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A sense of place

Words by Fiona Mcgowan

Catherine Alliott has written 16 novels and is still on a roll.

Catherine Alliot (Image: Neil Cooper)

With her latest novel, A Cornish Summer, based entirely in her favourite county, Catherine talks to Fiona McGowan about why she loves Kernow and how it has been woven into so much of her work. “I remember reading JD Salinger when I was younger and it was a bit of a eureka moment, because I didn’t know you could write conversationally like that, in a chatty manner.” It was The Catcher in the Rye that caught Catherine Alliott’s attention, and it’s easy to see the threads of that 20th century American style of fiction in her books. But it was a very long time after reading Salinger before she put pen to paper and began writing novels. Catherine’s career began in advertising – after studying British and American literature at university, she became a copywriter for an advertising agency in London. The influence of Salinger and other American writers of that ilk was even intrinsic in her work in advertising, she says, “I remember being taken aback that you could write in such an approachable conversational way. It’s what I tried to adopt when I wrote advertising copy.

Every author has a different story about their literary journey. While some writers always felt destined to write books, Catherine had always thought she had no such ambition in her youth. Until, that is, her dad dug out a book that she wrote, aged 12, complete with complex story structure and illustration: “I obviously liked the feel of writing, even back then.’ But it was only when Catherine had moved to a new agency where the work was less challenging and less compelling (“I moved jobs for the money,” she admits) that she began to write a novel. Essentially writing it under the desk, “It happened as a result of not particularly enjoying my day job. I basically got the sack, because they realised I was doing something else,” she laughs. And well she might be amused. Being sacked from that job arguably led to her being the prolific author she is today.

Frenchman’s Creek, on the Helford

Image by Geoff Squibb

A brief time working as a freelance copywriter was brought to a halt when her husband and brother convinced her to send her novel to an agent. In those days, she says, it was much easier to be considered by an agent, and the route to being published (by Hodder Headline) was quick and seamless. The fiction she had written arrived on the desks of the editors at a time before ‘chick lit’ was even a thing. It was intelligent, yet approachable – a story whose characters came before plot. It must have struck a chord in 1994, the smart publishers perhaps sensing the imminent change in the zeitgeist, when women’s literature became more fun and light-hearted, addressing with honesty and humour the social and psychological complexities of modern womanhood.

For Catherine, perhaps another selling point was her inclusion of Cornwall in the story. Adding an element of a beautiful coastal environment automatically jettisoned the book to ‘holiday read’. She was lucky, she says, that Cornwall was something of a second home to her. As a child, Catherine and her family spent every single summer holiday in Cornwall, staying in the slightly unusual destination of Newlyn. Penzance’s neighbouring fishing port was then, as now, dominated by a busy, working dockside and workaday vibe. It was also home to a discerning artist community, which was what attracted Catherine’s father, who was a keen painter. “What I love about Newlyn is that it has quite an edgy character,” says Catherine, but more importantly, it was the setting-off point for her visits to the coves and beaches and coast paths that often feature in her stories today. Later on, she and her husband would holiday on the Helford estuary, and took their children on family holidays to Rock, although it is more often to those Newlyn holidays that she returns in her head.

While it can be hard to avoid the clichéd descriptions of a region as famously stunning as Cornwall, Alliott says that her knowledge of the county has enabled her to write it with a real sense of place – almost a character in its own right, rather than a stereotypical backdrop to a tale. One of the deep themes running through her latest novel is the sense of attachment to the land itself. Families that have been rooted in a place for generations have a peculiar draw to hold onto the very soil itself, as though it is a visceral connection with their ancestors. “We’re talking about a family pile on the cliff overlooking the sea,” explains Catherine, “With that comes the complications of the land. How much they’re attached to it and whether they’re attached to it too much – whether it’s easy to leave and live your own life. It can be a poisoned chalice for future generations.”

While the family in A Cornish Summer is loosely based on other landed gentry she knows elsewhere, she believes that the ties that attach them to the land will be as strong, if not stronger, in this more remote part of the country.

Catherine freely confesses to having a romantic view of Cornwall – she is not oblivious to the economic and social issues facing the area, and she has local friends who remind her of how hard it is simply to get out Cornwall to go on holiday or go for a meeting in London. But she says her familiarity with the place keeps it real. “You have to write about places that you know well, so it’s a real, living breathing place. If you bomb in and start to write about a place that you don’t know – I have tried that before. I’ve thought – I’ll set this somewhere really lovely like the Amalfi coast. But of course, it doesn’t work…”

Writing novels, especially once you have a contract with a publisher (Alliott is now with Penguin / Michael Joseph), is very much a job. Catherine works best in the morning, she says, so she writes from 9am to around 1pm every day. She hardly ever takes weekdays off when she writes a novel, and used to be unable to take a holiday until the manuscript was finally sent off. Her process might seem laborious to many – every single one of her 16 novels has been written out longhand and then typed into a word processor (“So there are no interruptions from emails or the internet”), but there is certainly method behind it. When you write things out in notebooks, she found, you are less likely to write purple prose, and likely to be precise in what you put down. And there’s no self-editing as you go. Even if you cross something out, there’s no deleting it forever. But once the book has been written and published, “I do chuck my notebooks away. Some people say I shouldn’t, but I get so sick of looking at them. Also, I find it quite hard to move on from the characters if they’re still lying around.”

A Cornish Summer does feel romantic; it also feels timeless – while it is very much set in modern Britain, there is something almost Woolf-ish or Brideshead-y about the family issues, the way the characters connect. The protagonists, while struggling in some ways – financially or socially – still exist in an upper-middle class spectrum. Although there is something soothing about this kind of story, it doesn’t pull its punches, either. There is a bit of everything, and the familial drama is bound to hold the reader engaged – whether on a Cornish beach, on the beautiful, but seemingly endless journey on the train from Paddington, or on the daily city commute. It not only brings Cornwall to life, it’s every inch the soap-operatic page turner you’d expect from the genre.

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