Interview: Vanora Bennett

I read Vanora Bennett‘s book, Portrait of an Unknown Woman and immediately started looking up her other books. You know how when you discover a new author, you just want to go back and read everything they have written? It was like that with her. She has a wonderful writing style, and gives some valuable advice for other writers out there.

Enjoy this interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I’m a Londoner, though I spent the whole of my early adult life living somewhere else – university at Oxford, studying French and Russian, then working as a journalist for Reuters in Paris for a couple of years, southern Africa for a couple more, a bit of south-east Asia, and most of the 1990s in post-Communist Russia and around. I ended up working in Russia for the Los Angeles Times, which was a brilliant introduction to America! and loved my colleagues there. But eventually it came to feel like time to go home. So, one way or another, I’ve always been writing. When I came home, I wrote editorials for The Times of London. And I wrote two non-fiction books about Russia, which gave me my first lessons in how to organise a big piece of writing (it’s all in the thinking beforehand, really). But I always wanted to try my hand at writing a novel, but didn’t, because I was nervous, because it seemed so different from non-fiction, and I didn’t like feeling like a beginner, and … well, all kinds of excuses. Eventually, what pushed me into trying was getting a new job I didn’t like. I complained so much my kind husband hit on the answer – you’ve talked about it for years, but perhaps this is the time to write that novel? And then he went and booked me a week at a hotel in Bloomsbury (like Virginia Woolf), and said, come back in a week, with four chapters. And I did!

I loved your book, Portrait of an Unknown Woman. How did you first come up with the idea for the book?

A fluke. Back in my Russia days, when I was fascinated by all the tough types who were muscling their way into becoming the new rich of Russia, I came home to London for a weekend and went to an exhibition of drawings by the 16th-century German artist Hans Holbein. They were of the new rich of 16th-century England under the Tudors – another anything-goes, get-rich-quick period. The faces looked quite like the scary Russians I kept seeing in Moscow, driving BMWs. So I bought the catalogue. And there, somewhere in a footnote, there was a brief reference to an obscure but ingenious theory about why an extra person had been painted into a second version of one of the pictures. There was a whole elaborate conspiracy theory attached that fascinated me. It stayed in a corner of my mind for years. Eventually I realised I’d read enough about it, half-accidentally, that I’d become a bit of an expert. I hadn’t exactly intentionally prepared myself for it – but by the time I came to write, I found I was ready.

I find that when I stumble across a book I really enjoy, I immediately look up the rest of the books the author has written. I’m doing this now with your works. Do you find that happens as well? Do new readers find you and then absorb your earlier works?

I certainly do that with books I enjoy – I go and hunt the rest of them out. I’m often flattered to find that people write to me saying they’ve enjoyed one and are going to read the others. I can only hope they enjoy them as much!

In your opinion, what’s the best thing about writing?

I love the architectural side of it. What comes to my mind naturally is snapshots – a person at this particular moment, doing a particular thing. But with a book you have to join up the dots – work out how they got from one snapshot to the next, and why they’d have changed as a result of the thing that happened yesterday to start doing the thing they do today. There’s so much thinking – so much ordering of each of the individual building blocks of the story, so they work together properly and make a structure that won’t fall down at the first breath. In Portrait of an Unknown Woman, for instance, the Holbein of the early paintings is intelligent but pretty much unlettered. By the end, he is quite educated and sophisticated in his thinking. Plus which, the conspiracy theory that I was making the plot turn on required him to be able to make puns, in French, when he was a German speaker. It worried me for ages – how did that all happen? So I read a lot about his middle period, when he was painting a double portrait of the French ambassadors to London. And I realised that could have been a very big and fast learning curve for him – where he’d have heard a lot of very sophisticated talk, both about politics and religion, and that most likely all the conversation would have been in French. So I came to think of, and describe that as, Holbein’s equivalent of a university period – when he “clevered up” and learned to think, allowing him to paint the later portrait that, at least in my book, provides all the answers.

Please share some of your writing goals.

Mostly I’d like to get better at the planning stage of the story I talked about above – learn to make that a natural part of my thinking from the first. I’d also like to learn to write very briefly – my books have a tendency to get too fat! I read about my writing heroine, Beryl Bainbridge, that she would write 12 pages, then, painstakingly, whittle it down to one paragraph. In my dreams, at least, I’d like to be able to write with that haiku-like brevity. Not sure it will happen, of course. But we can hope!

Is there a specific time of day you like to write?

Well, I have young children, so school hours are when I get most opportunity. But before I had them I was a night owl and did lots of work late at night. I love working at night – when everyone’s quiet and you feel you’ve been given a gift of extra time. So perhaps one day I will go back to having the energy for that.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Oh, so many! One of my favourites is Dickens’ Bleak House. It has everything – comedy, satire, lawyer jokes, a romantic story, a spontaneous combustion (yes, really!), and brilliant descriptions of London.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Hm. It was something I think I always knew. I certainly remember being 11 or 12 and being taught about the Brontes at school, and taking careful note of the fact that they were all scribbling away at early novels and inventing imaginary lands for themselves from their earliest childhood, and thinking, well, better hurry up, then! But I must say I also thought it was cloud-cuckoo territory – something I’d never be able to do, because I’d have to earn my living, have a proper job, etc. I remember being quite unbelievably surprised when my agent and publisher first said, “but you can earn your living from writing – you really can.” Now I’m just crossing fingers that goes on.

Favorite authors?

Lots of Russian authors (well, that’s my past) – especially Bulgakov’s magical Master and Margarita, an extraordinary, funny, dark about the Devil coming to Soviet Moscow. I loved Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I love the Brontes. Wuthering Heights. Jane Eyre. I like John Irving a lot. As I write, I see these are all huge fat books, not at all the slim volumes I’ve just been saying I’d like to write. So: Beryl Bainbridge’s novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself. Hilary Mantel’s novel about a spiritualist working on the edge of London, Beyond Black. Ronan Bennett’s novel, Havoc in the Third Year. And Alexander Pushkin’s long short story, The Queen of Spades.

Book you’re currently reading.

I’m reading an odd one at the moment: Andrei Bely’s novel about a plot by peasant spiritualists in pre-revolutionary Russia, The Silver Dove. The sect it describes have lured away a young gentleman from his life. He’s fallen wildly in love with the “pock-marked peasant woman” who will be his downfall (in Russian, this sounds much better, “ryabaya baba”). It will end badly for him, I know (from sneaking a look further on). I’m fascinated by the description of the peasant sect, which fits in with the novel I’m currently researching, about Rasputin and life in Russia just before the Revolution of 1917.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

Coffee! At the coop I have a desk in, coffee is included in the price of the rent. And they are equipped with fabulously sophisticated coffee-making machines. It’s become part of my daily ritual to make myself the most foamy, bouncy cappuccino the world has ever seen, every morning, before I start. I’ve never been so hyper as since I started working here, either.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

I do. It’s happened to me, in a way. I think it’s your subconscious telling you you’ve taken a wrong turning. I think the answer is to take a big step back and ask yourself lots of hard questions about what that wrong turning might be. I don’t think there are any easy answers.

What’s the measure of a successful writer?

There are external measures – sales, prizes, whatever. But I think the important thing is to be writing what you want, and not what you’ve been pressured into. I think there’s a happiness that comes on to the page when that happens that readers feel and appreciate.

Advice for other writers?

Don’t be afraid – don’t make excuses – they’re probably all very real reasons why writing today is quite impossible, but they also don’t matter. Just start. It’s much easier to go on once you’ve got something on the page. And keep thinking. Most of writing is in your head.

Where can we learn more about you?

I have a website –

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