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Songs of Love and War
Reading Group Guide A Conversation with Santa Montefiore 1. Home is a very powerful force in this novel. What does home mean for Kitty? What does it mean for you?
Home is the central theme of the novel, and home is certainly the central theme of my life. I grew up on a farm in Hampshire, UK, in an old Jacobean house surrounded by ancient bluebell woods and rolling fields. Now I rent a cottage on that same farm, so I suppose I have never left. My heart definitely remains in those woods and fields. And that farm is still everything to me—it’s my “happy place.”
As for Kitty, she spends the three novels trying to recapture those days before the War of Independence turned her life upside down. The castle is everything to her, as is her grandmother and, of course, Jack. I’m deeply rooted in my home, as is Kitty. 2. What inspired your characters and the setting of Castle Deverill?
Castle Deverill was the idea and the first character that started this series. (And yes, the castle, for me, really is a character!)
I love ruins—they are a hobby of mine. I love to look around an old house or castle and imagine what life must have been like before the place collapsed. I want to know every detail. I think ruins remind us of our own mortality. The people who once lived there have long gone, as we will one day go too, and yet, during their lifetime they were as alive as we are now, and just as sure as we are that they’ d live forever!
After the castle emerged, Kitty followed, walking right in. I started with Kitty (and the idea of three girls all born in 1900) and let my imagination flow from there. 3. Do you believe in ghosts and have you ever seen one?
I have seen spirits all my life. There’s a misconception that ghosts come out at night. The truth is they are around us all the time.
When I was a child, I would wake in the middle of the night to shadowy figures walking around my bedroom. Afraid, I would hastily turn on the light. My perception would then shift with the sudden grounding of the light, and I would no longer see them. Of course, I thought they had gone. I know now that they hadn’t gone, I was just no longer able to see them.
In the middle of the night, when one’s chattering conscious mind goes quiet in sleep, our subconscious minds are able to sense the finer vibration that is spirit. When I was stirred, it was my subconscious mind that picked up the disturbance and it was in that state that I would see them, and still do. I just understand more about it now, having developed my sixth sense (which we can all do, by the way) through meditation and practice.
It is a gift to see people who have passed, to know that they are all right and happy. I wish everyone could see their loved ones who have died. It makes living without them so much easier. 4. Which character in the novel were you most like as a child?
I would say I’m more like Kitty than anyone else. I love nature, and like Kitty, if anything upset me I would disappear into the woods where nature would soothe me and make me feel better. Kitty rides a horse. So did I as a child, but I don’t any longer. We’re both psychic, passionate, and romantic. However, she’s fierier than me and much more headstrong and brave.
To be honest, I think there’s a little of me in all three women I write about in the Deverill novels. After all, human beings are multi-faceted, aren’t we? And writing for me is a fantasy, so I take myself on adventures through my characters, molding their experiences for my own entertainment (and hopefully for the reader’s amusement as well). I identify with my characters, live vicariously through them, and this makes them much more exciting than me! 5. Would you like to have lived in Ireland in the early 1900s?
I’m a peace-loving person and I’m not into drama (unless I’m writing about it!). I don’t think I would have wanted to live in Ireland at that time. Those big houses are so cold and damp; I’ve stayed in many of them and can’t recommend it. 6. Why do you write? Do you have an ideal reader in your mind when you write?
Writing is a pure pleasure. It has been since I was a child. I can’t look out of the window without wanting to write about what I see. I suppose writing, for me, is also a compulsion and a meditation.
I am my ideal reader. I try to take myself on a different adventure with every book I write. I want to be challenged and I want to explore different aspects of human nature. It’s fun to create characters that are complex. If I enjoy what I write, I hope the reader will too. It’s all about loving what you do. It’s infectious. 7. What kind of research did you do for this novel? What was it like to write a fictional account of this monumental moment in Irish and English history?
When Simon & Schuster offered me a three-book deal (usually it’s two), the first question was: where will I set this trilogy? The location had to be somewhere with lots of drama spanning over about fifty years. I read lots of books about the Troubles, the Civil War and the Anglo-Irish, but I was very lucky meeting a fan of my work on the internet. He turned out to be from County Cork and knew everything about its history and the way people lived then. He was incredibly helpful. I really couldn’t have written the trilogy without him. I also watched movies and went to visit friends in Bandon, which is around where the book is set, although I have invented the name of the town. It was so much fun learning about the history of Southern Ireland and a real challenge for me as a writer. I feel a great sense of achievement having written about it. 8. What do you like to read for fun? Do you read historical fiction?
I read both fiction and nonfiction. I love books that are beautifully written, such as Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings. Isabel Allende, Edith Wharton, Philippa Gregory, and Rose Tremain are among the many authors I admire and enjoy. I adored Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden, An Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. I have read all George R.R. Martin’s books, which are brilliant. I also read spiritual books. 9. What are you working on now?
I’ve just received the copy-edited manuscript for the next novel, which is called The Temptation of Gracie and will come out in the UK next summer and will follow in Canada later. Once I’ve finished editing that, I will start the next book in the Deverill series. It won’t interfere with the trilogy, but it will shed more light on the characters. The central character is going to be Bertie and Rupert Deverill’s younger sister, Arethusa, and it will start around 1885.Write to Love, or Love to Write: How I Became a Writer
by Santa Montefiore
Since I was a child, I always wanted to be a writer. From the age of 12, I went to Sherborne School for Girls, which was a boarding school. There, I excelled in English, which was lucky because I certainly didn’t excel at much else except for sport and music! I wrote stories for my friends, imagining romances between them and the spotty youths they fancied at Sherborne Boys’ School. I transformed those awkward adolescent boys into Rhett Butlers and set the stories in humid, mosquito infested jungles, which I considered extremely romantic, having never been in one. Fancying myself a bit of a novelist, I attempted to write one. With little experience of love and life, it wasn’t a surprise when it was rejected by publishers. The trouble was I hadn’t yet found a good story. That came later, when I went to live in Argentina.
I was nineteen. My Anglo-Argentine mother arranged for me to live on a cattle ranch for a year, teaching English to three young children. This turned out to be one of the best things my parents ever did for me because I fell in love. Not with a polo-playing Argentine (although I did have an innocent flirtation with one) but with the country. The countryside is rich with the scents of eucalyptus and gardenia and the sound of horses snorting in the fields or thundering up the polo pitch and birdsong and crickets reverberating across the park.
The houses, colonial in style, are painted white and yellow with dark green shutters to keep out the stifling summer heat, and are surrounded by brightly coloured flowers and red-tiled terraces upon which one can sit and stare out for miles over that vast plain. Little by little I began to feel that I was a part of the place.
I left Argentina after a year, having belonged. The following year I returned during my university holiday to find, to my dismay, that I no longer fit in. The young people I had hung out with had either gone abroad to study or had boyfriends or girlfriends in the city. They didn’t go down to the farm much anymore. And I didn’t have a job, a purpose; now, I was a tourist. I felt a sharp sense of alienation as if I was watching this place I loved through a pane of glass. It was a difficult time and I cried all the way home on the plane. I didn’t realize it then, but I had my first novel.
My first novel, Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree
, published in 2001, twelve years after my first trip to Argentina. It was a wander down memory lane for me, a chance to relive an experience. I was able to channel all my feelings of nostalgia, regret, and longing into that novel, and this process of revisiting places, people, and times is something I’ve done in my writing ever since.
With my novels, I hope to carry you away to sunnier shores, to distant lands, to the past, while at the same time reminding you of all that is wonderful about life. Above all, my novels are love stories, because love is more important to me than anything else. I hope you laugh and cry in equal measure, but most vitally, escape for a while.