Join Kate’s VIP Club Now!

Follow Me


Kate's Blog

Subscribe RSS

INTERVIEW: Lily Woodhouse, author of Jarulan by the River

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Today I welcome Lily Woodhouse, the author of Jarulan by the River, to the blog. 

Are you a daydreamer too?
Daydreaming is how books get written. I think it’s an active state, not a passive one.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
It came from two different sources. One was a story told to me years ago by an old man. It was about a young husband struggling during the Depression between the two world wars. He was offered a job by a wealthy widow on the condition that he also become her lover. His wife had to tolerate the arrangement if she wanted her family to survive. The exact same situation does not arise in Jarulan by the River, though it is similar. The second source was a period I spent living in the Northern Rivers district. It is one of the most beautiful, inspiring landscapes in the world. When I came to write the novel it seemed natural to set it there.

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Not at all. Sometimes I get to a point where I must plan the last part of a book if I want to get out of it alive!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I sometimes meet characters in dreams who then become characters in books.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Reading and learning about the experiences of Germans in Australia between the wars was very interesting. Also learning more about how it was for Maori in Australia during those years which included the years of the White Australia Policy. Maori were admitted because they were regarded as equals in New Zealand.

Where do you write, and when?
I am fortunate enough to have my own study, which is warm and sunny. I write there most days. My favourite time to write is first thing in the morning when I wake up.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The stages of writing a book are all so different that I enjoy them all. Perhaps I like the exciting roller-coaster stage of first draft the very best.

What do you do when you get blocked? 
Leave it for a while. There’s no point in hanging over a manuscript that isn’t shifting. I go for a walk, work on something else, hope the muse will return before too long.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

By regularly dipping in the bucket and seeing what comes up! Sometimes it’s pure, sparkling water, other times a frog.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
Is coffee a ritual if you drink four or five a day?

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Rosie Scott, Tim Winton, Emma Donoghue, Anne Kennedy, Charlotte Randell, Colum McCann, Sarah Waters, Louise Erdrich, Patricia Grace. And Kate Forsyth!

What do you consider to be good writing?  
I enjoy literary and popular fiction as the above list will testify. Some literary fiction will sacrifice story and character for style, which immediately makes the work tedious. It can remind me of an over-indulged child calling endlessly for attention while he pulls heinous faces or walks on top of a fence. The worst of popular fiction will have too rapidly unfolding story, melodramatic event and inconsistent character, written in stodgy dull language. I think good writing can be both literary and popular, with an addictive story, compelling characters and elegant, nuanced writing.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Read, read, read, read! Although I didn’t include any writers from previous centuries in my list, I think it’s important to read Thomas Hardy for instance, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Here in Australia Kylie Tennant, Ruth Park and Jean Devanny are worth reading to get a sense of how it was for women in the early-mid twentieth century.
What are you working on now? 
Another novel. Top secret. Can’t say too much. Might lose. You know the feeling.

SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Kate Forsyth about writing THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Twenty years ago, my first book DRAGONCLAW (called THE WITCHES OF EILEANAN in the US) was published!

To celebrate, I'm running a couple of vintage posts about the writing of The Witches of Eileanan series.

Today I thought I'd run an interview I gave to SFFWorld in 2000 (yes, all the years ago). 

Q: Your books seem extremely well researched. Not only in the history of the culture, but in the magical elements and practices as well. Could you explain to us the importance of this research, or how you went about it?

I do a great deal of research into every aspect of the books. I like to make sure everything is right and besides, I find the research itself often sparks off ideas which I would not have had otherwise. It helps make the world seem real and alive, and gives an extra punch to the writing. Generally, I borrow piles of books from the library and read through them, making notes on all that interest me. I often find the junior section of the library the most helpful because the books there have illustrations and diagrams, and describe things simply and concisely. For example, if I'm writing a battle scene I want to know everything about armour, weapons, siege machines, tactics, logistics - a book on mediaeval warfare from the adult section would be too long and heavy, but a selection of books from the junior library give me just about everything I need to know. As well as that, I browse a lot through second-hand bookshops and so have picked up heaps of books on all sorts of different subjects, all of which give me ideas and allow me to check facts when I need to. I have everything from a 16th century herbal to a dictionary of angels, all of which I've referred to at some point in time. 

Q: Have you noticed, or have readers commented, that your story, while not a sad story and definitely containing the "good" vs. "bad" elements in it, leaves one feeling unsure whether to laugh or to cry?

I really like this question and am glad to know this is how the books make you feel. I certainly wanted to make my readers laugh and cry and gasp and sigh at different points in the story, and I also wanted to express something about the complexity of good and evil and how sometimes there is a very high price to pay. None of my characters or creatures are entirely good or entirely evil - sometimes evil is done by those who are really struggling to do what is right. I get a lot of e-mail from readers and this is one of the things people comment on the most - a particular scene makes them want to get up and shout a warning, or makes them cry, or makes them very frustrated with the characters in question - all of which makes me a very happy writer!

Q: Do you have a favorite character in the books?

Many. I love them all. Isabeau is of course my protagonist and I love her dearly, though sometimes I wish she would think before she acted, particularly in the early books. I find Iseult rather a puzzle sometimes, and am rather glad Lachlan is beginning to grow into his manhood, for he exasperated me greatly at times with his bad moods and his self-focus. I love Meghan, of course, and have very tender regard for Lilanthe and Dide and Finn. In fact, I don't think there is really a character I don't have a soft spot for, unless it's Margrit who gives me the shivers and Renshaw, of course, who was very nasty.  

Q: How long do you see this story continuing? Is it only to be a three part series, or will you go on with it?

Oh dear. It was MEANT to be a trilogy but the epic scale of my imagination surprised even me! I have great pleasure in informing you that 'The Witches of Eileanan' is now a sextet, with six big fat books all brimming over with action, romance, intrigue, magic and mayhem! I am very lucky that my publishers like me because otherwise I could've been in trouble. 

Do the religious and political ideas embedded within your story have any specific relevance to your views, or to current events in our world today? If so, could you explain those elements as you see them?

This is a difficult question to answer in many ways. Yes, of course they have relevance to our world and express many of my deeply felt beliefs and philosophies. I have a great deal of sympathy for the pagan pantheistic religion of my witches. I am troubled by the effect of strict fundamentalist religions, in whatever form they take, and I am troubled by the effects of colonism and the long-reaching shadows it has cast. I think religion and patriotism have caused a great deal of evil in this world, even though I understand the deep, instinctive desires that such beliefs satisfy. I also understand there are no easy answers and that history has a way of repeating itself. I hope all these ideas are implicit in the books but I do not want to pontificate too much upon them, for the books should stand alone, speaking for themselves. They are not allegories or even vehicles for my concerns, and should not be read as such. 

Q: Can you give us a mouthwatering hint for the Americans as yet unable to read the fourth book?
Gladly! Of all the books so far, 'The Forbidden Land' is the simplest and most complete in itself. It moves very quickly and has less introspection than the others. The primary focus in this book has moved to Finn the Cat, the cat-thief who discovered she was a banprionnsa and heir to the throne of Rurach. She feels stifled and unhappy at Castle Rurach and when Lachlan the Winged, Righ of Eileanan, calls upon her own peculiar talents, she gladly sets off on an adventure that takes her beyond the Great Divide and into the heart of the Forbidden Land itself ... 

Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?

Lots and lots and lots of e-mails from all over the world. I am constantly being amazed at how far my books have travelled. I have had reader responses from South Korea, Chile, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, as well as from all the more usual places. I reply to every e-mail personally - even though, since I had my little boy two years ago (he is now 17 and in his final year of school!), my writing time is more precious than ever. I'm really glad to have this contact with my readers. Being a writer is a solitary sort of life and once the book is published, it disappears into a black hole so that you have no idea whether anyone has understood what you are trying to do or been moved by it. I always want to know if anyone has picked up on any of the little details or jokes or poignant moments, or been made to feel or think the way I want them too. My e-mails let me know they have!

The cover of the first Australian edition: 

INTERVIEW: Kim Wilkins interviews Kate Forsyth about THE BEAST'S GARDEN

Sunday, June 05, 2016


On the Writing of The Beast's Garden

Historical fiction is usually defined as fiction that takes place before the author's birth. Usually you write about pre-20th century history, but this book is very much within our parents' lifetimes. Were there extra challenges in writing "modern history"?

Although THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a very challenging book to write, it was not because it was set in the ‘modern history’ period of the 20th century. Apart, of course, from having to write about Hitler and the Gestapo and concentration camps!

All historical fiction – regardless of the time period – has a certain set of challenges. I feel that my job as an author is to bring the world of my story vividly to life upon the page, allowing the reader to experience that world with all of their senses and all of their understanding. To do so, I have to slip inside the skins of all my characters, trying to understand at a deep cellular level how a person of that time thought and felt and perceived the world. To achieve this level of understanding, I spend a long time reading and researching and thinking and imagining. I don’t start writing my story until I feel I understand the inner and outer worlds of my characters.

Much of the challenge of writing historical fiction, therefore, has to do with the reading and research involved, and the absorbing and internalising of all that I read. 

So - in a way - the life of a young woman in Berlin during World War II was much easier than other places and times I’ve worked with, simply because life at that time has been so widely recorded and scrutinised. 

However, each book throws up new problems and new challenges, each unique to that story. I think the great challenge for me was trying my best to do justice to the amazing true stories of courage, strength of spirit, and compassion that I discovered. And – I must say – not allowing my own spirit to be darkened by all the horror and cruelty of the times.

You've made a name as a fantasy writer, the book relies very heavily on fairytale structure and ideas, and there is a strong element of romance in it. Given the way that all these things are often seen as trivial or "light", did you have misgivings about writing about a topic that is so relentlessly associated with the serious and weighty?

Well, I was constantly plagued by misgivings and doubts and fears. I always am. It's the cost of creativity.

However, I never doubted my story, or the importance of writing it, or the rightness of creating a story of love and steadfast courage and salvation in the midst of such darkness and terror. What I doubted was my own ability to tell the story as well as I wished to tell it. But I simply trusted in my story, trusted that it was a story that needed to be told, and trusted that I would find the way to do it. It was not easy. THE BEAST’S GARDEN was by far the most difficult book I have ever written. It took me a while to find the right form and structure for the story, and I am someone who needs to see the narrative shape clearly in my mind’s eye. I also struggled with the research that I had to do. Spending months and months reading about Hitler and the horror of the Holocaust was just soul-harrowing, and I needed to be careful not to allow that to overwhelm me, or my novel. 

I was aware, at all times, that THE BEAST’S GARDEN was a love story, and a story of courage and resistance and redemption, and so – rather than being a source of anxiety and misgivings – knowing what my story was actually gave me a light to steer by. I never forgot what I was truly doing in my heart, and that helped me overcome any apprehensions. 

There are many beasts in this story. There were people in it that I simply and absolutely despised. Who do you think was the beastliest beast (and let's remove Hilter from the pool so you don't have to consider him)?

Adolf Hitler is, of course, the most obvious manifestation of beastliness in the book, and I found it fascinating that he identified so strongly with wolves, one of the traditional beasts of terror in fairy tales (he liked to be called Herr Wolf, for example, and many of his headquarters were given names such as the Wolf’s Lair).

Then, of course, we have Heydrich Reinhard, who was head of the Gestapo for a good many years. He was nicknamed The Butcher of Prague and The Blond Beast. Of all the Nazi monsters, he was the one I always found the most chilling, perhaps because he was known to play the violin exquisitely. The violin is the instrument that plays my soul’s music. I find it almost unbearable that a man could, without hesitation, order the death of millions of people and then pick up a violin and play music of heartbreaking beauty. It seems so wrong, in a way that I find difficult to articulate. I think perhaps its because I think music and poetry and art and stories are so often expressions of beauty and love and healing, and a man like that should not be able to create it, or appreciate it. I know this is foolish and untrue. An appreciation of beauty and cruelty of heart have gone hand-in-hand for centuries. I just want it to be true.

But Reinhard is like Hitler and the rest of the cogs in the Nazi death machine – they are obvious villains, almost cartoonish in their virulence. And I was concerned, in the main, with more subtle kinds of beastliness – the ordinary people who betrayed their friends or families, or who looked the other way and so allowed evil to happen. 

I think the character in THE BEAST’S GARDEN who disturbed me the most was Stella Goldschlag, a real-life woman in 1940s Berlin. She was a beautiful young Jewish woman who became one of the infamous ‘catchers’ for the Gestapo. This meant that she was paid to find and point out other Jews to the Nazi police, so that they could be shipped off to their deaths in Auschwitz. Stella Goldschlag betrayed many of her old school-friends and neighbours, and was so hated the Gestapo gave her a revolver to protect herself against assassination attempts. She later said she had become a ‘catcher’ to save her parents from the concentration camps, but the truth is her activities only intensified after both were sent to Theresienstadt.  Nicknamed ‘Blonde Poison’ for her pretty Aryan looks, Stella Goldschlag was paid 300 reichsmarks for each Jew she ‘caught’, and it is estimated she was responsible for the deaths of up to 3,000 people. Her own husband ended up in Auschwitz, and yet she continued to work for the Gestapo right up until the fall of Berlin. Of course she was motivated by fear (she had been tortured by the Gestapo before she agreed to work for them), but also I think by greed and a desire for a soft and easy life. It is the fact that she knew her victims, and knew what was going to happen to them, that make her actions so horrifying to me. 

I loved the way you wove in the stories of real people among the fictional. I was amazed to find out that people such as Libertas, the Admiral, and Heydrich were real; and that Ava, Jutta, Rupert, and Leo stood alongside them just as three dimensional. Were there challenges in weaving the real and the fictional?

Absolutely! It would have been much easier to have had everyone in the book (except Hitler and Heydrich, of course) being made-up characters whose speech and actions and motivations I could control. 

However, a key concern for me in my most recent books has been this idea of giving a voice to forgotten women. In BITTER GREENS, I tell the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the 17th century French noblewoman who wrote the best-known version of ‘Rapunzel’. In THE WILD GIRL, my heroine was Dortchen Wild, the young woman who was the original oral source for many of the Grimm brothers’ most beloved fairy tales. THE BEAST’S GARDEN differs from the previous two books by not being inspired by the true lives of forgotten fairy-tale tellers. However, it is galvanized by the true lives of people who risked everything to stand up to Hitler, and whose stories are now largely unknown. Libertas Schulze-Boysen, Mildred Harnack and their friends were ordinary women, with hopes and dreams and talents that the world will now never see fulfilled. I find this very sad, and so I felt a strong desire to honour the truth of their actions, and to celebrate their courage and strength of spirit. Their true stories were so astonishing, so powerful, so heartbreaking, and so inspiring, I did not want to take their actions and give them to fictional characters with made-up names and backgrounds.

There was one character who began as a fictional creation of mine, only for me to find that she really – in one sense, at least – existed. The thought of it still raises all the hairs on my arms. 

In the original fairy tale of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, there is an evil enchantress who curses the hero so he is trapped in the shape of a beast. When I was planning my novel, I called this character ‘the Gestapo woman’ and decided that she would be a young woman who admired and worked for the Nazis, and is in some way responsible for the arrest and imprisonment of my hero, Leo. 

I chose to call this character ‘Gertrud’, because I don’t like that name, and because it means ‘spear-maiden’, thus tying her back to the Valkyries of Norse and Wagnerian myth. 

Many months later, I am working on the chapters in which the Gestapo arrests Ava’s friends, Libertas and Mildred. I read Libertas’ heart-rending letter she wrote to her mother on the eve of her execution (a letter which I reproduce in the book), and realise – with an electric shock of nerves – that Libertas was tricked into betraying her fellow resisters by a young woman working for the Gestapo … and that young woman’s name was Gertrud. 

Let's talk about some of your characters. Ava is described in the book as somebody who "would not keep her head down and her mouth shut". 
How important was that for the story?

Extremely important! 

Ava needed to be headstrong, courageous and far too outspoken for the plot to work. The story begins with her rushing through the darkness on Kristallnacht in order to try and save her best friend and his family, who are Jewish. She runs into a stranger, and in the intensity of the moment, speaks from her heart about her fear and hatred of the Nazi regime. She does not realize that the stranger she has met is an officer in the Abwehr, the German secret service. She risks her life, and that of her family, by speaking out so frankly, and her impulsiveness could have ended very badly for her. Instead she changes her life and that of the Nazi officer. 

Later in the book, she joins the underground resistance movement, something that no sensible German hausfrau would do, and she speaks out through anti-Nazi graffiti and leaflets. Her outspoken character drives the whole plot of the book, right up to her unwitting betrayal of her husband towards the end. 

Ava is also a singer, and her musical voice plays a very strong part in the whole narrative too. 

I have a lot of bird symbolism throughout the book, inspired by the key motif of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, the Grimm fairy tale that first sparked this book. Symbolically, the lark is seen as a messenger from God, the carrier of news, the herald of light and joy and the new day. So Ava is my messenger of light, my lark. Her name even means ‘bird’ and ‘life’ – I chose it very carefully. (Do you remember? We were in Oxford together when I found it.)

Ava is also described as almost synaesthetic. She sees music and colours in everything. Is that something taken from your own life or someone you know?

Yes, that’s me. I have always had the ability to see images, or stories, in sounds. When I listen to music, if its something that moves me or excites me, I will get a series of little moving coloured images in my mind, like a snippet of a film. Every time this happens to Ava in the book, I describe something that I have seen myself, in response to the same piece of music or the same word or name. I have been told it's a form of synaesthesia but I don’t believe it is, simply because it does not happen to me all the time. Not all names spark an image in my mind’s eye, and not all music tells me a story. Sometimes, if I concentrate hard, I can conjure an image. Synaesthesia, however, is said to be both involuntary and constant i.e. the same colour is always seen at the sound of a particular note of music.

Perhaps it is simply because I have such an over-active imagination!

Rupert (Ava's "almost-twin") was my favourite character. His poetry was sublime. I wondered if you wrote it or if it was actually poetry found secreted around the Jewish prison camps?

I’m glad you loved the poetry. I wrote it all. Most of it was written at fever-pitch, late at night when I was exhausted, and appears in the book virtually word-for-word as I first wrote it down. I did, however, read quite a lot of poetry when I wrote THE BEAST’S GARDEN. Mainly Rainer Maria Rilke, who I quote extensively through the narrative, but also Holocaust-driven poetry by writers such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Czeslaw Milosz, Lotte Kramer, and Chaia L. Heller, unbearably sad and moving poems.

Let's turn to research now: Berlin, which is a city I love, is always changing. After the allies had taken it, it was described as "a pile of rubble next to Potsdam". How did you go about reconstructing the brilliant, beautiful pre-war Berlin?

It was important to me to bring Berlin of the late 1930s as vividly to life as I could, to deepen the sense of waste and desolation following the city’s fall in April 1945. 

So I had to do a lot of research. Pre-war travel guides were useful to me, especially one in which I found a map! History books, memoirs, old photographs and news-reels, descriptions in pre-war German literature – these were all useful to me. I travelled to Berlin, and went to all the places that still existed or had been rebuilt. I particularly loved the Tiergarten, and walked in it every day. In my mind’s eye I carried all the old photographs I had studied, in which nothing was left of the Tiergarten but a few burnt sticks and acres of ash.

And because I found Berlin so inutterably moving, this crucible of 20th century history, I think I managed to pour all that empathy and connection into my descriptions of how the city once was (or, at least, how I imagined it once was). 

Some of the details of your research were captivating. I need to know: was there really a woman who ate the gravel Hitler had stepped upon?

Yes, there was. Not just one. Many.

At least according to Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a German novelist of the time who kept a secret diary between 1936 and 1944. He hated Hitler with an absolute passion, and most of the diary is a record of that hate. He wrote: 

‘My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffocate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious apes, and I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years ago can have sunk into this stupor …’ His diary is a reminder that not all Germans adored Hitler to the extent of literally eating the ground he trod on!

David Pryce-Jones, one of Unity Mitford’s biographers, repeated the anecdote about the swallowed gravel while discussing Hitler’s extraordinary charismatic pull over young women such as Unity and her sister Diana, and that is where I first read it. 

You wrote about Unity Mitford and her obsession with Hitler. Why do you think women felt that way about him?

I think it has to do with the giddy dangerous allure of power, especially absolute power, and also with Hitler’s own personal charisma. He had a way of fixing his eyes on someone with unswerving intensity that made many people – both men and women – feel a strong physiological reaction. Their temperature rose, sweat broke out on their hands, their collars felt too tight, they would feel light-headed and unsteady. Many did faint in his presence, in much the same way that people swoon over pop stars. Films of the time show women rushing the barricades, arms held up to touch him, trying to kiss him, and being dragged away by his bodyguards. It was more than his personal charisma, however. Unity was in love with him before she even met him. She moved to Munich in the hope that she might meet him, and spent days hanging round his favourite restaurant until at last he noticed her. In some way, Hitler’s words – both his promises and his threats – filled some hunger or need in the hearts of Unity Mitford and other young women like her. Freud would have called it a death impulse. 

The fear of the oppressive fascist regime pervades everything in this story. It adds so much pressure to the characters that you're sure they can't survive.
You show a side of Germany during the war that isn't often shown: that of the German people. Did you ever reflect, while writing this, on whether you would be like Ava, or if you would keep your head down and your mouth shut under such circumstances?

Oh yes! All the time. I kept thinking: what would I have done? Would I have had the courage to try and resist? 

It was very important to me to show that Ava was just an ordinary young woman, led step-by-step into extraordinary acts of bravery and kindness (and so too, by extension, Libertas and Mildred and the other real-life women of the story). They were not spies, trained to kill a man with their hat-pins. They did not have guns, or shoe-phones, or skeleton keys. They had to work and queue for food and try and find warm clothes for their children and spend their nights in air-raid shelters, struggling simply to survive. And yet somehow they found the courage to surreptitiously pass food to starving prisoners, to hide Jews and try to help them escape, to keep records of the atrocities they saw … all at the risk not only of their own lives but – under the Nazis’ sippenhaft law – of their whole families as well. 

I like to think that I would have been so brave. Yet I find it hard sometimes simply to stand up for what I believe in. 

And would I risk my children’s lives, my parents’ lives, the lives of all my dear beloved ones, to do so? I don’t know. I hope so. For one thing I have realized acutely since writing this book is that each one of us must stand up for what is right. Some things really are worth fighting for, and dying for. 

How implicated are those who do just keep their heads down when such awful things are happening?

In a way, this was one of the questions that tormented me the most while researching and writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN. 

It is very easy to become absorbed in your own busy life, hardly aware of what is happening outside our own small circle of influence. Wars and famines and atrocities can happen in the world, and barely make a dent in our consciousness. Sometimes, we are dreadfully sorry for what is happening. We wish there was something we could do. Other times, we know, but experience a kind of compassion fatigue, and a diffusion of responsibility. Someone else will help, we think. I’ve got a lot on right now. 

I can understand such thoughts and feelings because I have been guilty of them all. 

We can look back in time and be horrified that a Jewish refugee ship was shot at when it tried to land in Florida in 1939. The 900-odd refugees on that ship were forced to return to Europe, where many later died in concentration camps. It seems a shameful failure of compassion. Yet similar scenes of pragmatic cold-heartedness are happening on our own shores now.  

In future years, will we be trying to excuse our leaders’ actions by saying ‘I’m sorry, we didn’t know’? 

And, at this point in time at least, we do not have to fear our doors being smashed down by the Gestapo, and our loved ones being dragged off to concentration camps. We do not have to fear torture, slavery and a slow cruel death. 
If we do not like the way our country is run, we can vote to change our government and make our displeasure felt in protests, strikes, and by raising our voices. 

I would do almost anything to save my children from harm. I can understand how so many people turned their faces away, and pretended not to see. I can understand how tongues would be turned to stone, and hearts would be padlocked shut. 

Yet to understand such behavior is not to condone it. 

I’ve been telling people – only half joking – that writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN triggered an existential crisis in me. I have always thought deeply about the big ontological questions, and explored them in my fiction (its one reason why I love fantasy, a narrative form that embraces Big Thinking.)

But the tragic story of the German underground resistance has made me think a lot about the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be one or the other. And that old adage that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing is true.

So I want to make sure I do something. 

Since writing THE BEAST’S GARDEN I have tried hard to be braver and more outspoken, and to stand up for what I believe to be right. I am trying to do more to help others who are in need and suffering. I am trying even harder to be a good person.

Because I know now that evil does exist – and that we must always fight against it. 


INTERVIEW: Georgina Penny, author of Summer Harvest

Monday, May 30, 2016

Interview with GEORGINA PENNEY, author of A Summer Harvest 

 Are you a daydreamer too?
Definitely! If I don’t give myself time to daydream I don’t get any sleep at night. I find my best ideas turn up when I just let my mind wander for a bit. A nice sunbeam and a comfy couch to do said mind wandering are always welcome.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
According to family legend, I’ve been telling stories since conception so I’ll have to say yes. I just didn’t really know how to get around to it until I found myself an expat wife in Saudi Arabia around ten years ago now.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in Kununurra in the top end of Australia and have lived all over really. I think I counted over 30 house moves in Oz and internationally the last time I sat down and thought about it. I love to travel and meet new people. I think having a good conversation with someone is the peak of human experience and I definitely know how to talk!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for A Summer Harvest?
I was listening to a friend who was going through a tough time recovering from breast cancer tell me about the fear she faced every day of a relapse and I decided I wanted to get that down on the page.

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Enough that I have my head around a setting, my lead characters and their main conflicts. Everything else is a sweary, messy fight to wrangle those characters into some sort of plot!

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Absolutely. I’ve been known to launch out of bed on many occasions, muttering to myself over forgetting to leave a notebook out ready. I tend to find my brain uses dreams to let me know about plot holes in the stories I’m writing. I wish it would pick a better method and a more convenient time but there it is☺

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I love writing characters of all ages, especially in families. I think that’s the discovery. I loved writing the secondary characters and especially Rob Hardy and Gwen Stone, they were an absolute joy to get on the page.

Where do you write, and when?
I try and work to a 9-5 schedule but when I say that, I’m kind of lying. What usually happens is that I sit down in the morning, intending on getting everything down and then my imagination decides to go on strike until around 3 in the afternoon when I’m left frantically trying to get all the ideas down before they escape. I’ve tried sitting down at 3 to start my day but it doesn’t work. It seems I need the run up!

What is your favourite part of writing?
Getting the ideas initially and then the editing afterwards. Essentially everything but the actual writing of the first draft!
What do you do when you get blocked? 
I go for a walk or better yet, have a conversation with someone. I’m a talker and the minute I start chatting with someone, I tend to find interesting solutions to whatever problem I’m having on the page.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I shut out all the white noise. I find being online too much or watching too much mindless TV numbs me out. Instead I try and listen to good music, watch good movies and read good books. Oh, and I travel a lot! Even when it’s to the next village here in Scotland as opposed to somewhere international, I always find something new to experience and think about.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 

Definitely. I’m a fruit cake with that kind of thing. I have to have a cup of tea next to me when I start my day and it has to be in my ‘writing’ cup if I’m writing or in my ‘editing’ cup if I’m editing. I’m also been known to talk to myself to nut out problems and I may sing far too loudly to music when I’ve got my headphones in. There’s a whole raft more of battier things that may involve taking whiteboard markers into the shower to scribble on the tiles when I’m really stuck on a problem but then it gets a little weird… ;)

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
This kind of question is always so hard because depending on my mood and the day, the list changes. So, how about I go for the first ten authors I have on the top shelf of my’ comfort read’ bookcase?
Terry Pratchett, Zadie Smith, Amanda Quick, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, PG Wodehouse, Rohinton Mistry, Haruki Murakami, Val McDermid, Elmore Leonard, Junot Diaz

What do you consider to be good writing?  
Anything that fires the imagination and transports the reader. While I truly appreciate beautifully written prose, my first port of call for a good book is whether or not it triggers my emotions and takes me on a journey. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Want it badly, be brave and do it. It’s a messy, random, wonderful, sometimes exasperating process and if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. Oh, and know that your best opportunities will come from kindness to others☺

What are you working on now? 
 Too many things! I’m beginning to suspect that I’m a workaholic. At the moment I’m pottering away on my next Aussie set book, the first in a steampunk series and the second in a US based contemporary series. I’ve worked out that the way to keep myself from going nuts worrying about sales, fate and whether or not the universe is going to smile on any given day is to keep on truckin’ ☺

Love interviews with writers? I have lots more!

INTERVIEW: Christine Wells, author of A Wife's Tale

Friday, May 27, 2016

Interview with CHRISTINE WELLS, author of "The Wife's Tale"

Are you a daydreamer too?
Oh, most definitely! I think you have to be as a fiction writer. Stories are always running through my mind. I must be difficult to live with when I’m working intensively on a first draft because I have the story in my head constantly and don’t hear people when they speak to me. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, I thought novelists were god-like creatures when I was a child. While I loved writing stories, I never thought having writing as a job was possible for someone as ordinary and uninteresting as I was. I wanted to be a brain surgeon until I worked out that I wasn’t great with blood. I loved the humanities and eventually gravitated toward the law. There’s a lot of reading and writing involved in a law degree and I enjoyed the commercial aspect of negotiating deals and all the excitement of settling a big transaction. It wasn’t until I had spent a few years as a lawyer that I wrote my first novel but very soon, writing fiction became an obsession. It was something I needed to do.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born, raised, and now live in Brisbane. I love traveling, mainly to England (for research, of course!) spending time with family and friends, baking and going to the beach. I love antiques, too, for the stories people tell about them as much as for their beauty. I’m a huge fan of The Antiques Roadshow. I’m also trying to get back into running because I love it, but it’s been a while. I’m working on it!

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE WIFE'S TALE?
I was having lunch with my editor, discussing a new direction, and the kernel of an idea for a story that dealt with a historical court case came to me. I’d always been interested in legal history, having done some very obscure research for one of my lecturers at university. I found the feminist legal theory I’d read when studying legal philosophy fascinating also. 

I decided to write about a woman caught up in a criminal conversation action, which is an old cause of action in which the husband sues his wife’s lover, basically for damage to his ‘chattel’, the wife. These cases became quite a spectator sport in the latter half of eighteenth century England and the equivalent of millions of dollars in today’s money was often awarded to the husband in damages. The wife’s character and sexual proclivities were openly debated in court and she was not allowed to testify or be represented because the action was between the husband and the lover. Both sides would present their stories and the wife never got to tell hers, even though she was the one who might well end up cast off and destitute when the trial was over. THE WIFE’S TALE is about giving the wife in one of these cases a voice of her own.

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
My process has evolved considerably over the years. I used to write with only a vague idea of how the story would go but now I use Scrivener to plot extensively. The plot is never set in stone and sometimes new threads emerge as the characters develop in unexpected ways, but usually I stay fairly true to my original plan.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration? 
No—sadly, the only dreams I remember these days are the ones where I am looking for something quite mundane that I need desperately and I can never find it—last time it was the coffee plunger! I certainly use daydreams, though, and I believe firmly in the subconscious working on the story while you sleep.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
Oh, yes, there were several—perhaps not astonishing but serendipitous, at least! Because the Gothic novel grew up around the time I was writing and I wanted to give my heroine some believable means of supporting herself, I decided to make her a novelist. It then transpired that an early nineteenth century novelist, Caroline Norton, had actually been through a criminal conversation trial. Her struggles inspired me as I wrote Delany. 

The other incident was when I wrote a fictional tapas bar into the present-day town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and brought the chef from the tapas bar to cook paella at a garden festival on Seagrove, my fictional estate. I had based the Seagrove gardens on the Botanic Gardens at Ventnor, which have separate sections featuring plants from several subtropical regions. If you’ve ever been to Ventnor, you will know that it is a small, Victorian seaside town, where you would not expect to find something so exotic as a tapas bar, but I decided that I was Supreme Being in this story and I could make up a tapas bar if I wanted to. When I went to the Isle of Wight after writing the first draft, I found that in fact there is a tapas bar in Ventnor, called Il Toro Contento. Not only that, but on the restaurant wall is a newspaper clipping of the chef cooking paella at the Botanic Gardens. I wrote all of that before I ever set foot on the Isle of Wight, so it’s amazing how serendipitous writing can be!

Where do you write, and when?
When I’m on deadline, I write in two places—in my study at home from 4am to 6am each morning and then later at a cafe, after I’ve dropped the boys off at school. I find if I’m not home during the day, I am less often disturbed, either by thoughts of domestic chores that need to be done or by the phone or people coming to the door. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
When I’m in what I call ‘the zone’ and the words are flowing freely. I love that feeling when you don’t even notice the hours flying by. There’s nothing like it.

What do you do when you get blocked? 
I’ve never suffered from true writer’s block, thank goodness, but there are times when it’s very hard to make myself write. When this happens, I sit there at the same place at the same time, day after day, not letting myself do anything else, until I start writing again. After a few days of this, I find the words start flowing. Another trick is to try to analyse the story so far and see if there’s something in the structure that is not working, although that analysis often convinces me that I should throw it all out and start again! For me, the best way to avoid blockage in the first place is to get up from the computer before I've written to the end of a scene or chapter. It’s easier to begin again when you return and see that unfinished train of thought than it is to write into the unknown every day.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read a lot of research books before and while I’m writing a novel. I watch movies set in the same era or with the sort of feeling I’m trying to evoke. I watch The Antique Roads Show and read wonderful novels and listen to workshops on writing craft. I love going to art and museum exhibitions although I don’t go often enough. I also love to bake and I find that very relaxing, if not too kind to the waistline!

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
My best practice is to have a clean desk and no mess in my line of sight. I get up, make a cup of coffee, go straight to the computer in my study and write with the curtains drawn and the door shut. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
(I am deliberately choosing writers I don’t know personally here!) Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Liane Moriarty, Ian McEwan, Lisa Gardner, Katherine Webb, Kate Morton, Elizabeth Peters, John Le Carre, Jojo Moyes

What do you consider to be good writing?  
Good writing, to me, is first and foremost about creating characters with that spark that makes them come to life and go on to live in the reader's mind even when she's not reading. The most beautiful prose in the world does not make up for flat characters. However, I appreciate careful word choice, an author who can encapsulate an idea in an original, perfect simile or metaphor, as well as those authors who have a knack of putting into words the things we think but never say. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too? 
I am laughing at myself, giving writing advice but here is the best I have heard and am happy to pass on--Institute a writing practice so that it becomes a habit, like brushing your teeth and make it your job for those one or two hours, whatever you can spare, every day you can. This will stand you in good stead when you sell a book and have to write under pressure. And don’t worry about how good the first draft is. I once heard someone say, “You’re not a brain surgeon. You don’t have to get it right the first time." I think that is excellent advice.

What are you working on now? 
I’m working on a dual timeline novel set partly in the 1990s and partly in World War II in England. It’s about a young Australian woman whose long lost grandmother invites her to stay at her Elizabethan house in the Cotswolds, but when she gets there, the grandmother has vanished. It’s tentatively called THE SECRET HOUSE and is slated for release in May 2017.

Love interviews with authors - I have plenty more!


INTERVIEW: Miranda Richmond Mouillot, author of A Fifty Year's Silence

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Interview with Miranda Richmond Mouillot (first published in Good Reading magazine)

In 1936, two young Jewish students met in a café in Strasbourg. 

In 1940, when the Nazis invaded France, the young man Armand walked three hundred kilometres to find Anna, the beautiful young Romanian he had met that day, who was hiding out in the French Pyrenees. Two years later, they managed to escape France by climbing the Alps in a snowstorm. In Switzerland, as war refugees, they were married.

In 1945, Anna gave birth to a beautiful little girl and Armand worked as a translator at the Nuremberg Trials, giving voice for the first time to the full horrors of the Nazi regime. 

In 1948, the couple bought a tumbledown stone house in a tiny village in the south of France.

In 1953, Anna fled their home with her two children and just a few souvenirs of their life together. She and Armand never spoke again. 

In 2015, Miranda Richmond Mouillot - Armand’s and Anna’s only granddaughter  - published an extraordinary memoir entitled A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War & A Ruined House in France. Although it tells the story of Armand and Anna’s tumultuous love affair and its tragic end, Miranda’s book is as much a meditation on memory, storytelling, and the dark shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over the descendants of those who survived. It is also the story of how the author fell in love with France, and with the Frenchman who would become her husband. 

Miranda, you wrote in your Author’s Note that you “sought to maintain the vertiginous sense of poetry that their silence provoked in my life.” Could you please expand on this idea? 

Fairy tales and poems are a powerful part of the human experience because they are like little symbolic capsules for carrying big ideas and emotions. They help us to remember and pass on what would otherwise be too vast and complex for us handle. We connect to those little capsules long before we understand them fully because we sense all the meaning packed into them. And I sensed before I could give words to it that grandparents’ silence was like that, a capsule tightly packed with a lifetime of experiences, of love and loss and hope and heartbreak. It was so palpable – and they themselves were such extraordinary people – that it made me alive to that symbolic potential in all things. And when you walk around sensing that symbolic potential in all things, it’s a bit dizzying: you are keenly aware that everything around you contains an infinity of stories. In A Fifty-Year Silence I sought to make the reader aware of that world of infinite memory, not only in my own family, but everywhere.  

Why do you think your grandparents’ tragic love story took such a hold of your imagination? 

For two reasons: first, I think that it was imprinted in me. There’s research showing that the methyl group that gets attached to your genes in certain traumatic situations causes epigenetic changes that are actually passed on from one generation to the next. I literally felt it in my bones. Second, to say my grandparents fascinated me would be an understatement: there was simply no one like them on earth. And they were so beautiful, both as I knew them and in the few pictures we had from when they were young. They were larger than life, more brilliant, difficult, and original than anyone I knew. I wanted to follow them into their originality and find out more. 

Your grandmother had a knack for finding four –leaf clovers, told fortunes with playing cards, and ‘viewed death as an interesting dance step she’d eventually get around to learning.’ She sounds so wonderful! Can you tell me more about her? 

She was wonderful! A brilliant psychiatrist, a staggeringly well-read woman, equally at home in Samarkand and at the supermarket and would strike up a conversation with anyone she met, anywhere she went. She made every part of life into an adventure, loved postmodernist literature, and made catastrophically bad cakes from whatever she had lying around in the refrigerator – squishy kiwis, grated carrots, old raspberry jam. And she was generous – she wasn’t a wealthy woman, but she supported her artist friends, gave to charity, and kept up with old patients long after they’d left treatment. 

Your grandfather cooked elaborate feasts, sent you poetry to read, and had a library of books on the Holocaust. He sounds like such an intelligent and deep-thinking man. Can you please tell us more? 

My grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War, and then as an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trial just after, left his confidence in humanity shaken to the core. I don’t think he ever fully trusted another human being again. But he wanted to – he wanted to desperately. And that desperate want drove him on a lifelong intellectual quest for the best and most hopeful of parts of human existence, which he located in two places: in the human capacity to create beauty, and in the human potential for kindness to others. That intersected for him in literature, so he read all the time. (After he retired, when he wasn’t reading, he was volunteering for Amnesty International, seeking justice for writers.) No matter how difficult and tyrannical he was – and he was, he sent back my letters with corrections written on them, wouldn’t let me wear my hair down in his company, and nearly cut off our relationship because I disagreed with him on the Shakespeare authorship question – he threw me the lifeline of literature. 

As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, you describe your childhood as being ‘bafflingly full of terror.’ You kept your shoes by the front door so you could grab them if you had to flee in the night, and always looked out for possible places to hide. I find this evidence of the long shadow cast by the Holocaust deeply moving. Can you tell us some of the stories that engendered this terror in you? 

A lot of those stories are in the book, so I won’t give them away, but I believe the thread connecting them is uprootedness, the possibility of being taken away from your life at any moment, or having to leave it. Of everything you’ve created and grown accustomed to shattered in an instant. One thing that stands out to me is footsteps in the night. My grandparents were nearly arrested many times, but the first time, as far as I can tell, they were lying in the dark morning in the south of France and heard boots on the stairs. There was a pounding at the door, and two French milice officers demanded they rise – to go interpret for them as they arrested my grandparents’ upstairs neighbours, who had grown to be very dear friends. My grandparents had to stand and not only watch, but enunciate the brutal arrest of two people they had grown to love, and were only saved from the same fate by one of the officers, for whom my grandmother had (through a chance encounter) knitted a pair of wool gloves. 

Tell us about the first time you saw your grandparents’ house in the south of France.

I was fifteen, and in boarding school in Geneva, and my grandfather drove me down there one Sunday, with absolutely no explanation as to where we were going or why. The house is in a little medieval hamlet, a tiny fortified village with just two streets. A lazy, half-dry river runs by it and it is dominated by a gigantic rock, some six stories high, with the ruins of a fort on its flat top. When my grandfather propelled me down one of the hamlet’s two narrow streets and showed me the house, it was as if he’d thrown a brick into the still, unruffled pond of my teenage imagination: in an instant, I knew I had to live there. 

You had trouble establishing the truth of your grandparents’ love affair and subsequent marriage. Even the date of their wedding was hard to pin down. Explain some of the challenges you had to overcome in your search for your grandparents’ story.

The main challenge was them! No matter how many times I interviewed them, and how many questions I asked, it was as if they’d lived through the war in parallel, matching universes. They would tell stories about the same times, and the same places, with absolutely no mention of one another. And when I did get them talking about the other, it was like finally grabbing the bar of soap you’ve lost in the bathtub: they’d slip irretrievably off onto another subject before I knew it. Talking to them was also challenging because I loved them so dearly, and knew what suffering they were carrying in them, and how hard it was to for them to talk about. 

You moved to the south of France to life in your grandparents’ long abandoned house. Can you explain some of the emotions behind that choice, and some of the consequences?

I moved there chasing an ideal, in many ways: like many young people starting out to study history, I believed there was a single truth to uncover, and that the house would lead me to it. I also, as many children of refugees and immigrants do, grew up with a sense that I had no real home, and I was chasing the dream of finally finding my home, which I thought was a physical place. Moving there showed me how much more complex life really is – not only was there no clear-cut connection between the house and my grandparents’ love affair (though the complex connection I discovered in its place is just as strong), there was no way I could make this house my home! It wasn’t mine, for one thing, and for another it was nearly uninhabitable. Half its windows had been shattered, one of the doors had rotted nearly away, it was freezing cold and infested with spiders and scorpions. But I moved in anyway (I had no real choice) and learned more about my grandparents’ experiences with hardship than I ever would have in a cushier place. And of course the best consequence of all was meeting my husband – who is my true home. 

One aspect of the book which I found utterly heart-wrenching was the scenes in which you explore your grandfather’s work as a translator at the famous Nazi trials at Nuremberg. On one occasion, he broke down while translating Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command. What kind of scars did this experience leave on your grandfather?

Interpreting is usually thought of as highly intellectual work; certainly it requires a great deal of knowledge and quick thinking. But it is also intensely physical: the voices of the people you are interpreting enter your body through your ears, they vibrate into you, travel through your brain, and then you perform the work of transforming it into another language, and vibrate it back out into the world with your vocal cords. My grandfather once said to a journalist that he felt as if he had been a black box into which all the Trial disappeared, which he carried with him without being able to see inside it – and which I know tortured him and weighed on his soul for the rest of his life. 

What happened to your grandparents’ ruined stone house in the south of France?

It’s still there, still in the family, and I still hope to one day fix it up and live there. But who knows what life will bring? 

INTERVIEW: Lucinda Hawksley, author of The Mystery of Princess Louise

Friday, October 23, 2015

Today on the blog, I am very excited to welcome Lucinda Hawksley, the author of three books I have read and enjoyed recently - The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria's Rebellious Daughter; March, Women, March! Voices of the Women's Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women; and Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel

In the past few months I’ve read three of your books – on Lizzie Siddal, the suffragettes and Princess Louise – and I’ve enjoyed them all enormously. I read a great deal of non-fiction as research for my novels, and it is such a rare pleasure to find a non-fiction book that is both brilliantly informative and beautifully written.
Thank you!

How did you first begin writing biographies and narrative non-fiction?
I always intended to write fiction – as I child I was mad about Roald Dahl, so I always wanted to do what he did. The only biography I ever planned to write was on the artist Katey Perugini (née Dickens), because I became fascinated by her when I was very young. She was my great great great aunt and I felt she deserved a biography. The others all grew out of that, and when I discovered how fascinating non-fiction can be, it’s so intriguing and although it’s a well-worn cliché it really is true that fact is very often stranger than fiction. I often get emails saying how much people have enjoyed my “novel” about Lizzie Siddal, which I always take as a compliment and I love the fact that people think a real life can’t actually have been like that. 

What was the greatest challenge for you in this work?
The salary – that sounds crass, but as I’m sure you’re aware, most authors get paid an absolute pittance. Don’t even think about working out a day rate, let alone an hourly rate. It is a struggle for about 95% of authors to try and work on the money that publishers pay, especially as non-fiction requires so much research. Princess Louise took me 6 years to write and research and the advance covered a fraction of one year of that, so alongside writing, I needed to take on huge amounts of extra work, hence I do a lot of lecturing and public speaking. I also write articles. Last year I was elected onto the Management Committee of the Society of Authors, and it has been a shock to discover how appallingly badly the vast majority of authors are paid. Most end up giving up and finding a different job, which is very sad. Virginia Woolf was so correct when she said that a woman needs an income and a room of one’s own in order to be able to write. Oh for a trust fund! 

How do you choose your subjects?
Once you’ve got started, they tend to all start suggesting themselves. I chose to write about Katey and Lizzie Siddal (as I had studied the Pre-Raphaelites as part of my Masters degree work), then Princess Louise came about because she kept popping up in my research. Dickens came about largely through my Katey book, and also because I’m related to him, so people tend to want me to write about him. March, Women, March came about because my publisher wanted me to write about the suffragettes, but I wanted to write about the women’s movement as a whole, as it played a large role in my Princess Louise research. Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards grew out of a lecture I was commissioned to give at the National Portrait Gallery – and that grew out of my telling them I have a beard phobia and them saying I needed to face my fear!

How do you begin to go about your research?
I start what I call my “skeleton timeline” in which I plot every bit of information I have, no matter how minor it seems, and then decide which bit I want to work on first. I use the internet, the London Library, the British Library, the National Art Library and as many local studies libraries as I can find (they are an amazing undertapped resource). I also interview people and try to find out information from things such as parish records and by visiting places that had a connection with the person / events. For March, Women, March I spent a lot of time at the London Library and the Wellcome Library is also really useful for any medical research.

Tell me a little more about how you work. Do you keep notes on palm-cards, or on a whiteboard? Do you use a computer program to help? Do you take notes by hand? How do you keep your research notes in order?
I have a very small working space, so a whiteboard would not fit! I don’t use a special computer programme, but I keep obsessive notes both on the laptop and by hand and files of notes. I try and copy all handwritten notes into a computer file as well, so that I reinforce them and have everything together. I always have at least one notebook and a pencil case in my handbag. I also make notes on my phone to email to myself. I am not a naturally organised person, so I have to really work at it, and every now and then I need to have an “admin day” to sort it all out. 

What was your favourite book to write so far?
That’s very tough, as that’s like asking which is your favourite child! I really enjoyed writing the biography of Katey, because I learnt so much about my family. I also had a great time researching Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards for the National Portrait Gallery, it was a much smaller book to write than any of the biographies and the NPG publishing department are really easy to work with. It was interesting, very different from the type of research I’d done before (medical as well as social history) and finished remarkably fast! 

What was your most difficult book so far?
Definitely The Mystery of Princess Louise as there were so many obstacles put in my way when researching her: I wasn’t allowed to see her files in the Royal Archives, her husband’s family also made it impossible to get into their archives, so much has been destroyed. Having said which, once I realised that was how it was going to be, I really enjoyed it, as it was basically like being a detective. I began slightly nervous that I wasn’t going to like her (not great for a biography subject) as there was so much negatove information out there about her, and I ended up by really liking her and realising that so much of that negativity was rumour spread so that people wouldn’t look beyond it and find the truth.

Do you grow to really love your subjects? Are you invested in their stories? Or do you retain an objective detachment?
You have to love them. I don’t think I could write a biography of someone I wasn’t fascinated by and I liked. You start off by putting them on a pedestal, then you get to know their bad points and irritating foibles and all the nitty gritty and by the end you love them for their good, bad and ingenious sides. If I started a biography and didn’t find the person interesting, I would have to give up on it.

Tell me about your research on Lizzie Siddal. What was your most interesting discovery about her?
I think perhaps the fact that she made her childhood sound much more impoverished than it was, for whatever reason she and Rossetti made out that she grew up in a “slum”, when it was actually a very normal working-class home. She romanticised so much of her childhood and that was intriguing to me. I was also intrigued by what a cult figure she is and how many people are obsessed by the idea of her dying while posing for Millais’s Ophelia (she didn’t…) and that she remains “undead” (courtesy of Charles Augustus Howell telling Rossetti the lie that when Lizzie’s coffin was exhumed she looked as beautiful as she had done in life. I checked, and laudanum is not a preservative!). 

A pen and ink drawing of Lizzie Siddal by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

What first drew you to be interested in her story?
The poetry of Christina Rossetti got me into the Pre-Raphaelites and Lizzie always just shines out of their story. I wanted to write about her when I was a teenager, I think a lot of teenage girls go through a Lizzie Siddal stage. She’s gets the same kind of cult attraction as Marilyn Monroe.

And what about Princess Louise
When I was researching Katey & Lizzie, I kept coming across this princess who was hanging out with Whistler and going to parties at Leighton’s house and visiting Rossetti when he was ill. I assumed she was a minor foreign royal who had come to London to be bohemian. I was amazed to discover she was one of Victoria and Albert’s daughters and astounded to find I had often walked past one of her sculptures in Kensington Gardens. She has been very deliberately whitewashed out of much of royal history, despite having actually been an integral part of several reigns.

I was thrilled by your book on suffragettes, ‘March, Women, March’ – I want all teenage girls to read it. I’ve read many books on the topic before, but yours really brought the stories of the women behind the cause to life.  How long did it take you to research and write?

It took me about a year to research and write it, because that’s the time frame the publisher gave me. I could have gone on for much longer! I would love all teenagers to read it, when the publicity department sent it away for review, my favourite comment came from the radio DJ Lynn Parsons who wrote “I want my sons to read this”. I thought I knew a lot about the subject before, especially as I’d researched so much of it for Princess Louise (so, being honest, the research took several years, I suppose), but I learnt a great deal when I was researching it. Sometimes it was heartbreaking. It was not an easy book to write as it frequently made me cry. I remember one morning waking up to the radio news and hearing the presenter say “Should women be allowed to be bishops?” and in my bleary-eyed early morning state I genuinely wondered if I was awake or dreaming about being in the 19th century. 

You must always be reading for research. What types of books do you like to read for pleasure?
Golden Age crime fiction! That’s my favourite type of escapism. I also love really good, witty, intelligent novels, Rachel Joyce, Salley Vickers, Sebastian Faulks, Ian Rankin and Mavis Cheek are some of my favourites. 

What’s a few of the best novels you’ve read recently?
I’m reading Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy  at the moment and I’m loving it. I also really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. One of my favourite ever books is Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy. If you haven’t read it, I would thoroughly recommend it. It should be on every school syllabus. 

What book of yours should I read next?
Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, surprisingly interesting social history all around facial hair (the beard phobia got worse not better when I was writing it…). The Victorian Treasury came out last week. Or wait until March and read my upcoming Dickens and his Circle. 

What are you working on now?
Dickens and his Circle is coming out in March, so I have been finishing doing the edits on that. I’ve also just finished writing The London Treasury which is also coming out next year. I’m going to take a few months off writing, as I’ve worked on 4 books this year and am exhausted, and concentrate on lecturing for a while, before I decide next year what I want to do. I have finished a first draft of a YA book (fiction) so I’d like the time to work on that and develop it. 



INTERVEW: Heather Webb, author of RODIN'S LOVER

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Heather Webb is the author of BECOMING JOSEPHINE, which tells the story of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine Bonaparte, against a background of the French Revolution; and RODIN’S LOVER, which chronicles the passionate and tragic story of Camille Claudel, sculptor, collaborator, and lover to Auguste Rodin. 

Please welcome her to the blog!

What was the first flash of inspiration for RODIN'S LOVER?

I fell in love with Camille while in my French film class in college. The film called Camille Claudel, was multiple award-winning in Europe and the U.S. with stars Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu playing the roles of Camille and Rodin. Their tragic love story gripped me and I swooned at the beauty they created both together and separately. After the film, I became rather obsessed with sculpture in general. Many years later, I had not forgotten Camille, and knew I wanted to delve more into her life. When I kept seeing renditions of Rodin's "The Thinker" all over the place the month I was choosing a new topic, I knew it was a sign. (I'm one of those! Signs are important to me.) 

What do you love most in the world?
Beyond my children and family, I'd say a great meal while I'm on the road traveling. I love, love, love to travel and I'm a foodie so there we have a perfect marriage.

What do you fear most in the world?
Again, beyond something horrible with loved ones, I would say war coming to U.S. soil. Oh, and cockroaches. Those bugs are crunchy and NASTY. They carry over a hundred diseases and I'm convinced they'll be around long after the apocalypse. 

What are your 5 favourite childhood books?

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene


What are your 5 favourite books read as an adult?

This is so difficult! It changes based on the phase in my life and my mood, but here are a few favorites I still think about:

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Longbourn by Jo Baker

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Mystic River by Denis Lehane

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Probably the variety. I read lots of young adult, historicals, and literary, but I also read the occasional romance, mystery, or science fiction.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

How would you describe perfect happiness?

Perfect happiness is sitting on a beach in the sun, listening to the waves and the gulls, sipping a glass of wine. Knowing everyone you love is safe, knowing that life is short and precious and being content with all you have. Being free from fear of what comes next in my career, life, love...

What are your dreams for the future?

Like many writers, I'd love to hit one of the big lists or win some literary prize, but mostly, my dreams involve continuing to write good stories that capture the public imagination and heart. I dream about my kids growing up happy and having families of their own. And lots more adventure! 

INTERVIEW: Hazel Gaynor, author of The Girl Who came Home

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hazel Gaynor is the author of a heart-rending, yet ultimately uplifting, novel about the Titanic and the impact of its sinking upon one of the survivors, THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME. She joins me today to discuss her inspirations for the novel.  

Are you a daydreamer too?

I’m actually a very practical person, so not a huge daydreamer. That said, I’m always conscious of my inner-writer and often find my thoughts drifting back to the work in progress. An unavoidable part of the job!


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I guess I have, although I didn’t always realise it. I loved reading since I was a young child and have always dabbled in creative writing in some form or another. Even when I lived in Australia for a year, I completed a diploma in children’s’ writing through the Australian College of Journalism. After leaving my corporate career in 2009 to look after my children, I began to tap back into my creative side, initially writing a parenting blog which led to writing freelance for the local and national press. Gradually, my writing began to get noticed and my ambition to write a novel finally felt like something I could achieve. My love of writing was always in me, I just needed to find the book I wanted to write. It took two children, redundancy, a lot of self-belief and a very famous ship to finally embark on writing my first novel. I feel very lucky to have found something I love working at.

Tell me about ‘The Girl Who Came Home'.

THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME tells the story of a young Irish woman, Maggie Murphy, who reluctantly leaves her Irish home and her sweetheart, Séamus, to start a new life in America with her aunt. Along with twelve others from their small parish, they travel together on RMS Titanic. Seventy years later, Maggie confides in her great-granddaughter, Grace, sharing her experience of the traumatic events of April, 1912. Maggie’s revelations have far-reaching repercussions for them both. It was an incredibly emotional book to research, and to write.

I originally self-published the novel as an eBook in April 2012, to coincide with the centenary of the sinking of Titanic. A year later, it was discovered by an agent based in New York, which led to my first publishing contract with HarperCollins. THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME was re-published in April 2014, followed by my second novel A MEMORY OF VIOLETS in February 2015. 

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

I’ve been fascinated with Titanic since I was a teenager and the wreckage was first discovered. When I started my research for the novel, I came across the record of a survivor from a small parish in County Mayo, Ireland. From there, I discovered the history of a group of Irish emigrants – now known locally as the Addergoole Fourteen - who travelled together on Titanic. I knew immediately that I’d found the inspiration for my novel. I wanted to explore the experience of a third class passenger on Titanic, the aftermath of the disaster and how such an event can have far-reaching repercussions on a survivor’s life. Through telling Maggie’s story, I hope to share with readers an aspect of the Titanic disaster they might not have previously considered.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I’m not a huge planner, although I do always have a fairly clear idea of my main characters and the arc of the story. I will usually write sample chapters and a detailed outline for my editor, but much will change from there! I love the creative freedom of seeing where my characters will go and how the story will unfold. I find it too restrictive to write to a pre-determined plan. Life rarely works that way, and neither do my novels! 

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I don’t use my dreams as such, but I definitely work things out in my subconscious thoughts. Those silent hours are so vital for letting early ideas percolate and for solving plot issues when you are in the depths of re-writes and edits.


Where do you write, and when?

During term time I am at my desk in the attic, Monday to Friday, from 9am-2pm, while the children are at school. I spend this time writing, researching, promoting, updating my website – any number of writing-related tasks. When I’m writing early drafts, I try to spend all my writing time just writing, and use the evenings to focus on admin/interviews etc. In the early stages of first drafts, I might go to a coffee shop or a library for a change of scenery, but when I’m getting deep into the story I really need to be surrounded by all my research notes and books - aka the clutter on my desk. I try not to write at weekends, but when the pressure is on, it happens. When I’m not writing, I’m constantly thinking about my characters and figuring our plot issues. They often unravel themselves when I’m out walking, or in the shower! I do try to maintain some structure to my writing, but during school holidays I just have to grab whatever time I can. Often this is early in the morning or late at night.

What is your favourite part of writing?

I love all the different stages in various ways, but there is something very special about the start of a new book – blank pages, endless possibilities and that first surge of energy that always comes with a new idea. I also love editing and re-shaping my early ideas, and of course it is always a surprise and a joy to hear of people reading your book and connecting with your characters. It can sometimes take around two years from those initial ideas to the book being on the shelf, so reader feedback is always welcome and very much appreciated.


What do you do when you get blocked?

I procrastinate terribly on social media or start making Pinterest boards from all my research images. I’m very good at convincing myself that this is all time well spent until THE FEAR subsides! I also go for walks or meet friends for coffee. I’ve learned that nothing can be gained from sitting there beating myself up. Often stepping away from the book is all that is needed to fall in love with it again. 

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I’m constantly tuning in to possibilities for future books. Something I see, something I read or overhear often leads to those words: ‘there’s a book in that’. I keep a bookmark for inspiring ideas online and a notebook of articles, images etc. I have lots of ideas for books I’d love to write so hopefully the well won’t run dry for a good while yet.


Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Unfortunately not. I’m really not a great one for rituals and regime apart from showing up at the desk every morning and getting on with it. It’s as simple and as unglamorous as that! As Neil Gaiman famously said: ‘This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it is done. It’s that easy, and that hard.’ 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

I try to keep an open mind when it comes to reading and will try any author and any genre, but of course I do have my favourites who I happily return to time and again. These are Philippa Gregory, Rose Tremain, Kate Mosse and Sarah Waters and in terms of classics I love Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I have enjoyed many recent debuts, particularly by Jessie Burton and Hannah Kent and I’m excited to see what they write next.

What do you consider to be good writing? 

Good writing is really re-writing, taking those early ideas and themes and building on them to create something complete and memorable. Good writing is writing that is honest – that comes from the writer’s heart, that they really feel passionate about. That is the writing that will take the reader into another world so that they forget they are reading at all. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

My advice would be to write what you really want to write – not what you think you should be writing. Think about what gets you excited, something you will still be passionate about in five, six, twenty years’ time, when (hopefully) people are still discovering your book and want to talk to you about it. Also, finish what you start – don’t abandon projects half way through. And read. Read as much as you possibly can.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished my edits on my third novel THE GIRL FROM THE SAVOY, which will be published in summer 2016. This novel is set in London in the 1920s and tells the story of a maid at The Savoy hotel who longs to dance on the West End stage. I’m very excited for everyone to meet my leading ladies, Dolly and Loretta.

I’m also thrilled to be one of nine authors who have contributed to FALL OF POPPIES, an anthology of stories set around Armistice Day in the Great War. The book will be published next March by William Morrow. 

And I’m in the early stages of thinking about my fourth book. I have an idea which I am extremely excited about!

Thanks so much, Hazel! I must say your new book looks amazing - I'm adding it to my list of must-reads.

INTERVIEW: Charlotte Betts, author of The Chateau on the Lake

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Please welcome Charlotte Betts, the author of The Chateau on the Lake, a brilliant historical romance set during the French Revolution. I had previously read Charlotte's book, The Apothecary's Daughter, which I really enjoyed too, and so I'm looking forward to more of her books.


Are you a daydreamer too?

I am definitely a daydreamer and I’m not sure it would be possible for me to write novels if I wasn’t. My writing doesn’t flow until I’ve daydreamed a scene. I need to ‘see’ it in my mind and then it’s like watching a film and I simply record what happens in front of me. This sounds easy but it’s taken a while to learn how to do this. The best time for me to daydream is when walking the dog or last thing at night just before I fall asleep.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

It seems extraordinary to me now that I didn’t start to write until fifteen years ago. I loved to read and always had to be creating something or other: painting, drawing, decorating, sewing, making puppets or a garden. Most of my working life has been as a designer, first fashion but then interior design for hotels and private residences. Colour and texture are important to me and I use these a great deal in my writing. The skills used for architectural drawings and detailed specification lists aren’t so very different from those required when planning a novel. I don’t have time to paint now but like to think that I paint with words.


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in London, though I only have a few memories of that time as my family moved to Berkshire when I was seven. I’ve lived in the Thames Valley most of my life but eleven years ago moved to a seventeenth century cottage on the Berkshire/Hampshire border, close to a market town.

This year I gave up the day job to write full time and I am so happy discovering the wildlife and the flowers in the woods that surround the cottage. There’s something new to see everyday. I’ve been busy finishing my next novel and a short story for Christmas but I’m looking forward to having a little more time to travel, read, make jam, meet friends and generally potter about at the end of my writing day. What luxury!

Tell me about your book, The Chateau on the Lake. 

The Chateau on the Lake opens in 1792. After her English mother and French father are brutally murdered, bluestocking Madeleine Moreau travels to France in search of relatives she hadn’t known existed. When France declares war on England it becomes unsafe to return and Comte Etienne d’Aubery offers her shelter in his chateau. Impulsive and sometimes self-opinionated, Madeleine favours the people’s revolution in France but her views are shaken after she witnesses Louis XVI’s death by the guillotine. The revolution gathers momentum and as passions of the populace are inflamed, Madeleine sets off on a dangerous race against time to save the man she loves.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

My first three published novels were all set in the mid-seventeenth century and I decided I’d take a jump ahead in time. As usual when beginning a new novel, I researched the period, looking for a suitable historical event to use as a backdrop to my story. When I read about the French Revolution it struck me as the perfect framework for a novel because it was a dramatic, life-changing event for so many, crammed with intrigue and adventure.


What was the greatest challenge in the writing of it? 

I had two major challenges when writing The Chateau on the Lake. Firstly, I’d never studied the French Revolution but everyone knows that the starving poor rebelled against the greedy aristocrats and beheaded Louis XVI, don’t they? Except that, once I started my research, I quickly discovered that it was nothing like as straightforward as that.

It’s often perceived that most of the victims trundling their way to the guillotine in a tumbril were powdered and patched aristocrats but this wasn’t the case. The great majority were of working class background and had taken up arms against the Revolution, most notably in the Vendée. Those nobles who had chosen to emigrate and then returned to France were also executed as they were assumed to be spies. Priests who had refused to take an oath of loyalty to the constitution were also seen as enemies of the Revolution and guillotined. Many ordinary people were denounced for very little reason and a terrible atmosphere suspicion and fear prevailed. 

My second challenge was that whilst writing the novel I was still working long hours in a demanding day job. I place high importance on the accuracy of the historical events I portray and it was extra hard to find the time to do all the research required to enable me to meet the deadline. Everything else in my life had to go on hold!

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I do plan my novels in immense detail all fitted around the historical facts as, for me, this is the best way to avoid writer’s block. Of course, the best-laid plans always go awry! My characters develop a personality I hadn’t expected and secondary characters try to muscle in for a bigger role in the story. I find that an historical fact actually occurred two months after I wanted it to so it’s back to the drawing board for the plot. All this is normal and I don’t upset myself about it. A novel plan is like a road map but there is often another way, maybe a better way, to reach your destination.



Where do you write, and when?

Now that I’m not working in an office I tend to start writing at 9am after household chores with a break in the middle of the day to walk Hattie, my Border Collie, mid morning. Sometimes I’ll start at 5am, as ideas are usually fresh then. I generally keep ‘office hours’ but if I’m nearing a deadline I’ll work very late. Now, I’m able to take time off at weekends to spend time with family. I have my trusty Mac Air on all the time, though, and will write whenever inspiration strikes.

I have a lovely garden studio where I can watch the birds while I write but if it’s very cold outside I set up camp in our orangerie or in my little study, which has a woodburning stove for the depths of winter.


What is your favourite part of writing?

I love all of it, the planning, the research, the certainty that this book will be the best ever! I suppose the middle part of the book is my least favourite because, when the initial excitement has worn off, you begin to wonder if you’ve made a terrible mistake and everyone will hate it. It’s wonderful when it all comes together at the end.


What do you do when you get blocked?

Nearly always this happens because I know in my heart of hearts that something isn’t working. It’s usually in the middle section of the novel. In this case I question my characters’ motivation and have ‘conversations’ with them. Or I’ll do a little more research to see if I can find a new and interesting fact to add a twist to the story. Sometimes I’ll even kill a character – that usually livens things up!


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

If I’m not inspired it’s generally because I’m trying too hard. I am fairly obsessive about my writing and sometimes it’s better to stop and take a walk, bake a cake or meet some friends. I think reading more or watching a film can also be very helpful. 


Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Tea. Chocolate. Both dark and strong like my heroes. Need I say more?


Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Nicci French, Sarah Dunant, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Clare Francis, Dick Francis, Jane Austen and Deborah Swift.


What do you consider to be good writing? 

Good writing immediately lifts me into the world of that book, the minds of the characters and into the locations so that I feel I’m really there. I also like writing to be clear and concise. Good writing shines, whatever the genre.  


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

  • Write every day
  • Read all you can
  • Keep a notebook
  • Never give up


What are you working on now? 

I’m currently checking the proofs of The House in Quill Court, which will be published on 7th January 2016. The novel is set in 1814 and the plot is perhaps best summed up as Jane Austen meets Whitechapel!


After Venetia Lovell’s father is murdered, she’s shocked to discover that he had another family. Since both families have been left without means of support they must combine forces to take over his interior decorating business.

Venetia discovers that her neighbouring shopkeepers have been paying protection money to a vicious gangland boss and, after he threatens their livelihood too, she is determined to end his terrifying tyranny. However, when a street war breaks out Venetia soon begins to regret interfering.

Subscribe RSS

Recent Posts



Blogs I Follow