Spotlight: Sue Barnard, Heathcliff

Happy Sunday everyone! Today, I’m delighted to welcome back to the blog my lovely editor, Sue Barnard, to tell us about her upcoming release, out on Monday. I was lucky enough to read an early copy of this, and speaking as somebody who had never read Wuthering Heights (yes, ok, I’m very poorly-read when it comes to the classics), I absolutely loved it! So I was excited to put some questions to Sue. 

Heathcliff front cover

What inspired you to write Heathcliff’s missing years?

It all began with a chance remark from a former schoolfriend: “Sue, I love the way you’ve based your book on what we did at school.  What are you going to do next?”

We were chatting just after the launch of my third novel, The Unkindest Cut of All.  This story features a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which was the play we’d studied for English Literature O-Level (as it then was, back in the dark ages before GCSEs).  The novel set for the same exam was Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.  We were immensely fortunate in having a wonderful teacher, who managed what in retrospect must have been a pretty daunting task: making a nineteenth-century classic accessible to a class of twentieth-century stroppy teenage girls. Quite early in the process, she told us: “By having the story narrated by Nelly Dean, Emily Brontë avoids having to tell us exactly what happened to Heathcliff during those missing three years.”

“Well,” I chuckled, “there’s always Heathcliff…”  At the time it was just a passing joke, but the idea wouldn’t go away.  What could have happened to him during those missing years?  Could I somehow get into his mind and try to answer that question?

What was your inspiration for what he got up to whilst he was away?

I set myself a challenge: to portray the character of Heathcliff in as sympathetic a light as possible.  I wanted to show what turned him from victim to villain.

In terms of plot, I was working within very strict constraints.  The dates in Wuthering Heights are very precise (Heathcliff’s missing years are 1780-1783), so I had to make sure that whatever Heathcliff did during that time would fit accurately within the historical context. Two of my original ideas fell at the first hurdle because the dates were wrong.  I did eventually find something which worked with the timeframe, but I can’t say much more than that without spoilers – sorry!

This isn’t the first time you’ve based your own tale on existing characters.  Tell us about the concept behind The Ghostly Father.

The Ghostly Father was my first novel, and I wrote it in response to the prompt Write The Book You Want To Read.  Ever since I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s amazing 1968 film of Romeo & Juliet, I’ve loved the story but hated the way it ended.  The book I’ve always wanted to read is the alternative version of the tale: the one in which the young lovers don’t fall victim to a maddeningly avoidable catastrophe.

Why, I asked myself, should there not be such a book?  And the answer came straight back: Why not indeed?  And if it doesn’t exist, then go ahead and write it.

The eventual result was The Ghostly Father, first published by Crooked Cat Books in 2014.  It’s a sort of part-prequel, part-sequel to the original story, and is told from the point of view of the Friar. I started out by looking at all the events which combined to cause the final tragedy, and worked on the basis of “What might happen if just one of those events occurred differently?”

I was originally writing the book just for myself, because it was the outcome I’ve always wanted.  But judging by the number of people who have been kind enough to say they enjoyed it, it seems that I’m not by any means the only person who prefers the alternative ending.

How do you find using existing characters? Does it make the writing easier or harder, having the core of the person already there?

A bit of both, really – as I expect you’ve also found with your own excellent Kindred Spirits series.  Obviously I have to ensure that my portrayal of an existing character tallies (at least in part) with the original, and that can be a little restrictive.  But in other respects, working with existing characters is much easier than having to pull completely new ideas out of the air.  And it can also provide a springboard for other ideas.  In The Ghostly Father I was able to develop some of the minor characters who barely step out of the shadows in the original story, and with Heathcliff I created some completely new characters whom he meets during his three-year absence.

Are there any other ‘gaps’ or ‘wrong endings’ you’d like to complete / put right?

Some of these have already been done.  For example, in 1681 the author Nahum Tate produced an alternative version of King Lear which ends with Cordelia marrying Edgar, and Lear regaining his throne. Some performances of the ballet Swan Lake have a happy ending, though the form of this varies from one version to another.  And the famous unresolved ending of Joan Linday’s Picnic at Hanging Rock was finally explained in a missing chapter which was published after the author’s death.

SPOILER ALERT: I’d love to give a Happy Ever after to Shakespeare’s Othello and Desdemona, and to Charles and Julia in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  I’d love to save Sydney Carton from the guillotine in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Thomas Hardy’s eponymous Tess of the D’Urbervilles from the hangman’s noose.  I think Eva Smith in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls deserves a much better fate.  And I’d love to make King Arthur victorious over the wicked wiles of his evil half-sister.

One of literature’s biggest gaps is the ending to The Mystery of Edwin Drood (the novel which was left unfinished by Charles Dickens’ untimely death). Several authors have already produced their own suggestions about how the story might have developed, but the many and varied discussions on this subject are probably rather more interesting than the book itself!

Can you tell us anything about your next project? What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a sequel to Nice Girls Don’t, which was my second novel (published by Crooked Cat in 2014).  I also have an ongoing poetry project based on the works of Shakespeare.  But that’s been in progress for ages, so don’t stay in specially waiting for it to be finished!

You can find Sue’s work, and Sue, online at the following locations… 

Sue BarnardThe Ghostly Father 

Nice Girls Don’t

The Unkindest Cut of All

Never on Saturday

Heathcliff

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