Valerie Thornhill studied at Cambridge before living through student protests while at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Red Brigade era in Rome where, inadvertently, she became entangled in the underworld. She has written since childhood, followed in the footsteps of five generations of her family in India to travel worldwide and has taught in America, Asia and Europe. Valerie has spoken at numerous literary events.
Her engagements in Italy include presentations at the Tuscan Sun Festival in Cortona, the Civitella Ranieri international writers’ and artists’ centre in Umbria, and the British School in Rome. In the UK she has been invited to present her books at literary events in London, York, Beverley and Guildford, and in the USA in New York, Washington and San Francisco.
She gardens speculatively, creates outside sculpture from random natural objects and divides her time between England and Italy.
When do you write?
In the morning, but it might spill over into the afternoon if I’m lucky. If only I could get up earlier, start earlier, find more time!
Why do you write?
A lot of ideas chatter around in my head and I need to release them. And it’s a challenge. Forging a coherent and meaningful narrative out of them is hard but rewarding.
Pen or computer?
Both. I start with a pen in my special thinking and writing corner in the bedroom. It has a wonderful view of a large medieval church and three majestic trees: a copper beech, silver birch and chestnut. It’s a perfect place away from the rest of the house for me to indulge in dreams. When I copy my day’s writing on to the computer in my study I make changes, add other thoughts and so it’s like the second draft of the day’s work.
Silence or music?
Silence, except for what I can hear from the street – children chirruping to one another on their history outing to the church, the thrush that sings like a nightingale from the chestnut tree or a helicopter droning overhead. Sounds of life out there. I listen to music in my study to sweeten the boring tasks I should be getting on with.
How do you start a book?
I start by writing down those ideas that are jostling for recognition. While shaping them, characters start emerging, and with them themes, though I usually begin with some central idea that holds everything together. Sentences float into my mind when I’m relaxing and thinking about nothing in particular. Daydreaming. That’s when a lot of crucial things happen.
I never start writing without knowing the finish, maybe even two possible endings. I can change my mind as the work progresses.
Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions?
Not really. I need my particular pen with a soft, reasonably wide point and my comfortable armchair by the window.
Which living writer do you most admire?
At the moment John Berger for From A to X A Story in Letters and Khalid Hosseini for A Thousand Splendid Suns and Beloved by Toni Morrison, as these are the books I have most enjoyed reading recently. I relish their wide emotional and historical hinterland and the depth of individual experience they convey.
What or who inspires you?
The simplest things around me: gifts from friends; an e-mail with a poem; arias by Mozart or Handel, or a Beethoven symphony; the seasons as they write their message on my daily walks. Defining moments? Looking at Raphael’s great painting The School of Athens, Rembrandt’s portraits, Rubens’ landscapes; a teacher who picked me out of a secretarial course to guide me through ‘A’ level exams to university and a Dominican priest, who was my professor at Cambridge and inspired me to write.
If you weren’t a writer, what job would you do?
Something to do with communication like teaching, or, if I wanted to make money, I might run a business, though it would give me more satisfaction than enjoyment.
What’s your guilty reading pleasure or favourite trashy read?
The tabloid papers I pick up and read in the train with mingled amazement and despair, and the agony page of magazines that I leaf through at the doctor’s or dentist’s.