She was only eight, bounding down the gangplank and into her grandfather’s arms.
As she hugged him at the end of the lengthy sea journey home from Hong Kong, the young Rachel Hore stated boldly: “I am back, and this is where I belong.”
Unbeknown to her then, as she set foot in England for the first time in three years after her family returned from her father’s overseas posting, this ‘sense of belonging and where you are from’ was to form a recurring theme in her books.
History, family backgrounds, relationships, dual narratives and unexpected twists and discoveries, are rich traits of her work that has seen her become a best-selling writer since her first book, The Dream House, was published in 2006.
It was as we sat discussing her 12th novel, One Moonlit Night, that she reflected on that scene on Southampton dockside in the late 1960s, having been recently reminded of that day with the discovery that it was written down in her grandfather Philip Harlow’s diary.
Transcribing it for the family as a lockdown project, there, in his own handwriting, was early evidence of this sense of belonging that Rachel has carried throughout her life and into her literary persona.
Born in Epsom Hospital, she was brought up in Surrey before her father Richard – a civil servant in the Ministry of Defence – and schoolteacher mother Phyllis went overseas when she was five.
“While it was interesting,” recalled Rachel, “I did not want to go at the time. I had just started school and was settling as a young child, but everything got left behind.”
Sense of belonging
How much she missed England was defined in the joy at returning; an emotion which left such an impression on her grandfather that he felt it worthy of writing in the diary that she is now rediscovering and methodically typing up for the rest of the family.
“A particular theme I write about is that of belonging and identity,” said Rachel, “finding where you belong both in terms of place and your family.
“I have always been very clear that I belong in this country and never understand when people say, ‘I am going to emigrate, I hate Brexit, this place is a dump’.
“How can you do that: your country has raised you, paid for your education and health and everything else and you are part of it, particularly when there are so many people who want to stay where they are and can’t.”
Born in 1900, her grandfather began his diary in 1960 – the year Rachel was born – writing about his upbringing and life.
“Nobody read it before he died but it is a very special thing to have,” added Rachel, who also did not realise, until she began the transcription, that the lines she uttered as she bounced ashore that day had been recorded so precisely by the man who greeted her.
Drawn to Cornwall
Despite the upheavals of modern times in the UK, Rachel has a pride in being English, specifically of her Cornish heritage, and now as an inhabitant of East Anglia.
“My birth name is Cornish, which I have always been very proud of,” she continued. “Cornwall has always been an important part of my life; it is where my father came from and right from when I was quite small, I was drawn to Cornwall as a holiday place and where we went to visit our relatives.
“But it is also as a very romantic place that, somehow, when you are a young person growing up, you are convinced world circulates around you; to be up on the jagged granite cliffs with the storm and fabulous blue sea suits your teenage mood.
“So, it is one of my romantic places, though Norfolk has become that as well, though the landscape is so incredibly different.”
Rachel went to school in Surrey, read Modern History at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, and after a taking a secretarial course, began work at publishing company William Collins.
Her first editorial job was checking the proofs of a Stephen Donaldson fantasy book and a Tom Clancy novel, before she began commissioning novels.
She was Barbara Erskine’s editor and worked with authors Susan Howatch and Sidney Sheldon, thriller writer Craig Thomas, and then went onto the Aga sagas and chicklit.
In the 1980s, with smaller publishing houses taken over by larger media companies, William Collins became Harper Collins.
“I remember shaking hands with Rupert Murdoch when he bought the majority interest in Collins. We were a global company and everything began to get a bit more corporate.”
She met husband David – author and biographer DJ Taylor – when they were 27, after she was assigned to work on the paperback version of his first novel, Great Eastern Land.
“It was quite odd reading Great Eastern Land because half is completely fictional and about a young man who is out east, somewhere oriental and exotic, and the other half is about a young man growing up in Norfolk. It was a very strange way of getting to know my husband before I had met him!”
Having married in 1990, she stayed with Harper Collins until 2001 before the family moved from London to Norfolk and their current home on the outskirts of Norwich with their three children, Felix, Benjy and Leo.
“I idealised the move to this lovely cathedral city, but did not know Norfolk. Apart from a visit with a sales rep to Norwich, I had not been to Norwich or Norfolk before meeting David,” she said.
“I did find it very odd being here to start with, partly because everyone knows everyone else, everyone knew David’s family and it seemed everybody knew about me before I had met them.”
Finding herself at home, looking after three young children, Rachel began the transition from publisher to author.
She continued freelancing for Harper Collins, and taught on the UEA creative writing course while assessing manuscripts and reviewing first novels for The Guardian.
“I did that for quite a while, but did not feel I had anything that was going forward, it was just bits and pieces. Then my father died suddenly in 2002,” she said.
This encouraged her to write, and initially she explored writing stories for women’s magazines, though found they often went beyond the allotted word count.
She soon realised that material suitable for a small story and material suitable for a character who is going to become the hero of whole novel, were quite different.
The Dream House
Then, one day, she noticed an ex-colleague had written a novel that had gone into bestseller list and thought, “if she can do it, then I can do it too.”
“The Dream House I suppose was about all of the things that had been happening to me in recent times,” continued Rachel.
“It wasn’t specifically about the loss of a father it was about the loss of a sister, but it was also about a publishing woman who gives up her job and moves with her family to Suffolk.
“I felt I wanted to put a sort of distance into proceedings and had a fictional village near Southwold in mind. I also put into it the experience of looking for the perfect house, which we spent a long time doing.”
A pivotal moment was the drive back from seeing her mother one weekend, with everybody else asleep in the car.
“As I drove east into the evening, with those Norfolk skies and the sunset behind, it was a very liberating feeling,” recalled Rachel.
“My thoughts just started flowing and by the time we had reached home I had worked out most of the overall storyline of The Dream House.”
From there, it was a case of padding out the tale, assisted by a chance reading of an EDP story about an elderly man who lived in a ‘house of treasures’ in Banningham and was moving into a residential home.
“He had been an antiques dealer and had this marvellous old house, absolutely full of antiques and curios, and was having a ‘people’s auction’ at the house.
“You could go and look in advance to see all the different lots; I just wandered around and made lots of notes and looked at all the curios and moved this wholesale into my novel, with an elderly woman sitting in a house full of treasures. I really enjoyed writing that book.”
Rachel acknowledges she has set several of her books, either partly or almost entirely, in Norfolk and regards the county as a source of inspiration.
“But whereas David is writing about Norfolk and Norwich from the inside, I suppose I am a bit of an outsider,” she concedes.
“I am constantly – like with Cornwall – seeing the romantic possibilities of the Norfolk landscape, the marvellous old houses, the thatched roofs and the bleak landscapes and loving them all because I have adopted them. But I am still seeing them as an outsider would.”
Following The Dream House, she was adamant her second novel in the two-book deal – The Memory Garden – would be Cornish.
“I had a lot to draw on there; my father had been a trainee land agent in Truro in the early 50s and visited huge estates in Cornwall, and described these grand places falling into disrepair, and I found a house and a garden that I could use as the basis of the story,” she said.
“I am very aware that I write about houses but they have such metaphorical importance; houses can be places of security and warmth and comfort and love, or they can be the complete opposite, places of nightmare.”
One Moonlit Night
Rachel’s novels often feature two narratives, past and present, that weave into one another.
With One Moonlit Night, the narratives are almost contemporary in the early 1940s, set mainly in Norfolk and partly in France.
“While the wife has gone to Norfolk to escape the war in London and is thrust into a strange house that is full of secrets, she is in two senses of the word, ‘searching’ for her husband.
“She is wondering what has happened to him because he has gone missing in France but she is also wondering about his life before she met him, and specifically his childhood.
“I think people are fascinated by the idea of what their beloved spouse was like as a child.”
The inspiration came from the idea that you can marry somebody and never entirely know about your spouse, especially from before you met them.
Launched at The Book Hive in Norwich on May 12, it is dedicated her mother and her aunt, Anne, who are twins and now 92.
“It was their wartime stories that suppose originally inspired as a child and interested me in that period,” she explained.
Her 12th book, it follows the success of The Silent Tide, A Beautiful Spy and A Gathering Storm, and research is now under way for a 13th novel, which she reveals will be set in Cornwall with a narrative between the Second World War and 1966.
“There is always romance and they are quite traditional,” she says of her books. “When I write, the experience of evoking scenes is for me quite filmic, as if I am seeing and hearing it all, and experiencing it in the way that you do a dream.”
She regards her background as an editor in publishing as vitally important in shaping her approach.
“During my time as an editor, I was completely immersed in the methodology of writing and the little tricks.
“I felt quite privileged to be so close to the writing process, to be sitting next to Barbara Erskine, going through the editing over a cup of tea at her kitchen table, and saying ‘Barbara you really need a paragraph that explains such and such’ and she would write it while you were there and you would realise how the whole thing worked.
“It is a very personal relationship being an editor at that level.”
While in markedly different genres, David and Rachel support each other professionally and often appear together at literary festivals, such as Aldeburgh, where they “interviewed” one another.
“I remember, a few years ago, the worst question a member of an audience asked was ‘are you jealous of each other’…which I thought was horrible – and no we aren’t.
“We are very comfortable with what each other does,” explained Rachel, who away from her writing enjoys singing with church choirs in Eaton and walking her fox red Labrador, Zelda.
“I have to say, local people have been very supportive of my books, they sell very well in this area and I think Norwich is a great place to be an author because there is such a burgeoning literary culture which one feels part of.”
*One Moonlit Night by Rachel Hore is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster at £16.99.
I am reading: Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist; and I have boxes of entries to read for the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown Award for which I am a judge.
I am watching: I saw Andrew Cotter and Olive and Mabel at The Theatre Royal; we watch Scandi noir such as Wallander, and I also enjoyed 10 Per Cent, The Queen’s Gambit, and Operation Mincemeat at cinema.
I am listening to: Classical music