On Thursday 12th May, we published the Sunday Times bestselling novel, Her Heart for a Compass in paperback. Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and her co-author Marguerite Kaye have written a wonderful tale of adventure and determination about one woman’s courage to follow her heart against all odds.
We’re delighted to speak with both the Duchess and Marguerite about their novel, writing journey and collaboration.
Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York
Why write your first novel now?
It’s been an ambition of mine to write this story for the last 15 years. In the end it was about assembling the right team around me to make it happen and having the time to do it. Working with my collaborator Marguerite Kaye, and everyone at Harper Collins and Mills & Boon, I’ve finally done it and become a first-time novelist at the age of 61 and I am so proud. The coronavirus pandemic, when like everyone else I was locked down with my family, gave me the time to buckle down and write the book.
How much of the book is based on your own life experiences?
There are some obvious parallels between me and my heroine, my great-great aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas-Scott: she’s a redhead; she is determined to make her own way in life; and like me she can be headstrong. She also takes up a career in writing, and works really hard for the charitable causes she cares so passionately about. But ultimately Her Heart for a Compass is a work of fiction, not an autobiography. It’s a coming of age story charting the journey of a strong woman who strains against the confines of 1860s society, when women were so controlled. I think the challenges Margaret faces will resonate with today’s readers.
The book is based on your great-great aunt. Why?
The idea for the novel came to me when I was asked to do the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? I didn’t end up going ahead with that, but it started me off on a quest to look into the strong, creative Scottish and Irish women in my lineage. I became particularly fascinated with my great-great-aunt, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, and the story grew from there. What struck me was how small a mark Margaret had made on the history of such an influential family – I could find out almost nothing about her. What kind of person was she? Why had she married so relatively late? She was more or less a blank canvas. With real historical events and facts to hand, my imagination took over. I invented a history for her that incorporated real people and events. I was determined to bring her to life and to show that researching and telling the stories of strong women in history of vital importance.
What would you like readers to take away from the story?
The main message I would like readers to take away from Margaret’s story is that no matter whether you make mistakes or get it all wrong, you keep going and fight for what you believe is your truth. You have to lead with your heart. Personally, I feel more robust, authentic, confident in myself and who I am and where I’m going than ever, and that feeling is very much reflected at the end of Margaret’s journey in Her Heart for a Compass.
What’s next for you?
My second novel for Harper Collins and Mills & Boon is next, and I’m so excited to be diving into this new story, once again with Marguerite Kaye as my co-author. I really feel this book marks a new phase of my life and a whole new chapter for me. I’m ready to embrace the opportunities and challenges of writing adult fiction, and to build on what I have learned when writing Her Heart for a Compass. I can’t reveal too much about the new book at this point, but it will be another period drama, and will build on the world which I have created for this first book.
Can you tell me how you came to work with Sarah, Duchess of York? Were you surprised to get the call?
Mills & Boon recommended me to the Duchess as a possible collaborator, on the basis of my previously-published novels and my writing style, which they felt would complement the story the Duchess wanted to tell. I was extremely surprised when my editor put the suggestion to me out of the blue, but incredibly excited too. The Duchess and I met up to discuss the project, and immediately hit it off. Establishing a rapport was the most important thing for me – and as it turned out, for the Duchess too.
What was the process like, writing the book together? Is this the first time you have collaborated with anyone?
From the first, we recognised that we needed to play to our individual strengths – her creativity and story-telling skills, my writing experience in crafting a story into a coherent narrative – basically, helping to develop her characters and storylines to get them on the page. The intention originally was to do a lot more of the work face to face, but then lockdown happened. We used WhatsApp, email and a lot of phone calls. I think that the pandemic, forcing us to work like this, actually brought us much closer together. The novel was a fabulous way to escape from reality. We have become close friends, and as I’ve said, above all, we have fun working together.
How did it differ to your own Mills & Boon books?
Her Heart for a Compass is a story of following the heart, but it is also a coming of age novel. So, the focus is on the journey, literal and emotional, that Lady Margaret takes. The heroine’s finding true love at the end of the book is the icing on the cake, rather than the solution to all her problems – and in that sense it is similar to my Mills & Boon romances.
Believe it or not, I recently celebrated my 50th book for Mills & Boon so I must be doing something right. But I love to set myself challenges. Lady Margaret’s story is the biggest book I’ve ever written, both in scope and wordcount. It is double the length of a Mills & Boon Historical Romance so there’s more space to include abundant amounts of research to provide colour and historical context to Lady Margaret’s story, an aspect of writing which the Duchess and I both loved, since we share a real passion for history.
Her Heart For A Compass by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York and Marguerite Kaye is out now!