Sunday, 15 January 2012

Hurry up and Wait! - interview with author Isabel Ashdown

This week I'm delighted to present my interview with author Isabel Ashdown. Her latest novel, Hurry Up and Wait! kept me awake for a whole night as I couldn't put it down. I do love coming- of-age stories ...

They say the second book is the hardest, but you’ve done such a good job, and I think Hurry Up and Wait is even better than your debut Glasshopper which I really loved. How was the writing process for you? Was it easier or harder to write the second one?

Thank you! I suppose the writing process was always going to be very different for my second novel; this time round I had a publishing contract – an audience – and, gulp, a well-received first novel to live up to. So in some ways, I felt a little more exposed. I’m a very private writer – with the exception of two close writer friends, I never reveal my work until I feel it’s ready. Even my husband doesn’t get to see a word of it until it’s at an advanced stage. Thankfully, my fiction editor at Myriad, Vicky Blunden, is very understanding, and she left me to get on with it until I was ready to share.

Where did you get the initial idea from?

The seed of it began with a five minute screenplay I wrote several years ago, in which a woman reluctantly attends her high school reunion. I thought, how would I feel about a school reunion; would I go? The thought of it filled me with horror. My writing always starts with the character, and the Sarah of my screenplay was so clear to me, that I suppose it was inevitable I would go back to explore her story further.

How much did you plot and how much did happen as you were writing?

I tend to free-write initially, while I discover the characters and sense of place. Then, once I have a strong feeling about my new world, I panic. I panic over the lack of structure, the hazy direction, the absence of strategy ... In life and in business, I’m one of life’s natural planners, so this way of working is alien to me – but if I’ve discovered one thing about my writing, it’s that it does me good to let myself go a bit, before I pull everything together with a rough plot outline. Of course, the final story never ends up looking very much like that initial plot outline!

Any thoughts on the structure? Did it help using a school year as a model?

It seemed right to locate this story within one full, final school year. So much can shift and alter in those last ten months, as girls teeter on the edge of womanhood, so desperate to be treated like adults, yet so inexperienced and vulnerable. The end of exams and the start of the summer holidays seem to me such poignant turning points in anyone’s history.

How come you decided to frame the novel with an event taking place twenty-four years later?

The story opens in present day, with 39-year-old Sarah preparing to attend the school reunion. Her 40th year felt like a significant moment to take her back to a place and time that changed her forever.

Did you have all characters clear from the beginning or did extras pop us as you were writing?

There are always a couple of very strong characters who draw me along, and everyone else seems to appear as they’re needed. Often I’ll discover someone new, quite by chance, and it’s thrilling, like being handed an unexpected gift. Today, whilst working on my next novel, I discovered Gordon; he’s a brilliant, quirky character I hadn’t planned at all – but somehow he managed to sneak in and steal the scene.

Did you make detailed character sketches or did they happen more organically?

They just seem to develop naturally. I guess the writer’s job is to supply the situations, to set the scene, and to provoke those characters into showing themselves as they really are.

How much did you think of your own school time as you were writing?

Lots – although I was careful not to inadvertently include any real people! I purposely set the events in my own school year, which helped me to stay true to the atmosphere of the era.

Why did you decide to use the fictive names East and West Selton? (It’s clear you had East and West Wittering in mind, as you even mention that a Rolling Stone got a house there?)

Within the novel there are a number of anagrams of real places – for example Selton is Solent. I wanted a fictional town, to allow the story to go where I needed it to. But if pushed, I’d say Selton is a complex blend of coastal East Wittering, where I grew up, and inland Chichester, where I attended high school. Nice to see you got the Rolling Stones reference!

What role did the band Blondie play for the novel?

When I was fifteen, I was massively into Blondie, even though they weren’t all that current by the mid-eighties. I loved the punk influences; Debbie Harry’s stance was so sexy and cool, and above all, the music seemed to speak to me. In part, I was probably indulging my own nostalgic memories by drawing a favourite band into the story. But more importantly, a band like Blondie represented an exotic ‘otherness’ to a conventional girl like Sarah, growing up within the suffocating constraints of small town England in the 1980s.

Did you have to research the 80s stuff of did you remember most of it?

I’ve got a good memory for that kind of detail, so the story sprang out of that. But as I wrote, I was constantly researching information to check my memories were accurate, particularly for historical detail like news footage of the Chernobyl disaster, or for release dates of albums or films I might mention.

Finally, what’s the theme of your next novel?

I’m busy at work on my next novel, which takes place on a British island one summer in the 1970s. It’s a family drama centred on a scandal in a small community, set against the shifting Seventies backdrop of political unrest, social change and vibrant cultural development. The research part of the process is endlessly fascinating, and as well as exploring the historical details of the era I like to immerse myself in the music, which is no hardship as far as that decade is concerned. In fact, I’m just cueing up Bowie’s Young Americans as we speak ...

There’s still a lot of work to do, but it’s gradually coming together. Having done this a couple of times now, I know there’ll be moments of fear and uncertainty along the way, but with any luck, moments of enlightenment and joy will visit me in equal measure!

Thanks for asking me along to chat, Louise – and I’ll let you know when the next book is due to hit the shelves.

Thank you too, Issie for your inspiring answers!

If you want to find out more about Isabel Ashdown and her books visit her website here.

Hurry up and Wait! is available here. What are you waiting for?


  1. Great interview! I'm about a third of the way through Hurry Up And Wait and am loving it!

  2. Really interesting interview, thanks for sharing. And I'm looking forward to the next novel, Isabel. My second is under consideration at the moment and I've just started work on the third. It never gets easier, so I'm endlessly fascinated about other writers' methods. Good luck with yours too, Louise.