Interview with Clare Ashton

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The latest from Clare Ashton, The Tell Tale, is a mystery set in 1970’s Wales. It is another brilliant book from one of our most versatile writers.  She is equally adept at writing drama, humor, romance and mysteries. I will read anything that this talented writer releases and I am so honored she agreed to chat with me!

Thank you very much for asking me!

(I’ve been told I awkward away from compliments so I’m going to blush and give a goofy wave and say thank you for the  glowing introduction too 🙂

Clare, your latest book, The Tell Tale ticks off mystery from your list of genres to conquer.  What inspired this book and what will you tackle next?

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A few years back I was working on a contemporary mystery set in Mid-Wales (where I grew up) where a woman returns to her home to find answers to the past, but I couldn’t get into it. It was a rather bleak tale and I didn’t want to think of home in Mid-Wales like that. So that’s when I turned it on its head and wrote the sunny romance of Poppy Jenkins – the girl who loved Wales and stayed home and whose life is turned upside down when Rosalyn returns.

But it’s always nagged at me that I didn’t write a mystery. Then last year, I missed visiting my folks in Wales horribly (travel was restricted between England and Wales) and I wanted to spend time there by writing it into a book at least. At the same point, I was having trouble focusing on a contemporary story with the present being so changeable during the pandemic. That’s when it all came together – a mystery, but in the past and set in Wales. The 70s was a harsh decade in some ways and suited an atmospheric wintry intrigue. I adored writing it – a trip down memory lane in a very different way to Poppy but far enough removed in the past for it not to spoil my sense of comfort in Wales as home.

In terms of what drove the story, it was a frustration at narrow gender stereotypes in that time (and now) and also narrow views on sexuality. I wanted to show that behind all those new identities and letters that some complain about, are the queer people who’ve always existed. The story has a quite diverse range of characters because of that impetus, many from the onset and others developing as a natural part of the story.

It was interesting to see echoes of Poppy while I wrote it. Though not intentional, I kept seeing similar people in both stories and recognising how different their lives would have been depending on the decade they lived. And although the story is a darker mystery with flawed characters, my love of the place and the characters (some at least) I think still comes through and shines at the end.  

What’s next? I’m mulling over a couple of stories – one a rom com and the other a mystery – and I will have to see which one wins out and gets written!

You are responsible for two of my favorite characters, Maggie Goodman and Poppy Jenkins. Maggie is all balls to the wall intensity and sarcasm and Poppy is all sunshine and unicorns. What do you think Maggie’s reaction to Poppy would be?  

I’m glad you like them so much! They’re very different characters in terms of temperament – Poppy the sunshine girl next door (but not without determination) and Maggie the outspoken matriarch of The Goodmans (who’s not without a warm heart).

But they’re both very people-oriented women who care a great deal for their community. I think Poppy would fill Maggie with joy. Actually I think Maggie would completely adore her. Poppy is already used to the more spiky and forceful character of Rosalyn and can more than hold her own.

I always thought Maggie should meet up with Rosalyn, Poppy’s wife. They would rant to each other and put the world to rights while I think Poppy, Jude Goodman and Abby would be thick as thieves. They really need to meet up and geographically they’re not that far away – Poppy in mid-Wales and Abby and Jude just over the Welsh-English border  in Shropshire.

The relationship of Anna and Jessica in Finding Jessica Lambert is lovely. For all their obvious differences, age and background, they bring each other peace and a sense of belonging. You haven’t done any sequels any chance Jessica and Anna could get one? 

I really enjoyed writing those two and their relationship – both characters who really needed some understanding and accommodation and found it beyond their peer group. That is one of the strengths I think of age-gap relationships – a willingness to accept someone for all their differences and a broader understanding that comes from two very different perspectives together.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever write a sequel. My books, romances and the mysteries, focus on a life-changing episode for the characters and then I want them to live happily ever after in a beautifully mundane life. I don’t really want to subject them to more upheaval and drama which a new novel requires! One day I might plan a series though. I can see myself doing that.

I’m a mother as are you.  How have you changed since you became a mother and how has it changed your writing?

I am much more tired!

Actually it’s quite bizarre to look back to before having kids. I worked long hours as a software engineer in a very male-dominated environment and suddenly changed to being a romance-writing house-wife and mum. I adore having the kids – I have so much fun going on adventures with them, listening to their funny ideas and snuggling up to watch films and read books. Life has never been so filled with love for me. At the same time life is suddenly so much more fragile when the worst thing that can happen is no longer something to yourself but to someone else. Those heights and fears have definitely changed me. Whether that change shows in my writing, I don’t know.

My partner and I have been together for eleven years and during that time I am certain I have never done anything to annoy her.  😉 Do you have any quirky habits or things that drive your wife crazy?

Ha! My wife is a neat-freak and I am not. I am completely normal and not bloody messy at all.

We’ve been together for twenty years and we’re definitely going to turn into a pair of old ladies who laugh at each other and life in general (my wife says we’re there now).  

When you began writing, were there any lesfic writers who provided you with encouragement and feedback?

Support by other writers was crucial when I began writing. The first book I published had a fabulous review by TT Thomas (whose writing puts mine to shame – please pick up her historical sapphic novels) and that got the word out and others started reading my work. I’m forever grateful, Tarra!

Aussie writer Diana Simmonds also picked up my book and told me in the nicest possible way what was wrong with it and has helped me with every book since – she always seems to get to the heart of my books and invariably makes me laugh with her observations. Chris Paynter too (whose Survived by Her Longtime Companion is one of my favourites) was also hugely generous and encouraging about my writing. I try to repay the favour by supporting other authors – with beta reads and recommendations – it’s vital in a genre which is overlooked by mainstream media.

There are so many great lesfic writers out there today.  Who are some of your favorites? 

I read a lot of romance and it’s very difficult to narrow down a short list of favourites because writers tend to have very different strengths and books appeal in different ways. I particularly love Melissa Brayden’s balance of light and angst. She writes such readable romances but always peels back another unexpected layer for a character and hits you with a punch of angst too. I love that. And Strawberry Summer is an all-time favourite. Sometimes nothing will do except the humour of Robin Alexander or the comfort romance of Georgia Beers (I have One Walk in Winter lined up yet again for a re-read this winter).

G Benson has to be on this list – one of my favourite ever romances is Who’d Have Thought – those characters and their chemistry is perfect from the start –  and that she can also write a funny zombie thriller too (Dead Lez Walking) is inhuman frankly. She’s particularly good at getting inside her characters so that they feel like real people – I’m very envious – and she isn’t afraid for them to be crap humans sometimes (being a crap human at times too, I appreciate this no end).

Just recently I’ve picked up books by Fiona Riley, KJ (I love how strongly the Aussie comes through), Milena McKay, Stephanie Shea, Lucy Bexley and Monica McCallan (actually I seem to be binge reading Monica’s) and all were hugely enjoyable and so well done.

On the crime front, Cari Hunter is a must read for me for her gritty down-to-earth characters and painfully and authentically realised action. Wendy Hudson for her outdoor adventures from the comfort of my sofa, I love Cindy Rizzo’s writing for exploring something away from the typical sapphic reads with her YA series and for the Jewish heritage she brings into her stories. Caren Werlinger’s writing is just superb and so is Lee Winter’s – I think those two could write anything.

And another for ridiculously great style, Karin Kallmaker has to be in there – her prose sparkles. Actually she’s in for exploring beyond the basic romance and broadening the story’s background into rich dramas – Because I Said So springs to mind but many of her others too. The pairing of Stepping Stone and Captain of Industry are huge favourites of mine.

I could go on and on, because every author brings something different.  

It’s been an absolute honor to have you answer my questions. I am and will remain a huge fan of your work.  Thank you for bringing us such wonderful stories and for being kind enough to take time out of your day to chat.

Thank you! (Another goofy wave 🙂