Romantic Novelists' Association

The Matchmaker, The Milliner And The Man From Maastricht By Ali Simpson

15 December 2023

We are delighted that you could join us to talk about your new release. Could you tell us a little more about it? Thank you so much for having me and Merry Christmas! If I had to describe my debut novel The Matchmaker, the Milliner and the Man from Maastricht I would say it is an uplifting romance with a healthy dose of ‘chick lit’ running through it. Set in England and Zambia, the central love story is woven around a colourful cast of characters, the relationships they have with each other and the friendships that develop between young and old, and across different cultures and continents. Alongside the warmth and gentle humour, I also touch on subjects like life after divorce, women’s empowerment, guilt, loss and grief.

 What was the inspiration behind your book? What prompted you to tell this story? I always wanted to write romance but knew I wanted my novels to be about everyday people – I love sultry sheiks, brooding Counts and dashing doctors, but I personally didn’t want to write about heroes with chiselled jaws, piercing blue eyes and private jet bank balances, sweeping away hapless young beauties to their tents/castles/operating theatres (delete as appropriate!).

My main characters have to be honest and kind but also relatable and flawed. Dann Huismann is handsome, of course, but not obvious, strong but not macho, decent but definitely not boring. Anna Peel is beautiful (inside and out), smart, interesting and accomplished but sometimes struggling with the same insecurities we all have.

In terms of the setting, I thought about my love for southern Africa and particularly the time I have spent in Zambia, in and around Victoria Falls and the mighty Zambezi river. The people there are resourceful, generous and endlessly inspirational and the awesome landscapes, birds and animals are so alluring that I couldn’t think of a more magical setting for my love story to unfold.

 How did you decide on the names for your characters? Giving my characters their names is always my absolute priority when writing as, until I know what they are called, I don’t feel like I can really get to know them as individuals. Quite often I just idly doodle names until the right one seems to magically jump out of the page at me and then I know my character is officially ‘born’.

Henry was the first person to be named in my book, as this is actually the name of a little boy my husband and I sponsor at Tongabezi Trust School in Livingstone. I love African names so picking the names for my Zambian characters was a lot of fun.

In terms of my leading man, I have to confess I have a bit of an inappropriate crush on the Dutch actor Michiel Huisman so I am sure he won’t mind that I shamelessly tweaked his name for my lovely Dutch geography teacher (and, Michiel, if you read this, love you to play the part in the movie – get in touch!).

 What is your writing day like? I have always been an early bird and have found I am my most creative in the morning. I usually just grab a cup of Earl Grey and head on up to my office in the attic as soon as I can. I created my office when I was still working full-time during the pandemic and having a separate, dedicated space to write is really important to me.

After lunch, my creativity starts to flag so I usually spend the afternoon and evening getting on with all the other things we have to deal with in real life. Either that or I use the time for doing research in readiness for the next day’s writing.

Also, as I’ve got older, I occasionally suffer with middle-of-the-night insomnia but, on a positive note, I sometimes find this is when I am at my most creative. Luckily, I’ve developed a talent for jotting down thoughts and ideas in my notebook in the complete darkness so as not to disturb my sleeping husband, although this has often led to some interesting deciphering the next morning!

Without giving too much away, what was the hardest part of the book to write? The hardest part was writing my novel in the epistolary style, the word derived from Latin after the Greek word, simply meaning ‘a letter’.  I knew I wanted to create a cast of characters and hear them speaking in their own voices so writing my book wholly in a series of letters and emails was the perfect medium but was also quite a challenge.

You certainly have to develop a ‘split personality’ to make sure all your characters have individual voices, with particular ways of speaking and use of language. If you have a character who is a child, as I do, you can’t make them sound like an adult so you have to think really hard about the language and particularly the vocabulary they use. It would be too easy to fall into the trap of having everyone sound like you do – a criticism I think that was once levelled at that most famous of epistolary books, Dracula.

In my book, my main characters – Anna, Dann, Grace, Henry and Izzy – are, respectively, a Devon-born London hatmaker, a Dutch geography teacher, an African hotelier and academic, a 10-year-old African boy and a feisty police sergeant – so couldn’t be more different from each other – or me.

I was particularly pleased when the first agent I approached commented about the distinct and individual voices she was reading – it made me happy that I had got it just about right.

 Who were your favourite childhood authors? As a small child, I loved Enid Blyton but I am not sure she would be suitable for today’s youngsters. I recently found my original copy of her children’s bedside stories and was disturbed by how dark they were. I distinctly remember being slightly terrified by the magic poker that came alive at night to hit naughty children.

As a teenager I really got into the classics of modern literature, George Orwell and John Fowles particularly, and I was in love with all the First World War poets at one time or another.

However, the first book I ever read in one sitting, cover to cover, was a romance by Mills & Boon. I don’t remember the title, although I think it was set in Italy, and the author was Anne Mather. I was probably about 14 or 15, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon and I must have been bored as I picked up the book my mother had got from the library (she was a voracious devourer of romance), lay on the sofa and didn’t move until I’d finished it. I distinctly remember the sheer pleasure of being transported to a world a million miles away from my own and I never looked back.

While I still have an eclectic taste in reading – from the classics to horror, thrillers to historical fiction – I always eventually come back to romance.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors? Since publishing my debut novel, I’ve discovered that writing is the easy bit … it is the marketing and developing of your ‘brand’ which is the tricky part, and I suspect that applies equally to traditionally published and self-published authors alike. It’s hardly surprising that book sellers now lean so heavily towards celebrity writers who already have an established brand to exploit in terms of sales.

I think many writers, me included, are quite solitary creatures and love being alone in our own world of make-believe. So, when you have to suddenly shout ‘Over here, look at me, look at me’ it can feel quite alien and uncomfortable. As a new untried and untested writer, I am trying really hard to increase my visibility and find my readership, although I think I have a long way to go.

With thousands of new books being published every day, many direct to the internet, you have to work hard to overcome any natural reticence for self-promotion. My advice would be, take a deep breath, be proud of what you have achieved and shout about your new novel to everyone who will listen.

As well as discovering your hidden marketeer, I would definitely say use all the expertise and experience of more established authors in your field. I have only been an RNA member for a short while, but I’ve already found it to be an invaluable resource and support network.

Can you tell us what you are working on now? I’ve just started writing my second book (I’m still pondering the title – but I would like it to be as quirky as The Matchmaker, the Milliner and the Man from Maastricht) and, again, it is going to be in the epistolary style. This time it is largely taking the form of a journal written by my heroine, bookshop owner Beth Ellaby, and the trials and tribulations she has with the three men in her life. Can she successfully navigate her way through deceit, duplicity and heartache to find true happiness?

It’s based very loosely on that most classic of love triangles (or should that be love quadrangles?!) Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – but, as with everything I write, I hope it will be an uplifting and gently humorous story and that all my readers will be rooting for Beth to make the right choice in love!


About the Author

Author Ali Simpson, brunette, green dress, pink lipstick, smilingAli was born in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire but has been a resident of Torquay in Devon for many years. Growing up in a landlocked county, Ali soon developed a love of visiting the ocean and has been moving slowly south ever since. She now feels privileged to call the ‘English Riviera’ home.

Ali started her career as an ‘author’ by researching and writing speeches for top civil servants but, for the last five years, has had the privilege of editing a glossy life-style charity magazine with a readership of over 35,000 across Devon. She is also a published non-fiction features writer, mostly focusing on people and places, historical figures and events and the natural world. When need demands, Ali has also been known to turn her hand to cookery writing and crossword compiling.

When not writing, Ali and her husband David love to travel, having lived and worked in the United States and travelled extensively, particularly in Australia and New Zealand. Ali also has a very special place in her heart for southern Africa, particularly the Western and Eastern Capes of South Africa and Zambia.

When not travelling or writing, Ali also has a love of subtitled Scandi detective series, walking for fitness, art, history and puzzles of all kinds.