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A novel approach

2nd August 2021

Hot on the heels of the publication of her latest novel, A Beautiful Spy, bestselling local author Rachel Hore talks novels, lockdown and Norfolk with Amanda Loose

How does it feel to have published your 11th book? 

A Beautiful Spy is indeed my 11th novel, but Book 10 (The Love Child) felt more of a landmark and I’m currently working on Book 12. When I was writing my first novel, The Dream House, back in 2004, I’d have given anything to have had one book published and I do realize that I’ve been incredibly fortunate. It’s certainly a great feeling to have a new book launched into the world, especially when I remember all the difficult bits, the problems I had to overcome, when researching and writing it.

Rachel Hore © Charlotte Murphy

Was A Beautiful Spy something of a new departure for you?

It is a departure in that it is a single continuous narrative, but The Love Child, my previous novel, was set entirely in the past. A Beautiful Spy is based on a true story. However, there is much about it that readers will recognize. Minnie is my type of protagonist – a woman struggling against the confines of her society – and I write about her in close third person – an approach I love. It was quite liberating simply to write the one narrative instead of two playing off against one another, but that approach suited my aims best. These kinds of decisions are creative ones.

How did you come across Olga Gray and what inspired you about her life? How much of her is in Minnie’s tale?

I read about the real-life 1930s spy Olga Gray when I was researching a backstory for a character in a completely different novel, a novel which I have still not written. I was so captivated by her story that I put the first idea on the back burner in order to concentrate on Olga.  

My character Minnie is the fictional version of Olga and the fiction and reality are very close, but I chose to use a different name for her to make it clear that it’s fiction, not biography. I also found that it gave me creative freedom. Imagining the inner life of a real life person can feel a bit of an imposition and using a fictional name gave me confidence to do it without traducing Olga’s memory.

Tell us more about Minnie

Minnie is an ordinary middle-class young Englishwoman who in 1931 is expected by society to earn her living as a typist before giving up work to marry and have a family. But she wants more, and when she’s invited to join the Secret Service to spy on British communists she jumps at the chance. Max Knight, her handler in MI5, is a fascinating man who has her complete loyalty and who drives her on, almost beyond her strength. Glading is one of the communists she spies on, who leads her deeper and deeper into danger. The pressures of living a double life have a terrible effect on her and she almost misses the chance for personal happiness. 

The ending definitely sticks with the reader – I don’t want to spoil it for people – but Minnie’s experiences definitely change her.  

Indeed, Minnie has been tested to her utmost, which makes her a brilliant subject for fiction, but I hope I don’t spoil the ending when I say that she survives!

Do you have a favourite of your novels?

That’s like asking a parent which is their favourite child! My novels are different imaginary worlds, which one by one I inhabited. Each was a precious part of my life for at least a year when I was writing it, so it’s complicated to say that I like one better than another. Each had its pleasures in the writing. I particularly enjoyed researching The Glasspainter’s Daughter and A Week in Paris. I loved moving between the two narratives in The Love Child – those of the birth mother and the child she gave up for adoption – they dovetailed so beautifully. I’m pleased with A Beautiful Spy because keeping up the suspense in a single narrative was a new challenge for me.

You moved from London to Norwich with your husband and boys about 20 years ago. What was that like?

I found it more difficult than I expected adjusting to life in Norwich and some of my feelings of disorientation made it into The Dream House, which features Kate, who gives up her career and moves to Suffolk.  I think I was too idealistic about finding the perfect house and the perfect life, both of which don’t exist, of course – as Kate discovers. My husband and the boys adjusted beautifully, though, and that made the move worthwhile.  Of course, I am now very used to Norwich and feel that I belong.  

Does Norfolk inspire your work?

Very much so. It’s a place of stories, ancient and modern, and I’ve often set my novels here. I’ve tended to write about it from the point of view of an outsider – it’s a place that my characters escape to, sometimes to hide, sometimes to recover. I love its wildness, its romantic atmosphere and its sense of possibility –  those wide skies.

How was life during lockdown?

My husband’s a writer as well, and frankly our writing routines were little changed by lockdown, though I found concentration difficult. We badly missed all the events we’re used to taking part in, though I enjoyed my Zoom launch with Jarrold’s for A Beautiful Spy.

What did you miss most and what did you learn? 

I have missed family and friends. Nobody I’m close to has been ill with Covid, but we have lost two uncles during lockdown who we were unable to see because they were in care homes. I’ve learned more than ever the importance of the people I love and of my community, the things I used to take for granted.

What are you working on now?

I’ve finished the first draft of a novel set in wartime Norfolk and France and shall be spending the next few months rewriting. An obvious difficulty with research is travel restrictions so I’ve had to rely on books and the internet, though I’ve written about France in wartime before so I’m not having to start from scratch. 

What have you been reading?

I read a great deal over lockdown, especially enjoying On Chapel Sands, a gripping memoir by Laura Cumming, and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. I’ve also read a great fat group biography of the Brontë family by Juliet Barker, which was fascinating.

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore, Simon & Schuster £16.99