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In conversation with bestselling author and alumna Elisabeth Gifford

  • Date25 March 2020

Alumna Elisabeth Gifford (MA Creative Writing, 2010) is the author of a number of historical novels, including Return to Fourwinds and The Good Doctor of Warsaw. As she prepares to publish her latest novel, The Lost Lights of St Kilda - described as a sweeping love story that crosses oceans and decades - she talks to us about her passion for historical fiction, her career as a writer and how studying at Royal Holloway helped to hone her bestselling novel, Secrets of the Sea House .

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Why did you choose to study MA Creative Writing at Royal Holloway and what did you enjoy most about the course?

The course gave the opportunity to work on an extended novel-length piece of writing to a standard that was professional enough to present to prospective agents and publishers. The course came highly recommended by other writers and the tutors were all inspiring writers. Also the transport links were good which helped for someone like me combining a part time MA with work.

I have to say I enjoyed everything about the course. I loved the teaching and the exciting reading lists. I learned so much in a short space of time. The essays gave scope to develop and follow personal writing interests. I also really enjoyed getting to know my writing group, a mixture of all ages, sharing feedback about our work. The group was very supportive but also challenging so that with each session you could see ways to improve while still feeling encouraged. We became good friends and still keep in touch.

How did Royal Holloway help you to discover opportunities and to find your purpose in life?

I had always wanted to write, however with children and a part time teaching job, writing was hard to fit in to the day. But while I was on the course I began to see ways to take my writing forward from a beloved hobby to writing that was publishable. I learned that writing a book it is a marathon rather than a sprint and it’s all about finishing the book to the best of your ability. I also discovered the type of writing I enjoyed, historical fiction, sometimes with a dual time-line. I had been trying out a seemingly impossible story about a Gaelic mermaid legend over several years and during the MA it became Secrets of the Sea House, a bestseller.

How did your experience at Royal Holloway enable you to grow as an individual?

The MA Creative Writing course helped me develop more control and craftsmanship in writing while respecting the vision that I had for my story. And of course it helped me to complete a novel length piece of work. Agents and publishers like to take on a finished book rather than an idea and several of my group found an agent and publisher after the course ended. Agents are keen to meet well-taught creative writing students and we held a showcase reading that several agents attended. On a personal level, writing novels is a way to have a conversation about an idea or experience, and I always discover new things as I write, sometimes even lost family history during research!

What has your career journey been like?

I taught as a reading specialist part time for many years before beginning the course, eventually moving to writing full time. I am now about to publish my fourth historical novel, The Lost Lights of St Kilda. I love writing about Scotland, the Gaelic traditions, its culture and legends. I also write historical novels set in World War 2 inspired by family history. I plan to continue to write and publish historical novels.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I love exploring psychology and history. I love evoking the atmosphere of place through words, and I also enjoy building an exciting plot. It is a great pleasure to visit locations and I have spent time in Madrid and Beijing researching books, but my most frequent setting is the Hebrides. I also spent an unforgettable time in Warsaw researching The Good Doctor of Warsaw retracing the footprint of the now obliterated Ghetto with a man whose father was one of the 1% to survive the Ghetto.

What is your greatest achievement to date and what are your aspirations for the future?

I’m proud to have been given the opportunity to write children’s stories for Children for Health, a charity helping children to stay healthy in developing countries. I was also asked to write a biography for a couple that set up an orphanage for abandoned babies in China. The Good Doctor of Warsaw is about children’s rights activist Janusz Korczak who died trying to save children in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942. The Seattle Korczak conference on children in education awarded The Good Doctor of Warsaw a medal for services to child welfare.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about a career as an author?

Many writers have another income stream that takes away some of the stress on the writing, especially in the early stages, so it is good to have a part time job. That’s why this MA was so suitable for me as I wanted to keep working. If you love to write, then doing an MA such as this is a great way to move into writing professionally.

 

The Lost Lights of St Kilda is available to pre-order now and will be published in October 2020.

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