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After a degree in English Literature at London University in her thirties, she moved into health journalism, writing a Mind, Body, Spirit column for the Daily Express.
She has published six non-fiction books on health-related subjects such as depression, step-parenting and pregnancy, for publishers such as Mitchell-Beazley, Hodder Mobius and Penguin – her most recent being a pregnancy book with TV presenter, Melanie Sykes.
Thursdays In The Park is Hilary’s first novel for Quercus and tells the story of Jeanie, a mother and grandmother who is struggling with the reality of a husband who has withdrawn from the marital bed and the temptation of life with a new partner.
Jeanie knows all too well that her new passion threatens everything she holds dear. She must make a choice. Family ties, dramas, secrets and lies all weave their way though this beautiful and insightful first novel written by an author who has the perfect experience to write it.
Caroline Butler: What made you want to tell this particular story?
I was a new granny and still investigating the role. Like Jeanie in the book, I didn’t really know what a modern ‘grandmother’ was, and I certainly didn’t fancy myself as a little old person with polyester slacks and a blue rinse.
I was bowled over, amazed, by how much I loved my little granddaughter. I assumed I would love her, of course, but I didn’t think I would be so in love, so obsessed with a baby not my own. The new relationship with my daughter was also intriguing. Things change when your daughter becomes a mother – it’s the final moment of growing up, I suppose. And, incredibly, she didn’t always believe in my childcare advice! Me, such an experienced (and of course, brilliant) child-raiser, had to accept that babies have different needs now than they did back-in-the-day.
So there I was, a modern gran in the park every Thursday, my granddaughter in a trance on the swing, and I looked around at all the other, mostly grandparents and nannies, with their charges, and I thought: ‘The perfect place for a romance!’
Caroline Butler: You spent some time as a marriage guidance counsellor how did your experiences inform the book?
I’m fascinated by the human condition and the dynamic of relationships. I’ve always been drawn to stories that have a strong emotional intelligence alongside the plot. I love George Eliot’s books, for example, or Leo Tolstoy, Marilynne Robinson, Ford Maddox Ford, E. Annie Proulx, where the human condition, not the plot, is the real story. I sometimes regret I didn’t train to be a psychologist.
With Thursdays, I was just writing about what’s always interested me. I suppose the marriage guidance training has made me understand the complex dynamics of relationships better, but it’s probably more my experiences of life in general that’s informed my writing.
Caroline Butler: Jeanie has been with George for over thirty years when things start to cool, but it can happen at anytime. What made you want to focus on an older couple?
Because no one ever talks about older love! It’s an ewwwww! moment.
And because longer marriages have a very different dynamic. Just being with someone for 30, 40 years, carries with it a sharing and responsibility – as well as love, hopefully – that’s hard to explain to someone younger. But older couples are often portrayed by the likes of Hyacinth Bucket and Richard, or Victor Meldrew and his long suffering wife, Margaret. They bicker and tolerate each other, but they aren’t – god forbid – sexy!
In Victorian times, the average marriage length was more like 15 years – death in childbirth, shorter lifespan, etc intervened. But now we can hope to live into our eighties, marriages over 50 years will become much more common. Scary thought, eh?
Us baby-boomers, now reaching 60 and beyond, have never been a docile bunch. We won’t go gently into old age. And, with women having an economic independence our mothers could only dream of, we won’t tolerate dodgy marriages that aren’t working for us in the way our parents did.
Caroline Butler: On the front cover is the question “does love come with a sell-by date” it’s a big question of course but we couldn’t not ask you! What are your thoughts on long term love?
You can’t rely on being blissfully happy and in love for 50 years without some downtime. I think people often expect too much from marriage, especially when they’re in the first flush of love. But a long marriage has to be worked at, and worked at bloody hard sometimes! There’s no Church or social mores to rein us when things get shaky, and I think people give up too easily these days. An affair doesn’t always have to mean the end of everything. Obviously I’m not advocating cheating on your partner, but it’s a fact of human nature that, in a long marriage, there’s a chance that one of you, or both, is going to cast a lustful eye elsewhere.
I’ve never been too sure about the concept of forgiveness – it seems to imply that you wipe the deed from the record books, which ain’t ever going to happen with infidelity. But it strikes me, from long observation, that better communication, which leads to better understanding, goes a long way towards mending what’s broken.
I think long love affairs go in waves. There are times when you’re in tune with your partner, other times when you’re not. And after a while, if you fundamentally love each other, you begin to understand that.
Caroline Butler: What was the most difficult part of writing this novel and how did you overcome it?
Time has always been my biggest problem with writing. I love writing. I’m not one of these writers who agonize over the process, who’ll even clean the silver or wash the walls to avoid it. But I do another job – administrator for a cancer nutrition charity, Survive Cancer. And when I was writing Thursdays I was doing two other jobs as well as the charity one. I would love to say I got up at 5am every morning and wrote for three hours before breakfast – that sounds so painful and romantic, so dedicated – but I didn’t. Luckily I’m married to a workaholic, so weekends were always a good time, and just snatched mornings (after breakfast!), etc. I write quickly!
In the actual writing, I suppose the hardest part for me was not to let my characters descend into too much navel gazing. I have a penchant for long chunks of emotional outpourings, which I find totally riveting, but which are, I’m told, theatre emptiers!
Caroline Butler: Why and when did you first start writing?
I’ve had a chequered career. I trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street, then had children, then did marriage guidance, then, in my thirties, I went to university to study English. I’d always been an obsessive reader and I loved the course. It was after that, in my forties, that I started writing novels alongside my health-related journalism and non-fiction work. Sad to say, I have written four unpublished (rejected!) ones, and more not even finished. (And no, they aren’t any good, so I won’t be taking them out of the desk drawer and inflicting them on you!) It was always my dream (I’m now going to sound like an ardent reality tv contestant) that I get a novel published. But you can see why, at 61, I had lost heart a bit – despite being repeatedly told of Mary Wesley getting her first one out there when she was over 70. But I kept writing because I love it.
Caroline Butler: What’s the book – or who’s the author – you turn to when you’re sad, ill or worried?
I don’t have a comfort-blanket book – unlike my sister, who’s read Jane Eyre over 20 times. I’m not that keen on re-reading books. I’ve done it a few times and been disappointed. I read Gunter Grass’s The Tim Drum in my 20s, and revisited it last year. The first time I read it I thought it was dazzling and innovative – completely brilliant. The second time I still thought it clever, but so cruel. I suppose if I’m not feeling my best, I might turn to detective fiction with a familiar protagonist like Ian Rankin’s Rebus or P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. You can trust these men to deliver! Or films such as Some Like it Hot, Trading Places or High Society.
Caroline Butler: How do you like to write: in silence or with music?
I find music very absorbing, so it’s hopeless for me to play anything while I’m writing – I just sit and listen to the music and don’t concentrate. My friend, writer Paul Hallam, and I often exchange YouTube pieces with counter-tenors such as Philippe Jaroussky singing something like Handel’s Ombra mai fu – which is almost too beautiful to stand, by the way – but that’s instead of writing, not as background music.
I need isolation and NO PLANS. Having to be somewhere or do something during the day is very distracting. Unfortunately, since we live in a small flat, my husband gets chucked out if I’m on a roll!
Caroline Butler: What do you do when you’re not writing?
I love walking – wandering in the city or striding the coastal trail. This has been curtailed recently with a dodgy hip, but I got that replaced last year (such an old bag’s condition!), and now I’m back out there. I’m not in the least bit intrepid, but my hero is Ray Mears – I’ve always been gripped by extreme survival, even though I’d never willingly put myself in a wilderness, or even a big wood.
I love hanging out with my family and grandchildren. Small children have this amazing ability to be present. What they’re doing in that moment is all there is, total concentration and joy. I’ve learnt to do this too while I’m with them, playing crazy made-up games with them where I morph from a mother to a princess to a dad to a child to a witch in half an hour, and it’s all real to them. I wish I could work out the trick to being more present in the rest of my life, and in consequence do less worrying!
I love the cinema. (Lucky, as I’m married to a film director). Again, films that have a strong emotional narrative, not just action and plot: Antonioni, Turkish director, Nuri Bilge-Ceylan, the Coen brothers, Pedro Almodovar, Akira Kurosawa. And the Hollywood ones mentioned earlier like Billy Wilder.
I love sitting in coffee shops with my husband or friends, just gassing.
I love opera and theatre.
Apart from my obsession with fiction, I like readable biography/history such as Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys, or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Caroline Butler: If you’re going to be stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life and you could take 3 books what would they be?
Blimey, is there no chance of rescue?
Well then, the books had better be extremely long, because I get very panicky if I haven’t got something to read and there’s not much point in taking something that you finish in one sitting.
The Bible, definitely. It’s huge, complex and full of stories. And I haven’t read it.
The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry, Vol II: Blake to Heaney. This is because it would give me a lot of variety, and would tax me – I don’t find poetry easy to understand. It would fill up the desert island years nicely, and no-one could tell me I’d got my interpretation wrong.
And finally, the wild card: Henry Fielding’s Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. It’s not long, and I’ve read it before, so it doesn’t fit my self-imposed category, but it’s such a human, stoical, vivid and gently humorous tale of his trip to Lisbon to cure his failing health. (He died in Lisbon two months after arriving, so it didn’t work.) I think perhaps I shall need some example of stoicism to refer to on the desert island, in case I descend into self-pity.