INTERVIEW//Sarah Schmidt

328x328 It’s safe to say that I’m a huge fan of Sarah Schmidt’s amazing debut novel See What I Have Done. It’s one of my favourite novels of recent years and one that I think everyone should read. Of course, I’m delighted that Sarah agreed to be interviewed for the blog- so strap yourself in for pigeons, book talk and writing advice…

Can you describe the connection you felt with the Bordens as you were writing the novel?

More than anything it was luck. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about Lizzie Borden off the shelf. After reading about the case I was initially uninterested. But that night and for a whole week, I dreamt that Lizzie was sitting on the edge of my bed poking me in the legs. She said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I began writing down my these dreams hoping they’d go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. Before too long I was drawn into the case and it was too late too back out.

The connection I felt is hard to explain. I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.

Have you always been interested in true crime, or was it the unsolved nature of this crime that drew you to it? Are there any other cases that have caught your interest?

I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘fan’ of true crime at all however I am fascinated by particular cases and the people involved. I suspect this is what drew me to the Bordens: it wasn’t so much the crime or trial I was fascinated by but them as a family and my desire to find out more about them, the moments leading up to the crime.

Every now and then I’ll come across a case where I think, ‘Now THAT would be an interesting novel to write,’ but it all comes down to the how and why. There’s one story I’m particularly interested in that has recently taken place in Australia: the Tromp family. The thrust of the story is this: over a weekend, the Tromps flee their farm with their grown children and set out on a ‘family car trip’ up the coast. One by one the children escape yet are unable (or unwilling) to tell police what happened on the car trip. All they will say is that their father was behaving erratically and the women of the family seem to be suffering from a type of memory loss. It’s a very strange case. I’m sure I’m not the only writer in Australia thinking of writing around this story.

There’s a strong underlying rhythm to the language in the novel (especially in Lizzie’s chapters)- was this a conscious choice, or one that just happened organically as you wrote?

I think it’s a little bit of both. This is probably going to sound like a ridiculously earnest non-answer but  in many ways, much of  the rhythm and language of the book is naturally the way I write. Having said that when you set out to write about a particular set of characters in a situation you need to choose the best way to tell that story. For me that was identifying the aspects of my writing that I could ‘play up’ for say, Lizzie, and take it to a place that would be unsettling and creepy – enough to feel like it was my style but definitely not me. When I began writing down those initial dreams, Lizzie had a very distinct way of looking at her world and was very evasive. She sounded so much like a petulant child at times. I went with that feeling and tried to make it work the best I could in my way of storytelling.

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Lizzie Borden (Wikipedia)

Can you describe your research process? What’s the most interesting thing you found out during your research?

My process is haphazard and ill conceived and usually led by the gut! It really depends on what I’m working on but generally speaking, I always start with an image or a feeling and try to work outward from there.

In the beginning with See What I Have Done, once I’d had the image of Lizzie at the end of my bed, I researched the case for a few months, just enough to feel confident with the main thrust of the case, and then I put it away and tried not to actively think about it. I know that sounds counter intuitive but because I wanted to write a reimagining of the events and concentrate on the family rather than a blow-by-blow account of the crime and trial, I knew I should only use the information I could retain. As the years went on I’d again look at other aspects of the case or read about Victoria-era America and I’d start that whole forgetting-relearning cycle all over.

Another thing I do for research is a lot of walking. It almost becomes a fact-finding mission. Moving through ideas is very helpful and often on these walks I’ll notice something that somehow connects with the novel I’m working on. That’s how the pigeons came to be in the book. One day walking around a suburb of Melbourne, I saw a very meaty looking pigeon watch me as I walked by and I thought ‘You filthy little rodent. I bet you’d make a nice pie.’ I don’t usually look at pigeons like this, so I knew it wasn’t ‘me’ per se thinking this but more a character. Then I really started to notice pigeons literally everywhere, that there was no escaping them. Later when I went to stay at the Borden house (which is now a B&B), there were pigeons galore and it was there that I first heard that two pigeon skeletons were found in the attic years before (this could be total rumour but I ran with it). It was around this time that I made the connection between all the pigeons I’d encountered and I got to thinking there is something creepy about those birds and what if there were birds hanging around the day of the murders? Who loves and hates these birds?

So I started weaving pigeons into the manuscript and before I knew it, pigeons had become Lizzie’s pets and Andrew despised them. And we all know how that turned out.

Which writers have influenced your own work?

Too many to list! It’s not always a particular book that is the influence but often the way the writer explores their themes, how they approach writing and so on. My influences can also change depending on the project I’m working on. But I can’t just stop at books: I’m hugely influenced by film and tv.

When I was writing See What I Have Done there were a couple of books which I had on the desk with me as totems. I didn’t always crack them open but having them near me was enough to remind me of a particular quality the book had that I wanted in mine. Sometimes the books would change but I’d always have Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides because I liked the way both the Lisbon sisters and the narrators seemed to move amongst each other like a giant wheel, the circular way of group thinking. It’s how I thought of Emma and Lizzie. There’s so much about Eugenides’  book I admire, I could go on and on.

Roughly four or so years into the writing of my novel, I gave my manuscript to my sister-in-law to get some feedback and she said, ‘Have you been reading Shirley Jackson? This reminds me so much of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ I hadn’t (and shamefully at the time I hadn’t really heard of her except I knew she’d written ‘The Lottery’) so I went along and got a copy of the book and it was like reading a long-lost friend, all that creepy gothic deliciousness. Initially I thought my manuscript might’ve been ‘too much’ in the weird department and that maybe I should pull back but when I read Jackson’s book it gave me the confidence to dial up the creepiness and to embrace the household I had creating. It also made me feel better about Lizzie being the way she is!

Which book do you wish you’d written- and why?

The books we wish we had written could only have been written by the author: they are the reason a book is great. However if I were Toni Morrison and delivered Beloved or Hanya Yanigihara and came up with A Little Life I’d be a happy writer.

Who would you invite to your dream literary dinner party?

That all depends what mood I’m in! For a fictional dinner  party, and if I wanted to feel highly stressed, then I would invite myself over to Merricat and Constance Blackwood’s house and wait for the mushrooms to be served.

Failing that, I’d like to have dinner with Hanya Yanigiahra.

8) Have you eaten mutton stew or pears since writing your book?

Have I ever!

Actually, the food that I struggle to eat (but which I strangely make often and I’ve grown to appreciate again) is pea and ham soup. Many years ago one of my grandmothers came to visit for a few weeks and made so much of it that we were eating it for months afterward. In the beginning it was great but soon it became thick and strong and I remember the way the ham was torn off the hock, all the sinew fibre mixed into the gut-coloured peas. When we’d reheat it from the freezer the smell overtook the house. By the time we ate the last container I hated everything about it.

Are you working on something now?

I’m working on a new novel that I’ve been thinking about on and off for a few years. The only thing I can tell you is that it’s about a woman on a road trip driving towards a place called Blue Mountain. She is joined by her small child. Nothing is what it seems.

I can also tell you it’s not a particularly happy book.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to write historical crime fiction?

Ask yourself: why this story now? What is it about this case that speaks to you? Don’t feel as if you have to write about a particular type of crime because that’s what’s  in vogue with publishing right now. These things change all the time.

Exploring our past to examine the way we are now, where we might be heading, is important and worthwhile. But it can also be complicated, so be mindful of that.

 

INTERVIEW//Greg Jenner

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Photo: James Gifford-Mead

Greg Jenner is known as the ‘public historian’: his work includes Horrible Histories and Inside Versailles, as well as A Million Years in a Day, his book exploring the history of everyday life through the ages. You can see my review here.

1) What drew you to the idea of becoming a ‘public historian’?
I’ve loved history since my teens, and wanted to be a university academic, but I couldn’t afford the PhD. Instead I decided that the best way to enthuse people about my favourite subject was via television, the medium with the biggest audience share. Working behind the scenes, I made documentaries, historical dramas and Horrible Histories, and then I realised I wanted to write books too. I’m writing another one now, but I’ve also recently blundered my way into appearing on the radio and TV. So I kind of get everywhere – Public Historian is the best description for that, but it’s an American term so people don’t know what it means sometimes.
2) I’ve noticed that historical books (fiction and non-fiction) tend to be published in trends- although the Tudors seem determined to hang around for a while. What do you think is the next big historical trend in books- and why?
Some subjects will always sell well – the Tudors, Romans, Victorians, WW2, Egyptians: these staples of the market are mega popular in books and TV, and probably always will be. By contrast, trends happen usually because an unexpected smash hit arrives out of the blue – a new way of doing something (The Time Traveller’s Guide To An Era, for example) – and then other publishers are quick to mimic the idea. It takes a couple of years to write and publish a book, so there is a slight lag in the trends, meaning books will continue to come out a little while after a trend has already lost momentum and become boring. That must be tough for the authors who’ve done all that hard work, only to see readers shrug and say “heard it already…” You’ll see it in Hollywood too. It’s strange how two films about the same subject can emerge in the same summer, for example the Truman Capote and Alexander the Great biopics.
I’m not sure what is the new big trend in non-fiction, although recently we have seen some really impressive grand-sweep histories by brilliant historians like Yuval Noah Harari and Peter Frankopan that have sold in huge numbers, but which are chunky tomes than cover thousands of years of human history. So, maybe we will soon see lots of big, intellectual books about wider humanity? Funnily enough, my own book is also in that category, being a global history of daily life since the Stone Age, but it is more cheerful and cheeky in tone. It has poo jokes and bad puns about Lady Gaga.
3) What’s your favourite period in history to read/write about? Do you read historical fiction, or is that a bit like a bus man’s holiday?!
I simply don’t have time for any fiction, I read about 200 books per year but they are all non-fiction history. Mostly, at the moment, I’m reading books, journal articles and PhD theses in preparation for writing my own history of celebrity. But if I get time off from that I’ll pick up any new history book, usually by someone I know on Twitter or whose work I respect greatly. Any period of history works for me – that’s the fun part about being a generalist.  Right now I’m reading Adam Rutherford’s brilliant science book ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ – it’s about the history of genetics, but also about the genetics of history. It’s fascinating for history fans as well as science boffins, particularly if you’re interested in doing your family tree. Also, Adam is funny. Not just funny for a scientist, but actually funny.
4) Can you describe your research and writing process?
On A Million Years In A Day, I researched and wrote each chapter as I went along, about 5 weeks’ work per chapter. On this new book about celebrity I’m doing something different. I’m pretty much just doing 18 months of reading, and then I’ll write the whole thing in one big crazy marathon over a few months at the end of 2017. Hopefully that won’t backfire horribly.
Writing is a weird process. I’m a workaholic, so I’ll often sit with the laptop on my legs, mangled biscuit crumbs crushed into my t-shirt, and will write for anywhere up to 16 hours in a day. My wife usually has to drag me out of my office, and it’s quite easy to go a bit mad. But that’s why I love Twitter, it’s a really important part of keeping me sane and allowing me to experience human interaction. Also, it’s fantastic for testing ideas, jokes, or sharing thoughts about something that you’re working on. It probably takes up more of my time if I wasn’t on there, but it’s undoubtedly made me a better writer. Twitter forces you to be concise. That’s vital for a natural waffler like me.
 
5) Your new book is going to be about the history of celebrity- can you tell me more about it, and where you got the idea from?
The idea came from my research over the past few years into a Black slave who became a famous boxer in Regency Era London. His name was Bill Richmond and historians didn’t know much about his personal life, so I spent a few years finding out new details. Along the way I realised he was probably the first Black celebrity in British history, and then I started wonder what the definition was for a ‘celebrity’, and if the idea goes back further than that period.
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Bill Richmond
Then, everyday on Twitter, I’d seen constant discussion of celebrity gossip as if it were important news – KimYe versus Taylor Swift, Brangelina’s breakup, Justin Bieber’s penis – and it dawned on me that celebrity culture is perhaps the most powerful and pervasive force in modern society. So, it really affects our lives. Now I had a proper reason to go and find out how it came to be so dominant. Thankfully my publishers agreed that this was a good idea.
6) What’s your favourite fact in ‘A Million Years in a Day’?
There are loads of amazing facts that totally astonished me when I first read them, particularly the fact that dental surgery, including fillings, was practised in the Stone Age. But the fact everyone seems to love is that King Tutankamun was buried with 145 spare pairs of underpants! It’s rather charming.
 
7) Of all the sketches/songs you’ve written for HH, which is your favourite?
I’ve written about 20 in total, not many in the grand scheme of the series, but they were so exciting to see on TV! A few of the Stupid Deaths sketches are mine, and I co-wrote the Admiral Nelson football song, as I’m a huge footie fan, and also Death’s Favourite Things song in the Halloween Special. But the song I’m proudest of was on series 6: I wrote an Elvis parody about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (it’s titled A Little More Reformation, A Little Less Monastery) and I had no idea who was going to sing it until a week before filming. My producer phoned me up late at night, when I was in a busy restaurant, to tell me that Rowan Atkinson was going to be performing the song which I had written while taking a shower. That was pretty exciting! I couldn’t tell anyone at the table, as his casting in the show was a huge secret, so I just sat there grinning like an idiot.
 
8) What advice would you give to someone interested in writing about history?
It’s a difficult balance. You have to write with energy and flair. Try to avoid cliche, but you also have to make the unfamiliar accessible and intelligible, so analogies can be helpful. I think it helps to imagine the reader is in the room with you, and you’re talking over a couple of drinks. That’s not to say you need to be conversational in style, although that is my own personal brand of authorship, but I think it helps to imagine their face as you type out your paragraph: are they bored at this bit? Do they look confused? Do they need more background context? Do they trust that you are telling the story in the most interesting way?
Writing for other people is hard because other people are not like us, and you are writing for hundreds, or even thousands, of strangers with different life experiences, interests and levels of knowledge. Surprise them. Move them. Set the scene with vivid language, so they can imagine they are there amidst the tumult. Don’t patronise them by assuming they are not as smart as you, but don’t leave them behind with jargon and assumptions of prior knowledge. Writing is hard work. I rewrite constantly. I’m still learning loads about the craft, but the best way to learn is to read other people’s writing.
 
9) If you could invite six people from history for a dinner party, who would you invite (and why?)

 

Assuming my robot butler can translate all the various languages, I’d invite:
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Dinner party guests: Da Vinci/Bentham/Gwynn
1) Leonardo Da Vinci – a genius in so many fields and my favourite person from history
2) The eccentric-but brilliant- philosopher Jeremy Bentham (he had a pet teapot called Dickey!)
3) Nell Gwynn – 17th century actress, and mistress to Charles II – for her famous saucy wit
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Roosevelt/Su Song/Bell

4) Eleanor Roosevelt, because she sounds fascinating

5) Su Song, genius medieval Chinese scientist. I’d love to see him debate with Da Vinci about the nature of the universe.
6) Gertrude Bell, 20th century explorer, for the extraordinary anecdotes of her travels through the Middle East.
You can buy A Million Years in a Day here. Greg’s website is here.

INTERVIEW//Anna Mazzola

I follow a lot of authors on Twitter and Anna Mazzola is genuinely one of my favourites; I liked her even before I read her stonking debut novel, The Unseeing. I was curious to know what inspired her work, how her job as a solicitor influenced her choice of staory and also to maybe gain a few sneaky tips for my own writing…

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1) How did you first find out about the crime in your book and what was it in particular that held your interest?

I first heard about the Edgware Road Murder in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The crime is mentioned only briefly, but grabbed my attention as it took place in Camberwell, not far from where I live, and was both peculiar and horrific. James Greenacre, the man accused the crime, had distributed the body parts about London: the torso beneath a paving slab off the Edgware Road, the head in Stepney Canal, and the legs in a ditch off the Coldharbour Lane. However, when I read the trial transcript, it was Sarah Gale’s story that gripped me. She was accused of helping Greenacre to conceal the gruesome murder of another woman and yet in both the Magistrates’ Court and the Old Bailey she said almost nothing. Given that she was facing the death sentence, I thought that was very strange. What was keeping her from speaking out?

2) Have you always been interested in Victorian crimes?

I’ve been interested in mysteries and crimes for a long time, but not specifically Victorian ones. I began reading mystery books as a child. I was obsessed with the Riders at Black Pony Inn series by Christine Pullein-Thompson, and then with supersleuth Nancy Drew. In fact, I recently found a book I’d written aged 7 called ‘The Kidnap of Lucy’. Which is particularly worrying when you consider that Lucy is the middle name of my little sister (who was at that stage a baby). I gave it to my mum as a mother’s day present. Alarming.

3) How did you conduct your research- and what was the most interesting thing you found out during the research stage?

I started off with researching the case itself (through newspapers, the National Archives, Old Bailey online, convict records and pamphlets) and of course Newgate prison, where much of the action takes place. I read prison diaries and parliamentary commissions, I searched for sketches and pictures, and I studied plans of Newgate to get a sense of what that prison might have been like. In terms of the streets outside, I read journalistic works such as Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, the fiction of the period, guidebooks, newspaper reports, court reports, letters, and the journals and memoirs of those who lived in or visited London. This was all great fun. The tricky bit was stopping myself from researching and finishing the darned book.

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James Greenacre and Sarah Gale

I learnt many interesting and strange things, about both London in the 19th century and the case itself. I was unnerved to learn that James Greenacre had left Sarah his spectacles. I suppose glasses at that time were valuable, and it was perhaps an act of kindness, but he doesn’t seem to have been a kind man. Far from it. I wondered if it could have been a message: a warning that he was still watching.

4) How did your job influence the novel?

I suppose it was because of my interest in justice that I became fascinated by this particular story, and why it plays out as it does. I’m interested in how the criminal justice system treats vulnerable people and victims of crime, and how a criminal charge affects people’s lives, whether they’re acquitted or convicted, so those aspects all feature in The Unseeing. However, I can’t say that my legal knowledge was directly relevant to the book. Whatever we think of the British justice system, we’ve come a long way from the early Victorian era!

5) Can you describe your writing process? How has it changed between The Unseeing and your second novel (if it has.)

It involves reading, writing, procrastinating and panicking in about equal measure. The way I write has changed a lot as I’ve progressed as a writer, however. For The Unseeing, I created a relatively short synopsis and worked from that, but the novel changed drastically over the three and a half years in which I wrote the book, and I now know that I should have plotted it out in a far more detailed way, and thought far more carefully about the characters’ arcs. Every writer is different, but I think I work best when I know where I’m headed (even if the plot later changes). For my second novel, I’m working from a far more detailed plot structure. We will see how that works out.

With both novels, I have spent far too much time carrying out research. I have vowed to be more restrained with my next one!

6) Which authors and novels have influenced your own writing?

Ooh, lots. Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Dickens. My favourite books generally have a crime at their centre but aren’t always classed as ‘crime’ novels: they’re explorations of why people end up committing terrible acts.

7) If you could have written any novel ever, which one would it be and why?

Alias Grace by Atwood. It’s practically perfect in every way. It’s dark, it’s clever, and it’s so bloody funny. I’ve read it five times and every time it gets better. For financial reasons, it might also have been handy had I written The Girl on the Train.

8) If you could host a literary dinner party (and could invite authors or characters), who would you invite?

Well, I’d need someone who could cook, because my cooking is dire. Maybe Constance from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it might not be wise to invite her sister, Merricat. Zaphod Beeblebrox can make the cocktails and Jay Gatsby will make sure everyone’s glass is kept topped up. I’ll invite a few troublemakers to to liven things up – Hunter S Thompson would be a good bet, and Becky Sharp. Some great talkers – Oscar Wilde, David Sedaris, Yossarian. And on the far end of the table, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, arguing it out.

The Unseeing is out now. You can follow Anna on Twitter: @Anna_Mazz

BBAW: Day 2- Interview with Alice from Of Books

Today as part of BBAW, I’m interviewing Alice from Of Books. I’ve known Alice on Twitter for a while and we often discuss books, but it’s been great getting to know what makes her tick in a bibliographical sense!

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How do you choose a book to read?
I’m not sure my whims can be catagorised. Sometimes I want to devote a day to reading so I’ll choose something big and enveloping, but if I’ve not got long to read I’ll choose something smaller. As for content, it dependent on my mood, sometimes I’m so indecisive I’ll start about four and not finish any.
If I’m buying something new, I generally go by the blurb and/or if someone has recommended it to me.
 
What’s the best book you ever judged by its cover- and what drew you to it?
What an interesting question, I’d never thought about it that way. I’m terribly judgmental of covers, I didn’t read My Brilliant Friend for ages because I thought the cover was terrible. I can’t imagine a world in which I’ve not read the Neapolitan series, so thank goodness I got over that! I can’t think of the last time I read a book based on the cover, I wish I could because there have probably been many.
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Of the books you’ve read for your ’30 Before 30′, which was your favourite/least favourite and why?
Favourite: I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith, it’s a little saccharine/rose tinted but I love it. I think it will always be one of my favourites, you’ll see it featured in my next BBAW post.
Least Favourite: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fiztgerald. I love her shorter novels (Offshore or The Bookshop) and it was a shame that this one didn’t click with me. I’m not very good with literature set in Russia, I couldn’t tell you why.
Which book have you found reflects your life more than any other?
I don’t generally find books that reflect my life, but I do discover characters that reflect my personality – or how I was when younger. Catherine inTender by Belinda McKeon, Elena in My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Fanny in Mansfield Park, Anne in Persuasion, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle – I’ve felt what all these young women have felt. They are the type of characters that begin to talk to you when you’re not reading, because you understand their feelings and motivations. I wish I could be more Lizzie Bennett, but alas, it’s just not meant to be. If I had to pick just one of those books, it would be My Brilliant Friend, it’s the closest you could get.
I Capture the Castle, one of my favorite books. A beautiful coming of age tale, and a great movie too!:
What’s been your biggest reading regret or disappointment?
I don’t think I have one, at least not one that comes to mind. I’m often disappointed when I don’t enjoy a good book, but more at myself than anything else. It’s a shame I can’t have the same experience as those who have loved them.
 
What’s been your most exciting discovery as a reader?
Parade’s End by Food Maddox Ford, I’m not sure I have ever felt as I have felt reading that series. I read it back in 2013 and I’m still thinking about it. In general, however, the most exciting discovery as a reader is how much my world has grown, externally and internally, from reading.
What one book do you think everyone should read?
I feel like I should probably chose something by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Caitlin Moran, but the first book that comes to mind is The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. It was the first book I read that really made me think about the way I saw the world and how I made decisions about it. It’s one of the most important books I have ever read. Without The Reader I’m not sure I would have made the move to people like Adichie or Moran.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink in love with this book! Read it in a matter of days!:
I’ve never read I Capture The Castle… I think I’ll make a library reservation! Leave me your own book recommendations in the comments or on Twitter.
Follow Alice here.
Find out more about BBAW here.

Bryant & May: The Burning Man- Christopher Fowler (Review AND author interview)

Bryant and May- The Burning Man (Mar)

The latest installment in the Bryant and May series sees the elderly detectives battling to find an increasingly brave and bizarre murderer/arsonist against the backdrop of a collapsing bank system, corrupt bankers and London in lock-down because of escalating protests and riots. (To get a picture of the events in the novel, imagine the financial meltdown on 2008 coinciding with the riots of 2011 but then make them bigger.)

I loved the idea of older gentlemen with old fashioned, post-war ideas dealing with very modern crimes and ideas (I particularly enjoyed reading the descriptions of the very elderly Bryant trying to get his head around social media.) Yes, it’s unusual to have protaganists who are older, but I think they really shine in this fast paced, witty and thrilling detective novel. Definitely worth a read, especially if you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes novels.

I was lucky enough to have a quick chat with the author, Christopher Fowler:

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1) Are Bryant and May based on anyone you know? Also- are you more Bryant or May?

Oh, I’m a bit of both but Bryant was entirely based on my great friend Jim, whose photo even makes it into one of the books. I tend to create warring forces within single characters and them splitting them into duos, probably because I worked with Jim for so many years in my day job. He died, and I still imagine conversations with him, because he was Arthur Bryant.

2) There’s a strong Sherlockian feel to the partnership; do you have a favourite Sherlock Holmes story?

Probably ‘The Dancing Men’ and ‘The Sussex Vampire’ but to be honest I’ve read all of them so many times that they now blur together. Although I don’t much care for the novels. I’ve written quite a few, too.

3) You clearly have fun with naming your characters! How do you choose the names of the people in your books?

Sometimes I nick real people – Maggie Armitage is very real even though she seems too mad to be true, but she is – a former Bunny girl turned witch. I’ve wanted to write in a feisty girl called Beryl Flynn for a while…

4) The events of the novel are clearly political and based on recent events such as the banking crash, the London Riots and the rising disaffection with politics we’re currently seeing. Is incorporating politics a natural part of your writing? (Also- I’m curious- how would Bryant vote in the upcoming elections?!)

Bryant is dyed in the wool Labour, May more conservative with a small ‘c’. I think because I grew up in a time of marches and protests I have a political attitude, and I’m always shocked when people say they don’t care about politics. Our politicians may be crap (or outright sinister, like Boris Johnson) but freedoms have to be protected or they’ll vanish.

5) I love your descriptions of London. Where in London do you find the most inspiration?

Probably along the South Bank, where you can see the most. Or in Holborn and the East End – never West. I went up the Shard, but disappointingly it just made London look like an other major city because we were too high. I could have been in Tokyo.

6) Who would be in your ideal cast for a series of Bryant and May films?

I think Toby Jones would make a great Bryant, and someone a bit suave for May, like Timothy Dalton.

Bryant and May: The Burning Man is available to buy now.

Interview: Karen Maitland

Those of you who read my other blog know that I’m a HUGE Karen Maitland fan and of course I jumped at the chance to interview her. After all, how often do we get to ask a favourite writer anything we want?

Karen Maitland

What inspired you to begin writing historical fiction set in the Dark Ages?

Some years ago, I went to Bruges in Belgium for a short break and stumbled by accident across the beguinage, the medieval city of women. I discovered that this had been part of a vast movement of women right across Europe, involving hundreds of thousands of women over many centuries. But they had always faced extreme hostility. Some beguines were even burned at the stake. Why were they so hated? I felt cheated. Why hadn’t I been taught about this in history at school? I began to research a dark thriller which was to become The Owl Killers.

But the more research did on the medieval period, the more stories I stumbled across, like the sin-eaters and the young boys who were castrated by the church, which both appear in my novel, The Gallows Curse. But I also became fascinated by the superstitions of the period. For example, if someone was going on a long journey he’d carry the badge of St Christopher to protect himself, but he’d also plait fern seed into the mane of the horse, to make it invisible to evil spirits.

Yet, it wasn’t a primitive age. People regularly bathed in the bath house or stews. They had anaesthetics and know how to relieve pain with things like poppy juice and they could drill and fill teeth. It is such an exciting period, full of untold stories just waiting to be discovered.

Which of your novels was your favourite to write?

The Raven’s Head just seemed to fly off the page. It felt as if the raven was writing it and I was just the idiot human he was using do the typing! Also I thoroughly enjoyed watching the naive apprentice, Vincent, make his great plans. Then I could cause them to go horribly wrong. Authors are sadists at heart!

But each novel has parts I really loved writing. In The Vanishing Witch it was great fun to write from the point of view of one of the narrators who is a ghost. The upside of being a ghost is they can say whatever they like about people and they can watch the living walking straight into danger and think, shall I warn them? No, I won’t bother. It’ll be much more amusing to see them fall down that hole. I suppose you could say authors are a bit like ghosts, we happily watch our characters blunder into all kinds of trouble and idly wonder how they are ever going to get themselves out of it.

If you had to invite five of your characters to a dinner party, which would you pick and why?

I could invite all the kind, gentle characters who would have really pleasant evening together. But that wouldn’t be much fun, would it? Much more interesting to bring some of the nastier ones together and who knows, there might be murder or two before dinner is over. After all, it is the author’s job to torture the characters.

So, I’d invited Zophiel the acid-tongued conjurer from The Company of Liars and sit him opposite Lord Sylvain, the obsessive and ruthless alchemist from The Raven’s Head and listen to their battle of wits. They both despise women, so let’s bring in Servant Martha, leader of the beguines, from The Owl Killers. She is more than a match for any man.

I’d invite the bewitching Catlin, from The Vanishing Witch. A flirt like her would really annoy Servant Martha, but will Catlin succeed in charming her way round Zophiel or Sylvain? Lord Sylvain is so wealthy she’d want to seduce him, but she could end up with a nasty surprise on her wedding night.

But if the handsome Ricardo arrives from Falcons of Fire and Ice, Catlin might find herself being seduced, unless Ricardo is too busy trying the lure the men into one of his financial scams, though Zophiel has been known to commit a fraud or two of his own. There is more than one thief and killer round this table.

 Which novelists have inspired your writing?

I think inspiration begins young, and I loved Susan Cooper’s series ‘The Dark is Rising’ where the children go back in time to search from symbols from the past. I also devoured the historical novels by Henry Treece. The first adult books I read were by Graham Greene and I always admired the great sense of place – you feel the heat and dust – but also his anti-heroes and the sense of genuine danger. You really didn’t know if the main characters would live or die. That had a huge influence on my writing.

I am a big fan of magic realism and the way the authors draw you step by step into a world, where you don’t know what is real and what isn’t, but it is all believable. Authors such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood and most recently I’ve fallen under the enchantment of the chilling The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

I try not read historical novels set in the period in which I write, because, like most authors, I’m afraid of subconsciously absorbing their plots or ideas. But I do love Sarah Dunant, Manda Scott and C.J.Sansom. And I read a lot of modern thrillers and crime to study plot and pace, especially dark writers like Minette Walters.

 How do you decide on the place or time your novels are set? How long does it take for you to do the required research for each novel?

The ideas for the plots usually come from some current event I see on the news. Then I search for a medieval period where this has happened before. So for The Vanishing Witch, it was watching the London riots on the news on TV that reminded me of the Peasant’s revolt in which ordinary people went on the rampage looting and burning. So I set the story against the background of that medieval revolt.

For The Raven’s Head it was a news item in which scientists said that if they could modify the right sections of DNA in human cells it might be possible to prevent aging and make people live for years longer than their natural life-span. It struck me that was exactly what the medieval alchemists were trying to do in their experiments.

I don’t go looking for a place in which to set the story. I often have a story idea in my head for years without any thought of where I’m going to set it, then I’ll stumble across a location by accident and I know that is the place. For The Raven’s Head. It was seeing the Langley Abbey. I’ve visited lots of other abbeys, but there was something about the atmosphere of that one, that just clicked.

Company of Liars which I wrote at the same time as The Owl Killers, took ten or twelve years of research before I was ready to start, because there was so much I had to discover about the Middle Ages from food to furniture, and punishments to the plague. After that the research for novels got quicker because I already had the background knowledge, so now I tend to focus on the specific things I need for that novel. For The Raven’s Head, I had do several months of research into medieval alchemy, the symbols and what they used in their experiments

But even when I’m writing, I am constantly researching, because you don’t always know before hand, what you are going to need to know for that scene. You suddenly find yourself asking – How long does it take to heat a human skull so that it’s brittle enough to be ground into powder? And the next question is – just where do I find the answer to that one?

Jacket high res

Karen’s new book, The Raven’s Head, is available to buy now- and I’ll be reviewing the book soon.