Hilary Spiers – Hester and Harriet – Podcast

Hilary Spiers writes plays, novels and short stories. She enjoys giving a voice to ordinary women in sometimes extraordinary circumstances.

When widowed sisters, Hester and Harriet, move together into a comfortable cottage in a pretty English village, the only blights on their cosy landscape are their crushingly boring cousins, George and Isabelle, who are determined that the sisters will never want for company. Including Christmas Day.

http://www.coop.com.au/hester-and-harriet/9781925266412


Rob:
You’re listening to The Co-op Book Podcast. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Hilary Spiers to the co-op chat. Hello Hilary.

 

Hilary:
Hello there Rob. Lovely to be with you.

 

Rob:
Now, the joys of modern technology that this interview is actually taking place over the internet through Skype. As I sit here in Sydney, Hilary, where are you in the UK?

 

Hilary:
I’m in Stanford which is a small town quite near Peterborough, if anybody knows that, which itself is about 90 miles from London.

 

Rob:
Okay and what’s it like in the UK this evening?

 

Hilary:
Well, for me it’s the morning, of course, and for the first time in weeks we have some sunshine. You’ve probably heard on the news, we’ve had enormous amounts of rain and a lot of flooding up in the north of the country, but today it’s blue sky and sunshine which is a lovely change.

 

Rob:
Absolutely. Now, we’re talking about your book Hester and Harriet. Tell me a bit about how did you come up with this book, Hester and Harriet?

 

Hilary:
Well, the truth of the matter is, it came about as a result of a bit of a challenge. I was doing my MA in creative writing and wrote a short story about these two women which my tutor group, most of them said they really liked the characters, but I have a writing buddy and she read it and said, “Oh you should do something with these two.” At the time, I was in the middle of writing a play and I said, “Oh, I don’t know if I’ve got time to do this.” “Oh no,” she said, “Don’t let them go. Don’t let them go. I’ll tell you what. I’ll set you a challenge. You write me three chapters a week, get it to me by 6 o’clock on Friday. I’ll look at it over the weekend, give you some notes, and you can start again on Monday.” That was how it started. The truth of the matter is that once I started writing it, I just went with it. It was just such fun to write. The starting point really, wasn’t actually down to me.

 

Rob:
That’s actually quite a unique story. Now, Hilary, you’re a novelist. You write short stories and, of course, plays and more theatrical enterprises. What’s it like writing those three different forms?

 

Hilary:
I think, well short stories, as people always say, you now have to be incredibly tight and they are, in some ways, I think, well, a lot of people think this too, harder to write. It’s much harder to write short than long. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Plays, in a way, are similar. You can’t have any extraneous dialogue, but what I like about writing a novel is not only can you flush out the characters much more, but you can still have that joy of exciting dialogue to carry the story forward. I think it’s probably true to say that I’m quite a dialogue heavy novelist.

 

Rob:
Okay. I suppose the thing with books as well and novels is that there aren’t those imitations that, say, the theatrical piece has.

 

Hilary:
Oh, not at all. No, certainly not with things like how long it has to be. You know that you’re writing, next day for a play you might be writing between 15 and 20,000 and you can’t write more than that because people’s bottoms won’t last. I mean, there are obviously plays, Hamlet, four and a half hours, but not these days. You’re writing a modern piece, people are looking for something around two hours, that’s all. Which is why every word must count. And I’m not saying every word doesn’t count in a novel, clearly it does, but you’ve got much more latitude.

 

Rob:
That’s what you can get that access into people’s heads.

 

Hilary:
Absolutely, absolutely. That’s the joy of it. That’s what I so, so enjoyed because as you’re probably aware, this point of view changes between the two sisters. But I liked having that flexibility and they are such, I hope, entertaining and irascible sometimes people, that I loved exploring what they were thinking compared to what they were actually saying.

 

Rob:
Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that come with the book is a lot of humour and, to me, one of the things … It’s that whole sibling relationship and how we deal with people that are related to you by blood. You don’t choose them, you end up with them, and how those relationships play out.

 

Hilary:
Yeah, absolutely, because they have only been living together for a relatively short time. They’re still testing the boundaries of how this relationship and these living arrangements should work and that, for me, was part of the … I’m glad you said humour because I did want that. I don’t like books that are just completely heavy, but that was part of the humour is watching these two women, in a sense, dancing around themselves and trying to find a way to live together that suits both their needs. Because in their individual ways, as I suppose as most of us are, they are quite selfish. They want what they want and I think sibling relationships are particularly difficult. It’s not like a marriage. You’ve got all that shared history, and yet you’ve had an enormous amount of your life when you’ve been apart. So bringing those strands back together, I found it fascinating to explore.

 

Rob:
Now, it’s set in an English village. For us, me or Australians that have sort of the literary or television representations of English villages, why are they so obtuse?

 

Hilary:
Obtuse? The villages or the people?

 

Rob:
Both! There’s something that goes on in English villages that has it’s own unique kind of characteristic and-

 

Hilary:

Oh, I see what you mean. Absolutely, there is. I actually live in a town, but I have lots of friends who do live in villages and their lives are very different from mine in the sense that they have much closer idea about what everybody else is doing. I’m not saying that we live in complete sort of isolation in the town, but it’s more distant in a town. The fact that these people not exactly live in each other’s pockets, but clearly you can’t get away with a lot in a village normally. Although, of course, in this instance, something does go on that they’re not aware of.

Rob:
Yes, it’s interesting to see the outcome and I don’t want to spoil it for somebody. [crosstalk 00:07:11] One of the things that I’ve found interesting is you’ve had it released in Australia, but it’s yet to come out in the UK. What’s behind that?

 

Hilary:
That was a just a decision of the publishers about timing so I don’t know more than that really. They felt very much that it was a book that would suit the season in Australia. But yeah, it’s not coming out in the UK until March.

 

Rob:
So Australia’s ahead of the game, but-

 

Hilary:
Absolutely.

 

Rob:
As I can [testamount 00:07:44], it’s a great holiday read. We’re still in the midst of holidays here. I highly recommend it. I wonder just come back to your background, how did you get into writing? Have you always written?

 

Hilary:
Oh, I have always written. I haven’t always written, if you like, full time, but I certainly have always been writing. I think like most people when I was much mu ch younger. I used to write appalling poetry. I mean, not that everybody writes appalling poetry, but mine was. I’ve always been involved in the theater since I was about 13. There have always been opportunities if we’re putting some kind of show together to do that sort of thing. Yeah, short stories, I’ve always written. It’s taken me the decision to say, no I really really want to make this my career to actually get me on the novel path. Because of the time commitment really.

 

Rob:
Now, as I mentioned before, I interview many of our listeners that either at university or have just left university. What was the university like for you?

 

Hilary:
If I’m absolutely truthful, I studied law and I don’t think I should have studied law. My heart really wasn’t in it. I mean, I enjoyed university, don’t get me wrong, but my advice and certainly to my sons and will be to my granddaughters is to say choose the subject you really want to do. I chose law because I thought it was the right thing to do. I think it might be for some people, but I don’t think it was for me.

 

Rob:
No, that’s fair enough. I think it’s a part of the journey that many people take at university. Battle between passion and pragmatism.

 

Hilary:

Oh, absolutely. But the lovely thing about learning and education is it never needs stop because since then I then subsequently went on to do speech therapy, a degree in speech therapy. Then much more recently, of course I went on to study creative writing. It never stops. Just because sometimes you think, maybe I made the choice that wasn’t quite right to me, it doesn’t mean that in the future you can’t do what you really, really want to do. That’s the brilliant thing about it. Those opportunities are there throughout your life.

Rob:
Absolutely. As a writer, what kind of writer are you? Are you a planner? Or are you a just put it down and put structure around that?

 

Hilary:
I’m the latter. I’m absolutely not a planner. I find it really difficult when you get asked for a synopsis because I think well, I don’t know where this is going to go. I kind of have a rough idea, but I’m very easily led astray. If I think I’ve got a thread that’s worth exploring, then I will go off down the side road and fiddle around there and then come back. No, the idea of … I know some writers have story boards and it’s all perfectly planned out. I just don’t know that I could stick to that because I’m probably quite ill disciplined if I’m honest with myself.

 

Rob:
I’ve found through my interviews that it’s 50/50. Some writers are one way, some are the other way. It’s very-

 

Hilary:
[inaudible 00:11:07] I think you can’t … I mean certainly when I was doing my MA, there’s a tendency to say, well this is one approach, would you like to try? I did try them. It wasn’t that I’d set my heart and my mind against things. I tried different approaches and I just knew instantly, I thought, now this isn’t going to work for me. So went back to [inaudible 00:11:27] and not very structured way of working.

 

Rob:
Now, tell me, you’ve studied writing as well. Who are you influences? Who sort of-

 

Hilary:
Well, like a lot of women writers, and going back a bit, Barbara Pym, I think is an absolutely master of writing about small lives, but still making you want to know more. Helen Dunmore. Oh, let me think. Oh, I love William Boyd. I think he’s a fantastic writer. In fact, Any Human Heart, probably one of my favourite books. But and absolutely top of the list and going back a very long way, would be Thackeray. Because he writes so brilliantly about women. There can’t be a better heroine than Becky Sharp.

 

Rob:
That I would agree with. Look, those listeners out there that get a chance, please grab a copy of Hester and Harriet. It’s actually a really fun book and it’s got humour, both upfront and dark humour. Highly recommend it. More importantly, we can get ahead of the UK because it’s not out there for a few months. Hilary, I appreciate your time. Getting up this morning to have a chat with your distant cousins in Australia.

 

Hilary:
Oh, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you.

 

Rob:
Now, all the best. We look forward to hearing what’s coming next.

 

Hilary:
Oh, right. Well, yes. I think the ladies are off on some other adventure quite soon. I very much hope so anyway. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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