Nestled in the lea of Bell Hill below the Wessex Ridgeway, where hang-gliders compete with the occasional red kite for airspace in the warm evening sky, the inspiration to write is abundantly clear. ‘It’s almost embarrassing. We have our little writing studio and this wonderful view, we are about as perfect a cliché as a pair of writers could be – all we need is a pair of capes,’ laughs David Solomons, whose first children’s book, My Brother Is A Superhero, won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize earlier this year.
His wife, Natasha, who grew up with the view they cherish so dearly, is indoors putting the couple’s two young children – Luke, who is four and 18-month-old Lara – to bed after a ‘stolen’ family afternoon in the sun. ‘Well, what’s the point of working freelance if you can’t bunk off on a beautiful day?’ He needn’t have asked.
My Brother Is A Superhero and its recent follow-up, My Gym Teacher Is An Alien Overlord, are set in suburban Bromley, which could seem slightly incongruous given the surroundings. But not so, says David. ‘It’s true there’s not a lot of rural idyll where the books are set, but before the suburbs were built there was countryside and the last oak tree that remains from the great forest that existed before is mentioned, so there is a slight trace.’
Ten years ago, the couple were working in Los Angeles – Glasgow-born David’s background is in screenwriting – and trying to buy a house in London while spending as much time as possible close to Natasha’s parents in Dorset. Something had to give and the lure of Dorset, together with a robust point-to-point internet connection, proved enough for them to base their lives and careers here.
‘The benefits are obvious – we’re close to Natasha’s parents and Luke has a wonderful relationship with his grandmother, who’s an avid gardener. They do all these things that seem to be from the 1950s – there are lots of long walks and he’s starting to recognise some of the birds and trees. Being bored is a lost art but it can still happen here.
‘Plus, for me, I’m a huge fan of Douglas Adams so when we first moved to Dorset and bought a house in Marnhull, it was a real thrill to be living in the next village to Stalbridge, where he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’
Before long David is summoned to Luke’s bedside for one last story, releasing Natasha for a stroll around the garden as she re-adjusts to the incursion of Dorset Life on family time. Her four novels to date – Mr Rosenblum’s List (2010), The Novel in the Viola (2011), The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (2013) and The Song Collector (2015) – are all at least partly set in Dorset. She makes no bones about her feelings for specific places, although there are other common threads: not least the connection to her Jewish heritage. Her grandparents and other relatives escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s and came to England, some of them on domestic service visas issued by the British government to meet a shortage of servants. After building a successful textiles business, her grandfather bought a home in Dorset with restitution money.
‘I’m third-generation Dorset and I feel incredibly rooted here,’ she says. ‘When we moved out of Marnhull and bought this house four years ago, I was going home, this was where we had to be, it’s part of my soul. I had known it as a child and the man who lived here before us was very important to me growing up – one of the last men of Dorset, I feel.
‘So the books explore notions of landscape and place, but often from the perspective of the outsider. There’s something about place and the source of creativity as well, a physical connection. I’m glad that I feel so secure in my connection to Dorset that I’m able to take it with me, so for instance I finished Mr Rosenblum’s List on a roof terrace in Venice Beach and found inspiration for The Novel in the Viola in the melancholy of a deserted beach at dusk in Dylan Thomas country – the sound of the sea is always the sound of time.’
The view enjoyed by the protagonist in the former is the same lush aspect the Solomons savour from their back garden while the latter is set in Tyneham (renamed Tyneford) in World War 2. ‘I fell in love with Tyneham as a child and always knew I would write about it – I adore the place but at the same time I can’t bear the sadness of it.
‘My grandmother died when I was very young so I have few memories of her, but I was very close to my grandfather and although he rarely spoke about growing up in Berlin, he told me about it.’
People and places from her own life permeate Natasha’s writing, enhancing its themes in pursuit of a voice we can all hear – as David ventures: ‘Writing about the things you know has more to do with writing about what you know to be emotionally true.’
Natasha is reluctant to say much about her next book other than the story is wide-ranging, but it doesn’t take place in Dorset. ‘I need to get on with it because just as it’s possible to lose a novel by reading it too slowly, I think it’s also possible to lose it by writing it too slowly. The books all start with the characters and this just isn’t a Dorset story. I never set out to write rural novels, otherwise it could end up Hardy-lite, some awful pastiche.
‘Dorset hasn’t become a theme park of itself. The thing I love about where we live is that it is a living place, a farming community – we do get tourists here but they’re usually lost.’
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.