Jan Baynham – The Secret Sister

The lovely Jan Baynham joins me on my blog today to talk about her latest novel, The Secret Sister which is published today.

After retiring from a career in teaching and advisory education, Jan joined a small writing group in a local library where she wrote her first piece of fiction. From then on, she was hooked! She soon went on to take a writing class at the local university and began to submit short stories for publication to a wider audience. Her stories and flash fiction pieces have been longlisted and shortlisted in competitions and several appear in anthologies both online and in print. In October 2019, her first collection of stories was published. Her stories started getting longer and longer so that, following a novel writing course, she began to write her first full-length novel. She loves being able to explore her characters in further depth and delve into their stories. Originally from mid-Wales, Jan lives in Radyr, Cardiff with her husband. 

Jan, thank you for stopping by today to talk about your new book. It is a super story, I loved reading it. 

Thank you for inviting me. I loved writing, The Secret Sister, so I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it.

Can you perhaps say a little about this book?

The Secret Sister

Wales, 1943.

Sara Lewis should be heartbroken when her husband doesn’t return from war. But he was never the kind husband she hoped for. And now she’s stuck with her cruel mother-in-law on the family farm.

Sara must do what is best for her young son. So she leaves the farm for the safety of her sister’s home.

Despite herself, she begins to notice Carlo, an Italian prisoner of war. Longing looks soon turn into love letters and a connection neither of them can sever.

But fraternization between the prisoners and local women are forbidden. As their love grows, so does the danger all around them . . .

Twenty-five years later, their daughter holds her father’s hand as he takes his last breath and whispers a name: Giulietta.

But who is Giulietta, and who are the young woman and baby in an old photograph?

The secrets of the past collide as the family are shaken to their very core, forced to revisit memories they’d rather forget to uncover the truth.

But before we start, would you like some Glengettie? 

Being a Yorkshire Tea girl myself, you’ll have to help me out here and explain what Glengettie is.

I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t actually like the taste of tea. Because I was drinking strong black coffee, I tried to find a tea I’d like to drink as an alternative. Now, I drink Earl Grey because it doesn’t taste like ‘normal’ tea! Glengettie is a full-bodied tea with a rich flavour and is a favourite in Wales. Originally, it was sold as strong cup of tea specifically for Welsh miners. When visiting my aunt who lived in Greece, we would always take a packet of loose Glengettie tea out for her. 

Milk and/or sugar? 

No sugar and just a dash of milk, please.

Welsh cakes or Bara brith? 

It has to be Welsh cakes, thank you.

I have to say I discovered cannoli quite late in life, but now struggle to walk past any pastry shop/tearoom with those on the menu.

Me too. I think that’s why I made sure my character, Claudia, sampled every variety she could find!

This is a dual timeline set in two very different locations twenty plus years apart.  I loved reading that you are fascinated by family secrets and ‘skeletons lurking in cupboards’ and like to explore how decisions and actions made by family members from one generation impact on the lives of the next. But how do you start writing books like this?

I usually start with an idea that’s come from something I’ve heard or been told about. With The Secret Sister I’d read about the beautiful Italian Chapel on the island of Orkney that had been built by the Italian Prisoners of War who were interned there. When I found out more about it online, I was blown away by the ingenuity of the prisoners who had made a beautiful place of worship from found and scrap materials. The ‘what-if’ questions started. What if the prisoners at the POW camp near to where I was brought up had done the same thing? Unfortunately, a housing estate has now been built on the original site of the camp, but I was able to visit another beautifully preserved Italian chapel in West Wales. 

Is the setting for the Italian Prisoner of War Camp Henllan POW camp and Capel Eidalwyr? I get the impression that you have been very moved by visiting these places. Tell me about your visits.

Yes, it was very moving to think that the POWS had created such a beautiful place in which to worship within the camp and that it has been preserved so that we can visit it today and remember them. Many Italians have returned over the years with their families. It meant so much to them.

In my head, the prisoner leading a similar project became Carlo. What if he fell for a local girl, even though fraternisation was prohibited. I wrote the historical story first and hopefully left the reader wondering why Carlo couldn’t return to his native Sicily when WW2 ended. Fast forward twenty-five years, his daughter travels to his homeland to find answers. What she finds there has a devastating effect on her mother, Sara, and Claudia feels torn. I have found that writing the story chronologically in parts works better for me than running the two stories side by side and interweaving them. Perhaps I’ll try that with novel five.

I always get to the end of your books and always feel like I’ve visited the places you describe along with your characters. You create locations beautifully; often evoking colours smells and tastes. And you do choose some amazing places and I love some of the images that you’ve shared on your social media in the run up to publication of both Wales and Sicily. 

Thank you, Anne. I think it stems back to the fact that my debut novel, partly set in Greece, was published at the height of the pandemic in April 2020. The book wasn’t written as an escapist read but because of the circumstances, it very soon became one. In Wales, we could only travel five miles from our homes. I knew Greece very well and readers were soon telling me they were travelling to a forbidden holiday destination through the words. Creating a sense of place is very important to me as I like to think of readers travelling in the footsteps of my characters.

When did you decide to extend the story to Sicily?

The mid-Wales camp in Clatterbrune, Presteigne was created to house Italian POWs who had been captured in Norh Africa. I’d heard so much about Sicily from a neighbour and always wanted to visit so I decided Carlo would come from there.

The hero of this book Carlo is an apprentice artist and known by his Italian fellow prisoner of war as L’artista. If you could be apprentice to any painter living or dead, who would it be?

I’m a big fan of the Impressionist painters, especially Claude Monet, and love the way they depict light, the freedom of the brushstrokes. I remember attending a Monet exhibition in London and being amazed at the numerous studies he’d painted of the same subject but at various times of day when the light was different.

And if you could produce a near perfect copy of one picture, which one would it be and why?

It would have to be one of Monet’s masterpieces in his series of ‘Water Lilies’ (Nympheas) paintings. I love the colours and the way he focused on the reflections of the surface of the water. I’ve been fortunate to have visited Monet’s garden at Giverny on two occasions and to see for myself the inspiration for his paintings.

This brought to mind fake or fortune my absolute favourite TV programme, but talking about TV programmes – Crossroads – was that really a favourite in the Baynham household?

Not really. I do remember it but when I researched what TV programmes were current in 1968 for Claudia to watch with her mother, Crossroads came up.

So what’s next from the Baynham writing room? 

I’ve started planning and researching novel five. It’s going to be set in my home area of mid Wales again and the beautiful Greek island of Kefalonia in 1953 at the time of the devastating earthquake. Again, it will involve a family secret and a sibling relationship. I visited there for the first time in 2019 but I think it will need a proper research trip, don’t you?

I understand that you’ve called your writing room The“Cwtch”.  It is a Welsh word that you use in The Secret Sister. How do you pronounce it and what does it mean?

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Welsh but the word is widely used in Wales to mean a ‘hug’. ‘Cwtch’ rhymes with ‘butch’. Its original meaning was a cupboard or cubbyhole often under the stairs. I like the evolved meaning of it being a ‘cosy hideaway which holds a sanctuary of peace and quiet’. That’s what I hope for when writing in the summerhouse.

Thank you Jan for popping by today to talk about your new book, good luck with publication. And many cwtches. Axx

Thank you so much, Anne. I’ve loved answering your searching questions.

Social Media Links for Jan:

Twitter – @JanBaynham (https://twitter.com/JanBaynham)

Facebook – Jan Baynham Writer (https://www.facebook.com/JanBayLit/?locale=en_GB)

Instagram – janbaynham (https://www.instagram.com/janbaynham/?hl=en-gb)

Blog – Jan’s Journey into Writing (https://janbaynham.blogspot.com)

Amazon Page – Jan Baynham (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=jan+baynham&crid=1OQFSV3VOXJRV&sprefix=jan+baynham%2Caps%2C73&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_2_11)

And the buying link for the Secret Sister:

One Comment
  1. Jan Baynham

    Thank you so much for inviting me onto your lovely blog, Anne. I loved your questions. The fact that you published it on publication day has made it even more special.

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