Photo credit: Nick Gregan
Vanessa Edwards is a solicitor specialising in EU law who has worked in private practice in London and Brussels and for the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. After taking early retirement from the legal profession she wrote her debut novel, The Grass Widow (out now with Troubadour Press), in which a woman finds more than she bargained for when she tries to get even with her ex-lover. Photo credit: Nick Gregan
Publication congratulations for The Grass Widow (Troubadour Publishing). Favourite moment so far?
Like most debut authors, I found it moving and exciting to see and handle my printed book for the first time, and I have to say Troubador did an excellent job! Also I have been very fortunate to have had many generous Amazon reviews and ratings from several countries – mostly UK, but also US, Canada, Germany, France and Spain.
The Grass Widow is about a quest for romantic revenge which becomes a search for the truth about a murder. What sparked the storyline?
I started with a notional blank page – I knew I wanted to write crime but had no idea of a plot. Over a winter of daily dog walks I whittled away at it, trying to come up with something original that I would enjoy writing and that was more of a cerebral unravelling of a puzzle than an action-packed thriller. I liked the idea of a character stumbling into a situation which is not what they expected, and having to adjust the kaleidoscope of assumptions and preconceptions we all carry round with us, and those initial thoughts gradually became the bare bones of the plot.
You’ve said that longlisting in 2019 was an energising and validating experience after a dispiriting time querying your manuscript…
At that point I had been working on The Grass Widow, then called Some Like It Cold, for nearly three years. I’d submitted to 70 agents and received 70 rejections (or in many cases received no response at all, which comes to the same thing but which I find unprofessional and discourteous). It’s gruelling and demoralising to keep on sending query letters into the void and it really was energising and validating to be longlisted. I was particularly thrilled to be on the BNA list of 26 titles out of 1,343 entries. One of the things I love about the BNA is the teaser tweets in the run-up to the longlisting, and I thought I’d identified a vote for Some Like It Cold. I was on tenterhooks before the announcement and remember I was lying on my sofa constantly refreshing my iPad as the magic hour approached! I had tears in my eyes when I saw that I was on it, and it really did give me the confidence and motivation to continue working on the novel and keep on submitting.
You signed with an agent in 2020 and together rewrote the manuscript to fit more conventionally into the crime fiction genre. Were these mainly structural edits?
At that point The Grass Widow was a book of two halves: the first part was really the leisurely and chatty backstory for the second half, where the main plot and events of the story unfolded. Essentially, we deleted the first half, or at least reduced it to a few flashbacks and brief conversational references to what had occurred in the past. Both the original subplots and two characters also bit the dust. They were replaced by two new subplots and two new characters. The central plot and main characters however remained more or less intact and all the writing is mine, though some of the elements of the narrative and indeed the current title are to my agent’s credit!
You and your agent eventually amicably agreed to go your separate ways when it became clear that they wanted darker, grittier books than you felt comfortable writing.
Yes, that gradually became clear as we collaborated on my second novel. In addition my agent had an incredibly vivid and fertile imagination and was constantly suggesting changes and new threads which I initially embraced but ultimately found frustrating. Sometimes I felt I risked becoming an amanuensis, and my agent also became concerned about strangling my creativity. But we’d always got on well and indeed parted amicably, both having come to realise that our professional collaboration had run its course.
You wanted to keep control over the book and its future, so took the plunge and self-published. How did you choose your publisher and what one piece of advice would you share with other authors considering the same route?
I had a not totally up-to-date copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and think that’s where I found a good write up for Troubador, and a little googling confirmed that it still had that endorsement. Which brings me to my piece of advice – do your homework and don’t sign on the dotted line or part with any money unless you know exactly what you’re paying for and are sure the publisher will be contractually bound to do it. My inner lawyer speaking no doubt, but sound advice all the same!
What does a typical day in the life of Vanessa Edwards look like?
Unless I’m travelling or otherwise out of my usual routines, I almost always start the day with a five mile or so walk with my dog – when I was hatching the plot of The Grass Widow this was in the New Forest and now I’ve moved back to London it’s on Hampstead Heath. I find I think easily and clearly when I’m walking and if I have writing to do I’ll often tease out problems or jot down odd bits of text. The rest of the day is shaped by what needs to be done in the way of writing or otherwise, but I usually get a swim in, sometimes in one of the Hampstead Heath swimming ponds. And if I’m home alone in the evening I like to unwind with a glass of wine and a book or a crossword or music.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I would most like them to feel that they’ve had a good and enjoyable read! But also to take away the idea of the importance of female friendship, which was a theme much in my mind as I was writing the novel. And for some younger readers, perhaps to rethink any limited perceptions of older women: my two main female characters are women of a certain age — older than many in genre fiction — and they break certain stereotypes — they have fun, drink too much and act foolishly as well as wisely.
What’s next for you?
When I parted company with my agent I put the manuscripts of both The Grass Widow and my second book aside and left them languishing in a virtual drawer for a year or so while I took a break from writing fiction, during which I realised an decades-old eccentric ambition to translate book IV of The Aeneid into rhyming couplets! But earlier this year I returned to my novels and will shortly be resuming work on my snappily titled Book 2, which will probably become The Matchmaker: it’s a modern riff on a true crime of yesteryear. It’s mostly written but there are a few loose ends, old notes to self etc which I need to focus on. I’m looking forward to getting back to it now that The Grass Widow is out in the wild!
Vanessa Edwards is a solicitor specialising in EU law who has worked in private practice in London and Brussels and for the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. After taking early retirement from the legal profession she turned her hand to fiction. She lives in Hampstead and likes wine, walking and music of many sorts. And of course reading and writing. The Grass Widow is her first novel; an early draft longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2019 and shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers 2019 and the Retreat West Novel Prize 2019. Photo credit: Nick Gregan.
A quest for petty revenge becomes a search for the truth about a murder.
Ditched by her married lover Hugh on the day she was made redundant, Leonie plans to make life difficult for Hugh while she searches for a new job. She inveigles her way into his house as a cleaner, intending to plant fake clues to his new liaison for his wife Amanda to find. But instead she discovers real clues to Amanda’s secrets.
Meanwhile, fellow cleaners Brenda and Tina also have hidden agendas as they work: Brenda is counting on a spot of blackmail and Tina is looking for financial information to sell to her dodgy brother-in-law.
At the centre of this web is Amanda’s gardener Simon: handsome, ruthless and plausible, with a shady past and lofty ambitions.
A death in an apparent accident arouses Leonie’s suspicions. Can she put aside her animosity towards Amanda and use her impressive – if sometimes unorthodox – investigative skills to find the truth before someone else dies?