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Leah Fleming

Q & A With Leah Fleming

3 January 2017

Leah Fleming lives in a small village in the Yorkshire Dales.

She worked as a teacher and owned a café before becoming a writer. She has now had 17 books published. Her latest, The Last Pearl, is out in audio in September and in large print early next year.

How did you start writing? Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a writer?
I started when the Settle to Carlisle railway was under threat. I'd been to Ribblehead Viaduct as a parent helper with the school and I was absolutely fascinated by the history of it. At that time I had a café and I realized early on that it was a terrible mistake and really wasn't me, so I ended up selling the café and with a very strong urge to write about the Settle to Carlisle railway. That was the very first time I thought I could write a novel. It was called Trouble with the Wind and it eventually got published by Hodder. I then wrote a Romeo and Juliet story about a black GI and a white waitress, set during war time in Lichfield. I knew all about cafés, the good sides and the downsides, so I wrote about what I knew. That was called Dancing at the Victory Café.

Where do you get the ideas for your books?
Every book has been sparked by either an experience that I've had or something I've seen on television or read in the paper. The last book came from this pearl necklace that my husband gave me. I started to read about pearls and I went up to Perth and talked to a jeweller who is licenced to deal in fresh water pearls. It's now illegal to fish fresh water pearls. He showed me a large pearl and as soon as he put it in my hand, it was like a frisson. He then showed me a necklace, which was quite small, but it was strung with fresh water pearls and it was worth £33,000. He said the last pearl is always the hardest when you're stringing pearls and that gave me the title of the book. I went to Mississippi to the pearl museum there. It led into all sorts of interesting things. I even researched pearl fetishism. You never quite know when you start a story where it's going to lead.

What do you enjoy about writing?
I think it's the adventure of starting a new topic. Each book is a new adventure. I've just finished one where I've taken a group of Yorkshire Quakers across the Atlantic in a rickety old ship to form a colony, a little settlement in Pennsylvania. It's the story of one girl and what they went through - the persecution here, the terrible journey, the conflict with the native Americans; the conflict between the community about what was right and what was wrong and how she never really fits in. I always wanted to write a pioneer journey and it's all based on fact. There were masses of families who went out there in the 1680s from Yorkshire.

How long does it take you to write a book and when do you write?
It normally takes me around nine months, it's like a pregnancy. You are on a contract so you have to deliver. I tend to write in the mornings.

Your books sell well on the international market - how many different languages are they translated into?
They are translated into 10 different languages, or maybe more. I don't see half of them.

You used to help with a mobile library, can you tell us more about that?
There used to be a mobile library van where I live but when that went we used our own car laden with books. I've had to stop but the mobile library is still going and they have a nice little team, I'm really pleased it's still going. For me libraries were a lifeline to literacy. As a child we didn't have books and the library was a real source of interest. I was talking to one of the librarians at Settle library and they have 40 volunteers but come March there will be no professional librarian there at all.

How do you come up with storylines for your books? Do you plan the whole plot before you start writing?
If I knew the whole plot I wouldn't write the book because I'd be bored. I have an idea and I know there will be conflict all the way. Every book is a journey.

What's the best writing advice anyone's ever given you?
An American publisher once said off-stage is frustrating and slow down when you get to the big emotional moments. So you have to imagine a close-up camera when you get to the big scenes, for the love scene for example, it's the slowing down, not rushing. I was also told: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait."

There's got to be something that holds their interest. If you're a writer you must read, read, read. You have to read around your subject, read for fun and read quality writers. My characters are always flawed, they make mistakes, they don't listen, they do what they think is the right thing, but it may be wrong. I couldn't write about perfect people.

Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna Large Print Books.