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Interview: Hannah Richell talks about The Peacock Summer

Hannah Richell was born in Kent, England and spent her childhood years in Buckinghamshire and Canada. After graduating from the University of Nottingham in 1998 she worked in book publishing and film. Hannah began to write while pregnant with her first child. The result was Secrets of the Tides, picked for the 2012 Richard & Judy Book Club, the Waterstones Book Club and shortlisted for the Australian Independent Bookseller Best Debut Fiction Award, ABIA General Fiction Book of the Year (2013) and ABIA Newcomer of the Year (2013). The novel has been translated into sixteen languages. Her follow-up novel was The Shadow Year and her third, The Peacock Summer, has just published. Hannah talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Peacock Summer.

The Peacock Summer is a novel of two summers and two women, connected by family ties and the secrets hidden inside the locked room of a fading English manor house. It is, I hope, a compelling and emotional read for anyone who loves stories with romance and mystery at their heart.

What inspired you to write this book?

I stumbled up on a small slice of history involving an American businessman in the late 1800s who commissioned a famous artist, James McNeil Whistler, to come to his London town house and paint an entire room with floor to ceiling murals. The businessman intended for the room to be a real show-stopper and a talking point amongst his influential society friends. Once the artist had finished the room, the two men fell out rather publicly. It was acknowledged their spat was over money, but whispers abounded of an affair between the artist and his patron’s wife. It was this small detail of the possible affair that captured my attention and sparked the idea for the novel … though the rest is a complete flight of imagination.

What research was involved?

I had to do a little research into the era of the novel. One summer unfolds in the year 1955, so I read books about post-war society in England and researched pictures and music to get myself in the right mood while writing. I also visited several large national trust houses for inspiration, including Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire which has a room painted with beautiful trompe l’oeil murals by (coincidentally) another Whistler – Rex Whistler.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I’m a single parent and juggle my writing around my children. When they are at school, I work. This one was written at the kitchen table and fuelled by a lot of coffee.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I would definitely include the opera piece by Charpentier, ‘Depuis le Jour’. It features in a scene in the novel.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

While writing the novel, I took inspiration from a picture of a young Audrey Hepburn sitting in woodlands writing a letter; so in a game of fantasy casting, I would cast Hepburn as a young Lillian. Dame Maggie Smith would be awesome as Lillian when we meet her later in life. Matthew Goode always struck me as a perfect ‘Jack’ with Damian Lewis as Charles. Saoirse Ronan would be a dream ‘Maggie’.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I hit a terrible creative block with this book half way through the first draft when a personal tragedy struck our family. It took me a long time to come back to it and when I did, eventually, it felt like a form of escape from the sadness in my own life. It became a release, which I think I needed.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

It’s always hard to pinpoint the exact moment when a book is ‘finished’. With edits and a long publication process, it feels a bit premature to celebrate too soon. I think it’s only now it’s actually published that I see it as ‘finished’. So I hope to take a bit of a holiday soon, and come back to my writing refreshed.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I have read and loved SO many great books this year but one that really leaps out for me is Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar. Treloar’s writing is stunning and the story – a family saga set in outback Australia – is both moving and compelling.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m travelling to Australia later this year for a book tour and am already hard at work on my next novel which is due with my publisher later this year. Oh yes … and that holiday. I hope!


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