Nicholas Tucker interviews award-winning author Sally Nicholls about her new book, Yours From the Tower.
It’s Britain 1896, and the only way three closely bonded seventeen year-old girls can still keep in touch after leaving school is through letters. They all have much to tell, and their evolving story is entertainingly captured by Sally Nicholls in her splendid new epistolary story, Yours From the Tower. I spoke to her while her two young children were playing outside, supervised by her own mother. Given letter-writing has practically disappeared now, why has she chosen a literary device also deeply out of fashion?
‘I’ve wanted to write an epistolary novel for ages. I have always loved Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury/Brookfield books, put together so cleverly, and it’s an interesting technical challenge discovering how to tell a story without using a central narrator to take over. And as a historical novelist it’s wonderful to be able to write without feeling an obligation to describe to modern readers what these characters themselves would already know so well and take for granted. So there is never any need to get bogged down in the detail everyone would have been familiar with at the time.
All three girls have their problems, Tirzah is locked away in Scotland in order to minister to an unrelentingly cruel grandmother, Polly is working in a poorly funded orphanage in Liverpool and Sophia is unwillingly ‘coming out’ in the London Season with instructions to find any rich husband and so save her family’s otherwise straitened finances. The girls themselves can be quite funny about all this, but modern readers may well be aghast at the way their poor education has rendered them useless in any sort of future employment market. Do you share this anger?
Well, I have always felt for those unmarried women in the past who were condemned to a life of near invisibility, with the assumption that any left behind spare female would naturally give up their lives to look after their aged parents to the end.
No spoilers, but the book does finish positively. Yet the possibility of a darker ending for all three is always present. Were you ever tempted to go down that path?
One of the nice things about writing YA novels is the sense that most of your readers still at the beginnings of their lives continue to feel a sense of inherent hopefulness. And I wrote this current story just after I had finished Close Your Pretty Eyes, which is very intense and sad. So I was ready to try out something more generally optimistic.
Why did you make Tirzah’s grandmother so horrible?
She is a villain, definitely, but I hope I explained why she felt so over-protective of her granddaughter. The consequences then should any over-impulsive girl get herself into trouble, as Tirzah at one stage seemed likely to do, were quiet appalling, as her absent mother had already discovered at terrible cost. The grandmother is not a pleasant person and she’s not supposed to be. But I tried to make her understandable given the culture and expectations of the time. She is at least behaving in the way that makes sense to her.
Did you always know what was going to happen to your characters while you were writng?
Well, I knew there was a sort of fairy tale structure here, with Tirzah something of a Rapunzel, shut up in a tower and waiting for a handsome rescuer. And I knew the other two girls would also have adventures with their own affections.
The First World War is only 18 years away. By this time the girls will be in their mid-thirties and it would be fascinating to see how they have progressed and what still remains in store for them. So, any possible sequel?
It would be a very interesting thing to try; I can definitely see more potential for a sequel here. When people in the past have asked me about sequels I normally replied no, the story is now tied up with a bow and will stay that way. So a sequel this time round is certainly more possible than with some of the other. But I have no immediate plans at the moment.
Letters always have the potential to make good reading – at best direct, sometimes indiscreet and often crammed with recent laugh-aloud detail. Sally is a practised writer, and in this novel delivers this three-way correspondence, with a few interlopers coming in at various stages, with style, good humour and warm understanding. Her previous novel, Things a Bright Girl Can Do was deservedly short-listed for all the major prizes that year. This present story is equally good. Parents and grandparents also in search of a really captivating read need look no further either.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Yours From the Tower is published by Andersen Press, 978-1839133190, £14.99 hbk.