In today’s society, we can all be very quick to judge. We take one look at a person, or we hear something about their situation and then we make up our minds about them almost instantly. But people are a lot more complex than that, they are very rarely what we expect them to be like, and everyone is special in their own way.
This is the message that author Anstey Harris explores in her incredible romance novel, The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton. In this beautifully written, emotional story Harris has crafted a journey of heartbreak, loss, friendship, and redemption that tugs at the heart strings.
Not only is Harris an award-winning author, but she also teaches creative writing in her local community, schools, and occasionally as an associate lecturer for Christchurch University in Canterbury.
In an exclusive interview, Harris opened up about her personal life, and all things The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton.
Q: How did you come up with the story for The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton?
AH: I am fascinated by the way society depicts women in literature (and art) – where you can be the Madonna or Lady Macbeth and rarely anything in between. I wanted to write something that tilted our perceptions of women and their societal roles. As a society, I feel we are far harder on mistresses than the men they have affairs with: as if the women should know better (but the men can’t help it).
I wanted to write issue-based fiction but in a completely accessible format – if you can leave my novel thinking less sweepingly about situations you may not know all sides of, my job is done. That said, I’m not advocating any particular set of values (except that we should all – all the time – strive to be as kind as we can) but sometimes, things we perceive are not as they will appear once you have a little more information. The whole #MeToo movement highlights that we need to stick together as women, rather than judging each other and, in doing that, facilitate unacceptable behaviour from men.
The things that happened to Grace at college are, sadly, cobbled together from elements of experiences that many friends working in the arts have had: a tale as old as time.
Like any story, elements of Grace’s story – and Nadia’s in particular – had been around me for a while. When I did my master’s degree in creative writing, the time was right for it all to come together.
Grace once had the beginnings of a promising musical career, but she hasn’t been able to play her cello publicly since a traumatic event at music college years ago. Since then, she’s built a quiet life for herself in her small English village, repairing instruments and nurturing her long- distance affair with David, the man who has helped her rebuild her life even as she puts her dreams of a family on hold until his children are old enough for him to leave his loveless marriage.
But when David saves the life of a woman in the Paris Metro, his resulting fame shines a light onto the real state of the relationship(s) in his life. Shattered, Grace hits rock bottom and abandons everything that has been important to her, including her dream of entering and winning the world’s most important violin-making competition. Her closest friends—a charming elderly violinist with a secret love affair of his own, and her store clerk, a gifted but angst-ridden teenage girl—step in to help, but will their friendship be enough to help her pick up the pieces?
Q: There is a lot of music featured throughout the novel, has music played an important part of your life?
AH: I know it would be lovely if I could say that I was a musician and channelled Grace every time I picked up an instrument but… I am the world’s worst cello player. I have been learning, on and off, since I was 11 and have never managed to get past grade two (the level one would expect a decent 8-year-old to achieve).
Because my husband is a violin maker, I am constantly surrounded by his clients – all exceptional players. It is something I would love to be good at it but… you can’t win them all.
In all other parts of my life, outside writing, music is central. My children are very musical and my daughter, Lucy Spraggan, has made a great career as a singer-songwriter. Music – especially singing – has always been a very strong part of our family life.
I assign tunes to characters and when I can’t imagine what happens next, I play that music to remind me of who the characters are – but beyond that, total silence. Originally, Grace’s tune was Bach’s Adagio in G Minor for Viola di Gamba and Harpsichord but it was too melancholy and didn’t make her dynamic enough. Then I heard the cellist Matthew Sharp play the Libertango – I realised immediately that that was Grace’s theme. Matthew later recorded his own arrangement of the Libertango for the book’s playlist (which can be found on my website here.)
Q: What was it like writing about a protagonist that was in love with a married man? Was it difficult putting such a strong character in a morally compromising situation, or did you always plan it that way for her to show her character growth by the end of the book?
AH: My entire intention was that it wouldn’t be someone very weak or uninteresting or talentless that would end up in this situation – as I said earlier, this is on David, not on Grace – he manufactured this situation and she, because of other things that brought down her self-esteem, walked right into it. I wanted, in a way, to say that that could happen to anyone of us. There’s an old French saying that says ‘Never say, “Fountain, I will never drink of your waters.” No one knows what’s round the corner or what tricks and traps life might have in store for us.
Q: One of the highlights of The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton was the unlikely friendship that Grace had with both Mr. Williams and Nadia – a pensioner and a teenager – what made you put this unlikely trio together?
AH: When I first started writing this book, my daughters and step-daughter were all teenagers. I love the bouncability of teenagers: the way that they can rage one moment and be pussy cats the next. They have such energy and bravery.
I had nothing to do with Mr Williams or what he was doing in my book. One day, while I was writing, he just knocked on the door of Grace’s shop and introduced himself. He is entirely created out of, and by, the story-world. There is something amazing about the subconscious part of writing. This was a prime example of how my story knew it needed this third wheel, this wise character, even though I didn’t.
Q: When I was reading the book, I found that there were so many beautiful underlying messages in it, like: the importance of learning from our mistakes; finding the strength to move on and better our lives; the idea that we’re never as alone as we might think; and then reminding us about the need for friendship in our lives. Was this deliberate?
AH: Yes, completely deliberate. And I hope the same message of hope ripples through my second novel (Where We Belong which came out in May 2020 and is shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Goldsboro Books Prize this year). In everything I write, the message is that you simply can’t judge other people on what you see or on what YOU think they are. Everyone is special and deserving but sometimes they might need more support – or a different kind of support – to see that. A friend of mine cried on the Tube once, just sitting in her seat. Her son had died. A complete stranger reached across – wordlessly – and passed her a tissue: what a magnificent gesture. Those are the moments I want to write about.
Q: A lot of people have described this book as being so honest and brave, especially in the beginning about some tough subjects like adultery and heartbreak, was it your intention to write like that when you started?
AH: I think people are surprised when you write about real life. But that’s what I like – real life and real problems, not a sanitised version where everyone is lovely and kind and pretends that everything will be alright. sometimes things aren’t alright, and we should be able to rely on fiction to mirror that and to help us deal with our own route out of the things that aren’t alright. I feel VERY strongly about that.
Q: Did you feel you related to any particular characters in The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton?
AH: I think I relate most to Grace – to that hopeless feeling of being in love with the wrong guy, to know that someone will never make you happy but be powerless to do anything about that as being without them seems like it will be so much worse. good stories always have a universal theme and I think unrequited love, or love that isn’t good for us, is utterly timeless.
Q: Have you ever thought of writing another story about Grace?
AH: I thought about writing more of Grace – because I love them all and I missed them. But then I moved on to new characters and learnt to love them too. I like where I left Grace and chums, I like that you can decide for yourself what happens next – it’s not up to me, it’s up to you, the reader. It’s your book.