Liz Fenwick suggests we meet in the coffee shop at Waterstones Truro. Upon arrival, I understand. The staff know her well, and there’s a table piled high with her latest novel, A Cornish Stranger. As well as holding book signings in the store, the café is a favourite place to devise plotlines and write drafts. “I love coming in here,” she enthuses. “I come into Truro with my daughter, but there are only so many times I want to visit Top Shop. So I wind up here, writing and surrounded by books. Books and coffee – a magical combination.”
Besides, Liz knows she owes a great debt to bookshops in the county. “My relationship with bookshops is key, because they are the reason I’m still being published. Their support has made all the difference. I didn’t realise how unusual it was for Waterstones to sell 2,000 copies from one shop. Of all the physical books I’ve sold, Cornwall represents one third if not more.”
Liz was first featured in the pages of this magazine in 2012, after Orion published her debut novel, The Cornish House. Since then, she has enjoyed success with A Cornish Affair (the first volume to be stocked by supermarkets nationwide), followed by A Cornish Stranger. Both have been translated into several European languages, including German, Dutch and Portuguese (with House also appearing in Norwegian, Estonian and Turkish). “They seem to do well in airports,” she says.
A Cornish Stranger was launched in London over the summer, with ice cream supplied by Kelly’s of Cornwall and opera from young tenor Adam Temple-Smith. She has since made several appearances at literature festivals and book signing sessions around the county. The next book in the series is already in the pipeline and due to hit the shelves next summer, although the title has yet to be decided. “I’d thought about A Cornish Legacy, but I’m not sure.”
Liz was born in Massachusetts, USA and now divides her time between Cornwall and Dubai – her husband, Chris, works in the oil business. She recalls her first visit to the county with Chris in 1989: “Cornwall in June is heaven. I had seen foxgloves before, but these were like pink exclamation marks pointing up towards glorious blue skies. We went to the beach at Mullion, and I was tempted to swim. That was a real eye-opener – the waters in Cape Cod are a lot warmer.” She has since acclimatised: “This year, I went swimming in Frenchman’s Creek off the boat – without a wetsuit.”
They now own a home by the Helford. “With three children based in the UK, in various stages of schooling, I need to be here more and more. I spend the whole summer here – what used to be July and August is now June to September. My work has changed that, too.”
Liz started writing fiction at university, but let her first novel go unfinished. She resumed writing in 2004. “I could never have written at 22 what I’m writing now – I didn’t have the life experience,” she admits. “My first effort was terrible, but it proved to me that I could finish a book.” While Affair was written before House, she felt strongly that “The Cornish House was the book to launch me. I rewrote A Cornish Affair – it changed dramatically.”
Following early advice to find an authorial voice, she aimed for “Daphne meets Jodi”. “That’s not what I got, but I found me,” she says. “I love the way du Maurier evokes Cornwall in her novels, but she’s very dark, and I’m not. I like how Picoult takes an issue and runs it throughout the book.” She’s also been likened to Rosamunde Pilcher: “I think it’s partly the Cornish thing, and the middle-class characters. I think A Cornish Stranger is more like Mary Wesley – an older woman looking back on her life.”
A Cornish Stranger – “gritty and darker” – focuses on the Helford that she knows and loves. “Not creating a fictional area has advantages and disadvantages. You’re writing about where you live, and where people know. Writers are like magpies – nothing you say is safe. My husband laughed at The Cornish House because he recognised so much.”
The focal point of the action in Stranger is very real. Where Frenchman’s Creek meets the main Helford River, the cottage known as Powders is the former home of artist and sailor Powders Thurburn, and is now owned by the National Trust. “I spent a week there, on my own. I wanted to know how it felt to live in such an isolated spot, and feel the river in a way I’d never felt it before. The view from the main bedroom was like being on a boat.”
The novel turns on an old Cornish saying: “Save a stranger from the sea, he’ll turn your enemy.” When her reclusive grandmother becomes too frail to live alone, opera singer Gabriella Blythe moves into the remote waterside cabin which has been her grandmother’s home for decades. Once a celebrated artist, Jaunty is haunted by events in her past, particularly the sinking of Lancasteria during the Second World War. Everything is fine until handsome stranger Fin arrives in a storm, seeking help ….
Liz has embraced modern technology with Stranger. On her revamped website, you will find a Spotify list. “The book contains many references to classical music. I realised that some people might like to listen to the ‘soundtrack’, as it were, and this way they can do so for free.”
She also subscribes to Cornwall Today’s digital edition. “I buy a physical copy here in Cornwall, but two digital editions for Dubai – one for each iPad. It’s an every-month read for us, and I get so many ideas from the articles.” Keep your eyes peeled for those storylines.
To find out more about Liz and her work, visit www.lizfenwick.com