Q&A with Anne Charnock

Earlier in December, Anne Charnock—author of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind—wrote a wonderful blog post about history and family secrets:

Real Life Isn't Like the Neatly Rounded Narratives of Fiction

At the end of the post, we asked YOU, the readers to put on your thinking caps and ask Anne a few questions. The response was incredible! Thanks for all the great questions!

So, without further ado, below are the responses to our first (but definitely not last), audience driven Q&A:

Yvonne Bressani asks:

Have you considered, per the question regarding the book's storyline, writing about any of the female ancestors in your family (non-fiction or a fictionalized account)?

I doubt I’d write in detail about my female ancestors—I feel I’d need permission from my extended family. But I will always be inspired by the challenges they had to face.

For example, in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I included a fictionalized reference to a tragic episode in my great-aunt’s life. Her fiancé died in northern France during the last week of World War One, and she only married in later life. When I was growing up, I always felt sad about her loss. It dawned on me that if my great-aunt’s fiancé had survived we might have had another branch on our family tree. So this terrible event, 100 years in the past, does inform some of the questions I raise in my novel. How are we affected by loss within our families? How, as a society, are we affected when people go unremarked in the historical record?

Ellie Lewis asks: 

When you have this wonderful talent for storytelling, can you lose yourself within the storyline? Are the characters friends or family members with whom you have a close relationship?

Yes, I definitely lose myself in the storytelling. When I’m not writing, my thoughts are always close to my characters. I wonder what they might do next, and how their actions could reinforce the novel’s themes. I’m fascinated by their back-stories, how their past affects their worldviews, how their actions are influenced by their past. I don’t, however, turn my real-life friends of family members into characters in my fiction—I’m not so brave. I do, very occasionally, incorporate their quirks. I hope they don’t notice! More likely, I’ll remember a remark someone has made that gives a surprising insight about their personality or about a relationship they have with another person. I can recycle a disguised version of that insight within my fiction.

James P. Pope asks: 

Do you research a lot before writing, or just add detail about people/places that you know a lot about—like Steven King with Maine?

I love the research phase. With Sleeping Embers on an Ordinary Mind, I drew on my existing knowledge of art history and art making. One of the storylines is set in Renaissance Florence, and I’ve visited this city several times in the past to study the art of the early Renaissance. However, I had an instinct with this novel that I could create some interesting contrasts by setting several chapters in present-day China. So, before I started drafting the novel, I visited a friend in China for a month. As soon as I arrived home, I started writing the novel. For me, the research never stops. So, while I’m drafting my novel, I’m still reading relevant non-fiction. For example, I read the letters of Laura Cereta, a fifteenth-century Italian scholar, and the title for my novel is taken from one of her letters! There’s nothing that compares to the thrill of such discoveries.

We, over at Criminal Element, wanted to know: 

Do you think the advent of the internet and social media will create permanent records that will help eradicate these mysteries and prolong family members in digital memories?

It’s now easier than ever to discover your family history. Increasingly, public records are being digitized and can be accessed online if you are reasonably computer savvy. In the future, I’m sure it will be even easier. My descendants, for example, will have easy access to the story of my life. I’m fairly active on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m a blogger. So, one day, my great-great-great-granddaughter will find digital traces of my personal and working life with relative ease! That’s a lovely thought.

This digital trace is something I had in mind when I drafted Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. One of my minor characters, Hildi, lives in a retirement home in the twenty-second century. An avatar of her brother keeps her company. This brother died several years earlier. His avatar has been created by mining his social media history.

You mention that the characters in the book are all connected through their artistic creativity; is art important in your own life, or did that detail simply lend to the story and the connections between the characters in this particular book?

My father bought a beautiful series of art books—monographs on individual artists, with large color plates—so I grew up with a vague awareness of art history. Then I started work as journalist. I fell in love with the photography side of the business, and my career moved towards photojournalism. More recently, I went back into full-time education to study fine art. I gained a masters degree and began exhibiting my own work in the UK and overseas. So, as you can see, photography, fine art, and art history are important in my life. This connection with the creative side of life eventually led me to write fiction. I’m fascinated that artists and writers adopt comparable processes in their work—starting with an idea, then refining that idea, and experimenting with their medium to get those ideas across to their audiences. For several years, I wondered if I could bring my interests in art making and art history into fiction. And I’m delighted that I found a way, at last, by writing the three storylines of Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind.


Well, that's it! We want to thank Anne Charnock for her wonderful post, Real Life Isn't Like the Neatly Rounded Narratives of Fiction, and for her insightful answers to everyone's questions. Follow her on Twitter and show her some love @annecharnock.

We'd also like to thank our audience for all of their great questions—give yourselves a pat on the back.


Anne Charnock's debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick and Kitschies Golden Tentacle Awards. Her writing career began in journalism and her articles appeared in the GuardianNew ScientistInternational Herald Tribune, and Geographical. Although Anne's education initially focused on science, she later attended the Manchester School of Art, where she gained a master's degree in fine art. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind(47North) is her second novel.