Ella Hayes put her career change down to a “mid-life moment”. After decades of hauling cameras about filming everything from moths mating to athletes competing in the 1993 Barcelona Paralympics, in 2017 she started a master’s degree in Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University. It was a wise decision as, in that same year she won the Prima Magazine/Mills and Boon “Love to Write” competition. She now works part-time as a photographer, and the rest of her time she devotes to writing.
Ella, welcome to my desert island. This is a bit different from the last time we met at a London cocktail party, but the sun is warm, the hammock is relaxing and the cocktails are plentiful so lie back and tell us all about the Prima/Mills and Boon prize. How did you hear about it? What it involved? And most of all the moment when you heard you’d won!
Thank you for having me, Liz. I’m thrilled to be a guest on your blog. Right now, a comfy hammock in the sun with plenty of cocktails to hand is just what I need! So … it was a friend of mine who pointed me towards the Prima/Mills and Boon Love to Write competition. And then Mum bought me the magazine, folding the corner over on the appropriate page with a meaningful crease! The competition asked writers to send in a first chapter of either a True Love (Cherish back then) or Medical romance, and a synopsis for the rest of the story. Initially I put the magazine aside, but then I had an idea, and that was that! When Bryony Green called me (at around 4.00 pm on 24th May 2017) to tell me I’d won I was shocked to my boots. I knew I was in the final eight because there’d been some publicity around that, but to actually win! It was an overwhelming feeling. Total milestone moment!
The prize was a publishing contract with Mills and Boon and your debut book, the wonderful Summer with Her Brooding Scottish Heir was published in 2018 .Was your first book always going to set in your home landscape?
Thank you for calling Her Brooding Scottish Heir wonderful. It means a lot to me that you read it and liked it because you are Mills and Boon royalty! To answer the question, I was keen to write a book set in Scotland because I’ve lived here for more than half of my life and I love it. To be honest, I thought that the Scottish location might count against me in the competition because the Mills and Boon novels I’d read in the early 80’s were always set on Greek islands or in very glamorous places, but I went for it anyway because it felt right for me. Subliminally, I think I was quite influenced by that wonderful series, “Monarch of the Glen”. I called my imaginary Scottish estate, Calcarron, but when I was writing, it was always Ardverikie House (the shooting location for MOTG) I could see in my mind’s eye. Strangely enough, even though it’s only an hour’s drive from where I live, I only went to see it after the book was published!
I sometimes think that, even when you’re using a real location, you need the space for your imagination to create something unique and you certainly did that. Okay, so you’re going to be stranded on my desert island and I’m allowing you a camera – if you can you find one that uses the sun to charge the battery – because it’s not practical! But this blog is all about the six books you’d take with you, so where do you start?
Choosing just six books is the hardest thing ever…
Did I mention that you will have the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible waiting for you? Just in case that makes it a bit easier.
Thank you. Lots of reading matter there then!
My first choice, because I haven’t read it since it came out in 1981 and because it was probably the book that really woke me up to the power of a love story, is The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCulloch. This epic, multi-generational tale of forbidden love between Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph de Bricassart was on everyone’s bookshelf back in the early eighties and it bent my heart completely out of shape. It’s such a great premise, a love story packed with struggle and conflict, set in the dusty Australian outback. The television adaptation was brilliant too and had us glued to our screens and snivelling into our tissues for weeks. Happy days!!
I loved it! I was living in the desert, or bush somewhere without a television when it was shown on TV, but all the time I was reading the book I was seeing Richard Chamberlain (who I fell in love with as Dr Kildare when tv was still in black and white) as Father Ralph. Be still my beating heart… Such a wonderful love story. And it’s long! How do you follow that?
My second book would have to be Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle. I mean who couldn’t fall in love with a book that starts: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Cassandra Mortmain is a compelling narrator, and the story of her Bohemian family and their impoverished life in a crumbling castle, and of her own first experience of falling in love is a joy from start to finish. It’s a book that I haven’t read for over ten years so is due a thorough re-read.
Or watch! With Bill Nighy as James Mortmain. I love him so much! I had a big Dodie Smith reading binge when I was in my teens. I was heavily into drama and I read I Capture the Castle first as the play, but the book remains a firm favourite. It’s been a while since I’ve re-read it, and I’ve only had a library borrow in the past. My finger is twitching on the one-click button!
You have four books published so far, Ella, with a new one due out in April this year, which we’ll talk about later. The obvious next question is where do you go for inspiration?
I’m a new writer for Mills and Boon, so I’ve still got plenty of material from my own life that I can rummage around in for bits of inspiration. For example, in Italian Summer with the Single Dad my heroine, Olivia is a wedding photographer, so I was able to bring a wealth of my own experience to the table for her, and of course, shooting a wedding in Sorrento in 2016 directly influenced the Italian setting of the book, although I set my story in Ravello because although I only spent a day there, I fell head over heels with it. In a way, maybe the book is my own little love letter to Ravello…
My third book, Unlocking the Tycoon’s Heart is set in, and was inspired by Amsterdam. I’ve only been to Amsterdam a couple of times, but I love it. It’s a great city for photographers. I think the narrowness—streets, boats, houses—worked as a sort of motif for the story and inspired me to create a hero who lives a very confined existence because of his difficult past.
My latest book, Tycoon’s Unexpected Caribbean Fling is the first book I’ve set in a place I don’t know personally, so there was a lot of research to do. The actual story came out of the private island setting. I saw Buck Island for sale online, and since it was out of my price range (by a million miles) I thought I’d write about it. I started thinking about who might go to a private island and why…and out of that, a story emerged.
I think we could all do with a trip to a Caribbean island right now, but at least we can go there in the pages of your book. That way we get all the atmosphere without any of the airport hassle! But then, Italy… Sorry, remembering my last trip. Tell us about your next book.
My third choice is a book I’ve only dipped into so far, but which taunts me constantly from my bookshelf: The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Phillip Lopate. I confess I’m a sucker for a good story, but I absolutely love the personal essay form and everything it offers. From the gorgeous lyrical essays of Lia Purpura to the contemplations of such varied writers as Virginia Woolf and Charles Lamb, Joan Didion and James Baldwin, essays take the reader all the way into the mind of the writer in a way that other kinds of writing can never do. And so, for sheer variety of writerly voices on my desert island, I’ll be packing this mighty tome.
I pick up so many great reading ideas from my guests on this blog. That one sounds amazing. But down to practicalities. How are you going to manage on this island? Are you a natural hunter/gatherer? Could you build a shelter? The island has a lovely climate, but there’s something a bit exposed about sleeping in the open air. Can you fish? Or is it going to be berries and coconuts?
Hmm… I do have a practical bent, and I like a challenge, so I could probably knock together some sort of shelter. I’ve never fished though so I think it’s going to be berries and coconuts for me, but hey, lots of enzymes and antioxidants!
Perfect…but it’s time for the next book.
My fourth choice is another massive book: The Collected Stories of William Trevor. Like most writers, I love short stories. I’m a huge fan of Tessa Hadley, Annie Proulx, Daphne du Maurier and James Salter, to name but a few, but this massive collection of William Trevor’s stories would be perfect for an island sojourn. To be honest, I’ve only read one of William Trevor’s novels, Felicia’s Journey, which I found darkly compelling, and whilst I’ve barely tickled the surface of this mighty short story collection, there’s that same dark irresistible tug going on. Having the time to read all 1261 pages of this collection is going to be such a treat!
Do you write short stories, Ella?
I’ve got a few short stories languishing on my computer. One I’m quite proud of that I wrote as an assignment for my M.Litt. It’s a dark tale of marital infidelity, and I’d love to see it published one day, but I need to devote proper time to placing it. I’d love to write more short stories, but short story writing is quite an art, and I’m very much a novice. Also, I’m a slow writer, so I find it hard to juggle personal projects with writing for Mills and Boon. Maybe I could try flash fiction!
I’ve only written a few, but find them much harder than the longer length. Flash fiction scares me to death! So, you’ve covered a wide of range of reading so far, with a couple of doorstoppers! What is next on your must have list?
Book five would have to be Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. I’m quite an eclectic reader so I’m still happily discovering “classics” that I didn’t get around to reading when I was younger. About five years ago I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles (heart-rending) then shortly after, I read Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s another epic tale with a feisty but flawed heroine in Bathsheba Everdene, weathering the storms of rural life and the attentions of three suitors, Boldwood, Sergeant Troy and the sturdy Gabriel Oak. You know right from the start that Gabriel is “the one” but how tantalisingly Hardy draws out the threads of the story. Hardy writes so evocatively about rural life in Victorian England. There’s a lushness to his prose, a dreaminess that draws you in. Intoxicating!
And here we diverge. I understand exactly why you like them, but I struggle with Hardy. I’m not good with tragedy and it might also have something to do with having to read him for my English Literature GCE as it was called back then. I was equally ruined for Twelfth Night until I saw the all-male cast directed by and starring Mark Rylance as Olivia. Clearly, I need a Hardy reboot!
Tell me what you’d most miss while you’re on your island, Ella. Your family, of course. But food, drama, a view…
I’d definitely miss family and friends, not that I’ve seen much of them over the past year. It’s actually been the worst thing about the Covid-19 situation, so I’m actually struggling to think of anything I’d miss more than people. I would miss walking in the Scottish countryside. And I’d miss changes in the weather. I like living in country that has seasons, although I do wish the summers in Scotland were a couple of months longer! I’d miss binge watching box sets on Netflix, Rooibos tea, chocolate, Eccles cakes, and playing doubles with my tennis friends. Oh, and I’d miss the Newscast podcast and the BBC World Book Club podcasts!
Oh… I’m a died in the wool radio fan. R4 in the daytime, especially A Good Read (where I discovered the Rivers of London series) but I’ve missed the World Book Club podcasts. I’ll have to check that out. Meanwhile, it’s time for your last book.
I can’t believe I’m at book six already. I could name so many books, but I’m going to choose a book I haven’t read in years but which I loved so much first time around: Chocolat by Joanne Harris. The story of newcomer Vianne Rocher pitting herself and her chocolate delicacies against the stuffy mayor in a small straitlaced French village at Lent is a sensual masterpiece. Comedic, sparkling, and oh, those descriptions of the chocolatey delights! And there’s a little bit of a love story in there too, so basically, it’s got everything a girl stranded on a desert island could wish for!
Perfect. And finally you get to choose a luxury. As mad as you like as long as it’s not a boat building kit!
My luxury would have to be perfume. I love Chanel Mademoiselle and Miss Dior (the original, not the strange smelling one they brought out afterwards). I wear perfume for me, so it wouldn’t matter that there would be no one there to smell it.
I shall probably change my mind about that luxury in a moment so I’m signing off now before I have the chance! Thank you for having me. It’s been so much fun.
Thank you, for sharing your book choices, Ella. I have our latest book on my Kindle and can’t wait to read it.
* * *
TYCOON’S EXPECTED CARIBBEAN FLING
Billionaire Joel Larsson is no stranger to the spotlight. But, when his engagement implodes, all Joel wants, is to get away. Cue a solo trip to a private Caribbean island! Yet, when he comes face-to-face with Emilie Clayton — Joel’s far-too-beautiful personal chef — things get complicated…Joel may be tempted to open the door to a fling with Emilie — but, is he strong enough, to keep his heart locked away?