J Carmen Smith was brought up in the Liverpool suburbs, the youngest child in a working class family. She went to grammar school but left at the age of fifteen to start work as a typist in a Law Stationer’s Office in the city centre. At the time, she promised her English teacher that one day she would take her English Language and Literature ‘O’ levels. She eventually kept her promise, gaining ‘0’ and ‘A’ levels while her children were young, then a BA (Hons) in English and History when they had all flown the nest. At the age of 59 she graduated from The University of Liverpool with an MA in Victorian Literature. Chasing Shadows is her first full-length work.
Where do you write?
I have a small bureau in the corner of my dining room whose pigeon-holes are overflowing with scraps of paper, old diaries, half-filled notebooks etc. I’m always meaning to spend an afternoon sorting things out, but never get round to it! The bureau is next to the window so I can look out onto the garden.
What do you find particularly interesting about the period of history your books are set in?
I find the period from the late Victorian era through to the 1950s/60s interesting because of the sense of personal connection. My grandparents were born in the late 1870s, my parents in the early 1900s and I was born just before the outbreak of World War II, so there’s that unbroken thread of oral family history.
Do you have a favourite literary character?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I’m a great fan of Dickens and love many of his characters, Florence Dombey and Little Dorrit for example, but if pressed for my very favourite, it would have to be David Copperfield – in Dickens’s own words, “I have in my heart a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.”
Is there a book by an another author that you wish you had written?
I wish I’d written Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players. This was a recent book choice for my U3A reading group and we all agreed that the way the sheer evil of the main character is so casually revealed, and the twist at the end so unexpected that it was a perfect choice for discussion.
What is the first book you remember reading?
I remember walking to my local library – a mile away – with my friend, Pat, when we were both very young and we always brought home Worzel Gummidge stories.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished John Lanchester’s Capital. The story is woven around the inhabitants of a London street who all receive postcards with the chilling message, ‘We want what you have’. I enjoyed the diverse cast of characters, the city financier who is expecting his annual million pound bonus; the illegal immigrant working as a traffic warden; the young African who has come to London to follow his dream of playing Premiership football; the old lady still living in the family home where she was born; the Muslim shopkeeper whose younger brother is arrested on suspected terrorism charges – it’s all there!
Which book have you always meant to get round to reading, but still not read?
Well, War and Peace was at the top of that list until a couple of years ago. I’ve now read it twice and can thoroughly recommend it. Having seen the stage musical of Les Miserables – a number of times – and the film, I would like to attempt the book to see how true the modern storyline is to Victor Hugo’s original.
If you could only take one book with you on a desert island, which would it be?
At almost one thousand pages long, it would have to be David Copperfield – and how ever many times I had to re-read it, it would probably still make me weep!
Which is the best book you have received as a gift?
Another difficult question! Even when I’ve received books as gifts, they’re usually ones I’ve specifically asked for, so they’ve all been welcomed and loved. However, Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place, was a very important gift. Trezza was a guest speaker at the first creative writing course I attended in 2000; she was just starting out on her writing career and when we spoke about my dream to write what eventually became Chasing Shadows, she gave me a copy of her first book and inscribed it with a wonderful message of encouragement that strengthened my resolve.
Who would be at your dream dinner party (living or dead)?
Charles Dickens, of course; his contemporary and friend, Wilkie Collins, whose books I also love; the Brontë sisters; Thomas Hardy – with some present-day writers for good measure, Kate Morton, because I love books with secrets, Tracy Chevalier because her stories take me, convincingly, to different countries and different centuries; and I would love to eavesdrop on Joanne Harris chatting to Charlotte Brontë after a couple of glasses of wine!