Lilian Harry (known during her first few years at Mills & Boon as Nicola West, and then later as Donna Baker), was born in Gosport, near Portsmouth Harbour. Growing up during the terrifying years of the Blitz in a two-up, two-down terraced house, the youngest of four, Lilian aspired to be a writer from an early age.
As a young woman Lilian worked in the Civil Service and moved to Devon to be near her sailor husband. When the marriage ended, Lilian and her two children moved to the Midlands, where Lilian was happily married to her second husband. After living in the Lake District for twelve years, Lilian finally moved back to Devon.
Among her works are historical novels, romances and even two books giving advice on how to write short stories and novels (our advice – take careful note of her experience!). A keen animal-lover, Lilian now has a dog and two cats to keep her busy, along with a wide range of hobbies she enjoys.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Our customers love your books – you’re a firm favourite!
Q: One of the first things World of Books would like to ask is how on Earth you keep tabs on your different author names? Do you feel that you have a different identity with each new pseudonym?
– No difficulty there, since I now write pretty well all the time as Lilian Harry. I did write for a few years as both Lilian and as Donna Baker, and also for a while as Donna and as Nicola, but I was writing different kinds of book (the Portsmouth wartime series as Lilian, romantic novels as Nicola and 19th century family sagas based on industries such as glassmaking, carpet-weaving etc as Donna) and it was easy to slip between the different styles. I have always hoped that readers would not know that the books were written by the same author.
Q: As a keen reader, what book are you currently reading? Do you have any old favourites?
– Oddly enough, I rarely read the kinds of books that I write. I read crime quite a lot – Ruth Rendell is an old favourite but has been overtaken by the newer writers such as Nicci French and (coincidentally) Tana French who are both superb. Others I look out for are Peter James, Peter Robinson and Stephen Booth, but at the moment I am reading Stuart Pawson, whose humour just tucks me up. If I’m not reading crime, I’ll read a wide variety from Julian Barnes to Oscar Wilde.
Q: You’ve said that from the age of five, you knew you wanted to be a writer. What’s one of the best memories from your long and successful career as an author?
– That’s a hard one. There have been so many – book signings and talks are lovely because I get to meet my readers. But I think my very best moment must be the day I was first invited to London to meet a publisher and told that they would accept my book. That was when I knew I really had fulfilled that childhood dream.
Q: When you were growing up, entertainment generally meant one afternoon at the cinema, or some time listening to the wireless or reading. The world has certainly changed quite drastically! What’s your opinion on our current reliance on digital media and our need to have the next gadget or gizmo?
– Yes, it has changed, and like most older people I look back wistfully to the days of Children’s Hour on radio and the ‘Eagle’ comic (I always preferred that to ‘Girl’!) But I think we are wrong if we try to ignore or disparage modern technology. Whether we like it or not, it’s here and affects us all, so the least we can do is try to keep up with the changes, even if we don’t embrace them. In the publishing world, particularly, there are massive changes – the e-reader has taken off far more quickly than had been anticipated – and is not going to go away. And it does have its advantages. I have a Kindle, which I use a lot, alongside printed books, and I can see that this is going to be the preferred method of reading for the younger generation. It is the iPod of reading (and yes, I have an iPod too). And I’m looking thoughtfully at iPads now… I don’t have a smartphone yet, but I am sure that will come someday. And I find Twitter a marvellous tool, not only for promoting my books and interviews such as this one, but for gleaning information I would never otherwise come across.
Q: One of my favourite books of yours is Three Little Ships. Although it is a work of fiction, the book vividly captures the anguish and horror of the failed landing of the English army in World War Two onto the beaches of Dunkirk. My heart was genuinely in my mouth; so many left behind, so many young lives lost. The novel also captures the determination and courage of the locals who sailed across the channel to save the fighting men. If this book was a journey for the reader, what on earth is it like for you to write a fictional account of something that, not so long ago, was horrendously real?
– Three Little Ships is, I believe, my best book and it was the greatest challenge to write. As you say, it is still recent enough for many people to remember it, and it was such a momentous part of our history that it had to be treated with respect. I did more research for that book than for any other, meeting men who had been there, seeing (and going aboard) many of the actual little ships themselves at their annual rally, and reading books that had been written by people who took part – not least the Admiralty records of every signal passed between Operation Dynamo in Dover Castle and the Naval ships that were there. It was at times hard to write, because I could not gloss over the horror of the facts, but I hoped to convey a sense of the heroism which semed almost to be commonplace amongst those who were there.
A personal note was added when I discovered that my own uncle had been at Dunkirk, taking command of one of the Little Ships from Portsmouth – a lighter, towing another boat, carrying water for the men on the beaches. He was mentioned in dispatches but none of the family now know why – in fact, none of those still alive even knew that it had happened.
Q: To what extent do you research for your novels? And how long does this usually take?
– I do as much as it needs. Generally I would find out as much as possible, in libraries or from talking to people, and the story would evolve from there; then if more research is needed, I do that too. Often this has meant trips to London to look in archives, but now that I am writing about the area where I live, research is much easier! (The internet helps a lot too!)
Q: What is the best/most touching/funniest fan story you can share with us?
– I think the most touching stories have been from readers such as the lady in her 50’s who wrote to me saying that she was dyslexic and had never read a book before she read one of mine but was now reading them all, and a man who wrote to me recently telling me that my books had comforted his wife through her last few months of life when she was ill with cancer. I have had several such letters and they keep me writing.
Q: You have been praised for how real and touching your characters are. How attached do you find you become to the people you create? Do you have a favourite one?
– Yes, I do get quite attached to some of the characters. My favourite, I think, is little Sammy Hodges of Tuppence To Spend, A Farthing Will Do and A Penny A Day. Without giving away the end, I admit that I cried when writing the end of that story. I also admit to a soft spot for the young vicar, Felix Copley, in the Burracombe books!
Q: What can you tell us about your new novel The Secrets in Burracombe (out in hardback Augut 18th)?
– Well, I can tell you that it has one of the nicest jackets Orion have ever produced! But apart from that, I think readers might be surprised by the biggest secret that emerges – it even surprised me! And I hope they will also be touched by the continuing story of Robert, who first appeared in An Heir For Burracombe, and will be eager to read the book I am writing at this moment – Christmas in Burracombe, out in time for Christmas 2012!
Q: Thank you for chatting to us once again Lilian, it really has been a pleasure. Finally, here at World of Books we are dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. By sourcing a large amount of our books from charities, we are also able to support their cause, often sending books out to developing countries and recently to UK based Army barracks. Any book we can’t sell, we recycle; last year alone we saved 12,500 metric tonnes of waste from going to landfill sites. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
– Yes, I definitely do. I know some authors object to charity bookshops etc but I believe they fulfill several important purposes – they keep books in circulation, provide reading for those who might not be able to afford new books and, in your case, to those overseas, and they help to support and aid less fortunate countries who desperately need it. I regularly take books I have read to the local library or to charity shops and consider it part of my donation. I was proud to be asked to open a new charity bookshop in my local town a few months ago. A book which sits on a shelf unread for years can hardly be considered a book at all!
Lilian Harry’s latest novel, The Secrets of Burracombe, is out on August 18th.