25 February 2020
Julie Evans is an MA Student at the University of Surrey
Q: You are well-versed in the idiosyncrasies of the Victorian era. What type of research do you do before sitting down to write a first draft?
A: It varies, but I do research. I am a bit of a stickler for the details. I have read quite a few Victorian diaries (my favourites are the Diaries of the Reverend Francis Kilvert, which give so much detail about everyday life for an educated man in a country parish in the 1870s), but I have also looked at unpublished diaries in the archive rooms. I find the personal account so much more evocative than secondary sources, though I do read round the subject as much as possible. I have also done quite a bit of genealogy for my own and other families, which often gives inspiration for stories, such as the one I am reading at the festival. I like art history too, and several of my works – including the one that won the Frome in 2018 – are researched ekphrastic stories.
Q: You have won a plethora of prizes, including the Frome and Farnham competitions for short stories and the Winchester Festival competition for flash fiction. With the success you have now achieved, what advice would you give to your younger self about writing?
A: A plethora may be exaggerating it, but I am pleased to have been placed or shortlisted in some quite prestigious competitions. I wrote ‘under the radar’ ever since I was young, but only started to take it seriously three years ago when I entered my first competition. My advice to my younger self would be to get the work out there. I was hampered by a lack of confidence but getting published either online or in print and getting external acknowledgement from non-partial judges is so rewarding and gives you faith that you aren’t just wasting your time. I also started going to a writing class/workshop at about the same time, which again I wish I had done earlier.
Q: How do you come up with names for your characters? Do you look at historical documents or are you more spontaneous with your naming?
A: Often the names just arrive in my head. But sometimes, especially with characters from other countries, I look to the internet for some help. There are various online name generators where you can put in the country your character comes from and their sex and ask for lists of names. With historical characters, I go back to the documents – censuses offer a plethora of names and also give you an idea of what names were used in different classes (since the census lists occupations). So, if I have a maid character, say, or a coal miner, I can find examples of them on the census; likewise, for those higher up the social hierarchy. I subscribe to Ancestry.co.uk and can find details about characters in other countries too – this goes well beyond names. Where people have emigrated, for example, I can see what district they lived in and compare the occupations of people there, so as to understand where certain groups congregated. That way, I can be sure the places I put characters in are correct.
Q: Tell us about your writing schedule. You describe yourself as a ‘winter person’ so do you find it easier to write during the wintry months?
A: It is a bit erratic. I would like to say I sit down at a certain time every day and write for a certain period of time, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work like that. Life is busy, even though I am not working in a conventional job now. Work for the MA I am doing at Surrey University can take up chunks of time, but I do work on my own pieces several times a week. When I am stuck for ideas or time, I try to write short pieces of flash that often evolve into longer stories or sometimes into better flash. I am a winter person in as much as that is the season I most respond to, but I write all year round. Sometimes, the cool of my study is just what I need on a hot sticky day! But I often find my stories are set in autumn and winter, or in colder countries.
Q: You have mentioned that you like your writing to invoke a strong sense of place. Do you have a favourite author to read who you think achieves this—who?
A: I could write pages on this! Of the ‘classic’ writers, I have to say my answer to that would be Thomas Hardy. His Wessex is so clear in my mind and so exquisitely described, not just as a place in itself, but as somewhere that clearly means so much to the author. With contemporary writers of historical fiction, I love Kate Granville’s evocation of the early European settlement of Australia, Sue Gee’s depiction of Victorian Herefordshire in ‘The Mysteries of Glass’ and Charles Palliser’s gothic settings. I have recently read Andrew Michael Hurley’s novels and was impressed by the sense of menace he creates in his depiction of the contemporary rural North. He seems to be at the vanguard of a new movement in fiction – which I think might be termed ‘folk gothic’- where the landscape becomes the disturbing force rather than the creepy house. As a lover of landscape, I am excited by that.
Interview conducted by Beth Roberts.