Island Retreat

Sally Beauman is one of our foremost novelists.

Born in Devon in 1944, she read English Literature at Girton College, Cambridge.

After graduating, she moved to the USA, travelling extensively and beginning her career as a journalist on the staff of The New Yorker magazine.

A winner of the Catherine Pakenham Award, she became the youngest-ever editor of Queen magazine.

She has contributed to many leading magazines and newspapers, both in the UK and the USA. It was while writing an article on Daphne du Maurier, commissioned by Tina Brown for The New Yorker, that the idea for her latest novel, Rebecca's Tale, came to her.

Her previous novels, including Destiny and three linked thrillers, Lovers and Liars, Danger Zones and Sextet, have all been international best-sellers and translated into more than 18 languages. She has also written a definitive history of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Sally has lived with the classical actor Alan Howard for 28 years - they met when she interviewed him while he was playing Hamlet in Trevor Nunn's 1970 RSC production at Stratford. They have one son and divide their time between their homes in London, Gloucestershire and the Outer Hebrides.


' I read all the time and my favourite book - my Desert Island choice - is Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. When I am in the Hebrides, I read six or seven books a week. has saved my life, as I can now buy books on the net - before, when I went on holiday, I could never carry enough.

My next book is about the island where we have a house and so I am reading about the history of the Hebrides and topographical books, which I enjoy.

We spend much of the year in the Hebrides - I can start work early in the morning and there are the most glorious walks. It's my favourite place on earth.

People talk about the quality of light in Venice or the Greek Islands, but the light here is spectacularly beautiful and changes all the time. Our house faces the mainland and sometimes the islands inbetween assume new shapes and I love that. The weather is completely sea-borne; it comes with the winds and alters very fast.

I also have a house in the Cotswolds and I would have been perfectly happy to continue with that and the London house (which we have to have). But the Hebridean house had fallen on hard times and we just knew we had to rescue it.

It once belonged to Compton Mackenzie, Alan's great-uncle, and he spent an enormous amount of time here as a boy. Restoring a house on a remote island has its logistical problems - nervous breakdown time.

I alternate between isolation and sociability in quite an extreme way. When I am in London, I am gregarious. But I also like time on my own - that is due to my writing, because I never used to be like that. When you are writing a book, you spend long periods alone tussling with it.

I am trying new working patterns because I used to be so tunnel-visioned. I would start early in the morning and then work through until teatime, which is counter-productive.

Now I have a new regime: I start work about eight and continue until lunch. Then I go for a walk and in the evening, I answer letters and e-mails and deal with business things.

Writing doesn't come easily to me. I hate starting a book and will do any displacement activity to prevent myself from writing. But once I have started, I find the process addictive, even when it is going badly.

I have been a full-time writer since 1983, when my son was small. I found that journalism clashed with family life - being asked to dash off on a journey at short notice was difficult and meant I wasn't seeing enough of my son.

Having been the least-maternal person, once my son was born I adored being a mother. Now that he is in his twenties, I am trying to be less maternal as there's not much point now. We have a lot of interests in common - Scottish hill-walking and bird-watching.

I did a lot of acting at Cambridge and wanted to go on the stage but, thank heavens, I did not. It is hard for women as they age and the roles start drying up.

I am still very interested in the theatre and terribly classical in my tastes: I adore Shakespeare and Chekhov, I don't often like modern plays - the last one that I really liked was Arcadia, and that was some years ago.

I like music and enjoy Mozart at Covent Garden or sadlers' Wells. Music plays more of a part in Alan's life. I prefer silence.

When I am working on a book, we tend to eat scrappy meals, but when I am between books, I love to cook. The fish and shellfish in the Hebrides are fantastic.

I like to get up about six o'clock. So, on my ideal day, I would read for an hour or two before anyone else surfaced, work till lunchtime, then walk in the sun along a white sand. Then I would not do lots of e-mails. Instead, friends would come round and we would have crab or lobster, with a good white wine, after which we would look at a full moon over the islands before going to bed.'

Vanessa Berridge & Sally Beauman

The Lady, 12th -18th / 2 / 02.

Moonlight over Loch Borralan, Sutherland

Moonlight over Loch Borralan, just off the one-track A837 in Sutherland, a few miles from Ullapool - not quite the same as islands, but beautiful nevertheless!




Alan Howard articles page