Interview with Tess Woods
The Perth domestic airport in Western Australia is buzzing with travellers, the air filled with excited chatter, rollered suitcases and the grind of fresh coffee from the nearby Cibo café. Silhouetted against the huge glass windows those left behind watch as a plane takes flight. It was at this very airport that Mel and Matt crossed paths. I’m here today to meet their creator, WA author Tess Woods, whose debut novel Love at First Flight has just won 2015 Readers Choice Novel of the Year.
RH: Tess Woods welcome to Writers Block. Shall we do a bit of plane spotting while we chat? Or are you more of a people watcher? I confess to being more of the second, and to having a coffee addiction… Can I get you anything from the café?
TW: Hi Rowena! Thank you for this lovely opportunity to chat with you. I’m very much a people watcher and airports are the perfect place to indulge my love of doing just that. Ironically, after naming the new book I’m writing Flat White with One, I actually don’t drink coffee. But I love a good cup of green tea so yes, let’s hit that café.
RH: Great *wonders if should change own order to green tea, but…coffee!*
RH: Congratulations on winning the 2015 Readers Choice Novel of the Year for Love at First Flight! It is a great novel and you’ve had so many positive reviews. Readers say: ‘It’s great writing, truthful, at times dark, close to the bone’; ‘This story left me lost deep in thought in both subject matter and characters regaling under my skin for days’; ‘[made] me want to stay with it, to hell with everything else’; ‘I recommend this book to everyone! It deserves to be read!’ and ‘Wow! For a debut novel, this is simply outstanding’. I agree with all those sentiments. It’s gritty and doesn’t pull punches but also so engrossing you can’t put it down. It must be an awesome feeling to win a readers choice award. Tell us a little about how it felt to get the news that your very first novel had done so well.
TW: I was at work when it was announced. I work as a physiotherapist in my own practice. I was busy in the treatment cubicle and had forgotten to silence the phone. All of a sudden the text message alert, email alert and Facebook messenger alert all started going at once. It sounded like a symphony coming from my desk. And I was bursting to get out of that treatment room and go and check my phone but of course I couldn’t do that. So on it went for half an hour, my phone buzzing like crazy non-stop with messages of congratulations, and when I finally went to check I was jumping around the office, hugging my receptionist and junior physiotherapist. It was as though I’d won the lotto and my receptionist was crying, it was just an amazing, surreal moment.
When I wrote this book, it spent two years being rejected by everyone I submitted it to, so to get to that point with it was incredibly rewarding.
RH: Rewarding and surreal, but very well deserved.
About the Book
A family is threatened by an irresistible attraction in this compelling debut that will appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty and Anita Shreve.
Looking back on it now, I can see it was instant. The second we locked eyes. Boom. Just like that. The me I had spent a lifetime perfecting began its disintegration from that moment. And despite the carnage it brought to all our lives, I still don’t regret it.
What would you risk to be with the love of your life? And what if your soul mate is the one who will destroy you?
Mel is living the dream. She’s a successful GP, married to a charming anaesthetist and raising a beautiful family in their plush home in Perth. But when she boards a flight to Melbourne, she meets Matt and her picture perfect Stepford life unravels as she falls in love for the first time ever.
What begins as a flirty conversation between strangers quickly develops into a hot and obsessive affair with disastrous consequences neither Mel nor Matt could have ever seen coming. Mel’s dream life turns into her worst nightmare.
Love at First Flight will take everything you believe about what true love is and spin it on its head.
RH: Mel and Matt have an instant and profound connection. Yes, their attraction is sexual but there’s much more to it and it’s that deep connection that is at the heart of Mel’s crisis. She has a family, a career and a full life and yet her pull toward Matt is irresistible. You paint a wonderful picture of marriage and of passion and what happens when that passion isn’t for the person you married. I’ve noticed that readers can react quite strongly to stories about an affair and I wonder if that was something that worried you, or were even aware of, when you began to write. What advice would you give to someone wanting to take on a moral issue such as this?
TW: I had absolutely no idea of the commotion writing about an affair, especially a mother having an affair would cause. When I wrote it, I knew I wanted it to be about an affair because those were the books that had stayed with me and haunted me for years after reading them, books like Tully, The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer. These stories were loved the world over, and their authors were celebrated, so I fell into a false sense of security with that.
But whoa, the reaction was nothing like I expected. From the outset, people either loved it or hated it and very few fell somewhere in between so it definitely had a strong affect on readers one way or the other. This included agents and publishers, they either said ‘this is amazing!’ or ‘this is disgusting’ and I had agents, publishers and bloggers refuse to even read it because of the subject matter.
I had one reviewer tell me she loved it and couldn’t put the book down and that it stayed with her for days afterwards but that she couldn’t rate it any higher than three stars because it involved an affair! And if you have a look at my Goodreads page, the one and two star reviewers on there don’t mince words about how they felt about the book being about an affair. I had to grow a thick skin pretty quickly.
Having said that though, overwhelmingly, readers have understood what I was trying to say with this story and that it is in fact a cautionary tale, rather than one promoting adultery. My goal was to write as authentically as I could and I didn’t consider the back lash when I did that which I think is why it comes across so truthfully and is what made so many married mothers and single women alike relate to the story.
I’m so glad I didn’t know there would be such a strong reaction to the story because had I known, I may well have toned it down to appease the masses and ended up with a lesser version of it. So my advice to writers attempting any kind of writing that deals with morals and values is forget everyone. Pretend nobody is going to see your book and write the story that you love.
RH: Very good advice—otherwise the internal editor takes over before you’ve written a word. I know that from experience…
RH: RH: In Love at First Flight you alternate between Mel’s point of view and Matt’s. Matt is a little younger than Mel and that came across beautifully in his voice. He practically leaps of the page, his voice is so authentic. Mel has more of a dilemma than Matt and this also comes through in her distress at being torn between her longing for Matt and her love for her family. Tells us a little about how you developed your two protagonists and found a voice for each—did they arrive ‘fully formed’ or did you need to work on them until they became rich, believable characters?
TW: I find it interesting that you heard Matt’s voice strongly because when I wrote it, Mel was much easier to write and came more naturally but Matt took an awful lot of rewriting. At first I was trying to flex my literary muscle and show the world how beautifully I could write. I remember so clearly writing a line in Matt’s first few paragraphs where he says that “as each wave came crashing to its death, it rudely disturbed the otherwise silent pre-dawn mood that hung in the salt infused air” and then I thought, ‘which twenty-eight-year old man thinks in those words?’ So I changed it to “the crash as each wave hit the shore broke the early morning silence.” It was tough to go through and edit out all my pretty lines but I had to in order to make Matt sound like less of a stuck-up middle-aged woman and more like a young male.
RH: Mel is a GP and her husband, Adam, an anaesthetist. I’ll preface my question by admitting I don’t know much about medicine, but both careers came across as absolutely realistic. I particularly love that scene were Mel is badgering Adam to open up more and he drops his good-humoured façade and tells Mel exactly how his day has been—gruelling. You give great insight into what a specialist faces every day. Did your skill as a physiotherapy help with that or did you need to consult others? Share with us a little about the research you did for both Mel and Adam’s careers.
TW: I shamefully admit I did no research for this entire story except to look up Hebrew symbols and meanings. Literally that was the only research I did. I wrote what I knew. Having worked with doctors, specialists and physios for my whole career, and being friends with them, it came very naturally to write about their work lives.
It’s strange that you chose that scene between Adam and Mel to discuss. The reason that the scene is realistic is because both stories Adam shares with Mel actually happened to my family. My husband had appendicitis and it was misdiagnosed for forty-eight hours. He came so close to death that the doctors asked me if I wanted to call a priest and suggested the children and I say our good-byes to him before they operated on him. He survived that surgery and the anaesthetist and surgeon came to see me together to break the news to me that he had survived. I was up on the ward, beside myself waiting for news with our two very young children and feeling so alone thinking I was about to be a widowed thirty-two year old.
Also in that scene Adam talks about injecting a pregnant woman with an epidural for the birth of her stillborn baby. That woman was me and I actually made Adam an anaesthetist to honour the man who was so wonderful to me and my husband in our darkest time.
RH: Wow, Tess, I’m so sorry to hear that. No wonder those scenes were so moving. And you’ve bravely shared your experience with Kid Magazine *Takes the opportunity to collect her thoughts as another plane takes off, the engine noise accompanied by a crying child*
RH: When reflecting upon Love at First Flight (which I do often) I’m struck by how many of the characters wear masks of some description—Adam’s constant easy manner is a case in point. Yet Mel also has to wear her professional face, even though she’s coming apart, and at times she can be quite blind about what other people may witness. Matt tells himself his fiancé is better off without him and believes everything will be fine if he can just find Mel again and tell her how he feels. I loved that you had some of the supporting characters call them out on their self-delusion. Was masking the truth (often to keep others happy) a theme that you consciously worked on while writing (or rewriting)? How a necessary a consideration is theme when writing, or is theme more in the mind of the reader?
TW: To be quite honest, this wasn’t a theme I deliberately gave any consideration to and I didn’t even realise it was there until this minute! But I love that you saw that in the story. That’s the amazing thing about sharing your work as an author, you can learn so much from your readers and make surprising discoveries perhaps about yourself as a writer (and a person) too.
I didn’t plot the story, I made it up as I went along so the themes in it emerged to me during the writing process. The main themes that struck me were what is real love? How do you define a soul mate? Is sexual love as important as family love? What about self-love, how important is that to relationships? I didn’t try to find answers, I just wanted to pose the questions.
RH: You’ve written quite a few articles about this novel and the motivation behind it and I read that inspiration for Mel and her dilemma struck you while you were washing up, that you hadn’t planned on writing fiction at all. Share with us a little about that moment and how (or if) it has changed your life.
TW: Yes that’s true, that’s exactly how it happened. So this is going back to January of 2009. Up until then I was a bookworm, I absolutely loved reading, but the thought of writing my own novel was never on my radar. I was busy with two young children and juggling our physiotherapy business.
But then I read Twilight and I was a goner. I’ve always loved stories where it’s a love that’s just not meant to be like Romeo and Juliet. And I thought the concept behind Twilight was amazing – the man Bella loves , her one true soul mate is also the one who will destroy her.
I literally couldn’t sleep until I found out what was going to happen and binge read the whole series in a week. Soon after I finished reading the books, the movie Twilight was on at the cinema. I dragged my best friend to come see it with me and then that night after the movie, I dreamt about Mel Harding.
The next day I couldn’t get this character Mel out of my head and I told my husband, Paul, that there was this woman in my mind and she was trying to tell me her story. Paul wondered if I’d had too much sun!
So I was just going about the day as usual, looking after the kids and then after lunch I was at the sink doing the dishes, looking out over the back yard and it was the most bizarre thing. I just saw this scene play out in my mind but it felt so real.
Here was this woman walking into my back garden and she was completely heart broken. She’d just ended an affair with the love of her life and she’d made the decision to do the right thing by her family and stay in the marriage. But as she walked into the garden she looked over and there was her husband sitting on the back porch, looking like a mess and she knew in that moment that he knew she’d cheated on him.
I remember almost going into a trance staring out the window, waiting to see what would happen next between these two but they disappeared. So I left a sink full of dishes and ran and got pen and paper and started writing. I called out to my hubby, “watch the kids please, I’m writing a book”.
And it honestly happened that quickly. I’d had no musings or day dreams about becoming an author at all up until that day.
The first thing I did when I picked up pen and paper that day was to write that scene exactly the way I had seen it happen between Mel and her husband Adam in the back garden.
Then I had to work out what had gone down before that to lead up to that scene so then I started writing from the start and the story wrote itself – the whole thing, I had no writer’s block, it was the easiest thing in the world.
I wrote for hours and hours and three days later I had forty-five thousand words and the bones of the story from start to end.
And I was so thrilled with it because I’d taken that Romeo and Juliet tragic love that was in Twilight and brought it the suburban middle-aged wife. It wasn’t teenagers and vampires, it was a woman that I could relate to and that I felt married mothers would have a lot in common with.
RH: You realise you’ve given me and probably every other writer a serious case of envy! *laughs*
RH: I’ve really enjoyed our chat, Tess, and thanks for sharing with us today. We love getting to know our Aussie authors better. Now I hope you won’t mind me keeping you from your family and your next project for just a bit longer, because it’s time for your …
RH: What is your all-time favourite book and/or movie?
TW: Book – The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller captured my heart like no other love story could. I read it in one sitting, I simply couldn’t put it down. That such a passionate love story could take place between two quite outwardly plain, middle-aged people in sleepy Iowa, where not much ever happens, fascinated me. The connection between Francesca and Robert and their tragic Romeo and Juliet ‘not meant to be’ love pulled at my heartstrings. They made me believe in love at first sight and I went on to write my own book inspired by their intense love. I thought Robert Kincaid was the most romantic male character I have ever come across.
“But, I am, after all, a man. And all the philosophic rationalizations I can conjure up do not keep me from wanting you, every day, every moment, the merciless wail of time, of time I can never spend with you, deep within my head. I love you, profoundly and completely. And I always will.”
Movie – Dirty Dancing. The music, the sixties, the fashion, the carrying of the watermelon, nobody puts Baby in the corner, the lift in the lake, and ahem, cough, Patrick Swayze in the lake…
RH: What are you reading now?
TW: Kylie Kaden’s Losing Kate. I’m hooked, it’s excellent, a very emotive read. I actually needed two nights away from books until last night after reading a book called Pieces of a Lie by another fabulous Aussie author, Rowena Holloway, because her book haunted me so much! If you ever happen to see her please thank her for the rattling of my soul that she did with her writing!
RH: I will. *chuckles* What is your favourite word?
TW: Fragile – it sounds fragile. It makes you tread carefully just by saying it, the word itself puts you on high alert. Oh and chocolate, self-explanatory.
RH: What is your worst writing habit?
TW: Editing. I edit far too much as I go along and it slows me right down. And sleeping! I put myself to sleep half-way through writing scenes. Hmm, maybe that’s telling me something – if it’s putting me to sleep then…
RH: *laughs* What is the best bit of advice you ever got (about writing or life in general)?
TW: Jim Carrey said, not to me in person (I wish), “Find what it is you are good at and bring it to the world. Share your unique gift – what is it about only you that will enlighten the lives of others?” I LOVE that! I love that in being me, I have the power to inspire others and everyone has that opportunity to service others in some way whether it’s through your writing, your art, your singing, your care giving, your skills as a cook or a plumber…we all have a unique gift that we can use to better the planet. And finding what your gift is, then using it to improve people’s lives, even if like Jim Carrey it’s to make them laugh or for me as a writer, it’s to help them escape reality, that is just so amazing to me! So find your gift and bring it!
RH: So what’s next for Tess Woods Author? I know you have another book in the works. Do you want to tell us a little about that or do we have to wait and see?
TW: In December, my short story Destiny in a Day was released by HarperCollins in the Hot Stuff: Surfing Love anthology and the next book from me will be Flat White with One. This book has four main characters, not two, all with their own point of view so it was extra challenging to find those four unique voices. Flat White is the story of Mel’s two children from Love at First Flight, Nick and Lily, as adults. Rather than infidelity, this time I tackle the topics of religion and refugees – I can’t seem to stay away from trouble it appears!
RH: Trouble with a capital ‘Tess’! *grin* Thanks so much for joining us today. Where can we find Love at First Flight?
Thank you so much for having me, Rowena. This was fantastic, your questions were the best!
RH: Ooh, you can come by more often.
TW: Here are all the places it’s available to download:
About the Author
Tess Woods is a physiotherapist who lives in Perth, Australia with one husband, two children, one dog and one cat who rules over all of them. Her first novel, Love at First Flight, released by HarperCollins in April 2015, received worldwide critical acclaim, was the winner of Book of the Year in the Readers’ Choice Awards 2015 for AusRom Today and hit the best-seller charts in Australia. Tess was top ten nominated as Best New Author in the Readers’ Choice Awards as well. Tess’s short story, Destiny in a Day, released in the HarperCollins anthology Hot Stuff: Surfing Love in December 2015 was written to honour her beloved author Rosamunde Pilcher and Tess is currently writing her second full-length novel, Flat White with One. When she isn’t working or being a personal assistant to her kids, Tess enjoys chatting with her readers online, reading and all kinds of grannyish pleasures like knitting, baking, drinking tea, watching Downton Abbey and tending to the veggie patch.
Connect with Tess Woods
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