Interview - Rosie Alison: Haunted by a house – writer's debut inspired by childhood

Getting onto the shortlist for the Orange Prize is no mean feat, especially as a first-time author, but Rosie Alison is taking it all very calmly in an engagingly self-effacing way.

"I didn't ever have any high hopes for my book. It was just great to have been able to write it and complete a piece of creative self-expression," she says.

Her debut novel, The Very Thought of You, is an elegiac story about love, loss, longing and separation set in a Yorkshire country house during the Second World War. Evacuated from London, eight-year-old Anna Sands arrives at Ashton Park, in North Yorkshire, in September 1939. Home to Elizabeth and Thomas Ashton, a childless couple, the house contains secrets to which Anna unwittingly becomes witness.

It is a hugely affecting novel that has had a slow-burn appeal – much has been written about the fact that on publication the book wasn't reviewed by any of the national newspapers – with its word-of-mouth reputation bringing it to the attention of the Orange Prize selection panel.

Alison, who grew up in Ouseburn, near York, is delighted to have been chosen for the shortlist, but is most happy about the reaction she has had from readers.

"I think the book speaks to people because we all know about being a child and how sometimes children are witness to things they don't quite understand," she says.

As a child, between the ages of eight and 12, Alison was away at boarding school at Duncombe Park in North Yorkshire, which inspired

the setting of The Very Thought of You.

Duncombe Park is now a lovingly-restored stately home open to the public again, but was, from the 1920s until the mid-1980s, a girls boarding school.

"It was a hauntingly beautiful house. Ashton Park is very much based on that house, although it is an amalgam of a few different places, but the Ashton family in the book is entirely fictional. The book is really a love letter to a particular place that has haunted my imagination for all these years."

When Alison first thought about writing a book, she says that she always had it in mind to write a contemporary story set in modern-day London, but was unable to get started on it. "I just kept coming back to this house that had played such an important part in my childhood," she says.

"When I arrived at Duncombe Park at the age of eight, the house had been a little haphazardly converted into a school and there were still family portraits and photographs around the place which, as a child, I was fascinated by – I wondered about the stories behind the pictures. You were surrounded by this ancestral past. This was in the 1970s, so there were no mobile phones; you would get the odd letter but otherwise there wasn't really much contact from the outside, so I got lost in this whole world."

Writing the book was very much a labour of love. Alison has a demanding full-time job working in television and film production – she is head of development at the production company which made the Harry Potter films – and it took her eight years to complete.

Some years previously, Alison's father had given her a batch of papers and diaries belonging to a cousin, Sir Clifford Norton, a diplomat who had been working at the British Embassy in Warsaw just before and after the Nazi invasion, in 1939. Norton and his wife and some of their experiences are depicted in the novel. "They are the only 'real' characters in the book," says Alison. "I deliberately left them on the margins of the story, but reading their diaries sent a shiver down my spine and I just couldn't get away from it; I wanted to use them as a kind of chorus on the edge of the action."

Having spent a lot of time compiling detailed back stories for the major characters, Alison explains that she discarded much of that work eventually.

"In the end, I saw that I really had to cut to the chase and concentrate on the emotional dramas, to use the house as a sort of theatre where Anna arrives and becomes a kind of observer."

She says that, above all, she wanted to write a book about love.

"I was most interested in our capacity for love, how it can be redemptive, enduring and life-affirming. I wanted to write about how love sustains us; the affirmation of something of beauty

but with some sadness along the way."

Not surprisingly for a former documentary film director, Alison did a lot of research on the historical setting of her book. Part

of the novel is set in London during the Blitz where Anna's mother, Roberta, is living.

"It provided a framework, so that I wasn't just writing about people's feelings – history was observed through the emotional dramas of the characters."

The winner of the Orange Prize will be announced on June 9.

In the meantime, Alison is already busy working on her next book – a contemporary novel set in modern-day London.

"Now that I have been liberated from the past, I can write the book I thought I was going to write," she laughs. "It's a Brief Encounter-style love story about two people who meet on the London Underground." Having built up a supportive readership, it could well be another big success.

The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison, is published by Alma Books, 7.99.