Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has written fourteen adult and five children's novels since her midlife crisis in Year 2000, and her bestselling books sell worldwide and in various languages. She lives in Adelaide with her family but roams the world for story ideas and research.
Why did you decide to become an author? Is writing something that you have always been passionate about?
Reading is something I’ve always been passionate about certainly. But becoming a novelist was never in my sights. I grew up loving language and having the ability to knock together well-structured essays and later I was bashing out press releases in my work, which ultimately led to being a co-publisher on a travel magazine where although I was head of marketing I was turning my attention to putting out some travel stories. I used to write long letters to family and friends – it was obvious I was a wordsmith but writing a book came as a genuine surprise. I wrote my first manuscript in a few weeks and when it was done I was shocked that a publisher wanted it. But I haven’t looked back. I now have 20 novels published, two more coming out this year and another one written for publication in 2013. All of my adult fantasy is sold worldwide and in foreign translation. You could say the floodgates of my imagination opened in Year 2000.
Growing up, which authors do you believe were the most influential on your writing style?
For my childhood it would be Enid Blyton and C S Lewis, who do still influence my writing for children. In my teens probably Stephen King and where perhaps I’ve developed that notion of suspense, which permeates my stories. By the time I turned 20 I was reading doorstop thrillers and sagas from people like Ludlum, Follett, Irwin Shaw, etc. And those are definitely stories that I emulate. In my thirties I rediscovered fantasy and writers including G G Kay, G R R Martin, Robin Hobb et al, had a huge influence on the style of writing and the books that got me known as a novelist. These days it’s Sharon Penman, Sebastian Faulks and a lot of very good non-fiction writers who deliver history as storytellers and have me completely under their spell….Anthony Beevor, David Cressy and co.
You were born and raised in England, lived for a while in West Africa and moved to Australia in your 20s. You also travel frequently around the world. How would you say your globetrotting has affected your writing?
Yes, I’ve travelled the world extensively since I was three and I think it would be fair to say that my globetrotting has profoundly influenced the sort of books I write, with their epic storylines and the way I like to set them across international landscapes. I would go so far as to say that every one of the novels I’ve written has, to some extent, been inspired and influenced by my travels and I can’t see that stopping because now I seem to set up a travel schedule for each new novel on the wind. Travel is a brilliant educator and the people you meet and experiences one is exposed to means ideas for stories are continually presenting themselves. Next trip is to Marrakech. Let’s see what it gives me!
You have written over 20 books since 2000. Looking back on this prolific career, what would you say has been your most rewarding experience as a writer?
Oh there are many if I’m honest. I’m always humbled by a happy audience that comes out on a very cold night during winter to spend a couple of hours listening to my tales and then clapping loudly before buying my book. That delivers enormous satisfaction but also genuine humility as I realise how powerful the written word is and how stories can reach out and touch people emotionally hundreds, often thousands, of kms away. I think my most gobsmacking event was being asked by my publisher to come to the French Book Fair and being flown with all the diva trappings into Paris and pinching myself that this was actually happening although I wasn’t entirely sure why. Then arriving at the publisher’s stand on the first day and marvelling at the enormous queue of people waiting for the four of us international writers from Bragelonne’s stable who had been brought in for the event…..but then being told that queue I was looking at was just for me. Nearly fainted clean away!
These are all good times but nothing compares to one’s first book contract and the first time you lay your hands on your first novel for the first time. I defy any new writer not to weep happy tears!
What can you tell us about your latest novel, The Lavender Keeper?
I can tell you that this is the favourite book of mine to date. It has everything in it that I go looking for in a novel….at its core is a wonderful love story as well as a tragic love story. And swirling around that ‘double affair’ is a tense, action-packed adventure of escape, treachery, revenge, despair and triumph. All of this is set against arguably the most romantic and yet fear-filled backdrop of Occupied Paris during WWll. This is a story of hope, and a story of a man’s love for his family, his life, his land …and for one woman whose presence threatens to destroy him.
What was your inspiration?
There were two triggers. I stumbled across Bridestowe Lavender Farm in Launceston while looking for attractions to visit with my parents in Tassie. It gave me the seed of my story i.e. the bringing of true French Lavender from the alpine region of Provence to the other side of the world. And I was flying into Paris for the French Book Fair and walked into all the celebrations of the 70th anniversary for WWll and the Liberation of Paris. It made me think about writing a wartime story and suddenly I remembered the history of Bridestowe and it was easy to bring the two together into an action/adventure romance.
The Lavender Keeper is set in France during World War II. How did you go about researching this turbulent period in history?
I read dozens of reference books – everything from Nazi uniforms to spy memoirs. I read about Hitler’s rise and the progress of the Nazi war machine across Europe, forever pushing east. I read Holocaust reference books, I ordered huge botanical tomes on the history of Lavender, about London during the Blitz and Paris during Occupation. I had towers of books by my bedside. Then I began watching documentaries – so many I’ve lost track. I ordered one particular documentary made by a French director that was incredibly helpful and was once banned in France because it was so confronting about the collaborators, etc. Intriguing stuff. Then I began to surf the Net. I spent months and months compiling the information I thought I needed to learn more about – and this was everything from the extraction of oil from lavender through to French politics at the time.
Finally I had to visit key destinations so that I could find my locations and understand them properly for the novel. If I didn’t know what they looked, smelled, felt, sounded and tasted like, how would I evoke those places for the reader? I spent several weeks in Provence, made several trips to Paris, two trips to London and then began to broaden my reach once I realised that I needed two volumes to tell this tale. So I visited Strasbourg, Krakow and Auschwitz in Poland, Vienna in Austria and spent a week or two on the south coast of Britain where returning spies were landed after the liberation of Paris.
Most importantly I talked to elders. I spoke to older people all over the world from Poland to Germany, France to Scotland. Their memories nourished this story because there’s nothing like real life experiences to spice a novel.
What would you like readers to take away from The Lavender Keeper?
The joy of getting completely lost in the pages of a rip roaring story – I’m hopeful that The Lavender Keeper is a page turner that allows readers to forget their daily drudge and live vicariously through the lives of three intriguing characters, and share WWll through their eyes. I’d like readers to have a new appreciation of what it must have been like to live under occupation and remind them about the catastrophe and tragedy that war can provoke including the Holocaust. I’d especially like Australian readers to appreciate the marvel of Bridestowe and its lovely history and the fact that we have a very special farm in Launceston that is now supplying the very precious oil of lavandula angustifolia, or the true ‘lavender fin’ that once grew wild and lush in Provence, back to the French to make their beautiful perfume.
Do you have any quirky writing habits?
Well, I don’t know if they’re quirky but they seem to intrigue aspiring writers. Firstly, I never write to any plan. I don’t plot or take notes. I simply write on mood and whim. 20 books in print behind me tells me that this formula works for me so I mustn’t over-analyse myself or I’ll become insecure about this curious method of freefalling into my novels. I write to a strict daily word count and when I reach the agreed amount I stop whether I’m in the middle of a tense scene or even a sentence. I just down tools and leave my computer and I’m confident I can pick up from where I left off the next day. I like to bake as a reward for my writing week. Crazy but true. I like silence while I write; I despise interruptions but it happens all the time when you have a family. I don’t read back my work until I’ve finished the entire manuscript and I know this sounds barmy but I can barely remember what I’ve written until I read the first draft – and it always surprises me. I like to write back-to-back novels. I don’t like not having a book on the go…so I rarely take holidays. The last was five days for a special birthday several years ago but I was quite twitchy by the end of it!
Can we expect another novel in the near future?
I’m pleased to say yes! In August 2012 is the release of my new middle readers’ fantasy – The Rumpelgeist – which follows on from The Whisperer. And then in November 2012 is the launch of my new adult fantasy…The Scrivener’s Tale. Next April the sequel to The Lavender Keeper will be released and that’s called Luc’s Promise we think. It’s written and now being edited. And by the time that rolls around I would have delivered a new shift into magic realism called Tapestry and I’ll be looking toward my next big historical action adventure by then. Always plenty on the go!
Do you have any advice that you would like to offer aspiring writers?
Yes. ‘Write’ is an action word. It requires you to do produce words on a page. Tinkering with yesterday’s words and worrying about tomorrow’s words are both unproductive pastimes. Get disciplined, don’t give yourself excuses and get on and write. I meet so many people who tell me they’re working on a book and when I probe a little further they’ve been working on it for years and then trot out all reasons - marriage, children, jobs…these are excuses not valid reasons. If you want to write, you will. But you have to make time in your life to do so – everyone can unless they’re sick, moving house or have a newborn baby (I allow for those unsettling and difficult situations!). Writers of popular fiction as I am have to be disciplined but also flexible, if that makes sense. You also need to develop a tough hide and absolute belief in yourself as a storyteller.
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