Q&A with Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-HallettWe spoke to Lucy Hughes-Hallett about her debut novel, Peculiar Ground, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

It is 1663, and a wall is being built around a great house. Wychwood is an enclosed world, its ornamental lakes and majestic avenues planned by Mr Norris, landscape-maker. A world where everyone has something to hide after decades of civil war, where dissidents shelter in the forest, lovers linger in secret gardens, and migrants, fleeing the plague, are turned away from the gates. Three centuries later, another wall goes up overnight, dividing Berlin, while at Wychwood, over one hot, languorous weekend, erotic entanglements are shadowed by news of historic change. A little girl, Nell, observes all. Nell grows up and Wychwood is invaded. There is a pop festival by the lake, a TV crew in the dining room and a Great Storm brewing.  As the Berlin Wall comes down a fatwa signals a different ideological faultline and a refugee seeks safety in Wychwood…

Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “An ingenuous, ingenious masterwork assembled from varicoloured snatches of seismic events; scores of recovered memory fragments; a mindfulness of reflective essays; a generosity of psychological and cultural aperçus, as well as personal and political adventures in real time and place. Not forgetting that demesne-full of characters, many cunningly carried forward, both key and affective frame to the narrative picture.”

Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?

It’s a mash-up of all sorts of things that were floating around my head – memories of my childhood, reflections on migration and mean-spirited attempts to turn refugees away, thoughts about landscape – both natural and artificial – and about what pifflingly short-lived beings we humans are by comparison with great trees. Time is central to it. Setting the narrative in one house but in two different periods – the 1660s and over 28 years in the mid-20th century – allowed me to watch characters develop and change, as people do but fictional characters generally don’t, and to see what unexpected turns their life-stories take.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?

It feels good!

What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?

It’s hard to make a living, and bring up children, and still find time to write. My biggest stroke of luck was becoming television critic of the Evening Standard, which gave me a regular income while leaving a lot of the day free for book-writing.

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?

Ignore fashion. Ignore advice. Just write the kind of book you’d want to read.

What is your favourite debut novel of all time?

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier.