Santa Montefiore grew up on a farm in Hampshire and went to Sherborne School for Girls. There, she "wrote stories for my friends, imagining romances between them and the spotty youths they fancied at Sherborne Boys’ School."
Aged 19, her Anglo-Argentine mother arranged for her to work on an estancia on the Pampa for a year. She immediately fell in love – not with a polo player but with thr country. "I lost my heart to those flat, humid plains and still, after 5 books, I have not managed to retrieve it."
Santa's first novel, Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree, was published in 2001, 12 years after her first trip to Argentina, and several of her other novels are set there.
What's the title of your latest book?
The Secret Hours. It came out in July in hardback and will be out in paperback in April 2020.
Can you describe the plot to us in one sentence?
17 year old Arethusa Deverill left Ireland for the USA in 1894 and never returned. After her death, armed with her diary and a very strange request, her daughter travels to County Cork to discover the secrets of her mother's past.
How did you come up with it?
I'd written a trilogy and always planned to include Arethusa's story. It turned out that I didn't have room with all the other storylines, so, having so enjoyed writing about the Deverills, I decided to dedicate an entire book to her story.
Did the story change as you wrote it, or did you stick to the original plan?
Plans always change because I only ever jot down a very loose plot. I knew where I was headed and how I wanted it to end, but felt my way as I went along and created characters and their adventures as it suited me. It always turns out better that way.
What is a typical day when you’re in the middle of writing a book?
I run round the park with my dog at 8am. I'm at my desk by about 9.30. I light scented candles, put on my playlist of music specifically chosen for that particular book, close the door and disappear into my imaginary world. I have a light lunch at home, walk the dog, then keep going until about 5pm. I do Pilates twice a week at that time. I'd love to say that's my daily routine. It's rare to get a day without interruptions and other commitments. But that would be my ideal day.
How much of the writing process is inspiration, how much perspiration?
50/50. It's all very well having the ideas, but if you don't have the discipline to sit down every day and write, it's not going to happen. It's easy starting a book, great fun polishing the first few chapters, but the hard work hits you around chapter 10 and takes you right up until the last 5. That's the most challenging bit, in my opinion. I find, if I'm inspired, the writing flows easily. But inspiration is an elusive thing and cannot be called upon. You just have to let it happen. Music really helps!
Are you a better writer now than when you wrote your first book?
Absolutely! I don't read my first few novels, ever, because I'd want to edit them. I wrote my first novel at 25. I'm now about to turn 50. I've written 21 novels. You could say I've learned my craft, but I'm still learning and growing as a writer, and always will be. One can always improve.
Is reader feedback part of the satisfaction or does it not matter very much?
Reader feedback is important, but ultimately you have to write for yourself and not think too hard about those 'out there' who are going to judge you. I get lovely emails from fans so I know what they like about my novels. I never read Amazon reviews. What the eye doesn't see the heart doesn't grieve for! I take advice from my editor and agent, but I don't try to please everyone. I please myself and write from my heart.
Are you easier to live with when you’re in the middle of a book or when you’ve finished?
I think I'm quite easy-going generally, but I relish being in the middle of the creative process. I feel challenged, fulfilled, inspired and fired up. I took 6 months off at the beginning of this year, having finished my new novel early, and I was surprised by how much I missed it! I felt a bit down at times and realised, when my editor asked me to do some more work on it, how much pleasure I get from working. I don't think I'll be taking so much time off again.
Which authors do you read for your own pleasure?
So many! Hard to list them all... I love Isabel Allende, Fanny Flagg, Jojo Moyes, Sarah Waters, Neil Gaiman, John Boyne...and re-reading classics like Edith Wharton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who I adore.
The Secret Hours is published by Simon Schuster in hardback and will be published by Picador in paperback in April 2020.