Three bestselling writers. Three great novels. And three very different pairs of shoes. Those were the first things I spotted when I went to an enthralling Oxford Literary Festival talk by Elizabeth Noble, Jane Fallon and Fiona Neill yesterday.
So, just for the record, Noble wore beige ballet pumps, Fallon sported strappy Louboutins (the distinctive red sole was a bit of a giveaway) and Neill was in Converse.
The trio have given talks together before and this one, chaired by Oxford academic Sally Bayley and titled Emotional Flashpoints in Women’s Lives) was a cracker. I’ve read novels by all three novelists and they really are at the top of their game. Fallon was there to promote The Ugly Sister, her book about sibling rivalry, Neill spoke about What the Nanny Saw, set during the banking crisis, while Noble’s latest, Between a Mother and her Child, explores the impact of grief on a family.
The conversation flowed easily as the writers talked about the backgrounds to their novels, how much research they do and how they write. “I write erratically,” admitted Noble. “I am more productive in panic - I have very tidy drawers towards the end of the writing process.” Ex-journalist Neill sits down to write once she’s taken her children to school and says she “bores” friends by talking about her plot-lines (I’m sure she doesn’t). Meanwhile Fallon, whose partner is Ricky Gervais, doesn’t show anyone a word till it’s finished. “At the very end I give it to my best friend Anna,” she revealed, “because I know she’ll never criticise anything I’ve written.”
Fallon writes in complete silence, Neill sometimes writes in a local café (a la JK Rowling) and Noble often switches on the TV and works with her back to it because she likes “ambient noise.”
When it comes to planning their novels, all three women write a synopsis before they start and know what their endings will be. Asked for tips by a wannabe writer, they came up with the following insights:
Neill: “Write a five-page plot synopsis and make sure there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Write three chapters and then start getting feedback.”
Fallon: “Keep writing. I spent years saying I wanted to be a novelist and writing bits of novels. There came a point when I just had to keep going.”
Noble: “Let your work be read. It’s not going to get published if you leave it in your knicker drawer. Come up with a clever idea of explaining your book and find an agent.”