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Writer Wednesday: Clare Harvey

Clare Harvey spent a childhood in Mauritius, Surrey and Devon. She studied Law at the University of Leicester, and has had an itinerant adulthood, travelling throughout sub-saharan Africa and working as a freelance journalist and English tutor in Nepal, Germany and Northern Ireland, as well as various parts of England. She has three children and has now settled with her family in Nottingham.

Her second book, The English Agent, follows the intertwining stories of Yvette, a secret operations executive (SOE) agent in wartime Paris, and her London-based handler, Vera. It's a book about loyalty, love and danger, set at the height of World War Two, and is out now in hardback.

Her debut novel The Gunner Girl (winner of the 2016 Joan Hessayon Award) was inspired by her mother-in-law, who saw action as a teenage soldier on the anti-aircraft units in London in WW2. Clare began writing The Gunner Girl as a welcome distraction from worrying about her husband, who was away on a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan with the British Army at the time.

1. Why did you want to become a writer? 
Like all writers I loved reading as a child, but I didn't realised I could become a writer until well into adulthood, because I didn't know any writers, and it seemed to be the sort of glamorous out-of-reach thing that only other people did, a bit like being a TV presenter or an explorer. Then, in my twenties, I briefly worked as a nanny for a 'real' writer - her name is Betsy Tobin, and as well as being an author she now also runs a wonderful bookshop in London called ink@84 - and I think that seeded the thought that it was something I could do, too, although I didn't start writing seriously until I was a mother myself.

2. What's the toughest part of the writing process for you?
There is always the challenge of walking that tightrope between wild over confidence and crippling self-doubt! I also find it tricky moving from the synopsis into the meat of the story. You know, you have what you think is a wonderful idea, but it's all a bit big-hands-small-map at the outset, and seems to take an awful lot of head-scratching, staring into the middle distance, and writing things in different coloured pen on scrap paper, until you can get to the point where you have a well-structured plot.

3. What's the most enjoyable part of writing?
I love, love, love it all, from wondering round in a daydream scouting locations, scouring the internet for random facts, reading out-of-print memoirs and biographies, and waking up early in the morning to get a scene written before the school run too the last minute late-night-caffeine-fueled rush to get it all ready for the deadline.

4. Out of all the amazing books out there, which book do you wish you had written and why? 
I think it has to be To Kill A Mockingbird. It was the first grown-up book I read. Older children identify with the point-of-view, teenagers with the message. And as adults, shouldn't we all aspire to be Atticus Finch? What writer wouldn't want to create something as evocative, provocative and inspirational as that?

5. If you could only save one of your characters from fictional calamity, which would you pick and why?
I would have to save Bea, from The Gunner Girl, my debut novel. I can't tell you what happens to her, as it would be a spoiler if you haven't read it. However, I have had so many comments from readers along the lines of 'Nooo! Why Bea? How could you let that happen to her?' that it would be nice to save her, if only to stop people getting upset with me!

6. If you could spend the day with your favourite literary character (not from your books), who would you spend it with and what would you do?
I'd like to hang out with Lizzie Bennet (Pride & Prejudice), perhaps on the set of This Morning on a Friday. I imagine she'd be partial to a gin & tonic in the green room, and proffer the odd wry comment on current celebs, whilst we were being thoroughly glammed up by the hair and make up people. Once we were on air with Eamon & Ruth, she'd big up my writing and my current book - thanks Lizzie, what a mate - and make us all laugh a right old lot. Afterwards we'd have a jolly nice lunch at somewhere like The Lady Ottoline in Bloomsbury, have a mooch in Persephone Books and then perhaps head on to the National Portrait Gallery. We might go shopping, but more likely hit the pub. Mr Darcy would turn up in a vintage F-type jag to whisk us home at the end of the night.

7. What can we expect next from you? 
My second book, The English Agent, is just about to be published in paperback and will be available in supermarkets, WH Smith and Waterstones, and you can pre-order it on Amazon. It's a spin-off from The Gunner Girl, taking one of the characters from my debut novel into a suspensful storyline in wartime Paris. 

8. Is there any particular writing advice you wish you'd been given at the start of your writing career? If so, what is it? If not, what advice would you give to someone starting out? 
If you want to be a writer, you should make writing a daily habit. I'm sure most people brush their teeth and read a few pages of a book before they go to sleep at night. Add writing to that discipline. To paraphrase Picasso, the muse only strikes when you're working, so make sure you keep writing - and the stories will find you.

9. Tell us what a typical writing day involves for you. 
I set my alarm for 6am, and aim to start writing by 6.15 on a scene which I will have prepped the night before. I write in bed for about 45 minutes and then try to remember to do a ten-minute mindfulness exercise from an app on my phone (this doesn't always happen, because I might be so engrossed in my scene that I don't leave myself enough time). I get up at 7.15ish, do the school run, walk the dog and aim to be back at work by 9.30ish (although it's often a bit later), with a cup of real coffee and a plan. I will write until mid-afternoon (with a short break for a power nap because I usually hit a wall at about 1pm, but I know if I have a 15-20 minute kip and another coffee, then I'll be good to go again) when I break to take the dog for a run, do the school run, make tea, do random chores, take people to clubs, etc. In the evening at around 9.30ish I'll go to bed and write another scene, as well as prepping one to write first thing in the morning. I'll read a short story before going to sleep at about 11.30pm.

10. Finally, what are you reading at the moment?
I'm reading Dimanche and other stories, by Irene Nevirmosky (who wrote Suite Francaise) - I find it easier to read short stories when I'm in the middle of the writing process, as I am just now.

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How far will two women go to survive a war? 

Having suffered a traumatic experience in the Blitz, Edie feels utterly disillusioned with life in wartime London. The chance to work with the Secret Operations Executive (SOE) helping the resistance in Paris offers a fresh start. Codenamed ‘Yvette’, she’s parachuted into France and met by the two other members of her SOE cell. Who can she trust?

Back in London, Vera desperately needs to be made a UK citizen to erase the secrets of her past. Working at the foreign office in charge of agents presents an opportunity for blackmail. But when she loses contact with one agent in the field, codenamed Yvette, her loyalties are torn.

Follow Clare on Twitter | Buy The English Agent on Amazon |
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