"I remember one night lying on floor of my houseboat after the curfew, in the dark because there are power cuts every other night, listening to gunfire in the bazaar and thinking: ‘What am I doing here?'"
Rosie Thomas is recalling a dramatic moment on the six-week trip she took to India to research her latest novel The Kashmir Shawl (HarperCollins, July). Her visit began with a trek in the Indian Himalayas, in the Kashmiri region of Ladakh and then, after her trekking companions returned home, a very adventurous drive from Leh to Srinagar—"I found a little man in a jeep who agreed to take me." It was, she assures me, perfectly safe despite the official Foreign Office travel advice: "I'm in my mid-sixties and the culture is very respectful to older women, so long as you're dressed appropriately and you conduct yourself appropriately nobody is going to give you any problems."
The same journey—from Leh to Srinagar—is undertaken in The Kashmir Shawl, Thomas' 22nd novel. Clearing out her widower father's house in Wales after his death, Mair Ellis finds a beautiful antique shawl, and a lock of child's hair which doesn't appear to match any child in the family. Knowing her maternal grandparents spent time in India as missionaries during the war Mair decides to follow in their footsteps in the hope of uncovering the mystery. The novel then moves back to India, 1941, and Mair's young grandmother Nerys, married to the much older Reverend Evan Watkins, a Welsh Presbyterian called to do God's work in Leh, high in the Himalayas. While doing her best to be a loyal missionary's wife Nerys does not share her husband's religious conviction and when a diversion arrives in the glamorous form of Myrtle McMinn, with her lipstick and cocktails, and her husband, Nerys travels with them to winter in the beautiful lakeside city of Srinagar. There she discovers the still opulent world of endless parties and gossip in the dying days of the British Raj.
For readers expecting a love story, The Kashmir Shawl is much more about female friendship, specifically that between Nerys, Myrtle and troubled Caroline Bowen, an Army wife with a secret. "I don't think I've ever written romantic novels," Thomas says, "they are always described as romances . . . but I think they are much more about how people get by, and what they find solace in.
"I think I've had a really interesting career," she muses. "I've never been in the front rank. I've never been name of the moment. But I've always gone on really steadily ploughing a slightly unfashionable furrow for quite a lot of that time. Then you have another ‘moment' but I think there's quite a lot to be said for quietly keeping going."
Thomas' first novel, Celebration, was published in 1982, and her writing method hasn't changed since then. She still writes three pages every day as a minimum—"but if I did six pages today that wouldn't knock out tomorrow" she laughs—and edits as she goes along. This very productive working method has resulted in a book roughly every 15 months over a nearly 30-year career.
Her loyal, long-term readers will have seen a change around 10 years ago when Thomas started to set her novels abroad against more exotic backdrops. White (2000) was set on Everest, Sun at Midnight (2004) in Antarctica and her most commercially successful book to date, which also won the RNA, Iris and Ruby (2007) in Cairo. In the late 1990s she "got to the bottom of my particular personal well and you can either go on writing the same book . . . or I thought you can go out and get some more life." So she did, discovering a passion for mountaineering, and her unusually athletic author biog includes competing in the Peking to Paris car rally and travelling the Silk Road through Asia.
Thomas has found her love of travel to be "very creatively unleashing . . . you've got two less layers of skin when you're out there [travelling], particularly on your own."
And she always travels with an ear out for a story. After all, she jokes, "you can sit in an airport and get five stories while you're waiting for your delayed flight to take off."