An Italian Family Drama with Rowena Holloway
What characteristics do you think contribute to a successful business woman?
After all my business studies you’d think I could rattle off a nice succinct answer about leadership, self-esteem and emotional intelligence, and I could turn to the text books (if I still had them).
Yet my experience has taught me that ‘success’ is a relative term. When I first quit my day job to write, my mother would introduce me to her friends as ‘my daughter, who used to be successful’. Thanks, Mum.
At least it’s all good fodder for us writerly types.
Follow your bliss. That’s my advice. Be aware enough to figure out what gives you joy and strong enough to make it happen. It might be a circuitous path, because we all have to pay the bills and care for loved ones, but if we know our purpose we’ll get there.
Do you think of yourself as an adventurous person and why?
I think I’m most adventurous within the pages of a book—that way I never have to camp out.
What is your idea of blissful happiness?
Silence. Especially when accompanied by a glass of wine and good book. Of course, I’ll also take a good walk on a long beach with my dog, Alfie—the best dog in the world, but aren’t they all?
What is it about the suspense genre that appeals to you?
I’ve always loved puzzling things out and I treasure my Hitchcock collection (movies, TV series, the Hitchcock magazine—I’ve got them all!), so it wasn’t really a surprise to find that’s where my musings led me. Dark and twisted, that’s me.
When I come across a story that keeps me guessing about what’s really going on I can’t put it down. When that’s accompanied by a few twists that change the context of everything that’s gone before—well, then I’m in heaven! There’s also that edge of your seat tension that comes with knowing something is lurking and following the build up to its appearance.
Suspense can come in many forms and I think it’s richer for that. But don’t ever kill the dog. I always get nervous when a dog is introduced in a novel.
Name a couple of your favourite authors and/or what you’re currently reading.
The writer I re-read most is Maggie O’Farrell. I admire her subtlety and her ability to elicit powerful emotion with just a few strokes of ink, and it’s her work I study in an effort to grow as a writer. Having said that I’m a big fan of most suspense—from thrillers to mystery and anything that has a meaty ‘why’ question at its heart.
The last book I couldn’t put down was Inheriting Fear (you might have heard of it ;) ) and the book I’m currently reading is Eye of the Sheep. It’s written from the point of view of an autistic boy and is fascinating and moving, but not suspenseful. I’m an equal opportunity reader.
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All About the Book
What is your latest book about?
All That’s Left Unsaid is a story of love, greed and family secrets set in Positano, Italy.
“All my life, I waited for my mother’s affection. Now I must compete with a dead woman.”
When Harriet Taylor learns her mother once lived in Italy, a secret she has kept for thirty years, Harriet accepts the challenge to determine if the remains known only has the Positano Skeleton belong to her mother’s long lost friend. Yet how can she probe old secrets when she doesn’t speak the language and no one wants to talk to a foreigner about the skeleton or the past? Then a homeless man hands her a photograph and she must decide how much she will risk to discover the truth.
In the dark chasm of Italy’s past, some things are best left buried. And a mother's silence can be deadly.
Why did you set part of the story in Italy?
Food, wine, gorgeous landscapes (you thought I was going to say ‘men’, didn’t you?). I love everything about Italy, and the language feels good rolling off the tongue, as Harriet discovers during her travels. The choice to set the novel in Positano in the south of Italy rather than somewhere else is down to a Robert Downey Jr. Or more specifically, the movie Only You. The locations are breathtaking. So when I sat down to write about a family secret Positano was the setting that emerged. I’m glad it did because it was such fun to research.
Did you draw on your own life experiences at all to write this book?
If I answer that I might have to kill my mother (just kidding, Mum).
There are a few experiences that crept into the novel. How can they not? I have travelled extensively and so my memories are embedded in the settings and Harriet’s attempts with language, though hers go better than mine did. At the time I began writing I’d just been hounded out of a job I’d lived for and my mother and I were going through a really rough patch. I’d often get phone calls from her that made me stomp into my office and pound out my frustrations on the keyboard.
You can probably imagine how raw those first drafts were, but with time comes objectivity. I think I’ve let it compost long enough to allow All That’s Left Unsaid to become an emotive and intriguing suspense.
I think that everyone can sympathise with Harriet trying to live up to work and personal expectations. How has her family situation affected her?
I certainly hope readers can relate to her. Expectations certainly have a lot to answer for. Harriet was rejected by her grandfather and ignored by her mother. As a very young child she had her grandmother’s love and support but when her gran died, Harriet was bereft. She’s always felt undeserving of love.
As soon as she got her degree she fled to London, following her dream of becoming an investigative reporter, but that feeling of being unlovable led her to choose a relationship with a man who was unavailable in several ways—you can’t be rejected if you can walk away or so she believes. She’s always trying to win approval, at work and with her mother, and like most of us who try too hard, she fails spectacularly.
Harriet is already questioning who she is when her mother reveals she wasn’t always the unhappy, Valium addicted woman Harriet knows. The revelation is both a blessing and a curse: her mother’s request that she find the identity of the Positano Skeleton is an opportunity to redeem herself, but she’ll have to face what she ran from six years earlier. She has no idea what passion and danger await her in Italy.
I especially find the angle of a woman without the backing of authorities trying to unravel a mystery intriguing. Did this make plot revelations more difficult?
Some things were certainly a challenge. Amateur detective novels interest me because the protagonist often has to find creative ways to obtain information that a cop could access easily. One of the things I love most about suspense is the discovery of the real story. Had Harriet found a competent policeman early on a lot of the mystery would have been lost: he (or she) would have known or been able to find out what really happened at the villa in 1963 and could easily scare off her stalker. Not to mention if Magliari, the first cop she encounters, had been sympathetic to her cause there would have been no story!
What I found most difficult, and I didn’t discover this until well into the first draft, was that first person, present tense limits how information can be revealed. The reader can only know it when Harriet knows it; they can only see it from her point of view. Suspense arising from the reader knowing something Harriet doesn’t (someone lurking around the corner, the dark intentions of her stalker) isn’t available. Furthermore, present tense meant I couldn’t foreshadow events. Harriet wasn’t able to hint at anything in the future because she had no way of knowing it. Yet those are also the strengths of this type of storytelling and first person has an immediacy you don’t get with past tense. I certainly hope readers find it just as suspenseful.
The idea of discovering something shocking about a family member is an awful thought. What internal struggles does Harriet have?
As a kid I longed to discover something shocking, and was thrilled to discover I’d had Cornish ancestors who were smugglers! I embraced that background and my errant relatives. Later, I discovered they weren’t blood relatives and that there was a good bit of exaggeration involved in the whole smuggling story. I found that quite confronting. Everything I’d believed about my heritage was wrong. I guess a lot of that feeling found its way into Harriet’s story.
As for Harriet’s struggles, I often find the character’s internal journey is the most difficult to plot and seems to work best for me when I let it emerge. That’s what happened with All That’s Left Unsaid.
Her internal journey is very much about discovering herself and confronting her unconscious assumptions about her mother and herself. Harriet believes her birth trapped her mother on the farm and that her mother resented her for that reason. Learning that her mother had a whole other life halfway across the world forces her to question what she believes to be true. And the more she discovers about her mother’s life in Italy—the villa, the friend who vanished, the secrecy surrounding it all—the more she comes to question everything that has shaped who she is and the choices she’s made.
During that first draft (and there were many ‘first’ drafts) I was focused more on her outward struggles—solving the mystery, overcoming the threats stirred by her questions. It’s often only after I’ve dealt with the plot elements that I recognise how my subconscious has been at work. It was only when I had some distance from the novel and began to edit that I recognised the most prevalent theme was silence. Harriet has a lot of internal thoughts about her mother’s silence, and her own inability to open up to those around her has consequences for everyone. Silence has shaped who she is and how she relates to those she loves.
Thanks for having me over, Sandy. It’s been great chatting with you and your readers.
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