Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Interview with Menna van Praag, author of The House at the End of Hope Street - April 10, 2013

Please welcome Menna van Praag to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge Guest Blogs. The House at the End of Hope Street was published on April 4, 2013 by Pamela Dorman Books (Penguin).  You may read Menna's Guest Blog - Populating a Fantasy Novel with Historical Figures - here.

TQ:  Welcome to The Qwillery.

Menna:  I’m delighted to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

TQ:  When and why did you start writing?

Menna:  I’ve been writing stories for most of my life. When I was 18 my English Literature teacher read a story I’d written and told me it was “publishable”. That was the first time anyone had ever said something like that and it gave me hope. Hope I clung to for the next 12 years, when I finally did get something published. I think I started writing because I’ve always adored reading and wondered if I could create stories like the ones I loved do much.

TQ:  What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

Menna:  Gosh, I’ve never been asked that before. Great question. But I’m afraid I don’t have a great answer. I’m pretty pedestrian. I sit down at my desk and write until, for whatever reason, I have to stop. However, while writing my newest book I have developed the habit of having the radio on while I write. I don’t really listen to it, but I like the hum of the words in the background. It’s probably because of the characters has a magical voice and reads novels on the radio. Writing him made me fall in love with listening to the radio.

TQ:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Menna:  Definitely a pantser. For me the most glorious part of writing isn’t knowing what will happen next and, very often, being shocked by what comes out of my fingers. Also, I’m rather poor at plots. I love creating characters and settings but, when I have to come up with crazy and intriguing twists and turns to keep the characters on their toes and my readers amused, I find can myself pacing up and down, wracking my befuddled brain in vain. For The House at the End of Hope Street I only had the premise: a magical house that’s home to women who’ve lost hope, the characters and the ending. Everything else was a magnificent journey of discovery.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Menna:  Plotting. Coming up with page-turning twists and turns. But once I have them, I can sit down for 15 hours straight and just keep writing! I did, indeed, often do that while writing Hope. But then, last year, my son was born and I couldn’t do that anymore!

TQ:  Describe The House at the End of Hope Street in 140 characters or less.

Menna:  It's the story of a magical house and the women who inhabit it - living and dead. A story of second chances, forgiveness and chocolate cake.

TQ:  What inspired you to write The House at the End of Hope Street?

Menna:  The story was inspired by a dream I have to buy a big house and give grants to aspiring artists (writers/painters/singers/actors etc.) to live there for one year and do nothing else but study and promote their craft. When I graduated from Oxford I waitressed full-time while writing at night, so I know how hard it is to fulfill an artistic passion while holding down a day job. Anyway, since I can’t yet afford to make that a reality I created the fantasy version first.

TQ:  What sort of research did you do for The House at the End of Hope Street?

Menna:  This book took about two and a half years, often working 10-15 hours a day, to write and went through about 20 drafts. However, not a huge amount of that time was spent on research. I studied Modern History, specializing in the Victorian era, so I already knew quite a lot about the historical characters. I did delve a bit more into their personal lives and specific quotes they’d given so I could incorporate juicy little pieces into their dialogue now and then. Of course, sometimes I took liberties, just for fun. My favorite line in the whole book is when Peggy, the psychic landlady, refers to Florence Nightingale as a “lovely girl, if a little too fond of sailors.”

TQ:  Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Menna:  The easiest character was Alba, the protagonist, as she’s quite similar to myself, especially when I was her age – a timid, bookish type who wants to connect to other people but finds it difficult. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly difficult, since I loved them all. But I suppose the ghost, Stella, was the hardest since, perhaps unsurprisingly, I know very little about being a ghost.

TQ:  Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in The House at the End of Hope Street?

Menna:  Without a doubt, my two favorite scenes involve masturbation and murder. The first because it was so much fun to write – The House has an orgasm along with the main character. The second because I was rather worried I couldn’t write it at all, then was shocked and delighted when the first four sentences of the scene simply dropped into my head – fully formed. I was on a walk, hoping for inspiration. I just ran home, sat down and the rest of the scene wrote itself. It was so unlike my usual style/tone it scared me.

TQ:  What's next?

Menna:  I’ve just finished editing my second novel, tentatively titled The Dress Shop of Dreams, which I hope will be out next year. It’s the story of a young scientist who falls in love with a bookshop owner, a man with a magical voice. She’s mourning the lost of her parents and needs the help of her grandmother, the seamstress who creates enchanted dresses that transform women’s lives, to learn how to love. She also needs to solve the mystery of her parent’s deaths. Just as I’d love to live in The House at the End of Hope Street, I’d also love to visit the Dress Shop of Dreams.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Menna:  Thank you for having me here. It’s been my great pleasure!

About The House at the End of Hope Street

The House at the End of Hope Street
Pamela Dorman Books (Penguin), April 4, 2013
Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages

A magical debut about an enchanted house that offers refuge to women in their time of need

Distraught that her academic career has stalled, Alba is walking through her hometown of Cambridge, England, when she finds herself in front of a house she’s never seen before, 11 Hope Street. A beautiful older woman named Peggy greets her and invites her to stay, on the house’s usual conditions: she has ninety-nine nights to turn her life around. With nothing left to lose, Alba takes a chance and moves in.

She soon discovers that this is no ordinary house. Past residents have included Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker, who, after receiving the assistance they needed, hung around to help newcomers—literally, in talking portraits on the wall. As she escapes into this new world, Alba begins a journey that will heal her wounds—and maybe even save her life.

Filled with a colorful and unforgettable cast of literary figures, The House at the End of Hope Street is a charming, whimsical novel of hope and feminine wisdom that is sure to appeal to fans of Jasper Fforde and especially Sarah Addison Allen.

About Menna

Menna van Praag studied Modern History at Oxford University. Working as a waitress after graduation, it was seven years until she published Men, Money & Chocolate, an autobiographical fable about her life as an aspiring writer. It has so far been published in 25 languages. The House at the End of Hope Street is her first work of literary fiction. She’s just finished her second novel, The Dress Shop of Dreams. When she’s not writing, Menna loves reading, movies and eating cake.

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