City girl feels the pull of farm life

author from Muswell Hill

author from Muswell Hill - Credit: Archant

Her debut novel has been described as ‘kitchen sink drama meets The Archers’ and includes authoritative passages on sheep virus and bringing in the beet.

But Susie Steiner is a born and bred north Londoner, who wouldn’t know The Grundys from The Aldridges.

“It’s not literally about farming,” she says of Homecoming, a slow-burning family drama set on a North Yorkshire farm.

“It’s about land as emotional territory, about one generation giving up territory to another. The farm is representative of succession; a way of talking about those psychic shifts.

“Researching the details I treated as a journalistic job – I worked very hard because it was important to get it right.”

Steiner, who went to university in York and owns a cottage on the moors so knows the area “like the back of my hand”, has a problem with too much proximity to her subject.

“It’s hard to take a view of something you are in the middle of. I would find it almost impossible to write about a north London girl because it’s too close to my own life. I wanted to explore something imaginatively and I had to push it away to do that.”

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Homecoming hinges on the transitional moment when tenant farmers Joe and Ann Hartle seek to hand over the family business to the next generation.

But eldest son Max has a baby on the way and is struggling to live up to his father’s exacting requirements – and there’s resentment that younger brother Bartholomew is evading family duty by disappearing down south.

Then a series of disasters on teh farm set back the Hartles, exposing human flaws and fragility as they are forced to lean on their offspring as never before.

“I started writing the book 10 years ago and the story was there from the beginning, about the future of this farm, the family and question of succession,” says the 40-year-old, who grew up in Golders Green and now lives in West Hampstead.

“There is something about the natural world, the seasons and weather which I find very moving and emotional.”

Steiner points out that few professions bind the next generation so closely to the previous one as farming.

“Part of growing up is rejecting certain things about one’s parents – one’s ability to make your own marriage, have your own children and live your own life is predicated on being able to leave them behind.

“Some children follow their parents, others go in a totally different direction. There is a sympathy or a rejection, but on a farm that question is a bigger elephant in the room.”

Steiner ramps up the conflict with a patriarch who won’t let go and a son trying to break away.

“An incredible percentage of family businesses fail at the point of succession. What makes it so complex is that it’s incredibly difficult for both the child and the parent to come to terms with those changes.”

During the decade of the book’s gestation, Steiner had two young sons of her own, which she says added a richer seam of complexity.

“It began with the struggle to be one’s own person but it journeyed through my own experience of having children and then to my parents aging, and I was able to see each perspective. Being a parent made me view my own parents with much more sympathy and gratitude and made me realise how hard it would be to give up my position with my own children.

“Sometimes you have to leave to come back and the climax of the book is about making peace with it enough to be able to return, take care of your parents and close the circle.”

After work experience on the Ham&High, Steiner landed her first journalist job on the Hendon and Finchley Times before rising, via The Times and The Telegraph to become a features editor on The Guardian.

But a six-month sabbatical allowed her to finally complete the work in progress which culminated in a publishing auction a year ago.

“It was a huge luxury to have that time and I was completely disciplined in a way I had never been before. I didn’t stop or think about any other writing and did a complete re-write.”

Huge wrench

Although she dismisses her job as dealing with “lipstick and knickers”, it was a huge wrench to leave The Guardian to write novels full-time.

“Leaving was difficult but there’s nothing more wonderful than selling a book and writing is the most free, joyful, interesting, enjoyable job.”

Her next project is a psychological thriller set in the Cambridgeshire fens. She currently has the number of a detective sergeant “on speed dial” and at a guess, I suspect a body might turn up in the opening pages.

“I enjoy the pace of a police drama. Homecoming gets off to a slow start. The second book is much faster out of the traps.”

n Homecoming is published by Faber and Faber priced £12.99.