Like most great stories, Darling Blue has an ensemble of characters that delight with varying degrees of charm and intrigue. Tracy Rees’ newest novel spans a year in the the life of Ishbel “Blue” Camberwell; an aspiring writer and socialite. When her father makes a boisterous toast at her 21st birthday party, it sends Blue on a path of self discovery which includes… love letters! With gorgeous detail, the author paints a picture of the four seasons in Richmond, west London; and takes you on a journey that is well worth reading. Tracy was kind enough to grant your humble correspondent an interview, and I am happy to report that she is as lovely as her novels are.
This book incorporates the art of letter writing into the fabric of the story. Though it’s becoming a bit antiquated, why do you think it is still so special to receive a letter today?
It’s true that letters are far more rare these days. But there just IS something so romantic about a letter, isn’t there? Email, texting, Whatsapp and all the rest are great for quick, easy communication, for pragmatic stuff, like arranging where to meet. Or professional stuff, like corresponding with people in other countries, when you need an answer quickly. For anything practical and expedient you can’t beat the new methods.
But for a love letter, or a letter of friendship, or to say something meaningful like offer an invitation or send a thank you, I still think paper and pen is special. When I was a teenager there was no email! I had tons of stationery sets, with pens and stickers. Part of the letter writing process was selecting which paper and which decorations I was going to use. Then, every letter was a personal process, carefully thought out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there are quicker alternatives now, but I still get a special thrill when I receive a handwritten envelope and pull out a letter or a card that mark a special occasion or a special message.
Your novel takes place in the wonderfully glamorous 1920’s. What is something surprising about that time period that you came across during your research?
There was so much about the 1920s that fascinated me. It was a period I didn’t know too much about before I started researching Blue and I connected with it from the first. There were some things I already knew, like the mixed attitudes to women remaining in the workplace after the first world war, and the divide between rich and poor, which were compelling to study in more depth. Then other things were quite new to me, like the wit and humour that seemed to fill the writing of the day – both journalistic and literary. They weren’t afraid to be clever, to show off their intelligence in glittering phrases and quips, so I tried to recapture something of that flavour in the book. I was also taken by the developments in home decoration! That was the decade of the electric toaster, the refrigerator, and art deco design! I hadn’t realised how much change of that sort there was then and how it was a really big thing to be “modern”. I had fun with that when I wrote about Midge’s redecoration project.
Your main character struggles with her longing to be a professional and find love. Do you think there is still a dichotomy today?
I think to a degree there is, yes. We’ve come a long way and the division of roles between men and women is far more creatively distributed now. But for all of us, male and female, the world is pressurised and high speed and doesn’t lend itself easily to romance (the lack of time to write letters being a case in point!). I know that when I work I’m very whole-hearted about it – but then I’m quite an all-or-nothing person anyway. I’m quite driven and I love what I do so I can get lost in writing and effectively leave the premises when I’m working on a book. This is all great, but as several of my friends have often wailed over the last few years, “But what about your personal life???” (“What’s that?” was my usual reply.) It’s great to find satisfaction through work but we’re all multi-faceted beings and have a whole spectrum of different needs. The world will push us harder and harder to work, so it falls to us to draw a line and stick to it. This is something I’ve been learning and now my work-life balance is far, far better. I’ve even found time for romance!
What has it been like to meet and interact with your readers?
It’s fantastic – one of the very best aspects of what I do. Writing is a solitary activity and yet it’s essentially all about communication. So to hear back from readers, for example through Twitter, that one of my books has comforted someone through a difficult week, or simply entertained and delighted them, makes it all worthwhile. Meeting readers in person takes this one step further. I’m lucky, I do quite a few author events – talks, book signings, workshops etc – and it’s wonderful to see in whose hands my stories end up. Everyone has a different favourite and each of my heroines have a different group of champions. Everyone relates to different parts or different characters and I love knowing that whatever I write, someone out there will find it meaningful. I also remember long years of longing to be a writer when I was younger but thinking it could never happen! I would have loved to have the opportunity to meet authors back then so I’m really happy to chat on with my readers when I meet them. Probably, they wonder when I’m going to shut up…
What’s next? Can you give us a hint or clue about your next book?
I can, yes! It’s set at the turn of the century in the South Yorkshire coalfield. Like my previous books it’s historical, character driven and all about personal dreams and challenges and relationships. It’s also something different from the others; I like to keep each novel distinct and new, rather than write to a template. It has some lovely mysterious elements in it like a forbidden house and a strange vision… I don’t have a title for it yet so watch this space…
If you could distill the overall message you’re trying to convey in Darling Blue into one or two sentences, what would it be?
Gosh, Darling Blue in one or two sentences! I suppose it’s about the importance of friendship, family and forgiveness, of kindness and compassion. And also about the importance of trying to live as well as you can, drawing comfort and joy where you can to fortify yourself for the harder times.
Is there anything else on your heart you’d like to mention? Something you’d like to talk about I didn’t ask you about?
Hmmm… I guess just that Blue is set in Richmond, west London, which is a place very dear to my heart. I lived there for many years, through many life changes and ups and downs, so like Blue, I drew comfort, inspiration and fortification from it as the steady and beautiful backdrop to my life events. That’s why I’ve structured the book in five parts, five seasons, over the space of a year. It gave me the scope to describe the place in all its different glories.
Another thing is that I recently held a really enjoyable launch party for the publication of the paperback in a lovely old yacht club not too far from where I live. It had a beautiful staircase and when it was time for me to make my little speech and do my reading, I of course had to stand on the stairs, just like Kenneth’s speech in chapter one. Fortunately though, no one tried to marry me off to anyone…
Darling Blue reveals that love and loss are quite evenly divvied up among the human race; rich and poor alike—but also that true friendship can span such divides. If you wish to be whisked away to the 1920’s—or are in the mood to be whisked away anywhere actually—this is the book for you, or for someone you know who loves historical fiction for the holidays.
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