Sussex author Maeve Haran let’s us into her writing process for new novel, In the Summertime, and her favourite spots around Cuckmere Valley
What can you tell us about In the Summertime?
It’s a lovely summery book (the proof reader said it made her feel like she had her toes in the sand) combining my usual cocktail of humour and romance with a dash of mystery and intrigue. Two different people made exactly the same comment about my book The Greek Holiday that it was ‘Famous Five for Grownups’ – and that’s exactly what I’ve done with In the Summertime! There is a mystery to be solved plus I used a background I think most people will recognise, the slightly uncomfortable feeling we get when we go to hand car washes. Are the staff treated properly or being exploited?
It’s set in the South Downs – an inspiring place for you?
I grew up in Worthing where my parents were GPs – Dr Tom and Dr Mary. I still get the odd message through my website saying, ‘You must be Dr Haran’s daughter’. My dad was always quoting Kipling who so loved ‘Sussex by the sea’. And now I have a small cottage in the beautiful Cuckmere Valley two miles from Seaford. It’s that extraordinary combination of glorious countryside and seaside that makes the South Downs so special. It’s also extremely convenient. As one of my characters remarks, ‘Everyone goes on about Cornwall, but it’s such a bloody long way away!’
Why do you love writing novels with a romantic undercurrent?
I’m a happy endings writer! Love may cause us a lot of pain at times, but it’s the best thing we have. I’ve been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year with two very different books. I blame my mum. She was a busy GP with four children and she used to retreat to the bath with a glass of sherry and a romantic novel by Georgette Heyer (who incidentally I still read when life gets tough). Now I tell myself that’s the kind of writer I want to be – the one you take in the bath with a glass of white wine and forget the world.
When you graduated from Oxford, could you have imagined the writing career you have gone on to have?
Absolutely not. I read law because I wanted to be a barrister. My English teacher at Mayfield was furious with me because I was her best pupil! I soon realised it was a mistake and after I got my degree I started a very wandering path towards where I am now. I started in publishing, then became a freelance journalist, then a TV researcher and finally a TV executive before throwing it all in to try and write. Everyone thought I was bonkers.
What made you sit down and write Having It All?
As a TV boss I was never home. I went back after six months with my first baby and then, when I had my second child, I started wondering what it was all for. I wanted a different kind of life where I occasionally saw the hours of daylight. Not to mention my children.
Did its success surprise you?
I was amazed! It sold in 30 countries and there were 100 newspaper articles written about it. Women were just beginning to have important careers and Having It All, which was about balancing career and motherhood, hit the moment. I was even on the news twice! It became the book everyone had to read. I travelled all over the world talking about it.
How do you like to write?
I am pretty disciplined and sit at my desk around nine every morning and write until I feel a natural stop. I take lots of photos when I am researching and create a moodboard for each book which I have in front of me to take me back to the place and the atmosphere. I have a very tempting one for In the Summertime which makes me long to be back on the beach in Seaford or walking in the Downs.
How long have you had a cottage in Cuckmere Valley and what do you love about being there?
Thirty years. I love the community – it still revolves round the church and the pub (the lovely Plough and Harrow) just as village life did in the days of Thomas Hardy. It’s amazingly friendly and even though I am a ‘Wicked Weekender’ (I live most of the time in London), everyone is really welcoming. It is just opposite the South Downs Way and I watch all the walkers toiling up and down as I sip a G&T in the garden. It’s just near the Cuckmere river with its amazing birdlife (and paddleboarders!) and the chalk figure of the White Horse. Really idyllic. And of course I borrow bits for my books.
Where are your favourite haunts in Sussex?
I’ll always love Brighton because that is where I enjoyed my misspent youth. I used it as the background for my book What Became of You My Love? and was amazed that it hasn’t changed that much since I was a teenager.
Birling Gap, with its iconic cliffs and bay. I often took the children rock pooling there and have a lifelong love of looking for shells. It has a great National Trust shop and coffee place too.
Seaford at high tide. I’m a bit of a wild swimmer and the water there is deep and clear. I have memorable moments sitting on the beach drinking Pimm’s with my two friends watching a man paddleboarding with his dog on the back, with the sun going down and the sun sparkling on the sea. And to think as a writer I can call that research!
What’s next for you?
I am trying my hand at a Murder Mystery. I am having to learn all the rules of the genre, but it’s very enjoyable too. I just hope I can carry it off successfully though it’s not too much of a step from the adventure and intrigue of In the Summertime. The new one is having a South Coast background as well, so lots more opportunity to spend time in beautiful Sussex by the sea.