Deborah Lawrenson is a versatile author who can write humor, mystery, historical fiction, and even espionage. She specializes in secrets, lacing her stories with clues and danger that keeps readers turning pages and asking questions. Her first novels dealt in satire, Hot Gossip, Idol Chatter, and The Moonbathers, before she tackled more serious subjects like World War II and familial relationships in The Art of Falling and 300 Days of Sun. The Lantern is a wonderful retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, only set in the south of France. Her latest, Death in Provence, takes readers on a fun mystery romp. It features a divorced woman who buys a dream house in the French countryside but ends up investigating a murder. We chatted about Deborah’s early writing work, the highs and lows of publishing, her house in Provence, and what it’s like to collaborate with a spouse.
You started out as a journalist. Can you tell us how and why you transitioned from that to becoming a fiction writer?
The journalism, fun and fascinating as it was, was always the means to an end for me. I started out wanting to write books but knew I would have to get some experience and make some contacts first. My first novel was a shameless plundering of my experiences working on Fleet Street’s most famous gossip column, which I knew had a built-in marketing angle. In retrospect it all looks ridiculously easy: I had an agent and a publishing deal very quickly. But of course, it didn’t feel like that in the four months of waiting, when I had no idea of the realities of publishing.
You’ve also written satirical novels. I’d love to write humor but it seems difficult. Any thoughts on writing humor?
Editing is crucial. Write what makes you laugh – then be brutal with what you’ve written. Polish, polish and polish some more until it reads newly-minted and fresh. If you’re writing dialogue, make it snappy and above all, credible. The reader needs to “hear” the words pop off the page. Try to surprise and delight.
The Art of Falling seems like it was your breakout novel, at least in the UK, and it took you years to research and write. Then, after some false starts, you finally self-published it. It was a huge success. How was that journey and do you recommend self-publishing as a way for writers to start out?
At the time, it seemed the worst thing that had happened in my career, when my literary agent didn’t like it. I had put everything I had into that novel, alongside being a fairly new mother. I thought big and found a new agent, one of London’s finest, but though she loved it, after a year she couldn’t get a deal for me. The question then was, did I give up or did I try harder, on my own?
I tried harder. I had the novel professionally edited, and was heartened when the (very experienced) editor I chose said that she couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been taken up. I decided to self-publish, using a company that was producing good quality independent books, Troubador. They did all the work but allowed me to package The Art of Falling as published by a tiny new firm, Stamp. I commissioned my own expensive cover because I wanted the book to look like a mainstream-published literary novel.
With 2000 copies printed, I set off to persuade bookshops to stock it. I had some luck, including some fiction buyers who loved it and became great supporters of the book, and after eight months Random House UK bought the rights and republished.
Now, I think it was the best thing that could have happened, because I gained important insights into how the industry operates, from the marketing department to the shop shelves. I would recommend that route, with a big caveat: you have to be willing to work on the marketing every day, whether that’s speaking to bookshops (sadly there are ever fewer of the independents who were so crucial for me) or pushing for publicity.
I love your book The Lantern. It’s a retelling of the novel Rebecca, which is one of my all-time favorites. Did you have ideas of retelling the story for a while or was it an impulse?
Thank you, that’s lovely to hear! It was more of an impulse. I was re-reading Rebecca in Provence not long after we bought our property there. The renovations we wanted to do were daunting and the whole hamlet was in a pretty rundown state. Parts of it still seemed strange and eerie and redolent of other lives and events. The bright sunlight would flicker unnervingly through the trees just outside and make me jump. Was someone there, in the corner of my eye? I remember thinking how lucky I was that I was there with a husband I knew well. What would it have been like if I were embarking on it with a man who was keeping as many secrets as the house? That was the first glimmering of The Lantern.
Can you tell us a bit about the house you own in Provence? It looks amazing. When did you fall in love with that region?
It’s a magical place, more than just a house. It’s a cluster of buildings dating from the seventeenth century, originally a farm with dependencies. A path up the hillside becomes a tiny narrow street through its heart, and in a building at the top of this “ruelle” we found the remains of an old oven. Our French friends have suggested this was used to make bread for the travellers who made the journey on foot from the town in the valley to the village on the hilltop above. There are also three enormous trees at the entrance, which in Provençal folklore signify hospitality.
I first fell in love with the region when I went on holiday with my university boyfriend to his father’s house in a nearby village. Neither of us had the slightest idea that we would end up married and with our very own slice of paradise Provence-style.
Your latest book, under the pen name Serena Kent, is a fun mystery set in Provence. You collaborated with your husband on it. What was that experience like? Is he a writer too?
He’s more a musician and composer than a writer, though he has scripted stage shows. It all started off as a joke. I love reading detective fiction in the summer when we’re in Provence. One evening, we were drinking rosé and discussing what we’d like to do with the garden. Soon we were soon fantasising about cypress trees, new stone terracing and planting schemes involving lavender and olives, and I suggested trying to write a cozy mystery to pay for it.
Writing together was mainly a good experience, though not always. I enjoyed having someone else to chat through the plot with, though we often clashed over details. We’re each convinced that we’re right, most of the time! I am also a hundred times better on detail than he is, and naturally feel compelled to point this out at fraught moments. We have never argued so much as we did during the final edits of Death in Provence, but luckily we also laugh a lot and now think it’s hilarious the way we had to go through that learning curve.
What’s in the future for you? Will you be doing any readings in Europe or even America in the next few months? Do you have an idea for your next project?
We have a few events in prospect in England, and would love to come over to the USA to support publication in February. As for the future, we’re writing the sequel – Death in Avignon – and hoping that these two books will go well enough for our publishers to commission some more Penelope Kite mysteries.