“But I’m not a romantic novelist, protests Susan Elliot Wright whose debut, The Things We Never Said, was on the shortlist for Romantic Novel of the Year announced this week.
“There is a strong love story in the book, it’s not what I would call a romantic story in the traditional sense, although maybe what we define as ‘romantic’ is changing,” suggests the Sheffield-based writer. It is the story of Maggie who as a young woman in 1964, wakes up in a mental asylum with no idea who she is or how she got there, and Jonathan, who, in the present day, is trying to come to terms with the death of his difficult father.
The parallel stories from different times and place eventually intersect as secrets are uncovered.
Susan Elliot Wright moved to Sheffield to take up a place on the Sheffield Hallam University creative writing MA course.
A Londoner, Elliot Wright left school at 16, got married at 18 and had two children in her twenties. At the age of 30 she and her children quit an unhappy marriage and she started again, reinventing herself by doing an English degree - and changing her name.
Elliot was among a number of surnames she picked from the phone book and then used to send off for brochures to see which one looked best on an address.
No sooner had she become Susan Elliot than she met her now husband and changed it again to Elliot Wright.
She began writing articles for consumer magazines and had a couple of books on health and parenting published
“But my first love was always fiction, and when I was offered a place on the MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam, my husband and I upped sticks from London and moved to Sheffield.
The novel evolved on the course. “I just started with a connection between two characters and the idea of nature versus nurture and how much of what makes you is hereditary. Can you inherit something like a bad temper?”
Maggie’s troubles begin when she moves from the South Coast to take up a job as an ASM at a theatre in Sheffield (something the author’s own mother had done with a more benign outcome).
“The weather plays an important part in the story. The year 1962 was the time of the great Sheffield gale and then the following year came the Big Freeze which actually hit the South more than the North.”
She says the novel underwent many changes during the MA course and then even more after she sent it to 12 publishers who each rejected it first time round, though many made encouraging noises. Then followed some “massive” changes, the most significant was re-structuring the story which had originally been a linear narrative.
Now she decided to start with the key moment of Maggie’s treatment in a mental hospital and gradually reveal how she got there.
Simon and Schuster offered her a two-book deal and the second, The Secrets We Left Behind, is coming out in May.
“It begins with a middle-aged woman living in Sheffield and we learn in the first chapter that she has lied about her age - she’s put years on - and has a different name,” explains the writer.
“Once again there is a different timescale. This time we go back to 1976 and the hot summer - the weather comes into it again - and we see what happened that led to the secret. She gets a phone call from a voice in the past. He is dying and wants to tell the truth.”
In the meantime Susan Elliot Wright, along with another first-time Sheffield writer, Gavin Extence, author of The Universe versus Alex Woods are taking part in Read Regional 2014, the annual campaign to connect northern authors to northern readers which involves events at libraries across the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside.
1The winner of Romantic Novel of the Year was Veronica Henry’s A Night on the Orient Express.