Author Interview: Roger Harvey | Living North

Author Interview: Roger Harvey

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We sit down with Whickham-based author Roger Harvey to discover more about his latest book, Room For Me

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career?
I was born in 1953 in Newcastle, and went to what was then Heaton Grammar School, before taking a degree in Law and working as a teacher of English, History and Drama – but I already knew I had to be a writer. I started out as a poet and was deeply unfashionable in the 1970s: while my contemporary poets were writing about unemployment, bedbugs and death, I was writing about beautiful girls, experiences of love, the sublime and exotic holidays – and I still am! I am married to Sheila Young, whose book The Queen’s Jewellery became the definitive work on that subject, and we live in Whickham. 

While I was writing the adverts at Metro Radio, I was also directing radio drama and writing two novels. Percy the Pigeon, about a Geordie pigeon who falls for a beautiful dove and follows her to London, was very successful as an audio-book. I based The Silver Spitfire on a true and terrifying war story I learned from my mother, but poured in my own romantic sensibilities and experiences of love and turned it into what the publisher called ‘a 20th-century love story for all time’. Love is better than war! Since then I have written 10 more novels, various stage and radio plays, film scripts and non-fiction books, lots of poetry, short stories and magazine articles. RecentIy I have concentrated on books, notably the big historical novel Maiden Voyage, set around the building of Mauretania on Tyneside in the 1900s.

For those who aren’t familiar with Room For Love or Room For Me, can you sum them up?
Room For Love is set in Felton in the 1960s. Three sisters live simply and happily with their widowed father, when he suddenly brings home an exotic new wife, injecting a shocking glamour into the family. She and the middle sister Julie, who narrates the story, grow especially close, but not everyone is delighted by the new stepmother. It’s a book about growing up, about artistic endeavour, and it’s a love story (always my favourite kind of story), but less about the lovers than about the people affected by them – who all have to make ‘room for love’, not only to bring about the happy ending, but to discover their true selves.

It’s also a celebration of the Northumberland I have loved for so long and of a happy home life, which is something so often pushed aside in modern fiction. These books are not grim, sordid or violent and I know many readers are enjoying them for that very reason. Room For Me continues the story of aspiring actress Julie into 1968. She is at drama school in London, but is drawn back to the North-East and takes a job in a fashion boutique in Morpeth: cue lots of Northumbrian locations I am confident readers will enjoy ‘spotting’. 

After some ‘boyfriend trouble’, Julie unexpectedly finds a loving partner – but when did the course of true love ever run smoothly? Julie is growing up and desperately needs space for herself and her dreams – and makes it in Room for Me, but not before a good dose of family drama, of course. Julie faces plenty of passionate ups and downs; ultimately this story is about a girl growing into womanhood. 

What draws you to writing about the 1960s?
What the media now calls ‘mid-20th century retro-chic’ happens to be fashionable at the moment, which is lucky for me and these books – but I haven’t just recreated that era to jump on a bandwagon. For a long time I have been drawn to sleek 60s style – I must have always been vintage! I lived through the same times, so the details of cars, clothes and music are accurately remembered from my own experience. I know the nostalgia of that period is very appealing to readers and audiences today. Of course everyone thinks of the colourful fashions and exciting pop music, but it was also an era of new prosperity, freedom and confidence and safer than our own uncertain times; a good time to be growing up.

Do you have any creative rituals before you start writing?
I tidy the desk before I start work on major new project and open a little ‘book of ideas’ I will carry around everywhere while the job is in hand. I am generally superstitious yet I have no particular superstitions connected with the physical business of writing – but if I can’t immediately scribble the outline of a new idea in that little book then I will feel deeply and madly frustrated.

Who are some of your literary influences?
I have many ‘favourite’ authors including Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, D.H. Lawrence, Laurie Lee, Coleridge and Dylan Thomas. I love books as various as Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, St. Exupéry’s Wind Sand and Stars, Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga books, Tolkein’s epic fantasies and H.E. Bates’ Love for Lydia. I am also much influenced by films and music. I want to write scenes as David Lean might have directed them and leave readers tingling as if they have just heard Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Abba!

What was the last book you read?
On Top of the World by pioneering pilot Sheila Scott, an inspirational lady whose courageous exploits seem to have been sadly forgotten by the public. I like to have a few books ‘under way’ at the same time and I re-read old favourites. At the moment I am reading George Borrow’s fascinating Lavengro and ploughing through William Shawcross’s enormous Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

You write poetry, fiction, plays, articles and scripts – which is your favourite?
Nothing beats writing a novel for scope and control in creating and telling a story, but poetry is my first love because it is the most powerful form of language we have. Some things cannot be expressed any other way, except perhaps by music; it is language at the very edge, and sometimes deliriously and delightfully over the edge.

I also believe that other forms of writing should aspire to the values of poetry; so the novel, the radio play, the essay, the film script and everything else should have the force, magic, balance and potency of a poem. But don’t tie me down to writing just one poem after another – I need and love my diversity.

What’s your favourite area in the North East and why?
Without question it is the coast from Alnmouth to Berwick. It is so beautiful; it can be wild and cosy at the same time. I have walked those paths and beaches all my life and the views of peace and vastness never fail to stimulate, comfort and inspire me. I have set many of my stories there.

What would you say is a ‘hidden gem’ of the North East?
The spectacular beach at Ross Back Sands. It is dramatically straight and smooth and has the utterly romantic vista of a castle at either end.

If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Worrying about not writing! That doesn’t mean I don’t relax with other things – I love walking, listening to music and watching films, and Sheila and I enjoy going out and about all over the North in our classic cars. If I couldn’t have had writing as a career I should have liked to be an architect or a musician, but since I’m hopeless at drawing and maths and can scarcely play a note on any instrument, it looks like I’m stuck with being a writer.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers out there?
Take a professional stance: stick to disciplined writing times, keep records of what you create and submit, study the markets, listen carefully to editors’ comments when you get them. When you are actually writing, keep asking yourself ‘what is this really about?’ and ‘what do I really want to say here?’ Think about the ‘tone of voice’ of the piece you are writing: sad or funny, scholarly or popular, politically correct or incorrect, romantic or down-to-earth? Have you achieved and kept that tone?

Keep going in the face of the rejections we all suffer. They are a fact of a writer’s life, but try to stay true to what you want to write and build the confidence to keep hammering away at publishers until something is accepted – then enjoy that success. To progress in this business and stay sane you must learn the trick of being delighted by whatever successes you do have while always striving for more – not always an easy balance for the creative personality to achieve.

Roger’s books can be found on Amazon or ordered in local bookshops.

Published in: September 2019

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