Good morning, Donna – it’s good to see you here at Romaniac HQ. Make yourself at home – just brush the Hob Nob crumbs off the sofa and put your feet up. Scone? They’re cherry ones today. I think I might have accidentally finished off the clotted cream though…
Now, let’s find out what makes you tick. Your website’s great, I know a lot about you already but we’d better fill everyone else in too.
When did you start writing and what inspired you at the very beginning?
I’ve always loved telling stories, even as a child. Unlike a lot of writers, I didn’t grow up surrounded by books. But I loved Jackanory on TV, and on a Saturday morning I used to get loads of girls’ comics like Bunty and Jinty, and devour all the stories. You can learn a lot about conflict and cliffhangers from reading those weekly serials! Funnily enough, after I left school I got a job writing photo love stories for a teenage magazine. I started writing my first novel when I was 20, and was finally published two days before my 40th birthday. I’ve sped up a bit since then…
Reading this, I think we’re both from the same era! I loved Bunty, and Jackanory too. But what era would you have chosen to be born into, if not this one?
I don’t know about having to live my whole life in a particular era, but there are loads I’d like to visit. I’m a massive Tudor buff, so I would love to go back to the court of Henry VIII and find out what it was really like. And of course, I would love to visit a hospital in 1930s and pick up some ideas for my Nightingales books. Although I’m not sure about being a patient, since they didn’t stand much chance in those days!
Do you see yourself as mainly character or plot driven?
Characters are most important for me. It’s the characters and their conflicts that drive the plot. People are interested in people. If you don’t care about a character and they’re not real for you, then it doesn’t matter how much life or death drama you put them through, it’s not going to work.
Do your characters ever do things you’d rather they didn’t, or that you hadn’t anticipated?
All the time! It can be quite spooky sometimes. Your character does or says something and you think, ‘Now why did they do that?’ And then later in the story you realise that they’ve actually laid the foundation for an intriguing new subplot or twist that hadn’t occurred to you. Of course, it can also be massively inconvenient when you really need them to act a certain way for the sake of your ingenious plot and they just won’t play ball! In which case it’s probably best to listen to them, I find.
Looking back at that answer, I now realise I have the voices of various people in my head, who I truly believe are real and have minds of their own. If I wasn’t a writer that would be quite worrying, wouldn’t it?
Which three books would you take to a desert island and what treats would be in your picnic hamper?
Is it wrong that I can think of the food more easily than I can think of the books? Treat wise, there would have to be salt and vinegar Kettle Chips, Galaxy chocolate and Fruitellas. Also, we have a bakers in York called Thomas’, which does the best Chelsea buns in the whole world. Seriously, if you’re ever in York I urge you to get one. You will not be disappointed.
Right, now on to books. I guess I would have to take a survival manual, because being a city girl I am completely lost in the wild. And by wild, I mean anywhere that doesn’t have an M&S within walking distance. I might also take one of my 1930s nursing manuals, because they show how to perform life-saving treatments with very little resources. For enjoyment, I would have to take Riders by Jilly Cooper. It’s my all time comfort read.
Just booking train ticket to York. With you on the Jilly Cooper choice too. Still on the subject of reading matter, which book, famous or otherwise, have you always wished you’d written yourself?
Something that has stood the test of time, with a story that still resonates, such as Jane Eyre. To be able to impact on people emotionally is a great gift for a writer – I love it when people tell me I made them cry! From a royalties point of view, I wouldn’t have minded coming up with Harry Potter, though…
Which has been your most romantic character so far, which the most heroic and which the most unsettling/sinister?
Nick Riley in The Nightingale Girls is my perfect romantic hero. He’s a real bad boy with a vulnerable heart. From the response I’ve had from readers, they all seem to like him too! Everyone wants him to get together with my heroine Dora, but they may have to wait awhile before they get their happy ending (if they get it…). Dora is pretty heroic – she’s a tough East End girl who’s overcome all kinds of obstacles to follow her dream of being a nurse. Nursing wasn’t an option for working class girls at the time, and she has to fight to prove herself every day. She’s the one I most identify with, because when I was young everyone said working class girls like me couldn’t be writers, either. I’m not sure about unsettling or sinister characters. I’ve written plenty of nasty people, like Helen’s overbearing mother Constance Tremayne or vindictive Sister Wren. She manages to do a fair amount of damage in The Nightingale Sisters, especially to the new Night Sister. But I always try to give them a human side too, or at least a reason why they behave the way they do, otherwise you end up with a cartoon villain.
A predictable question, but we’re very nosy here. Where do you write and what’s your ideal writing routine?
I have an office, which is basically the back of the garage. I used to write in the spare bedroom, but I spent far too much time nosing out of the window at all the goings-on in our street. Now my office has a tiny, high strip of frosted window overlooking a brick wall so I can’t focus on anything but work! I like to start writing early in the morning – I get most of my best work done before lunch. In the afternoon, I get sidetracked into domestic stuff, answering emails or hanging about on Twitter, so I hardly get anything done.
I know the feeling! Here’s another of our favourite questions. Do you have an agent, and if so, was he/she hard to come by?
My agent is the lovely Caroline Sheldon. We got together about four years ago. I’d already had a few novels published under the name Donna Hay, but then my agent retired and I became a bit jaded and realised I wasn’t enjoying writing contemporary stuff any more. I gave up writing completely for a couple of years but then I missed it so I called up Caroline because lots of people had told me how nice she was. And they were right! It turned out to be serendipitous for both of us, because a few days after our meeting she met an editor who was looking for someone to write a series of novels set in a hospital in 1930s – and Caroline thought I might be up for the challenge.
I love a happy ending. Now, what would be your dream job, apart from writing all day with an endless supply of money thrown in?
I’ve always fancied being a beauty therapist, because it must be nice to spend your day making people look and feel better. Everyone enjoys a bit of pampering, and working in a spa seems like a fairly stress-free environment.
Quick fire questions –
Gin or champagne?
Gin, definitely. In fact, the answer is almost always gin.
TV or theatre?
Much as I would like to sound highbrow, it has to be TV.
Austen or Bronte?
Bronte. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Austen. But the Brontes have always fascinated me.
Bubble bath or power shower?
Bubble bath, when I get the chance. But sadly it’s mostly showers.
Book or Kindle?
Kindle on holiday, but you can’t beat a book the rest of the time.
Chocolate cake or exotic fresh fruit salad?
If you’d said any other kind of cake I would have gone for that. But I’m not a big fan of chocolate cake. Chocolate, yes. Cake, yes. But not together. Oh no. I quite like the sound of those cherry scones you mentioned earlier, actually…
Late nights or early mornings?
Early mornings. But I remember a time when they were one and the same thing. I’d stay up all night then rock up to work in a party dress. These were the days. Couldn’t do it now, though.
And finally, what comes next for you?
My new book, The Nightingale Sisters, is out any day now. It follows on from The Nightingale Girls, but it’s a stand alone story, so you don’t have to have read the first to enjoy the second. I’m just finishing off the third book in the Nightingales series, which is due out in October. After that, I have another two Nightingale books to write. Although there might well be more…
Thank you so much for letting us see a snapshot of your writing life – I’ve packed you some fruit cake for on the way home. See you again, I hope, and good luck with your next project.
Thanks for having me, I’ve had a lovely time. Although if I’d have known there was cake involved I would have bought you a Chelsea bun from Thomas’…
The Nightingale Sisters is published by Arrow Books. It’s available from Amazon – http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Nightingale-Sisters-Donna-Douglas/dp/0099569426/ref=pd_ecc_rvi_1
Find out more about Donna by visiting her website – http://www.donnadouglas.co.uk/
You can also follow her on Twitter – @donnahay1 – or read her blog – http://donnadouglasauthor.wordpress.com/