Return of the Native

Coming back 'home' to the Weald has been good. It righted a lot of the wrongs," Louise Dean tells me after just a few minutes' acquaintance. She has a disarming, if not slightly unnerving, frankness of manner that perhaps comes from the habit of writing about people and analysing the consequences of their actions or inaction. Louise is a prize-winning and Booker-nominated novelist who specialises in what Boyd Tonkin of The Independent calls "fearless, frank and darkly comic" fiction. She has a forensic eye for detail and an ear for "pin sharp" dialogue. Her four novels (Becoming Strangers, This Human Season, The Idea of Love, and now The Old Romantic) have all had very different locations (the Caribbean, Northern Ireland, France and Africa and now Hastings and the Weald) but all feature her particular brand of clear-eyed observation. "I generally begin with one distinct character," she continues, as she explains her approach to the writing process. "And one key scene that will probably fall about two-thirds of the way through the book, but I never know how it will end. I like to put myself in the hands of my characters, to really let them live. It's a bit like shaping clay on a potter's wheel. Having said that though, I do think it's important to state your character's problem in the first chapter, then the reader can decide whether or not they want to accompany you on the journey."

Born in Hastings and educated at Cranbrook School, Louise went on to read History at Downing College Cambridge. As a new graduate she worked as a brand manager for Unilever before flying off to Hong Kong to work for an advertising agency. She and her then husband then moved to America, spending some years in New York, where, after setting up her own advertising agency and pregnant with her daughter, she first began writing fiction. A later move to Provence sounds idyllic but Louise is quick to scotch that assumption. "It was full of heavy drinking ex-pats who kept a very tight social circle. It was beautiful but felt like a kind of early retirement and I was only in my thirties. I just wasn't ready for all that." Research for the next novels took her to Ireland at least one week in every month and then Africa. She thinks that it caused her to become dislocated from her family life and marriage. So, after so many wanderings, she has returned and perhaps discovered that what Tom Hart-Dyke calls one's "taproot" is just where she left it, back in the fecund fields of Kent.

The house to which she chose to return could hardly be more Kentish. White weatherboarded, with an intriguingly forking brick path, it overlooks one of the loveliest valleys in this almost indecently pretty area. Horses graze on the gently sloping fields behind the house and at the base of the valley a brick-built farmhouse supports twin oast roundels. At the summit of the opposite hill the flag flying from the church spire can just be glimpsed through the oak trees. Unsurprisingly, the kitchen table has been placed in front of a wide window to capitalise on the view. A wooden bench from an old ocean liner serves one side of the table, while delicately carved oak chairs, bought from the late lamented antiques shop in Sissinghurst, populate the remaining three sides. The walls feature oil paintings of cabbage roses, chamomile daisies and fiery zinnias. "I found the zinnias in the antiques shop in Appledore," Louise says. "I've collected lots of things over the years, of course, but it was great fun to find new pieces when I first moved here. It was done in a kind of mania – you know, staying up until midnight or even four in the morning sometimes, just putting things together."

It is surprising to hear that the kitchen was installed by Martin's of Hawkhurst shortly after Louise moved in. "It's all made by Fired Earth. Their Bastide range, I think, but the whole point of it is that it's meant to look as if it's always been here. There was a really modern "fitted" kitchen here when I bought the house that was completely unsympathetic. I found the old Edwardian tiles above the cooker on eBay and mixed them up to make a kind of montage."

"Having lived abroad so much, I just got to the point where I longed for England and I suppose having the children has made me want to share some of the traditions and the quintessentially English things that I had in my childhood." In the drawing room, a Christmas tree stands in front of one of the two huge fireplaces at either end of the room. Its upper branches have been decorated with vintage baubles, a mixture of family treasures, and those bought online or in junk shops. "There are several of the glass ones that I really love, but I use these papier-mâché red apples and pears from Webbs in Tenterden on the lowest branches," says Louise. "Our new kittens are fascinated by them and at least they can't do any damage or come to any harm by patting at them."

The windows are framed by curtains made from vivid red and green crewelwork linen twill from Bell House Fabrics in Cranbrook. All the lights are from Jim Lawrence apart from some lamps with coloured crystals bought from Liberty in London. Louise fears that the two sofas in this room are actually rather too big, but to the visitor their proportions merely spell comfort. One is upholstered in gunmetal grey linen with a matching armchair, while the other sports a grey, moss green and cream devoré velvet covering. Cushions made from vintage GP& J Baker, Sanderson and Osborne & Little fabrics are scattered across them. "I buy them from Kimberley Dawn. She's based in Cornwall and all her cushions are handmade using vintage or classic printed fabrics."

Between the sofas and chair a huge square wooden table features an attractively textured surface. "We often have friends over to play board games like Balderdash. I put out masses of nibbles and plenty of wine and we spend hours just playing and talking. At Christmas time, we have lots of visitors and we often do "party pieces". Of course my mother's of that generation who can recite all sorts of poems and a great friend of ours usually stands up and does something very funny. There's a lot of sherry and some very pink cheeks involved." Asked whether she likes to cook, Louise answers yes, but with some qualification. "I prefer to have men in my life who like to cook," she grins. This year we will have duck with a prune and walnut stuffing and lots of different accompaniments. My youngest two children will be arriving from New York at 5am, but then they're usually up at six on Christmas morning. 

"We hang the stockings above the fireplace with the woodburner and we all open presents first thing." On one windowledge a Nutcracker soldier stands guard, while on the facing wall Louise has hung a heart-shaped wreath made of red rose petals also bought at Webbs. The air is scented with orange, cloves and cinnamon from the candles burning on the long console table, in the centre of which is a statue of a woman. "Anxiety, I think it's titled," says Louise. "I think it sums up my writing rather well. I also have lots of statues of the Madonna. I'm drawn to the iconography, but I also like to imagine that I am that sort of kind, calm mother, though in reality I know that I'm actually rather impatient!"

Upstairs, in the main bedroom the bed is covered with bold Designer's Guild roses on a charcoal grey linen background and a much loved handmade patchwork quilt made by Louise's mother. The curtains are made from another Designer's Guild fabric, this time featuring bright dahlias. A spriggy flower print covers the tailor's mannequin that displays a collection of vintage and African beads that Louise collected on her travels. A huge chest of drawers from And So to Bed was bought for Louise's previous home in Belgravia and was so big, it had to be winched up the side of the house and in through the window. An unadorned but obviously Art Deco oak wardrobe was another find from eBay. On the wall next to it an enormous mirror with an Empire style black frame has been propped up underneath a black wall sconce with finely taut 'string' shades.

In front of the window stands an item of furniture that appears in some form or other in almost every room of the house. "I have a desk or a table to work at almost everywhere," says Louise. "I do most of my writing at my computer in my office, but I often write the more emotional stuff by hand and I also like to be able to pick up my things and move to another room if I feel a bit stuck. This desk is rather special though." It is more indulgent than the others, and well-suited to this bedroom with its sensuously curved Rococo form painted in white and gold with an eau de nil velvet inlaid surface.

The children's rooms are colourful and jolly. Louise's daughter's room features a handsome mahogany sleigh bed covered with another patchwork quilt made by her grandmother. One door opens onto what could be described as a kind of minstrel's gallery. "This part of the house was an extension made in the 18th century. The main bit dates from the 15th century, I think, and you can still see the 'external' timbers. There's so much wood here that the whole house creaks like a ship on the high seas."

Tucked under the stairs, a small door leads into Louise's office. Bookshelves line one wall, while a glass cabinet on another holds some treasured first editions by Graham Greene, George Orwell and EM Forster. Greene is a favourite author as is Hemingway, William Trevor, Raymond Carver, JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera, though Louise says her favourite book of all time is Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.

Although there is a dainty sofa covered with pretty French needlepoint fabric, this room is predominantly about business. Louise denies that she has to exercise any self-discipline in coming in here to work. "It's not a question of discipline because I love it and I'm afraid that when I'm in the thick of a book the house rather goes to pieces." In front of the window overlooking the front garden is where most of this industry happens. Louise's desk is a dark stained, solid and almost sombre looking one made in the 1930s for a New York bank. Above it are pieces of paper pinned to the wall with notes on her latest book and some inspirational quotations from writers such as TS Eliot. Above the printer is a framed letter from Graham Greene to an unknown correspondent. It is dated 1962 and is quite surreal in content, being a commiseration over the death of some ants. "I love that letter. What on earth was it all about?" she laughs. "When I first began writing I wanted to be part of the canon of great writers like Greene. I still write and rewrite everything perhaps a thousand times to get it right, but I've realised in coming back here that what is most important to me now is to make people laugh and to touch them somehow."

Address Book:
  • To find out more about Louise Dean's novels visit www.louisedean.com
  • Bell House Fabrics 01580 712555 www.bellhousefabrics.co.uk Kimberley Dawn 01752 846168
  • Liberty 020 7734 1234 www.liberty.co.uk
  • Martins of Hawkhurst 01580 753470 www.martinsofhawkhurst.co.uk
  • wordsClaire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming