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Inside secrets from Unpublished Longlisted author Hannah Dolby

Hannah's writing cave

Hannah's writing cave: ‘It’s extremely important to feel like Barbara Cartland when you are writing comedy‘ says longlistee Hannah Dolby

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize? I first spotted it a year ago and it was a revelation. I had been struggling to write my novel and realised I was forcing my main character down a gloomy path without any laughter to light her way. Women often feel they have to be serious to be taken seriously, I think, and the prize felt like glorious permission to let my sense of humour flap its wings and fly. I think humour’s role in helping us to survive is also hugely overlooked — it definitely deserves a special spotlight. I was too late last year, so I entered this year for the first time. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing? I work in PR, so I’ve been writing about museums, gardens and art galleries for years, but it’s only in the last five or so that I’ve hugged all that inspiration and begun to channel it into creative writing. Since then I’ve done courses at City Lit, Curtis Brown and the Novelry and have gained lots of good insight. The best courses for me are ones that put heavy pressure on me to write something instead of staring artistically into the distance. I do love a deadline. Talk to me about teenage angst: Was it manifested in poetry or diary form? I wrote a diary packed full of gossip. Torturous unrequited crushes, falling out with friends, obsessions about hair and make-up, blushing, self-loathing, ‘spin-the-bottle’ parties with much experimental and awful snogging. Reading it back, I love the freedom and self-importance I must have had to relate absolutely every cringeworthy detail. I would like to rediscover that ability to write without self-censorship, but I think it’s gone. Can you describe what your novel, THE LADY DETECTIVE, is about in two sentences? Violet Hamilton is a Victorian spinster who asks a seedy seaside detective to investigate the disappearance of her mother ten years before. But when she changes her mind about hiring him, she discovers he won’t stop. Did you set out to write a funny book? Originally no, but then I spotted the CWIP prize and kept finding that my characters had a better sense of humour than me. And life’s sharp corners are often thrown into sharper focus when you add some silliness to the proceedings. It’s been so lovely to have had the luxury of thinking up funny moments after the greyness of the past year and a half. Where did your inspiration for a spinster protagonist come from? Violet Hamilton has been in my mind for around five years, but she’s having a lot more excitement than she used to. So much about women’s private lives from the Victorian era is unknown, but I’m sure they had just as many embarrassing moments, calamities, dramas and scandals as we do. And because life was so hard, they probably had buckets full of resourcefulness and deceitfulness too. I wanted to create a character who has adventures smack in the middle of all that repression. Victorian comedy is quite iconic (though overwhelmingly male!) — is this your bold, feminist reclamation of the genre? Victorian comedy is quite iconic — I’m thinking Oscar Wilde and Jerome K Jerome — but also overwhelmingly male, so this is my bold, feminist reclamation of the genre in a timid and ladylike way. Who do you enjoy reading? Mostly things with words in them. I loved Beth O’Leary’s The Flatshare and am looking forward to reading some of the books on this year’s longlist. I am halfway through The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes-Gower, and after that I’ve lined up What You Did by Claire McGowan. I also spend far too long wandering the dark alleyways of non-fiction books such as The Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister or The Victorian Dictionary of Slang & Phrase by J. Redding Ware. Did you know that a woman who used a pistol was called a revolveress? What’s your favourite type of humour? All of it. All of the humour. The kind that surprises you into snorting your tea across your shirt. The kind that sits as a quiet warm chuckle in your belly even if you don’t laugh out loud. The kind that has you laughing until you ache with a friend at some shared, ridiculous silliness that only the two of you would understand. The kind that pretends to be polite but is filthy underneath. It’s all a delight, mostly. If I don’t like it, you’ll know by my horrified expression and the speed at which I’ll leave. Is there a funny line, scene or book that you wish you’d written? Every line in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice, of course. Lines that make you bellow to yourself in pompous tones when you think of them. ‘Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’ Although I am also glad that someone else wrote them, because it must have been quite hard work. It’s all old books really — Cold Comfort Farm, Daddy Long-legs — I should really wrench myself back to the 21st century more often. I love Oscar Wilde’s writing and wish I could remember his lines at parties. “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” Where does your writing magic happen, and can you tell us about your writing routine? I had trained myself to write wherever I was and before lockdown I used to have a few cafés that were favourite haunts. Now I’ve got used to writing at home. Depending on the mood I either sit at the same desk I use for work or on my gold velvet armchair, with my feet up on a pink footstool. It’s extremely important to feel like Barbara Cartland when you are writing comedy. I would love to be an early morning writer, but I’ve tried a 6am regime and there is nothing in my brain at that time beyond crossness and a fervent desire to put my head back on the pillow. So, it’s usually capturing time in the evenings and weekends. Helen Lederer says ‘Blimey Hannah, we’ve got writerly footstool envy now – are car boots open yet? -good luck you are funny ‘

2021 Unpublished Longlist
Our Hannah Dolby is second from the left with ‘The Lady Detective’

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