In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Menna van Praag’s novel, The House at the End of Hope Street has an enchanting premise, its troubled inhabitants are invited to live their for 99 days, in which time they must turn their lives around. Here is what Menna had to say about reading, writing, and her love for magical realism.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
My name is Menna van Praag. I’ve been writing novels since graduating (Oxford University, 2002) but was also waitressing full time until getting my first book published in 2009. That was Men, Money & Chocolate, an autobiographical fable about my life as a waitress/aspiring writer. I followed that with the sequel, Happier Than She’s Ever Been, also a fable and novella. My new book, The House at the End of Hope Street, is my first work of literary fiction. All my writing is in the magical realism genre as I’ve always loved imagining that there is more to reality than our five senses show us.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I like that and yes, writing and reading are both similar experiences of escape and comfort for me. I don’t have a particular routine but just write whenever I can. Before my son was born last year that was often ten hours a day. Nowadays I’m lucky if I get two hours in a day! I love food and have a very sweet tooth. If the writing is going well, I’ll reward myself with chocolate. If the writing isn’t going well, I’ll console myself with chocolate.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
What a great question! Okay. What is it you love most about writing? I love falling in love with my characters, losing myself in the twists and turns of a great story (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone) but most of all I love the words. The way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
The story was inspired by a dream I have to buy a big house and give grants to aspiring artists (writers/painters/singers/actors etc.) to live there for one year and do nothing else but study and promote their craft. When I graduated from Oxford I waitressed full-time while writing at night, so I know how hard it is to fulfill an artistic passion while holding down a day job. Anyway, since I couldn’t yet afford to make that a reality I created the fantasy version first. In the beginning I established the magical house and populated it with women who’d each suffered a tragedy that caused them to lose hope. After that, I had no idea what would happen next, how their lives would transform and how they would find hope again. Whenever I sat down to write I was constantly surprised and delighted by the insights and inspirations offered to each character by the house and its landlady, Peggy.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
Magical Realism has always been and still is my favorite genre. I’ve long been in love with everything ever written by Alice Hoffman. Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Sometimes her stories are a little too dark for my tastes, but the touches of magic are always a treat. Her writing always appears effortless to me, though I doubt it is. Other favorite magical realism authors include: Isabelle Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The House of Velvet & Glass by Katherine Howe which I found to be a beautiful book.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
Yes, I love reading too much to stop while I’m writing. The House at the End of Hope Street took two years to write, so I certainly couldn’t not read for so long! I used to worry that reading other authors would affect my work but now, after so many years, I have a voice that’s mine alone so I don’t worry about that anymore. And I just read whatever I enjoy, brilliantly written books are always inspiring, no matter the subject.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?
Gosh, there was so much I couldn’t include in the end and I’m afraid I’ve now forgotten most of it! The book went through twenty-two drafts over two years and much was lost in the editing process. I honestly can’t remember.
What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers? Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
Another brilliant question! Actually, only one of the characters is a reader and I write a lot about the books she reads. In the beginning of the novel Alba has abandoned fiction and only reads historical non-fiction but, as she grows and develops, she starts to read fiction again and reignites her imagination and heart.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
While writing The House at the End of Hope Street I kept to a very strict schedule that mainly involved writing for ten to fifteen hours a day. After my son was born I had to cut that down dramatically! Since I’ve always been quite an obsessive writer the shift into motherhood wasn’t an easy adjustment for me to make. Nowadays I just write for a few hours in the mornings.
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende, Dona Flor & Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado and Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
The title came to me before I’d written a word of the book. It summed up the central theme of lost hope so perfectly that, even though not everyone else loved it, I never wanted to change it.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
Clearing out my shed a few weeks ago I found the only surviving copy of the first novel I ever wrote. I started reading a few lines and was so embarrassed (even though no one was listening) that I immediately threw it in the bin. My first two books, little fables, were written in a sweet, simple style. The House at the End of Hope Street is more sophisticated in both its story and style.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
As a child I was a typical bookworm, reading everything I could get my hands on. The first book that had a significant impact on me was The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. It opened up the idea of magic hiding within the mundane. I think (though my memory is not necessarily to be trusted) the book that made me want to be a writer was The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
I can only work on one book at a time. I can usually tell early on when something isn’t working but sometimes I hold onto something very tightly until my agents tell me I need to drop it!
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
That nothing really changes.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
I live in Cambridge, England and I don’t actually have any favorite writers from my local area. I did enjoy I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson, who lives down the road from me.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
Carmen, the sexy Portuguese singer, probably because we’re so different and she’s so daring, gorgeous and has a magical voice — I’d love to be like that!
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I do both at once. It’s so easy to get lost in endless amounts of research, since it’s so fun and much simpler than plotting a story. This way I can escape into research for a few hours or days but always bring myself back to the blank page.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
I can write anywhere but my favourite place is at my desk on a sunny day. I have a window that looks out onto my garden. Whenever I’m stuck for words I usually find inspiration in the flowers and trees.
I’ve just finished editing my second novel, tentatively titled The Dress Shop of Dreams, which I hope will be out next year. It’s the story of a young scientist who falls in love with a bookshop owner, a man with a magical voice. She’s mourning the loss of her parents and needs the help of her grandmother, the seamstress who creates enchanted dresses that transform women’s lives, to learn how to love. She also needs to solve the mystery of her parent’s deaths. Just as I’d love to live in The House at the End of Hope Street, I’d also love to visit the Dress Shop of Dreams.