Interview: From austere origins to best-selling novelist

Lesley Pearse

Lesley Pearse

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Lawrence Smith talked to author Lesley Pearse before her appearance at Horsham Library on Thursday, September 12.

Lesley Pearse has had a remarkable life. From an early childhood living in an austere orphanage to a busy writing career that has taken her around the world, she is now one of Britain’s best-selling novelists.

Lesley, whose books have sold more than seven million copies, is well-known for her passionate historical adventures and crime dramas.

At the moment, the prolific author is taking it easy with a cup of tea at Horsham Library but she’s happy to talk about her latest novel, Forgive Me.

The book tells the tale of Eva Patterson who finds her mother, Flora, dead in the bath. Next to the body is a note that simply reads “forgive me”. Flora’s will reveals that she has left Eva an artist’s studio in London, which leads Eva into a mystery linked to a crime in her mother’s past.

Lesley says: “I’ve always found the idea of people finding out stuff after people’s death fascinating.

“My mother died when I was very young and I was always told that she fell down the stairs on our toys, which is a terrible thing to tell children. She didn’t at all. She had septicaemia following a miscarriage and, obviously, they thought that wasn’t the suitable thing to tell us at the time.

“But over the years you start embellishing it and thinking about other things and, at one point in my life, I even believed that she was alive somewhere and being kept somewhere in a tower, you know, like Rapunzel.”

Critics have praised Lesley’s ability to tell a cracking tale and admire her skill for creating highly believable characters too.

Lesley says: “I mull characters over for ages and ages and I write reams about them that never gets in the book.”

She takes a moment to reflect on the character Harry Collins, an East End spiv from her second novel, Tara:

“I can remember when I was writing about Harry, I actually had him sitting beside me. I could have told you what colour socks he wore and everything. You don’t put all that in the book, but, I don’t know… you form a relationship with this fictitious person and it’s a bit like an imaginary friend, I suppose.”

It seems like a vast imagination is a must, as Lesley reveals an idea for a potential story:

“I’m working on the plot of a woman who’s come out of prison. I haven’t actually written a word of this, it’s only going on in my head, so excuse me if it never happens.

“I think she’s going to have a younger sister. The family are not welcoming her back but I haven’t decided what she’s done.”

Lesley continues: “She’s coming home to a family that’s less than welcoming and a sister who wants to be, but has got to be careful in front of the parents in case she’s seen.”

Interestingly, Lesley finds that her characters sometimes take on lives of their own. She refers to a strange moment during the writing of Never Look Back, a novel that follows a flower girl called Matilda from Victorian London to San Francisco.

She says: “I’d intended Matilda to run a brothel when she got to San Francisco but she wouldn’t let me. By the time I got to San Francisco I knew there was no way she’d do that, so I had to have her rescuing fallen women.

“That quite often happens. There’s just something about them. Granted you’ve put it in there, but it’s like you haven’t and they’ve just reared up and said: ‘No, no, I want to be like this.’ It’s extraordinary.”

Colourful time periods and historically rich settings have lead Lesley to carry out extensive research and travel to distant lands to get a feel for particular places.

She says: “I go somewhere because I’ve got the idea. But, having said that, I went to New Orleans for something else altogether and that was when I got the idea for Belle (from the book of the same name) and for her to be sold into prostitution.”

She continues: “There was something about New Orleans. It was an incredibly sexy place, you felt it everywhere.”

The details create a rich reading experience, but Lesley stresses that the key ingredients to successful writing are drive and a love of the craft.

She says: “You have to be very determined and I was. I didn’t give up easily. It took seven years to get the first book published.

“But I write because I like doing it. I think if you write because you want to get rich, you’ll never get there.”

Forgive Me is available to buy in paperback now for £7.99 (RRP).