For Books’ Sake Talks To: Rosie Thomas

13th Sep 2012


Rosie Thomas has been writing best selling fiction since the early 1980s. Her writing, which often tells stories from the past as well as the present and involves heady romances and wonderful strong women characters, has earned her several Romantic Novel of the Year Awards; in the 80s for her third novel Sunrise, and in 2007 for Iris and Ruby, a lovely book set partly in war time Cairo. In 2012 she received Best Epic Romance of the Year award for her latest novel, The Kashmir Shawl. a war time tale of family secrets and romance, set in the exotic landscape of 1940s Kashmir.

She is consistently in the top 100 borrowed books from public libraries and is an experienced world traveller, the locations she visits often informing her writing.

FBS: The Kashmir Shawl is set in a very dangerous and yet beautiful part of the world. What inspired you to set a novel there?

RT: I was travelling in Ladakh, in the eastern, Buddhist half of Jammu and Kashmir, and became very interested in the shawl trade – having seen the pashmina goats in the summer grazing grounds, and visited the processing plant in Leh. I decided to follow the trail west, over the Himalayas to largely Muslim Srinagar. The story of the shawls became the core of the novel.

FBS: In The Kashmir Shawl and Iris and Ruby, two women from the same generation have a very different experience of wartime in different sides of the globe. Would you ever write about the war in Europe, or from a soldier’s point of view?

RT: I’ve touched on war in earlier books – The White Dove is about the Spanish civil war for example, and the novel I’m currently working on spans both world wars. I’m not sure I could do a soldier’s pov with 100% conviction though.

FBS: Parts of The Kashmir Shawl are incredibly sad. Is it hard to write about events that you know are going to have your readers in floods of tears? (I was!)

RT: It is hard, yes, but it’s also exciting and challenging to know that there’s a big scene coming, and to give it the necessary emotional charge.

FBS: Many of your books use a dual narrative technique, which is becoming more and more popular in modern fiction. Why do you think this style appeals so much?

RT: Using a modern time frame to provide perspective/explanation for earlier events is a useful device for the writer. Apart from anything else if one narrative is proving difficult, it’s a relief to escape into the other!

Seriously – it’s a useful way of introducing narrative sweep, without making a book too l-o-n-g. Some readers appreciate the switch of times, others find it annoying. I think it’s a matter of taste.

FBS: You are known as a big traveller. Where have you been recently, and how did you start? Do you travel in order to research, or do you find your travelling influences your writing afterwards?

RT: In the last year? I’ve been out to South Georgia, to recreate Shackleton’s epic journey to Senegal, to climb in the Swiss Alps, and I’m shortly off to Bhutan for a long trek. Travelling and writing are now interdependent activities for me – I need to do one to provide focus and meaning for the other.

FBS: You are a prominent writer of romantic fiction. Do you think that romance is important in fiction? What do you think about the rise of more raunchy stuff in the mainstream?

RT: Romance is important in life and fiction. Of course it is. I think it was Freud who said that man lives to work and to love. Personally, I think what isn’t said or written is much more erotic than what is spelled out, but that’s a matter of taste, too. There’s room in the market for all of us.

FBS: You once said you originally planned on writing a Mills and Boon novel. Would you do that now?

RT: I found that I couldn’t then, and I’m sure I couldn’t now!

FBS: Your books feature strong women characters who take on immense challenges in very difficult settings. Which women, living or dead, inspire you?

RT: One of my great heroines is Gertrude Bell: mountaineer, adventurer, traveller, arabist, archaeologist, spy. An extraordinary woman.

FBS: Which of your characters is your favourite and why?

RT: Always, always, the favourites are the ones I’m working on now – because they fill my mind.

FBS: You started your career in the early 80s. How much as the romance genre and the publishing industry changed since then?

RT: A lot, and yet hardly at all … people still read: they crave narrative, characters they can identify with, escape, illumination, suspense, amazement. They may read on all the different platforms but the central experience is reading.

What has changed is the popularity of creative writing. When I started out  plenty of people thought they had a book in them, but few of them embarked on the tedious business of writing one. So the impression was that it was easier to get published, because there weren’t so many [manuscripts] floating around.

Nowadays, thanks to creative writing courses, blogs, book groups, endless discussions and exchanges of and about the written word, everyone is writing a novel and not just talking about writing a novel. There is more support and encouragement available, so many more books get finished.

The goalposts of publication and success following publication seem to have narrowed in proportion. But, actually, I don’t think they have. What’s good will find a way: publishers are as sharp-eyed and as enthusiastic as they ever were – even if some have a tendency to refer to ‘long form narrative’ when ‘book’ was once good enough…

If you’d like to get your hands on Rosie Thomas’s latest book The Kashmir Shawl was published by Harper in March, and is now available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook or audio book.

Jess Haigh