Emma Henderson: author

Picture by Debra Hurford Brown

Most writers seem a little reclusive in nature. They like to retreat with the privacy of their own thoughts into a solitude, undisturbed by the sounds of everyday life.

“I call it going into purdah,” says author Emma Henderson, who adds: “It is very selfish in a way but I can write if I live alone with no one to distract me.”

Emma’s move from London to Derbyshire was made for just that reason. She had made a two-book deal with her publishers but five years ago the second one was not even on the horizon so she decided she had to move away from her city life.

“I simply went onto Rightmove to see where I could afford to rent. It could just as easily have been Cornwall but I saw this place and knew it would be perfect,” she said of her home in Turnditch near Ashbourne.

Her living room, with a log fire and double aspect windows looking out over the beautiful countryside, is her study; her only company is her rescue dog Tilde, who is too shy to greet visitors.

The walls are posted with picture storyboards and maps connected to her new novel The Valentine House, due out in April.

“By the time I had dilly dallied about, it took me five years, but I got there in the end,” she said with a huge grin.

Emma should now be settling down to write her third novel but as her walls testify she may not yet have separated herself from the second.

“It’s true that I don’t seem to be able to move on, but I just so love the beauty of the landscape,” she said guiltily.

The Valentine House is set in the French Alps and was inspired by the years that Emma, a former English teacher, spent running a ski chalet in the Alps with her teenage daughter.

“When my daughter was 12 we decided to take a year out so I could write. We were going to spend six months skiing and then six months in the sun in Greece. She loved it so much in France that we ended up staying for six years until she finished school.

“It was while we were there that I became fascinated by a nearby chalet which was once owned by a High Court Judge called Sir Alfred Wills who presided over the trial of Oscar Wilde and was also a famous mountaineer. It was his life which inspired some aspects of The Valentine House.”

While living in France Emma didn’t get much done by the way of writing but on her return to England she graduated with a distinction from Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing course and then completed her debut novel Grace Williams Says it Loud.

The book, which was inspired by the anger and guilt stirred up in her by her own sister’s incarceration in a mental hospital for 30 years, was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and the Orange Prize.

Valentine House begins in June 1914 when Sir Anthony Valentine, a keen mountaineer, arrives with his family to spend the summer in their chalet.

For Mathilde, a 14-year-old servant, it is the start of a life-long entanglement with ‘les anglais’– strange, exciting people, far removed from the hard grind of farming.

Except she soon finds the Valentines are less carefree than they appear, with a curiously absent daughter no one talks about. It will be decades – disrupted by war, accidents and a cruel betrayal – before Mathilde discovers the key to the mystery.

And in 1976, the year Sir Anthony’s great-great grandson comes to visit she must decide whether to use it.

“I wrote the book partly because I wanted to convey the beauty of the place that I loved but the only way I could do it was to use different characters to describe it for me. I hope that the dramatic landscapes that so enthralled me are evoked through the story of the Valentines,” said Emma.

She will be talking about her new book at the Derby Book Festival in June. You can read more about that in arena and find further details  at http://www.derbybookfestival.co.uk

Emma will be holding readings at the following places: Bakewell Bookshop, April 18, 7pm, Reading Matters, Chapel-en-le-Frith, May 6, 7pm and Waterstones, Derby, May 11, 6.30pm.