A Conversation with Winona Kent
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in London, England. My parents came to Canada when I was three, and I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan, which is in the middle of the country where they grow all the wheat. I’ve lived on the west coast, in Vancouver, since 1982. All of my relatives on my mum’s side and a lot of my dad’s family are still in England. I’ve been back about a dozen times, including two summers when I worked there as a temporary secretary, so I still feel very English as well as Canadian. I have dual nationality.
My dad was a travel agent, and I was also in the travel business for a few years. My sister was a Captain’s Secretary on board cruise ships for about 15 years, so you could say travel is in my blood. I saw quite a lot of the world as a result, and it seems to have shown up in my writing. My last novel, Cold Play, took place on a cruise ship in Alaska! Persistence of Memory is also about travel… but in a slightly different way!
I have an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and I have a Diploma in Writing for Film and TV from Vancouver Film School.
In the past I’ve written freelance articles and short stories for Canadian newspapers and magazines. My first novel, Skywatcher, was a finalist in the Seal Books First Novel contest, and was published in 1989. The sequel, The Cilla Rose Affair, was first published in 2001, and I republished it as a Kindle ebook in 2011. My third novel, Cold Play, was published as an ebook and a paperback on Amazon in 2012. Persistence of Memory is my fourth novel.
When did you first start writing?
I first started writing when I was about five, before I had a written language. I used to tell stories to myself, and I drew pictures to illustrate them. My first major work of fiction was when I was 12, and in Grade Eight. I wrote a novel about a fellow named Lawrence Jenkins-Hennessy who was kidnapped and found himself on board a freighter bound for England. I handed out the chapters to my friends at recess. I got serious about writing when I was 16. I went to a very progressive high school where in Grade 12 I was allowed to write a novel for my English / Literature credit. So I wrote a story about three teenagers who decide to walk through one of the London Underground lines in the middle of the night when the electricity’s turned off. At Tooting Broadway one of the characters tries to murder the other two and there’s quite an exciting sequence at the end where they’re trapped in a tunnel when the electricity’s switched back on and the trains start running again. Parts of that novel showed up years later in The Cilla Rose Affair.
Why did you become a writer?
For a while, when I was about 10, it was a tossup whether I’d be an artist or a writer. I was quite good at Art, but in the end I found writing gave me more of a sense of accomplishment and, more importantly, it became something I absolutely had to do. I was driven to write. And I discovered that when I didn’t write, I was completely miserable. So I guess I became a writer because the alternative was unthinkable.
Why did you choose to write novels?
I’ve always wanted to write novels, probably because as a child I was a voracious reader, and I loved reading full-length books. When I was at university working on my undergraduate degree, I had a great Creative Writing teacher who advised me to try all kinds of writing. So I tackled short stories and nonfiction articles, and even a play or two, as well as long fiction. Much later at film school I learned to write screenplays and tv scripts, and I had a few optioned, but I found that none of these gave me the same sense of fulfillment and satisfaction as plotting and writing a novel.
Is there anything you’ve had to overcome in order to become a writer?
I think the biggest obstacle I’ve had to deal with is the necessity of earning an income while I indulge my writing passion. So I’ve had to juggle a full-time day job with what’s essentially a full-time second job. I’ve solved this by having a nap after work so I start my writing time with a fresh brain.
Where did you find your inspiration for this book?
I actually got the idea for Persistence of Memory while I was researching my family tree. I was never much interested in where I’d come from, until one day I started digging into my mum’s family in England. I had a lot of success tracing my family tree, and found out about everyone except one of my great-grandfathers. I literally hit a brick wall with him. No birth certificate, no information about his parents, very little information about his life in general until a census record in 1911. And he died young, aged 42. No one in the family could provide any of the missing details either. So I sort-of took that frustration and intrigue and gave it to Charlie, in Persistence of Memory. And I sent her back in time to actually meet her great grandparents, six generations in the past.
What do you think makes a good story?
I think it always comes down to capturing your readers’ imaginations and giving them a good ride for their money. I personally love stories that surprise me – not only with the plot, but with the dialogue and descriptions, too. I hate uninspired, clichéd, pedestrian writing. Peoples’ tastes in novels are all different – some like horror, some like romances. But in every case, it’s a matter of understanding what your particular audience wants, offering it to them, and making it so compelling that they’ll stay up all night to find out what happens next.
Do you have a routine or schedule that you follow with your writing?
A long time ago I decided that the only way I’d be able to work full-time and write would be to incorporate naps into my day. So I have a short nap, 20 minutes or so, at noon, and then I have a long nap, about 2-3 hours, after work. And then I write into the night. I’m lucky that my best creative time is late at night. I try to write every day, including weekends. I don’t have a daily word count, though I do have a detailed outline. Sometimes I can only write one paragraph. Sometimes I can write 10 pages. If I feel I really need to concentrate and apply my creative mind without interruptions or distractions, I’ll take some holiday leave from work and become a full-time writer for a few days.
Is there anything you need in order to write?
It depends what I’m working on. If I really need to concentrate – if I’m working on a first draft, for instance – I need silence. If I’m editing or working on subsequent drafts, I can deal with quite a lot of distractions – tv, lawnmowers, bulldozers, etc. I used to think I could write anywhere, but I’ve discovered that’s not true. I can scribble down ideas anywhere, but in order to actually engage my creative mind in the craft of writing fiction, I need to be in a comfortable and relatively private place. I can’t write on airplanes, but I can write in hotel rooms. I can’t write on my balcony, but I can write in my living room. The only other thing I need to write is coffee. I don’t care what the studies say. Caffeine is the best creative kick in the world and it helps me focus.
What do you find most rewarding and/or challenging when writing?
I love it when I surprise myself. When my characters say something I would never have thought of in a million years – it’s just come out of their mouths, using their words. I also love the release of serotonin and endorphins that writing generates in me. It’s a bit like the high that runners experience. I also love it when I can entertain a reader, when they tell me that they’ve enjoyed reading what I’ve written and they can’t wait for the next book. That’s the best reward for me. What I find most challenging is my energy levels. I hate physically running out of steam when my brain wants to keep going.
Do you have any more writing projects in the pipeline?
Yes I’m working on the next book in the series after Persistence of Memory. It’ll be the same main characters, but this time Charlie will find herself in London in 1940, in the middle of World War Two and the Blitz.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I don’t really have all that much spare time when I’m not writing or researching my next novel! I’m usually online, on Twitter or Facebook, connecting with friends. And I’m still very involved with family tree research.
What will readers find interesting about Persistence of Memory?
I think people will find it quite entertaining, especially if they’re fans of Jane Austen. The story actually takes place a few years after Austen’s death, but a lot of Regency customs and manners are still in place, and England hasn’t yet launched into the massive social changes brought by the Industrial Revolution. It’s about a much simpler time in our history, when women were considered delicate and frail, and their only ambition in life was to marry well. Both Sarah and Charlie make it a point to rebel against those ideas – with interesting results!
What are the underlying themes? Are they connected to your life story?
I’m a great believer in the idea that “your DNA remembers”. In other words, you carry fragments of DNA from your ancestors, and things which they believed in, or created, or thought, have the possibility of being repeated in you, because of that connection. I also believe that everything in our lives happens for a reason. I totally believe in the interconnectivity of events, and you’ll see this in the story. One event in the future depends on another event in the past happening – or not happening.
I also believe in reincarnation, and the idea that we’ve lived before, in other lives and other times. There’s a little of this in Persistence of Memory, but that idea will be more prominent in the next novel, which is set in World War Two. I have a very strong personal and metaphysical connection to the events that will take place there.
What do you want your readers to take away or remember about this book?
I hope they remember my sense of humour and the quirkiness of some of the characters I’ve created, and the fun I had researching and writing the story. I hope that comes out in the story itself. I’d like them to be intrigued by a few of my plot devices, and surprised by what happens. And I really hope they like Charlie and Mr. Deeley, because they’re two of my favourite all-time characters.
Do you have a blog or website you wish to direct readers to?
I do have a blog but it’s very infrequent.
I’m hoping to contribute more in the future.
I also have a personal website:
I have lots of interesting things there. For instance, for Persistence of Memory, you can find a detailed character list, a map of the village of Stoneford, and the first three chapters of the novel.
Excerpt – Chapter One:
Charlotte Duran Lowe wheeled her bicycle out of the bright blue front door of her cottage and down the path of her untidy garden, to the cobbled street beyond.
The village of Stoneford, on England’s southern coast, was as much as the passing centuries had organized it: a jumble of cottages gathered around a handful of cobbled lanes, leaded windows and front gardens filled with rockery and wildflowers. Some of the little houses still boasted thatched roofs. Others had surrendered to the necessity of waterproof tiles. But all retained their memories of the past, and if a restoration needed to be undertaken, the work required utmost care, inside and out.
Charlie’s route to work took her along the village’s main thoroughfare, past the storybook houses, and past The Dog’s Watch, a venerable coaching inn that, centuries before, had serviced carriages, horses, drivers and passengers. Past St. Eligius Church, with its clock-faced steeple and tumblestoned graveyard. Past a row of shops: newsagent, bakery, hardware, Indian takeaway, greengrocer and chemist. And past the Village Green, with its massive 300-year-old oak shading early morning walkers from the misty seacoast sun.
She paused to study the tree from the road. Some of its branches were bare. Others still bravely held onto their greenery. But there was a fresh carpet of brown leaves scattered onto the grass below.
The Village Oak was the symbol of the village, the mainstay of the green. The Village Oak was Stoneford.
The Village Oak, Charlie thought sadly, was dying.
And Stoneford itself was under a threat of its own. Redevelopment loomed, spurred on by a consortium led by two brothers, Ron and Reg Ferryman. Though they’d grown up in the village, they seemed to have no sense of the past, and they certainly had no feelings for a historically sensitive future.
The Village Green was on its way to being turned into luxury flats with million-pound views of the sea. And nearby Poorhouse Lane was destined to become a driveway leading to 25 luxury homes with an underground car park. These events were not unconnected, in anybody’s minds.
Charlie cycled on, unsettled and unhappy.
Stoneford Village Museum was housed in the building that had once been the St. Eligius vicarage. It was here that Charlie spent her days, immersed in her role as a Historical Guide and Interpreter, dressed in a Regency-era frock that would not have been out of place in a Jane Austen novel.
This morning she was explaining the museum’s latest display to a group of seniors from a posh assisted living home in Bournemouth, just along the coast to the west.
The Travellers Room was housed in what had once been the front room of the vicarage, and it told the story of the Gypsies who’d once populated the nearby New Forest.
Charlie led the group to her favorite exhibit, a beautifully decorated and restored vardo painted in brilliant red and sunny yellow, sky blue and polished gold.
“How many of you know how the term ‘Gypsy’ came into existence?” she asked.
“Stevie Nicks, 1981,” a dapper gentleman at the back piped up. “From the album, Mirage.”
“Nigel!” admonished his wife, a little thing who looked as though she’d been embarrassed by her husband for most of her married life.
“Number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100,” Nigel added.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Mrs. Nigel said to Charlie. “He used to be on the radio.”
“Not to worry,” Charlie smiled. “It was the second single released from that album, wasn’t it, and the second biggest hit after Hold Me.”
“A woman who knows her music!” Nigel exclaimed, obviously delighted.
“My husband was the musician,” Charlie said. “Knowledge acquired by default.”
She led the little gathering around to the side of the vardo, where there was a mockup of an encampment, with a tent, the makings of a fire, and a collection of well-used cooking pots.
“The term ‘Gypsy’ comes from the word ‘Egyptian’,” Charlie continued, “as people once believed this was where Gypsies, or Romani people, originated. In fact, evidence suggests the Romani came from central India, landing in Europe around the 14th century.”
“It’s a lovely caravan,” Mrs. Nigel ventured. “Is that what they lived in?”
“Yes and no,” Charlie replied. “Yes…but only after about 1850. Before that, the Travellers walked on foot, and carts were used to carry their possessions. They slept outdoors in canvas tents, like this one, slung over bent hazel twigs.”
“This is interesting,” Nigel said, picking up a deck of Tarot cards lying on top of an upended pot.
“Yes,” Charlie replied. “The Gypsies were well known for telling fortunes, usually for the benefit of the villagers at fetes and fairs. Among themselves, they tended to be less flamboyant. This deck is very old, but incomplete. It’s missing The Fool.”
“I imagine if you had The Fool, it would be worth a few quid,” Nigel guessed.
“So we’ve been told,” Charlie said. “But, not much chance of finding it, I’m afraid. It seems to have been misplaced in time…”
Charlie had discovered the deck of cards in Edwin Watts’ antique shop. They’d been sitting on a table, wrapped in an old scarf, beside a very rusty knife and a dangerous-looking sword. The knife and the sword were of no interest to Charlie — and Mr. Watts wanted far too much for them, in any case. But the cards were going for a song, and had intrigued her. There were painted figures in period clothing, wearing robes of gold and silver and blue. Some of the figures had armor and crowns, while others held staffs and chalices and swords.
And so she’d bought the cards herself, and loaned them to the museum, with the proviso that if the deck ever turned out to be worth anything, she was going to have them back.
“Now if you’d like to come around here,” Charlie continued, “Noah Roberts, our resident expert on Travellers — and a descendant of one of the New Forest Gypsy families — will give you a little talk about Romani Ways.”
Charlie left the pensioners in Noah Roberts’ capable hands and went back to her office. The room had been created out of the vicarage’s kitchen, and her desk was an ancient table salvaged from the vicar’s dining room. She sat down. Next task: working out a budget for her proposed pet project, a village sightseeing tour.
At the back of the vicarage, in a ramshackle shed that had survived both World Wars, but not the ravages of sea air upon old wood, there was a very old wagon in dire need of restoration. One day soon, when the money could be found, Charlie was going to have the wagon repaired. And, with the help of Horace Inkersby, a local farmer who kept heavy horses, she was going to launch a sightseeing service that would take visitors around the historical sites of the village.
This was assuming there would be anything historical left in Stoneford to show off to anyone, if the Ferryman Brothers got their way.
Some hours later, Charlie left for a walk. She did this every day, from one o’clock until two, combining her lunch break with an opportunity to stretch her legs, and a well-earned opportunity to think.
Charlie had lived in Stoneford all of her life. She knew its shaded lanes and its secret passages, its rolling, grassy fields and its wildflower meadows off by heart. She knew the village as well as she knew its history.
Plugging ear buds into her mobile and switching over to music, she let herself out through the wooden gate at the back of the Old Vicarage, and walked the short distance to the churchyard adjoining St. Eligius. She turned left onto a path that meandered between a collection of cottages, and emerged at the base of a rise that was just high enough to call itself a hill.
At the top of the hill, overlooking the village, sat a stately home which had seen finer days, but which still retained its classical dignity, in spite of its conversion to a three-star Bed and Breakfast.
There were historical documents in the Parish Council Office that identified the manor on the hill as having once belonged to Charlie’s ancestral great grandfather, Louis Augustus Duran. There were also documents tracing the history of her cottage, which she’d inherited from her father, and he’d inherited from his father, all the way back to her ancestral great grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Foster.
There was a marriage notice in the St. Eligius church archives, confirming that on Saturday, the 30th of July, 1825, Sarah Elizabeth Foster had married Louis Augustus Duran.
But two years later, they’d sold the manor, for what was then a fairly substantial sum of money, to the family whose descendants had eventually turned it into the Bed and Breakfast.
Indeed, Sarah and Louis appeared never to have lived there as man and wife at all, and for some unfathomable reason, had chosen to begin their domestic life together in the little cottage at the bottom of the hill.
Charlie walked along the footpath at the base of Manor Rise, casting a glance up at what was now a graveled courtyard where the Bed and Breakfasters could leave their cars overnight. And that was only one of the enduring mysteries of her family’s past.
The greatest mysteries of all were Louis Augustus Duran and Sarah Elizabeth Foster themselves. So far, in two years of spare-time searching, Charlie had been unable to come up with any kind of information at all about them, prior to their marriage.
The St. Eligius Parish Records were extremely helpful when it came to descendants. The dusty volumes had given up details of christenings, marriages and burials of everyone who’d come after Sarah’s union with Louis.
But prior information about Sarah was another matter. Charlie suspected that Stoneford was not her birthplace, and that she’d arrived in the village at some point before 1825, from parts unknown.
Charlie had subscribed to an online ancestry site which was proving to be useful, but only in dribs and drabs, as information was only slowly being discovered and made searchable.
And since official records had only begun to be kept in 1837, they were of no use at all in trying to locate Sarah Foster’s forebears, or even her date and place of birth.
But if Sarah’s beginnings were difficult to pin down, her husband was even more of a puzzle.
Charlie turned off the footpath and trudged down the hill, doubling back to the main road that skirted the western edge of the Village Green. Here, there was a tiny bakery run by Clive and Rosa Parker that did a roaring trade over the summer, making up sandwiches and picnic baskets for visitors who planned on spending the day at the beach.
Charlie popped her head in through the open door — which was the signal for Rosa to create her special daily baguette. And while her lunch was in the process of being made, Charlie went into the newsagent’s on the corner and bought a chilled fizzy water in an expensive bottle, and then a potted geranium from the hardware store.
Paddy McDonald was on the pavement outside his grocery, polishing apples.
“You seeing Emmy Cooper today?” he asked, spotting Charlie.
“After work,” she said.
Paddy handed over an old-fashioned change purse, made of scuffled leather, with a well-worn kiss lock. “Left it in the lettuce,” he provided.
Charlie checked inside. Two pounds, a few pence in coins, and an elastic band. “Thanks, Paddy. I’ll make sure she has it back.”
Baguette, bottled water, change purse and plant in hand, Charlie carried on to the last stop of her daily walk, the graveyard attached to St. Eligius Church.
The oldest part of the cemetery, in common with the churchyards of all of England’s towns and villages, contained a collection of weathered tombstones in various stages of mossy topple and collapse. Sarah and Louis Augustus Duran were interred there, as were their children, Augustus and Emily, and their respective spouses. A few of their children were also there, but the rest had been caught up in the frenzy of relocation to cities during the urbanization of Queen Victoria’s rule.
Charlie’s great-grandparents were buried in a newer section of the graveyard, on the shady side of the church, where the polished granite markers had been civilized into orderly rows.
Charlie’s husband was buried there, too.
Sitting on the damp grass beside Jeff Lowe’s headstone, she removed a pink geranium that was outgrowing its little pot, and replaced it with the red one she had just bought. The back garden of her cottage was planted with many of these substitutions, a blazing riot of pungent color, celebrating Jeff’s life as much as declaring his death in a traffic accident, five years earlier.
“Today,” she said, unwrapping her baguette and screwing the lid off her fizzy water, “I was complimented on my knowledge of music. I blamed it all on you.”
It was not as if Jeff ever replied, but she could easily imagine his half of the conversation. It was an eccentricity she maintained, unashamedly, the same way her grandmother had kept her grandfather’s suits in a wardrobe in their bedroom, long after he’d died of cancer.
The interesting thing about sharing a village with a lot of one’s ancestors was the prevalence of present-tense relations.
Most of the members of Charlie’s family now lived elsewhere — including her parents, who had some years earlier retired to Portugal, and a sister and a brother who had long ago relocated to London. But there was still a smattering of uncles, aunts and cousins within the vicinity, and one of them was coming to see her now, limping through the churchyard with his cane, his bright Hawaiian shirt a brilliant splash against the shady grey stone walls of the church.
“Nick!” Charlie called, waving.
Nick Weller joined her, sitting on the grass. “How are you?”
“I’m all right. Chatting to Jeff. It’s been five years.”
Nick contemplated Jeff’s date of death. Five years to the day. He didn’t need reminding.
“I’m good. Been playing with sprites and tachyons.”
Nick lectured at a university in London for most of the year, but spent his summers in Stoneford. He had a wife and children somewhere — Charlie had met them. But they seemed not to like the English countryside much, and were always staying at their villa in Spain, or on their way to New York for shopping, whenever anyone asked after them.
“Sprites and tachyons,” Charlie mused. “Go on then, give me a few more clues.”
Nick showed her his mobile. On the little screen was a photo of something resembling a fountain of red particles, streaming up into a black sky from the top of an immense thundercloud.
“A sprite,” he announced, with obscure delight. “A massive electrical discharge that occurs during thunderstorms. It only lasts a nanosecond. And it’s exceedingly rare.”
Fiona, Nick’s wife, would not have been impressed. But Charlie was amused by her cousin’s obsession with electrical discharges and subatomic particles.
Nick changed the picture.
“And that’s an outer space sprite, shooting up from earth. They took that fantastic shot from the Space Station.”
Charlie peered at the little screen.
“Where’s the tachyon?”
“It’s hypothetical. You can’t see it. We don’t even know whether it exists.”
“If it did exist, what would it do?”
Nick put on the face and the voice he reserved for his first year physics students.
“Simply put, when matter approaches the speed of light, time slows down. As it reaches the speed of light, time stands still. Below the speed of light, we travel in space. Above the speed of light, we travel in time. Tachyons are particles that allow us to accomplish this.”
Charlie turned Nick’s mobile towards Jeff’s gravestone.
“Look, Jeff — Nick’s writing the next Doctor Who.”
Nick regained control of his phone.
“Under the right conditions, a tachyon event and a sprite event could combine to create an energy field that would be extremely conducive for time travel.”
“Wouldn’t that be interesting,” Charlie said. “What are the ‘right conditions’?”
Nick shrugged. “The most accepted theory seems to be a massive electrical discharge.”
“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could go back, Nick. Visit our ancestors …solve all those little niggling mysteries…”
“You want to be careful with that thought,” her cousin said. “What would happen if you changed something — and ended up not being born, for instance.”
“Then I wouldn’t be around to worry about it, would I?” Charlie answered, cleverly. “Perhaps I’d end up being you.”
“Now you’re really frightening me,” Nick said.
“There’s that theory that you carry, in your genes, memories passed down from your ancestors. Your DNA remembers. Jeff used to joke that he’d descended from the same line as Hank Marvin. There’s a Rankin somewhere in his ancestry. He couldn’t explain his obsession with The Shadows any other way. A bit unlikely though, as I think all Hank Marvin’s people came from up north. Newcastle.”
“Rankin?” Nick inquired.
“Yes, it was Hank Marvin’s name before he changed it. Brian Rankin.”
Charlie remembered why she’d asked Nick to meet her.
“I’m still having problems with my family tree program,” she said. “Can you fix it?”
As well as being a whiz at quantum physics, Nick was also Charlie’s computer guru.
“I think it must have some kind of virus,” she said. “It won’t save anything properly. And it keeps linking up all the wrong people.”
“I’ll download a new release,” Nick said. “I’ll pop in after dinner and do a clean install. And I’ll check for viruses. That should solve it.”
“I thank you. Our ancestors thank you.”
Nick got to his feet, slowly, using his cane for leverage.
Charlie picked a dead leaf off the new geranium plant, and leaned her head against Jeff’s grave marker as Nick limped away.
“There you are, love,” she said, wistfully. “Sprites and tachyons. That’s all that’s needed to turn back the hands of time.”