Interview with Penny Parkes

  • Penny Parkes

The bestselling Cotswold novelist on her Larkford series, winning awards and daring to become an author

Describe your Larkford series in a nutshell.

I like to think of my Larkford books as a little Cotswold mini-break. Not only is my fictional market town the literary lovechild of Cirencester, Bath and Broadway, but I also enjoy drawing on local traditions and eccentricities - like the duck race, the cheese rolling and the red trousers - to really add authenticity.

Coming from a background finding film locations, I suppose it was inevitable that the town itself would play such a pivotal role, but the theme of community really does underpin many of my plotlines. Set in a fictional GP’s surgery, each book is a real sneak behind the scenes – exploring the ways that the doctors of Larkford balance their personal and professional lives. Or not. Which gives me the perfect excuse to find the humour in their relationships and their endeavours, whilst exploring life in a country town.

What inspired the creation of your protagonist, GP Holly Graham?

I knew I wanted to write about doctors – there being something inherently attractive about anyone prepared to dedicate themselves to a career to medicine – but finding the balance between the doctors at The Practice was key. Holly has always been the beating heart of the team – the kind of doctor we all secretly long to have – always ready to go the extra mile and emotionally invested in her patients. But I really wanted to unravel the juxtaposition between her role as an accomplished family doctor, and that as a struggling wife and mother. It’s always lovely to write a character who is juggling identities and Holly was no exception.

It was always crucial to me as well, that the two male doctors, Dan and Taffy, had the kind of friendship – dare I say, bromance - that saw them through life’s ups and downs, and also offered the opportunity for wagers and practical jokes. I wanted to show that, in a job that can provide a rollercoaster of emotions on any given day, finding the humour is a crucial part of staying sane.

Likewise, the animal cast of Larkford has garnered as big a following as my doctors – time-share puppies, diabetes assistance dogs and a goose with attachment issues just for starters.

The paperback edition of your third Larkford book (Best Practice) is out this June, while your next - Private Practice - is released next Spring. How far ahead do you map out developments in the lives of your characters?

Now that’s a tricky one to answer, because with each novel my characters are evolving and, occasionally, developing minds of their own. I’ve learned to trust in the process and follow their growth, even if that sometimes means changing the direction of my plans!

For the most part though, each book will address an issue that I feel particularly wedded to – Best Practice focuses on rural Air Ambulance provision and the inherent challenges of coverage and funding. It was particularly special to work on this during the Tenth Anniversary year of our own Great Western Air Ambulance Charity, giving me chance to celebrate their amazing work and to raise awareness of their fundraising activities: after all, we all expect the helicopter to be there should we need it in an emergency, so every little donation helps. Issues like this always shape and dictate my plotlines, and by extension the paths some of my characters’ lives and relationships will take.

How did it feel to win the RNA's Romantic Comedy of the Year Award with Out of Practice?

Just fabulous, really. It was a wonderfully surreal and exciting evening, held in the most stunning library in London. The book had already achieved some considerable success commercially, but an acknowledgement from the RNA was truly special, to be honoured by established authors and publishers with my debut novel made me feel for the first time – maybe I can do this.

Writing is quite often a very solitary pursuit, so it becomes even more important that your publishing team and author friends provide a social and support network at times. Award and event evenings like that are signposts of the publishing year and much anticipated. We are incredibly fortunate in the Cotswolds though, to have a really close-knit group of authors - friends really - who get together regularly for drinks, meals and camaraderie. It’s actually one of my favourite perks of the job.

Describe your daily writing process - and your journey into writing professionally.

My writing process has quietly evolved over time, as I’ve had to take on a more professional approach – no more waiting to be ‘in the right mood’ when there are deadlines looming. And quite often I find myself promoting one novel, whilst writing the next, and submitting plotlines for the one after that. It’s certainly a full-time job!

I tend to plan in my mind what I’m going to write each day, whether whilst walking the dog, or swimming, or driving, and then sit down, switch off from the world for hours, until those words are committed to the page. I’ve taken to setting alarms for lunch and the school run, as I have been known to lose track of time when the words are properly flowing!

I think really, my path to publication is something I should share with all would-be writers: I talked about writing for nearly twenty years, but never actually got on and wrote a book. I’m incredibly thankful to my ever-tolerant husband for giving me an ultimatum – ‘take a year and either write a book, or stop talking about it!’ Three years later, my first novel was on the shelves. I’m not sure he’ll ever stop reminding me of that every time my books top the charts!

Who are your literary heroes?

I was a voracious reader long before I was a writer and it was the most perfect apprenticeship, so really my literary heroes would have to be the authors behind those books – Veronica Henry, Jilly Cooper, Marian Keyes, Katie Fforde, Jill Mansell…Their books inspired my writing ambition, their characters filled my teenage years and imagination, and I genuinely cannot think of a better gift to share than to provide escapism, empathy and emotion. A good book, after all, can transport you anywhere – and I’m thrilled to share my love of the Cotswolds with my readers all over the world.

Best Practice by Penny Parkes publishes on 28th June. Find out more about Penny and her Larkford series at www.simonandschuster.co.uk

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