Kate Furnivall’s masterclass in writing a bestseller

By Candice de Beer

“To write a bestseller, particularly where relationships are at the heart [of the story], you have to be willing to tear yourself apart.” It is this courage, honesty and commitment that has led to author Kate Furnivall’s success and won the hearts of fans around the world – mine included. Currently in South Africa to promote her latest best-seller, The Betrayal, fastjet managed to secure an hour of her time.

I’m busy polishing off a cappuccino when Furnivall enters, briefly scans the room, then confidently strides over to my table with a welcoming smile. I’m inwardly impressed at her powers of perception, although I do think the laptop and camera bag gave me away.

I immediately warm to her. She’s delightfully likeable, much like her novels, and I’m excited to begin our discussion about The Betrayal – which I absolutely loved – and her writing process.


The Betrayal interview

I ask what it is about a world in turmoil that so fascinates her. “Everything that we look at and experience is actually the world in turmoil,” she answers. “It is only with experience that we can make sense of it. When the world is in turmoil, it slowly strips away the veneer of society and [when it reaches] a crisis point, we find out what people are about underneath.”

She applies this to her writing process, deftly stripping away her characters’ defences and placing them in crises in order to discover their strengths and weaknesses, and whether they can overcome them.

All Furnivall’s novels feature characters who are painfully, bitterly real, and she applies the same insight to a book’s location. “The place is always a character,” she says. “It’s part of the essence and is as important as the protagonists. It helps to shape them and mould everything that happens.”

The Betrayal is set in Paris in 1938 when France was poised on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. She skilfully brings to life the city’s sights, sounds and smells, as well as the supressed panic and underlying tension. “I love that I can inform people through a book like this,” she says. “There was a wildness at the time. Paris was on edge and in turmoil.”


Writing a historic novel requires research

The authenticity of the book, and indeed, all her previous best-sellers, comes from deep, meticulous research. “I read about the time’s history, politics, and geography. I searched out old photographs and YouTube footage of cars going along the Champs-Élysées. This gave me atmosphere, a sense of the people and how they looked and acted, their clothes, the amount of traffic on the road. Then I sought out memoires and diaries, particularly those written by women because you get lovely domestic details that are gold dust.

“I make the place come alive in my head,” she continues, “and when I’ve got the essence of the story, not the details necessarily, I then go to the place knowing what I’m looking for. So I can know where to focus.”

Is The Betrayal a commentary on the decisions that people made during the war, whether to avoid acknowledging it, to lead a better life or escape death? “Yes,” Furnivall confirms, “although I’m looking at it in hindsight. Living through those times, I think it was harder to see which way to go. Who knows how any of us would behave? My hope is that people see in my characters’ reactions that we could all have gone that way.”

Relationships and love stories are at the heart of all her novels. “They are emotional books,” she says. “The drama, tension and thrills, and heart-pumping action all circle around this fundamental of relationships and exploration thereof. That is what makes it appealing.”

The main characters in The Betrayal are twins – and having done my own research I know that Furnivall herself is a twin.

“I set the novel in Paris to show what the build-up to the war was like. And the sisters are twins because I wanted to show two viewpoints and explore the difference between their two situations. The idea of two different desires for the future, and to have it between twins who are tied together with the bond of love which is unbreakable. Yet they spend most of the book with the terrible events that happened both to them personally and in society trying to tear them apart.”

The Betrayal opens with 16-year-old Romy waking up, covered in blood, in her father’s study with no memory of what has occurred. Her sister, Florence, finds her and the evidence is damning. Although devastated, her twin faces certain death so they agree to blame an innocent man for their father’s murder. Ten years later, Florence has compartmentalised her guilt and chosen to embrace her privileged life, but Romy continues to punish herself for an action she cannot undo and desperately tries to flee her past.

“Whether in drink, gambling or with men, Romy tries to deaden the pain and fly away from it.” Furnivall casts her as an aviatrix who flies Tiger Moth aircraft over the Pyrenees.

“The aeroplane is symbolic of rising into the air and leaving everything down on the ground. It is Romy’s salvation,” says Furnivall. She adds, “I like to include a basic moral question in all my novels. In this case, was Romy’s action in any way understandable and excusable? Is it forgivable?” Furnivall’s hope is that she makes it more understandable.


Saying goodbye to an advertising career, and hello to authorhood

Lastly, I ask why she came to writing so late in life? “It came about when my mother died,” she replies. “She’d told me many stories of living in China and India. And I wrote these stories down - about 20 pages. They were far too good to walk away from and, having supported and encouraged my crime novelist husband, Neville Steed, over the years, I understood how to turn an idea into a story – as well as the art of patience.

“I saw writing as something that was doable. You are building a galleon out of matchsticks. But it took great courage to do it. To write any big historical novel takes great courage. You take a huge leap and have to be certain you can meld fact and fiction.”

And 11 books later, Furnivall continues to make history more accessible for her readers. She willingly taps into her deepest and perhaps darkest emotions to create tales that live in the minds of her readers long after closing the final page of her books.

I really do recommend The Betrayal and if, like me, you’ve read her previous books and are still desperate for more, her next novel – The Survivors – releases in South Africa in September 2018.