Jennifer Meredith interviews Liz Trenow about silk weaving, Sudbury heritage and the transition from journalism to fiction writing
Many Suffolk-natives are unaware that their county possesses a rich heritage in the silk weaving trade – me being one of them. Until I met accomplished journalist and author, Liz Trenow, for an interview at her Colchester home, I had no idea that our very own market town of Sudbury was once at the centre of a booming industry, housing some 600 looms and four prominent firms. I was also oblivious to the fact that those firms still exist today, with fully functioning looms and even royal commissions.
Having been born and raised in Sudbury living next to a silk mill, Liz Trenow has a family history entrenched in the world of silk weaving: ‘I was brought up in a house next to the mill because my father was the managing director,’ Liz explained as she poured me a coffee. ‘My first two books were very much inspired by this lifestyle.’ She was, of course, referring to The Last Telegram and The Forgotten Seamstress, written in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Both are period novels centred on strong female characters whose fates become intertwined in potentially dangerous relationships, and both have a prominent theme of silk weaving.
Taking a seat in Liz’s front room in view of a stunning abstract canvas painted by her husband (David Trenow, an established artist, folklorist and singer), she gave me an overview of her family history:
‘The silk weaving company was established around 300 years ago in Spitalfields, because that was the heart of the English silk weaving industry. It was a huge industry during this century; there were thousands of silk weavers in the country. However, the silk trade started to decline because of relaxed import duty and restrictions; because of this, many of the weavers of Spitalfields became unemployed. The government passed bills to try and fix their wages, but when it came to the master weavers, employers couldn’t afford it. So these weavers began moving out to places like East Anglia in order to find other weavers who could work for lower rates, but also because the industry turned to mechanisation, and they wanted to find small streams to run their mills. This is when my family came out first of all to Braintree, and then to Sudbury in the early 19th century.’
Was it inevitable that, with such an impressive silk weaving lineage, Liz would focus her writing on the industry? ‘Looking back, I guess it was inevitable,’ she laughed. ‘But it didn’t seem that way to me at the time. I left Sudbury thinking that I could make a life for myself in London, and it was only really when I was doing my MA that I realised my parents were getting older and their immense and long history would be lost if didn’t talk to them about their lives.’
All of the records from her family’s business were tragically lost in the Blitz, so she started researching her first novel (the ‘final piece’ for her MA in Creative Writing at City University London) by talking to her parents, in particular her father: ‘it was when I was talking to him about the second World War and how the demand for such a luxury fabric stayed alive during this time, that he told me about weaving parachutes. I was really intrigued by this. The strength of the fabric had to be accurate and consistent, and the porosity had to be perfect.’
Having worked in journalism for 20 years previously, Liz is well versed the concept of research. So when her professor advised her not to write an historic novel due to the volume of research involved, she bravely persisted and emerged with a master’s degree and a novel that was snapped up by Christopher Little, literary agent to none other than J. K. Rowling.
Three novels later, and a fourth on the way, Liz’s writing has been equated to the likes of one of Australia’s biggest publishing exports, Kate Morton, and award-winning novelist of Sunday Times bestseller Chocolat, Joanne Harris. When I ask how she feels about this comparison, she explains, ‘surreal! I don’t feel like it’s really happening to me. I think also that people expect me to have changed as a person because of this, but of course you don’t change – you’re still you. I’m astonished that I’ve had this kind of reception. Recently I went to a book club, and it was really interesting to talk to people who had read my novels. What is really touching is when I get emails from people from all over the world telling me that they love my books; it’s extraordinary to know that I’m able to reach out to people in this way!’
Due to be published in 2017, her fourth novel is a tale of ‘silk weaving and illicit romance against the backdrop of religious persecution, mass migration, racial tension and wage riots in 18th century Spitalfields, London.’ Provisionally entitled, The Master Piece, we’re certainly looking forward to losing ourselves in Liz’s literary tapestry.
Liz presents regular talks and book signings at local venues. To attend an event, or to find out more about her work, visit www.liztrenow.com