The girl who’s got us reading...
Katie Ward's debut novel has been winning lavish praise for its innovative linked storylines and period detail, prompting one reviewer to gush 'this isn't a novel, it's a time machine!'. STEVEN RUSSELL meets the East Anglian writer and discovers where she gets her ideas.
This is first-time author Katie Ward's first-ever interview and she's a bit nervous. To meet she chooses the sanctuary of a caf� within walking distance of her Ipswich home where she has juggled, measured, approved and dis-carded many a word.
'I used to write, generally, at that table,' she says. The fruits of her labour, Girl Reading, is a series of stories crafted mainly during career breaks. Clinching a deal with publishers Virago has lent enough belief to allow Katie to leave her job at NHS Suffolk and concentrate full-time on fiction.
Her debut offering is inspired by seven portraits by seven different artists, created over 700-ish years and showing seven different girls or women reading.
Among them is a young and nervous orphan who poses for an odd Renaissance master in Siena and an artist's servant in 17th Century Amsterdam for whom life brings sadness and unexpected twists and turns.
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There's a contemporary episode, with a young woman reading in an East London bar and catching the eye of a man who takes her picture, and a story set in a not-so-inconceivable future where children spend time in a simu-lated, Wii-like world.
The art that inspired the imagined stories — seven novellas, in essence, with subtle connections linking them together — is generally based on real paintings, including Simone Martini's Annunciation from 1333 and Pieter Janssens Elinga's 1668 work Woman Reading.
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Katie can pinpoint when the seed was planted. It was on or just after April 29, 2006, when she read a newspaper article prompted by Stefan Bollmann's book Reading Women. The volume featured paintings, drawings, prints and photographs of females reading through the ages, and the newspaper asked a string of celebrities (such as writ-ers PD James, Monica Ali and Joanna Trollope) to talk about their favourite image.
A long-time art lover, Katie got the book, read it, put it to one side and kept thinking about it. Here, maybe, was the germ of a novel.
Katie had become interested in writing while at university, but it took quite a few years to complete her first full book — so far unpublished. It was, she cheerfully admits 'the book where I made most of my mistakes! It was the way to learn what they call 'building up the writing muscle' and a good way of getting out of my bad habits as a writer.'
Such as? 'Over-writing was one. I think the first draft was something ridiculous, like 180,000 words.'
That initial attempt might not have been published – 'it's not good enough!' – but it proved to her she did have potential.
Katie's own reading habits were evolving, too. By the time she came to write Girl Reading, she was clear about the types of books she liked – the work of writers such as Sarah Waters, Salley Vickers and Virginia Woolf, and books about psychology and art. 'Basically, beautiful, strong and tight work.'
It was her husband who pushed and encouraged. 'I was of the mind that 'Well, I've done a really good job of having a go at writing a book and trying to get it published. That's done and now I should settle down into local government' or whatever. But he said 'Oh no; why not try again?''
Another key figure is Hilary Mantel, who took the Man Booker Prize in 2009 with Wolf Hall.
In 2007 Katie was sending tasters to agents and collecting rejection slips for her troubles. But after mentioning how tough a nut to crack was this writing business at work one day, a helpful colleague said 'My sister-in-law will look at it and give you constructive criticism and feedback, because she's a published author.' That author was Hilary Mantel.
'She wrote a lovely letter, giving very constructive feedback. We didn't meet, but I said I had this other idea and thought it was a good one. Her advice was: If I had faith in this other idea for a second book, then I should work on that.'
Katie and Hilary kept in touch via email and about two years later Hilary said she'd be happy to look at some draft chapters. They were duly despatched, 'and it was almost the next day that Hilary emailed back and said she really liked them, and would I be happy if she recommended the work to her agent?'
Katie is currently working on a second novel. It's at the 'research and tinkering stage' and of course she's not going to give us a hint about the subject matter, lest she offends the gods of literature.
'I'm sorry; I must be the worst interviewee,' she laughs.
l Girl Reading is published by Virago, priced �12.99.