Interview with author Kathryn Hughes

During a holiday in Rhodes in 2017, I picked up a copy of The Letter written by the International bestselling author Kathryn Hughes, in a book exchange bookshelf at my hotel. At the time I had no idea who she was, but liked the sound and look of the book. I was hooked and have subsequently read her three other books. She has since gained the accolade of winner of the Prima Big Book Awards 2019 for her book Her Last Promise.

I have now become a firm fan of her work and am eagerly awaiting the release of her fifth book which is scheduled for sometime in 2021.

With meetings taking place online, I felt now was a good time to ask her if she would speak at our Writing Group. The members put a number of questions to her and Kathryn has kindly agreed to let me share her replies with you.

Kathryn started off by telling us a little bit about herself.

“It was back in 2007 that I first had an idea for a book.  It would centre around the discovery of an old unposted letter.  Who wrote this letter but never sent it, who should have received it but didn’t and who eventually discovered it, I had no idea! All I had was a brilliant title. It would be called The Letter! Back in 2007 though, I had a proper job and two kids to look after so there was certainly no time to be messing around writing a book that nobody would ever read. However, over the coming years I cut my working hours and eventually gave up altogether, meaning that by 2012 the book was finished.  After being rejected by twelve literary agents, I decided to self-publish through Amazon.

“After eight months though I had only sold 120 copies, so I decided to do a Kindle countdown deal and offer the book for free for five days. In that time over 9000 people downloaded a copy, and word got about. It took another eight months for it to get to number one in the Kindle chart.”

“I then had offers from Agents to represent me, which was surprising as I hadn’t been able to garner any interest from them before the book was a success. However, I was also approached by a major UK publisher, Headline, who, based on that one book, offered me two-book deal.”

Q. How do you keep track of timelines for your stories as you usually have a number of timelines going on at the same time?

A.  I have a paper calendar of key events, with historical events for that time so I can incorporate at least two into my book. The only problem is when you have to change part of the story for whatever reason then it throws the whole timeline out.

Q.  Do you think the internet makes research so much easier?

A.  It is easy to Google a time line but I still like to visit my local library for research. It is so easy to just stare out of the window when you are at home.

Q.  How do you know when your book is finished??

A.  When I have reached my word count and when I have edited and edited until I can no longer view it objectively.

Q.  When will your next book be out? Any clue to what it’s about?

A.  The next book will be out in 2021. It was supposed to have already been published but with COVID many authors’ books have been pushed back so I have had another six months to finish it. The book is called The Memory Box and tells the story of Jenny Tanner, who at the start of the book is celebrating her one hundredth birthday. As she picks through the haunting mementoes in her memory box, she determines there is one more journey she has to make. But time is running out and she may already have left it too late. The Kindle edition will be available from 5th August with the paperback to follow on 11th November.

Q.  What inspired you to write about Ambergate Hospital in ‘The Key’?

A. I was fascinated by an article in the Daily Mail about the discovery of an attic full of suitcases that had been left behind in the now derelict Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in New York. I started researching the old Victorian asylums in the UK learned that when a patient entered one of these institutes all their belongings were stored in suitcases in the attic and only returned if the patient was discharged. This rarely happened and many people spent the reminder of their lives locked up.

Q.  If you could do it all again would you still be a writer?

A.  I never wanted to be a writer but I always wanted to write a book. I never thought anyone outside my family would read The Letter but now it’s available in 30 languages and has sold over 1 million copies. Publishers don’t want you to write just one book though, they want you to write more, so one-book deals are hard to come by. One of the most difficult things is convincing my friends I am actually a writer. They’ll phone up suggesting we go for coffee or lunch but when I tell them I’m working, they say something like “Oh, I didn’t know you’ve got a job?”

Q.  How do you start your book, do you know exactly where you are going with it. Do you start with the title?

A.  I have an idea for the start and how it’s going to end, but there are another 90,000 words in the middle which are tricky. So, I know I have to get from A to B but the journey may vary. The Letter starts with the discovery of a letter in a suit pocket in a charity shop and is the catalyst for what happens next. The title of this book was obvious from the start. When you self-publish you have full control over your book but often the publishers choose the title in consultation with the author as they know what will work best.

Q. How do you decide how far apart you are going to have your timelines?

A.  I’m fond of the 70’s as I was a child then and I do remember that decade fondly. I also like to include key events but then sometimes it is difficult to work the timelines in. It can cause a lot of problems having a specific event in your timeline, especially with this pandemic. It can have a knock-on effect to the whole timeline.

Q.  You have said you’re not too keen social media, but can you tell us how that affects you and where you are right now?

A.  It is a really quick way for my readers to get in touch with me, which is nice but I haven’t got the time, inclination or wit to tweet a couple of times a day. Although it is up to me to keep my social media up to date my publisher can also control it.

Q.  How do you stay motivated?

A.  When I’m working to a deadline, I get a year planner, take out any holidays that I may have booked and then divide up the days I have left by 90,000 so I know how much I have to do each day. If I over achieve, I can then afford to have a week off. I usually write about 1000 words a day, which doesn’t sound a lot. I hate starting the next day not knowing what I’m going to write. There is nothing worse than finishing a paragraph and not knowing what’s going to happen next so I often finish mid-scene so it’s easier to get going the next day.

Q.  What inspires you to write?

A.  Various things. The world around me, snippets of overheard conversation, interesting newspaper articles as mentioned above. The inspiration for my fourth book, Her Last Promise, came on a family cycling holiday to central Spain. We came across a derelict hermitage perched on a peninsula high above the canyon.  It would be difficult to imagine a more remote existence and I began to wonder what made a person leave their old life behind and come and live in such isolation, cut-off from civilisation.

I would just like to thank Kathryn for spending the time with us and answering our questions.

If you would like to check out her books you can head to her website at for more information.


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