Q & A’s for ‘The Olive Tree'(Helena’s Secret)

1) This book was written in 2006. Why did it take so long for ‘The Olive Tree’ to be published? And did you change much of the story from the original draft?

I originally wrote this story for myself, after a family holiday in Cyprus. It was more to keep my brain stimulated in between feeding toddlers and watching endless re-runs of Thomas the Tank Engine. I put the manuscript away, my children grew older, I wrote other books … And then a few years ago, as I was clearing out an old desk drawer, I rediscovered it. It was then entitled ‘Helena’s Secret’, and it was fascinating to read it and remember a snapshot in time when the children had been younger. While the characters in ‘The Olive Tree’ have remained the same, the plot has changed considerably towards the end – with the benefit of ten years hindsight, I was able to take the family into the present day 2016.

2) How much have you based your characters on your own family?
When I first wrote The Olive Tree, our five children were of similar age to the children in the book, and we had family friends staying with us too. Although much of the plot and the characters are of course fictional, there is no doubt that this is the closest I’ve come to drawing from my own life experience of being a mother, stepmother, wife, and trained dancer.

3) Why did you choose Cyprus as the location and how much research was necessary?
Pandora – the beautiful house where most of The Olive Tree is set – is actually based on the old villa where I stayed with my own family ten years ago, just outside Kathikas. I have always drawn inspiration from old houses, and this villa was surrounded by beautiful, ancient olive groves that I just had to write about.

4) One of the most amusing, insightful features of this book is the voice of Alex. How difficult was it to get into the mind of a 13-year-old boy?
It wasn’t difficult at all – I just had to listen to my own 13-year-old son at the time! And actually, I absolutely loved writing Alex’s diary entries. It was really refreshing to write a totally different voice – Alex loves playing with words and also has a great sense of humour and irony. Given that I normally write more dramatic stories with not much room for laughs, I enjoyed the chance to be light-hearted, and writing The Olive Tree (Helena’s Secret) definitely stretched – and hopefully improved – me as a writer.
When I first looked back at the original manuscript, I realised that, although my children are ten years older now, the book was a journal of their childhood, frozen in time. I am blessed to have a very close relationship with my children, so I was very easily able to put myself into Alex’s shoes.

5) You cover many and different types of loving relationships in this book. Was this something you set out to achieve?
It wasn’t something I deliberately set out to do; it simply happened organically as I was writing it. For this book, more than any other I have ever written, I looked at the people I loved around me for inspiration. In our lives, there are so many different kinds of love that touch us and affect us everyday – love for a child, for a husband, for a parent, for a friend… All of these are special and valuable in their own way.

6) Included in the story are some mythological references. Was this in any way a precursor to what became The Seven Sisters series?
I have always been interested in mythology, since I was a little girl. And of course, being set in Cyprus, a country so full of Greek-inspired legends, I had a fantastic excuse to unleash my passion. With The Seven Sisters series, which I began writing five years after The Olive Tree, mythology is much more in the foreground and important for the plot, whereas in The Olive Tree, I used it to add to the atmosphere and narrative.

7) This book is a departure for you because it is primarily set in the present day. Were there any particular challenges in writing a book like this and did you feel confident that your readers would enjoy this as much as your others?
Yes, it is, as it doesn’t have the ‘sweeping’ historical background, or the one-hundred-year time span that I have become known for writing about. I have to admit, I was very nervous about the reaction to The Olive Tree from my readers, but equally, I think it’s important for novelists to push themselves in different directions occasionally so that one never becomes stale. Even at the risk of losing the odd reader in the process. Thankfully, so far my readers have been so supportive of The Olive Tree, and understand that it is a different book for me, and have read it accordingly, without comparing it to my other books. I am still overwhelmed at the fact that the German edition, ‘Helenas Geheimnis’, was at number one on the bestseller list for seven weeks! Vielen Dank!

8) Ballet is clearly a great passion for Helena. Is this something you too enjoy?
All the way through my childhood, I wanted to be the next Margot Fonteyn. I trained as a dancer from the age of 3 to 16 so I am very familiar with the kind of life a dancer leads. The barre exercises that Helena does every day are ones that I do too. Maybe because I’ve always spent a lot of my day with one leg or the other in the air or jeté-ing around the room, I find it difficult to sit still. When I am writing, my best thoughts come to me when I am moving, or often stretching in very strange positions!

9) Helena meets a ghost from the past – her first love – when she arrives in Cyprus. This destabilizes the relationship with her husband. Do you think this is a common phenomenon?
Very! First loves can be really dangerous – they can literally turn into ‘Adonis’ in your imagination, because you forget the years that have passed since and all their bad habits. Helena sees her first love’s son in the distance and believes that it is Alexis, because his son is the same age as he was when he first met Helena twenty-six years ago. It awakens all sorts of long-buried feelings inside her.
I don’t think anyone ever forgets their first love, even though the actual reality may not live up to the picture one has had in their mind over the years. Mine certainly didn’t!

10) Would you like to write more books of this type in the future?
I’m going to be busy in the next few years working on The Seven Sisters series, as well as being heavily involved with the planned television adaptation, but yes, I’d really like to write another contemporary story. I have lots of ideas already for what I will write post-Seven Sisters … but for now, I won’t say any more about that!