to France with the Finch family as their au pair. The family has its problems with young MatildaFinch constantly ill. Barbara starts to suspect that one of the parents is responsible for the child's frequent illnesses and so begins an unravelling of emotions, lies and secrets.
Once you have started this book, you will need to find out what happens as you quickly get involved with the characters within it. The story is told through three women, Christina, her mother Greta and her mother’s best friend, Angeline who became her stepmother. It is a powerful novel about love; the pain and anguish of losing it and the quest to rediscover it. We see through a child’s eye the horror of being abandoned by your mother and the ensuing guilt and torment felt by both mother and child. Christina, separated from her husband and having lost custody of her children, goes on the run with her younger son, across the Atlantic in a bid to find her own mother who left her when she was six. As she travels to new places, she returns to the memories of her childhood and gradually the painful truth about her family is finally revealed.
An enthralling and atmospheric novel. A mystery surrounds the disappearance of Beatrice some twenty years before, her body was never found and no one has seen or heard from her since. The effects this has had on the family are shown through time shift between then and now, mostly through he sister and mother. The descriptions are vivid and the characters well rounded. The mystery will keep you gripped until the end.
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