Interview with Santa Montefiore
- by Ann Canela
- June 4, 2013
We interview Santa Montefiore, author of the recently published Woman from Paris.
About Woman From Paris
In The Woman From Paris by Santa Montefiore, we encounter the privileged, grieving family of Lord Frampton on the day of his funeral. The family is shocked to meet Phaedra, a beautiful, mysterious woman who turns up on their doorstep claiming to be Lord Frampton’s daughter. In the will of the deceased, the family’s sapphires and a significant income have been left to Phaedra, confirming the relationship and leaving members of the family outraged. Out of love for Lord Frampton, the family opens up their home, and eventually their hearts, to Phaedra — including the eldest son, David, whose attraction to Phaedra becomes an impossible love.
Santa Montefiore was born in England and is the author of 11 books of fiction.
A major theme in The Woman From Paris is the power of love to heal. Do you start with a theme or with the arc of the story? What sparks your creative process? Do you believe that love can and does heal? Alternatively, what would be the power in a mild fondness?
Firstly, love has the power to heal, for sure. Love heals in many different forms in my novel. I believe beauty is love — I don’t mean the superficial beauty of a lovely face, but the powerful beauty of nature. When you stand in the middle of a bluebell wood and listen to the light twittering of birds, feel the warm breeze on your face, inhale the sweet scent of regeneration that emanates from the rich foliage waking up from its winter sleep, your heart expands and suddenly you find your cares are washed away. You exist in the moment, and the still silence of the wood resonates with the still silent part of you that is your eternal soul. The part of you that is connected to every tree and flower. That expansion fills you with joy and your heart floods with happiness. That is love, and it is very healing. It reminds us that love is the most important thing. Our love of friends and families and love for ourselves, too. Sometimes we get too wrapped up in our material lives to notice the people closest to us. It takes a bereavement or a tragedy to focus the mind.
True love is very rare. It is love beyond ego — unconditional love. That kind of love gives us the power to forgive, which is a major theme in The Woman From Paris.
With this particular novel I started with the mystery — the twist — and built the themes around that. I always write about love. Not just romantic love, but the grand love. That’s the reason we’re all here; nothing else is important. That’s why the greatest novels ever written have love at their core. A novel without love is like life without love: empty. I write about Love with a big capital L.
Mild fondness doesn’t drive people to delve beyond the ego. No one sacrifices anything for mild fondness. But love? True love drives us to greatness. (If there was only mild fondness and not love, the human race would have died out eons ago, having eaten their own children!)
Each character is driven by a very specific motivation, and we see that motivation play out in their choices and approach to Phaedra. How do you approach character development?
I don’t plan it at all, I simply let my imagination lead me. I immerse myself in the characters and get to know them as I go along. I didn’t plan Margaret, for example, who turned out to by one of my favorite characters; she just happened to be there in the opening scene and she grew on me! Characters have to evolve, as we all do in life. They have to learn from mistakes, from each other and from love. They have to grow. Some don’t, as in real life. Some become worse. But we all move; no one stands still.
I set them against a beautiful, natural background and watch how it affects them. Character building is the best part about writing a novel, certainly the most entertaining for me, and I’m always on the lookout for new characters.
Is it easier to complete one character and then write around him or her, or do your characters come about together?
They all come about together. Some are developed more than others, because you have to focus on a few; otherwise, the reader can get confused and the book becomes too long. I end up developing my favorite ones as I go along, and leave the less interesting ones in the background. I also find that the cameo roles give my readers relief. I’m writing about tragedy and loss, unrequited love and longing. The larger-than-life lesser characters give the book a bit of comedy.
The older female characters are very significant in The Woman From Paris. Do you have strong female role models in your own life? How does your own family experience shape your writing?
I definitely draw on my experience, and I love old people. I have a very close family and knew both grandmothers well. One was very sweet and the other rather formidable. I love strong old women, especially English ones; they are truly one of a kind, and a dying breed because my generation will be very different. I find women much easier to write about — male characters usually turn out to be like my father.
Who are your literary influences?
I’m influenced by all the great writers I read, and there have been many. I love the following authors very much: Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Elizabeth von Arnim, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy, Dumas, Jane Austen, Sarah Walters, Rose Tremain, Mary Wesley, to name just a few off the top of my head. I like books that are beautifully written. Lyrical, evocative prose is very important to me.
The title sets an expectation of the story that is quite interesting, setting Phaedra apart from the family. Why did the title change from The Summer House and how does this add to the reader’s experience?
Originally the book was called Love’s Folly, “folly” being the English word for that particular kind of decorative summer house on grand country estates, and also madness, so I thought the double meaning appropriate. But my editor wasn’t sure about it and you don’t use the word “folly” in America for summer house. So, we changed it in the U.K. to The Summer House, as that is where most of the action takes place and it also stands as a symbol of love. My editor in New York wanted something different. I think she wanted a person in the title rather than a building, so it became The Woman From Paris in the U.S.A., which confused readers who ended up buying both on the Internet and getting rather upset about it! Thankfully, Secrets of the Lighthouse will have that title in the U.K. when it comes out in July and in the U.S.A. when it’s published in early 2014.
Who is your favorite character in the book and why?
The Dowager Lady Frampton. She’s strong, outspoken, colorful and complicated. I enjoyed developing her. I believe unpleasant people are unhappy people — I’ve never met a truly happy person who is unkind. So, with that in mind, I took her on. She ended up being my favorite.
Ann Canela is a published poet and a founding member of the 12 Gauge Brooklyn Writing Group. Her work has been featured in literary journals and online publications. She graduated from Hunter College in New York City and is currently a marketing and fundraising consultant in Washington DC. Twitter: @ann_canela