What did you know about Romania before you first came here? Not much, if I’m honest. The news of the Ceausescus’ overthrow at Christmas 1989 was front page news in Britain. But before that Romania was a hidden country, not exactly behind the Iron Curtain, but not part of mainstream Europe. Not somewhere that many people visited when I was young. Even now when friends visit me they are always surprised by what they find here. Perceptions are slow to change.
What do you find so exciting about Magura? Exciting? Just the opposite. I have found profound peace and a refuge from the ‘real’ world of concrete and consumerism. It’s like stepping back through time to my own childhood in rural England, with higher mountains and extra wildlife.
Do you have a favourite place in Romania? I have found my Ithaca in Magura. But if I’m forced to choose a city beyond my local Brasov, then I like Sighisoara’s beautiful citadel, if I manage to be there without huge crowds and loud music. The fortified churches are fascinating, but I prefer the lesser-known ones such as Homorod and Vulcan, where I can look around in peace, and enjoy the solace of silence. I confess that I haven’t explored Romania very much because I have almost everything I want in Magura and don’t need to search any longer. There are lots of places I want to see if I can bear to leave the village, especially in rural areas.
Are you a Dracula fan? Up to a point, but I’m no Goth. I watched the Hammer films on TV as a child in the 1960s because my older sister liked them, and in the 1970s I worked on a stage production of Dracula in London. The fact that I live a bat’s flight away from ‘Dracula’s Castle’ in Bran is sheer coincidence.
What do you find least attractive about Romania? There are three big issues that bug me. The bigger issue is Romania’s apparent fear of diversity – racial, religious and sexual – recently highlighted by the campaign against gay marriage. These values and beliefs need to be debated openly and without fear so that there’s much greater understanding of all sides in the argument. The third problem is the way animals are treated, especially in rural Romania. I’m not one for calling pets ‘fur babies’ and treating them like children, but I do think that animals should be treated with respect and kindness, not thought of as a piece of living farm equipment.
The issue that bugs almost everyone here, including me, is the casual corruption everywhere in public life, and the brazen corruption at the highest level of government. 2016 was a welcome break from the standard sleazy politics, but 2017 ushered in what proved to be a new low standard of public service. With what’s going on in the US and UK, elsewhere in continental Europe and further afield, it’s just part of a depressing and frightening pattern. It was so unnecessary if only people had voted instead of being so apathetic.
What do you find most attractive about Romania? Apart from the natural beauty, the friendly and welcoming people, the traditions and the peace? One aspect of life here that appeals to me so much is the concept of being neighbours, vecini. The idea that you have an obligation to make sure your neighbours are okay, to help them with problems, to be concerned about their welfare. Of course it’s logical common sense – when you have a problem you know that your neighbours will help you, in their turn. But it’s a very good feeling to know that I can turn to my neighbours when things go wrong, and find a helping hand when I need it.
Do you really live on your own? Usually, yes. At least I’m the only human living here. There are four cats who share the place and keep me entertained. They are village cats, but a complete family of mum (now seven years old) and three kittens (now six) who are as much at home here as I am. Sometimes I have volunteers staying, who help me in the garden or around the house on projects such as painting a room, or building a wall. They are travellers from all over the world – I’ve had people here from South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Siberia, all over Europe and the USA. It’s an amazing way to meet new people and learn things about the world. They are always delighted by Romania and especially by Magura.
Do you like getting visitors to your house? I’m a very private person, and love solitude, so unlike my welcoming and hospitable neighbours, I’m not very keen on people turning up without warning. If I know someone is coming in plenty of time, I can be ready for the visit and enjoy it. But bear in mind that I work from home – thanks to the wonders of the internet – so it’s not as if I’m sitting around, bored and lonely, longing for someone to arrive and brighten up my day. I have lots of work to do and often work late at night. Not only is the next book always nagging, but I have freelance work to do as an editor, a journalist, and a tutor. So if someone turns up unexpectedly, I will probably be in the middle of writing an article, being interviewed over the phone, or trying to meet an urgent deadline for a client.
You love gardening. What plants do you grow? It’s going to be quite an English garden, although it’s in the middle of wildflower meadows in the Carpathians. I’ve fenced off the area around the house so that I can have flowers and shrubs without the sheep eating them all. Outside the fence, I still have an area of wildflowers so I can enjoy the exquisite beauty of native species from early violets to orchids, three colours of scabious, lady’s mantle, St John’s Wort and many, many more. There are hundreds of species right here on my land – further afield in the village I find a whole other spectrum of plants, and on the road down to Zarnesti there are all the plants which grow at a slightly lower altitude. In my garden I also grow some vegetables – things I can’t find in the local markets, like mange-touts and sugar peas, French beans and courgettes, pak choi, rainbow chard, mustard greens and mizuna. And I encourage wild salads like chickweed, Fat Hen and ribwort plantain, all delicious in salads or steamed gently for a few minutes. There’s nothing better than picking and eating fresh veg grown in your own garden…
Every writer must be a reader too. What books do you like? Gosh – a huge question. I’ve got about 1,000 books in the house, and now I’m getting more disciplined about giving away books before I get new ones. Otherwise every room would be a library (not a bad fantasy, actually!). I’m not a fan of ebooks, partly because I love books as objects, and find them as fascinating for their design, feel, smell and sound as for their contents. Nearly half the books are fiction, some poetry and plays, mostly for adults but some favourite children’s books, too. More than half, though, are non-fiction, from books I’ve used for research, from family heirlooms, huge coffee-table books, philosophy and psychology, flora, fauna and the natural world, popular science, books about where I used to live, a small collection of Ronald Searle cartoon books, all of my brother-in-law’s books, alternative health and remedies, books about massage (I qualified nearly 20 years ago)… all sorts.
But you must have favourites? Argh! That word favourite… I don’t do favourites in anything. There are books, films, foods, clothes, colours, etc that I can enjoy time and time again, but there are dozens, not just one. And it depends on the day of the week, or the time of day. Ask me tomorrow and you’ll get a different answer… When I get time I’ll post a page about best-loved books and authors I can recommend.
Where do you write? I have a study with two windows facing south and west. So from one I see the Bucegi mountains, and from the other, Piatra Craiului. The views are very distracting, especially when the sky is full of fascinating clouds. I am a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society and here, with the mountains, I see some corkers. Other distractions include neighbours’ animals yelling their heads off, sheep occasionally getting into the garden (emergency demanding chasing them out with a pitchfork), and of course, the cats. They want something, from lunch to a cuddle, and won’t be denied. I have a long sofa in the study so if I need 40 winks, or need to contemplate my next chapter, I can put my feet up and watch the sky for a while. It’s also the warmest room in the house, with a brilliant wood stove which keeps me warm even when the winter temperature drops to -25C.
How do you write? I have a computer on my desk which has a big screen, so I can have my manuscript open on one side, and Google or a page of notes on the other side. It’s also great for editing photos and looking at maps in detail. I find it much harder to work on a laptop. I used to scribble notes on a pad, but these days I put things straight on to the computer. Saves me retyping everything.
Are you disciplined about work? I’m very ill-disciplined about writing time (and everything else). I always mean to get straight to work, but somehow by the time I’ve got up and fed the cats, made coffee, done last night’s washing up, contemplated the day, checked Facebook and dealt with emails, it’s about eleven o’clock. Then I can get down to work. If I’m in the writing groove, or have a pressing deadline, I’ll work till midnight or later. I like to get up early in the summer and wake with the sun. So sometimes there’s a little spot in the afternoon, around half past three, when an hour is required to close my eyes and, er, meditate, often with a cat snuggled in to me on the sofa. Then a cup of tea, and I’m back at my desk.
How do you start a new book? I’ve got so many ideas lurking around – some for years and years – that I’m not short of projects. But there’s always something new, too. Din Liverpool in Carpati was an obvious book to write, really; I had lots of scribbled notes in little sketch pads and diaries and bits of old table napkin and backs of electricity bills… notes about things I knew I’d forget. Details, scraps of conversation, silly moments, odds and sods. The thing with this book was trying to find a structure and some means of pulling things together into chapters. Somehow it all came together. Luckily, readers seem to like the way it’s been done.
What about fiction? How did you come up with ideas for Dragons over London or Floss, for instance? The thing I love most about fiction is finding new characters and especially finding the right names for them. I spend ages on names, because they give me so many clues to the appearance and personality of the character, and their backgrounds and stories. Sometimes I find photos that inspire me, or a half-remembered picture from childhood, or a story in the newspapers – anything can inspire a character. Sometimes they just leap from my head fully formed, like Athene from the head of Zeus. They’re often the best characters and the hardest to control. Floss, by the way, is a real dog, and the first story (Floss the Lost Puppy) was 100% true. He turned up at my door – but I’m not an interesting character for a children’s book, so I invented a Romanian family and neighbours.
What about the story itself? I have a germ of an idea, and I soon need to start research. Sometimes the place inspires me. For ‘Dragons Over London’ I went to the Tower of London to get ideas, like the dragon’s well which was there in the basement, dating back almost 1,000 years. My dragon’s perfect home! London is an amazing place to set stories, of course, because it’s ancient and complicated, and almost anything is possible. But there’s so much information! I can wander around the internet for days on end, finding amazing stuff, and some of it just leaps straight into my story. I like writing stories where the geography is real, and the background events are solid facts. So look up the events of the story and you’ll be surprised what you find…
What’s your next book? The very next book is the third book starring Floss, again published by Booklet Fiction. There’s also another adult non-fiction book waiting to be done, about my sister Ginny Fiennes, who was a pioneer in polar exploration, being the first woman to win the Queen’s Polar Medal – something very special in that world.