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INTERVIEW: Deanna Raybourn, author of A Spear of Summer grass

Friday, August 09, 2013

I've long been a fan of Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Victorian murder mystery series (you can read my review of them here), and so I was all excited to find out she had written a new book that looked set to be completely different.

A Spear of Summer Grass is set in the 1920s and moves from Paris to Kenya, making it one of a new wave of novels set in Kenya after the First World War. (Two other such books I've recently read are Lauren Willig's The Ashford Affair and Frances Osbourne's The Bolter, both of which were fabulous too).

I adored A Spear of Summer Grass - its sexy, funny, romantic and poignant, and I love the African setting. I'm very happy to welcome Deanna to the blog today to talk about her inspirations and aspirations: 

Are you a daydreamer too? 
Yes, and not just about my work! I lead a very Walter Mitty existence. I love to make up stories about people I see and odd scraps of conversation I overhear. And I’m always imagining things are more intriguing than they actually are. For example, my neighbor has a really odd, high fence portioning off part of his backyard. It could be where he keeps the compost, but it’s more interesting to think it’s a body farm. 
Have you always wanted to be a writer? 
Always. I remember being thrilled when I learned how to print so I could finally get the stories out of my head and onto paper. I decided to double-major in English and history because I knew I would write historical fiction. I wrote my first novel when I was 23, but it took me fourteen years to get published. In that time I wrote probably six or seven novels that are still living in a box in my attic. Thanks to a superb bit of advice from my agent, I finally got lucky with SILENT IN THE GRAVE, the first book in the Lady Julia Grey series. 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I’m a sixth-generation native Texan on my mother’s side, but my father’s a first-generation American. His mother is English, so I come by my Anglophilia honestly. I live in Virginia now, and it’s been an interesting change for us. I really, really love what I do, so when I’m not writing, I’m usually thinking about writing or reading. I am always happy to travel or hit a museum, and I knit but badly—only flat things and it takes me ages. I keep thinking I ought to develop a proper hobby for questions like this, perhaps beekeeping or origami or breeding Bedlingtons, but I’m far too lazy. I’m a dabbler. There are loads of things like gardening or crafting or astronomy or languages that I pick up and put down depending on my mood. 
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for A Spear of Summer Grass? 
My publisher told me to write anything I wanted—and it was almost too much freedom! I spent a few days figuratively bumping into walls because it was a little dizzying to be told to write what I liked. Then I got practical. I sat down and made a list of some of my favorite nonfiction topics, things I read about for pure pleasure. When I jotted down about thirty, I circled a few items that didn’t immediately seem to go together: Africa, 1920s, roses, scandalous society beauties. And then I realized they DID go together. For roughly the period between the world wars, the English colony in British East Africa—later Kenya—was home to a group of extremely decadent people with larger than life personalities and tremendous stories. This was the Happy Valley set, and I had done a little reading about them, but researching A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS was my chance to immerse myself in their world. It was absolutely enthralling, and the more I read about them, the easier it was to write the novel because they did such incredibly dramatic things. (If you’re looking for roses in SPEAR, they didn’t make the cut. I decided to make Fairlight a pyrethrum farm instead. Rose farming is huge in Kenya, but the industry is tremendously controversial, and I didn’t have the space to do it justice within the scope of the book.)

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
I’m an organized pantser. If you think of a novel as a journey, I know where I’m starting and where I’m ending, and I know the major turning points, but I don’t know the tiny twists in the road. I love having those moments of spontaneity in a book, those little flashes of surprise where I suddenly weave something into the story I hadn’t planned. Often those will come about from research I do while I’m writing, and it’s always thrilling to feel it coming together. 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
I do! Sometimes I will imagine an entire novel, and the odd thing is that I know I’m conjuring a book and not just having a dream. I wake up and jot down notes on the plot, but only one of those has been the source of a novel and that was my Gothic, THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST. Usually I will just take bits and pieces of dreams and find a way to tweak details of a book with them. 
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book? 
When I was researching the book I did a fair bit of reading about Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover who was played by Robert Redford in “Out of Africa”. I was amazed to discover he was a distant cousin of mine! His mother was a Codrington, as was my grandfather’s family, and it was so intriguing to me to find an actual connection to one of the people who made that time and place—1920s Kenya—so legendary. He was a man of many talents, including flying, and that’s why I gave Ryder White, my hero, a pilot’s license. It was a little tip of the hat to my own family connection to that setting. 
Where do you write, and when? 
I write in the morning in my tiny study. We think it must have been the sewing room when the house was first built in 1940. It’s got lovely morning light, but it’s very small—about eight by nine feet. I painted it pink with a pale turquoise ceiling and my husband put up open shelves for my books and hung a little chandelier I inherited from a great aunt. It’s very girlie and very restful. For each book I write, I create a collage and that hangs opposite my desk while I work. It’s right at my eye line, so whenever I look up I can see it and get a little inspiration. There’s also a window right at my desk, but I try not to look out too often. We have some beautiful big oak trees right outside, so there’s usually a bird or two hanging around as well.
What is your favourite part of writing? 
I love putting the pieces together. I read an article that correlated writing a novel with writing a symphony—which is absolutely true, except that a writer gets to decide how the instruments sound as well! I get such a thrill out of assembling the various pieces and deciding what will work and what won’t. The actual getting words on paper part can be painful, but the rest makes it all worthwhile. 
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I never miss deadlines, so I don’t stop, ever. I keep reading; I keep writing. Even if I know what I’m writing is wrong, it is helping me get where I need to be. I had that issue with CITY OF JASMINE simply because I couldn’t get the opening scene right. Conventional wisdom says you’re supposed to just write the rest of the book, but I kept after that scene because I had a gut feeling that once I cracked it, the rest would fall into place. I was right. Once I had that scene—after five or six major attempts—I knew exactly who these characters were and how to handle them. I never would have gotten that if I’d simply forged onto the end. And it wasn’t a dead loss because I kept the scenes and one of them is the perfect opener to my next novel! 
How do you keep your well of inspiration full? 
I read a lot; I watch documentaries and films set in the periods I like to write about. I also try not to take on too much outside of my actual writing. I work hard at only saying yes to things I am enthusiastic about for two reasons: first, it saves energy because I’m not spending myself on projects I don’t really care about. Second, it means I get more excited about everything because I’m always working on things that interest and fulfill me. I also try to push myself into projects that scare me in a good way. If I want to write a book but I’m not sure how I’m going to pull it off, that’s the book I need to write. I do my best work when I’m slightly terrified. 
Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
I start a new novel on the first day of a month, and I always light a fresh candle and wear a necklace that has a Virgen de Guadalupe charm hanging from it. I try to have my collage finished and hanging up, and I make sure to clean out all traces of the previous book. Manuscripts and notes are banished to the attic; research books are reshelved, and the sheets of newsprint I tack up for revision notes are pulled down. I also create a playlist for my ipod and always have music that suits the book I’m writing. Sometimes I will bring in scents that conjure a mood as well—for instance, with SPEAR, my heroine spent a good deal of time in New Orleans and her grandfather always smelled of vetiver. So I bought a little bundle of dried vetiver in the French Quarter and kept it on the desk to sniff from time to time. My husband also bought me a reproduction of a lion’s tooth, and I kept that on my desk as well for a little extra inspiration. 
Who are ten of your favourite writers? 
Jane Austen, Elizabeth Peters, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Stella Gibbons, Baroness Orczy, Charlotte Bronte, Anya Seton, Bettany Hughes, Lucy Worsley. I just realized I only named women, but it’s fine—ask me tomorrow and I’d probably give you a different ten. 

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite writers too! 

What do you consider to be good writing?  
Good writing is the stuff that will put me into the same state of flow I achieve when I write—I lose all sense of time and space and am completely immersed in a world someone else created. I love that feeling of everything else falling away and the characters coming so utterly to life I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually spoke to me. With good writing, I’m not mentally rewriting the scenes as I go. If the writing is lacking, I find I’m changing it as I read, and that takes me out of the story. I like to be taken for a magic carpet ride. 
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
Don’t listen to advice on how to be a writer—or at least, take it all with a hefty pinch of salt. There are as many methods and processes and ways of working as there are writers, and they are all valid. Whatever works for you is what works, regardless of what anyone else says. And absolutely ignore the old adage of “write what you know.” It’s rubbish. Write what you want to read. 
What are you working on now?
am finishing up a Lady Julia digital novella, writing the prequel novella to my next novel, CITY OF JASMINE (March 2014), and preparing to start my next novel on August 1. It’s demanding but so exciting—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Deanna's website 


SPOTLIGHT: Best books set in Africa

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

I'm very happy to welcome Deanna Raybourn, author of  A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, to the blog to tell us her favourite books set in Africa. 

Huge bouquets of thanks to Kate for inviting me to come and hang out in her corner of the interwebs! I love playing the voyeur and getting a peek at other writers’ inspirations, so I thought I would offer a glimpse into the books that went into making A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS.

For every book I write, I end up adding to my library—usually twenty or thirty books—but SPEAR was a cat of a different color. I bought 55 books, and that doesn’t even take into account all the material I collected from the library and internet! It was a luxury to immerse myself in the time and place I was writing about, and most of all, the people. 

Here are my favorites:

THE TEMPTRESS by Paul Spicer. The subject of this biography is Alice de Janzé, an American heiress and one of the Happy Valley set. She was notorious for shooting her lover in a Paris train station—and being acquitted on the grounds that she was too lovely to have really intended to kill a man. Her lover, incidentally, survived and continued the relationship for some years after. 

SAFARI by Bartle Bull. This is a BIG book—an epic coffee-table book that chronicles the history and practice of safari. It is frank and brutal and absolutely gripping. 

ZARA’S TALES by Peter Beard. Renowned fashion photographer Peter Beard has lived in Africa for decades, documenting his life there in stunning images. His diaries are works of art, layered with blood, bones, feathers, beads, and the facsimiles of them sell for hundreds of dollars. This book is a smaller, more intimate effort written for his small daughter, but it is by no means a children’s book. Beard offers an unflinching look at the continent today and the aftereffects of colonial involvement in east Africa.

WHITE MISCHIEF by James Fox. The definitive book on the Happy Valley set, it traces the rise of this hedonistic group and covers their decline with the murder of Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll. It introduces all of the major players in British East Africa/Kenya, and untangles their complicated and tempestuous relationships. It is the perfect prelude to any other reading on the Happy Valley. (I have this on my reading pile - I'm so looking forward to reading it!)

SILENCE WILL SPEAK and THE LIVES OF BERYL MARKHAM by Errol Trzebinski. I have half a dozen books by Trzebinksi, but anything she has written is worth reading. The first is a biography of Denys Finch Hatton, lover of Karen Blixen and immortalized by Robert Redford in the film “Out of Africa”. His relationship with Blixen might be better known, but his affair with Markham was much more a meeting of equals. Daring and independent, Markham took life on her own terms and became an accomplished aviation pioneer. Reading their biographies together offers a complete picture of how their lives entwined. 

AFRICAN NIGHTS by Kuki Gallmann. Gallmann is a lyrical writer with prose that reads like poetry. The images she conjures are vivid and lasting, and any of her books on Africa make for delectable reading. Gallmann has suffered great tragedy and tremendous triumphs in her adopted land, and she does not shy away from describing both in breathtaking detail. 

ISAK DINESEN: THE LIFE OF A STORYTELLER. Judith Thurman. A far better book than Dinesen’s OUT OF AFRICA. Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, the Danish aristocrat who was a writer, a failed coffee grower, and lover of Denys Finch Hatton. An arch-fantasist, she was unlikeable but deeply interesting, and Thurman’s biography offers a far more comprehensive portrait of Blixen than her own writings. 

OUT IN THE MIDDAY SUN by Elspeth Huxley. In trying to choose a single Huxley book, I might have just as well thrown a dart at the bookshelf to see where it stuck. Huxley wrote vividly about her family’s experiences as settlers in British East Africa, both before and after World War I. She wrote with a child’s eye for detail and color, and her descriptions of her mother’s care for the native Africans was a direct inspiration for my own main character’s medical treatment of the workers on her stepfather’s farm. Reading Huxley’s books in order, it’s possible to trace her development as it parallels that of the colony from the early days through the trials of growing pains and into maturity. 

Now that I’ve chosen a handful of books to recommend, I’m feeling horribly guilty about all the ones I didn’t mention! The books on the Maasai, the histories of Kenya, the memoirs of settlers, the safari stories…the list is potentially endless and every omission feels like a failure. 

I did post photographs of the research stacks on my blog, so if you’re curious, a quick skim of those should fill in the blanks. And I didn’t mention THE BOLTER by Frances Osborne because Lauren Willig carried the flag for that particularly helpful book. In a strange twist of fate, over drinks at the Yale Club a few years ago, Lauren and I discovered we were both writing books set in Africa in the 1920s with flappers and farms and repressed cousins named Dodo… 

(You can read my review of Lauren Willig's 1920s Kenya book THE ASHFORD AFFAIR here)

Any and all of these books are transportive—books that can take you on a journey. So grab a stack and settle in and prepare for an armchair safari!

Deanna's blog 


BOOK REVIEW: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Monday, August 05, 2013

: A Spear of Summer Grass 
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Age Group & Genre: Historical Adventure/Romance for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:

Paris, 1923 

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather's savannah manor house until gossip subsides. 

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.  

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.  

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

What I Thought: 
"Don't believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman's husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn't want taking."

As soon as I read these opening lines, I sighed happily, knowing I was going to love this book. Deanna Raybourn is best known for her Lady Julia series of Victorian murder mysteries, and so A Spear of Summer Grass is a new departure for her. 

Set during the Roaring 20s, it tells the story of the scandalous debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya. Her voice is pitch-perfect. She’s sassy, cynical, and smart, yet there is a touch of pathos and vulnerability about her which makes her a far more interesting character than you might expect. In Kenya, Delilah gets caught up in the social whirl of the white landowners, makes unexpected friends, takes a lover and falls in love (not with the same man), and finds herself accused of murder. An utterly brilliant book, and one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far for me. 

Deanna's website


BOOK REVIEW: The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

Monday, July 01, 2013

Author: Lauren Willig 
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Age Group & Genre: Contemporary/Historical Mystery/Family Drama

The Blurb:

New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig "spins a web of lust, power and loss" (Kate Alcott) that is by turns epic and intimate, transporting and page-turning. 

As a lawyer in a large Manhattan firm, just shy of making partner, Clementine Evans has finally achieved almost everything she’s been working towards—but now she’s not sure it’s enough. Her long hours have led to a broken engagement and, suddenly single at thirty-four, she feels her messy life crumbling around her. But when the family gathers for her grandmother Addie’s ninety-ninth birthday, a relative lets slip hints about a long-buried family secret, leading Clemmie on a journey into the past that could change everything. . . .

What follows is a potent story that spans generations and continents, bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of unforgettable characters. From the inner circles of WWI-era British society to the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the red-dirt hills of Kenya, the never-told secrets of a woman and a family unfurl.(less)

What I Thought: 

I was very intrigued (and pleased) to hear about this new novel by Lauren Willig – I adore her swashbuckling, bodice-ripping, laugh-out-loud historical/contemporary romances – but I know all too well how a successful series can become a straitjacket for an author and I’m always wanting authors I love to be bold and take a few risks, and try something new and different. 

So I came to this new book by Lauren Willig genuinely excited and curious and wanting her to succeed. And I’m very glad to say she has succeeded brilliantly.

I’ve always loved books that move back and forth between a contemporary setting and an historical one. I have always loved books that combine mystery, romance, drama and a vivid sense of place and time. THE ASHFORD AFFAIR has everything I love in a book, and it’s all put together in what seems like a simple and effortless way … until you try to do it yourself. 

We begin with the story of Clementine Evans, a driven 34-year-old lawyer who is beginning to wonder if she has sacrificed too much for her career. She is running late – again! – to a family function celebrating her beloved grandmother Adeline’s 99th birthday. She is shocked and saddened to find her grandmother is frail and begin to wander in her wits … and calling her by another name.  

Then the narrative goes back in time to Adeline’s childhood. Her parents have been killed, and she is sent as a charity child to live with the uncle she has never met, who lives with his family at the grand manor house, Ashford Park. Her Bea is her only friend, even though she has a habit of getting Adeline into trouble. 

The two girls grow up together - one falls in love and the other marries. It is the ‘20s, and the giddy gaiety of the times does not suit serious, bookish Adeline. The young women grow apart, and, in their own way, hurt each other badly. 

Meanwhile, Clementine realises that her family hides a secret … a story of love, betrayal, and possible murder. 

The two stories touch and part, touch and part, in an intricate yet graceful dance, each new revelation helping the suspense to build. I was genuinely surprised at a couple of plot points and genuinely uttered a deep aaaah! at the end. 


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