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.

 

2016: Year in Books

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‘Young Girl Reading’- Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1868)

I didn’t get as much read in 2016 as I did in 2015; this is probably mainly because I read two hefty non-fiction books (Juliet Barker’s The Brontes and Mary Beard’s SPQR.) I also made a start on reading/re-reading the output of the Brontes (and then promptly got sidetracked by a combination of review books and library books.) I am planning on kickstarting my project in 2017- and I’m eyeing up War and Peace or Anna Karenina as my next ‘project’ read after that. Always thinking ahead, me.

I tried to expand my horizons a bit and read novels set across the globe; I instantly fell in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Purple Hibiscus and I travelled around the world via The Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Muse. Next year, I’d like to read a wider range of authors from across the world and nationalities. I have a lot of work to do in that area and any suggestions will be welcome!

I was so lucky this year to read books way before their release date- including a book which I am sure will be huge (and which I’m not supposed to review until nearer release in May!) I think you should definitely keep your eye out, though, for See What I Have Done; a novel about Lizzie Borden and genuinely one of the creepiest and most thrilling novels I have ever read. I’ll have a review for you soon, I promise.

My favourite book released this year was Eowyn Ivey’s To The Bright Edge Of The World, which is just wonderful in every way. I also loved The Muse, although maybe not quite as much as I loved its predecessor, The Miniaturist.

Although I want to continue reading outside of my comfort zone, I am proud of the fact that 82% of the books I reviewed this year were written by women.

Overall, this year has been a good one for me, in terms of reading. Books have been my solace from the uncertainty of the world and have allowed me to travel, to insulate myself from the outside of the world, while at the same time teaching me and helping me understand what was happening. I suspect that books will continue to provide this for many people as we navigate the choppy waters of 2017.

Whatever your plans for next year are, I wish you a happy and peaceful 2017. Keep reading!

CRIME//Ragdoll- Daniel Cole*

Ragdoll (Oct):  There are books that I see being mentioned loads on social media and this is one of them. I’m lucky enough to be able to sometimes get my hands on some of these books before they’re published. Some of them are worthy of the hype, some not so much. This one is one of the most hyped of recent months (it’s not published until February) and I can tell you now- this is going to be HUGE.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a police detective newly accepted back onto the force after a traumatic experience. You’re divorced, living in a tiny flat… and a killer leaves a corpse nearby as a warning. Oh, and that corpse is made up of six bodies and there’s a list of future murders: names, dates and times- and your name is on it. What do you do? If you’re Wolf, you work doggedly to solve the crime, all while the media is watching your every move. As well as all that, you’re sort of involved in a dysfunctional relationship with your co-worker and the boundaries between you and her are really blurred. All fine and normal, yes?

This is a crime novel that takes the crime novel and has glorious, gory fun with it. It’s fast and funny, and it looks askance at our reality TV obsession with crime (there is literally a ‘death clock’, counting down the time until the next murder.) In an age in which we’ve just seen a reality TV star voted to the White House, it doesn’t really seem hugely far fetched, does it? And the media, led by Wolf’s ex-wife, is almost a character in itself. As a news junkie, I found this fascinating and frightening: I couldn’t tear myself away. A cliche, but it’s true.

Without giving too much away (you really need to read it yourself) I’d like to request a series, please. Thanks.

 

 

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.

FICTION//The Plague Charmer- Karen Maitland*

The Plague Charmer (Aug):

My love for Karen Maitland’s work is well-documented and so OBVIOUSLY I was delighted when her latest novel, The Plague Charmer, arrived as a surprise on my doorstep. I was even more excited when I realised that a quote from this ACTUAL BLOG was included in the ‘Praise for The Raven’s Head’ section at the start of the book. (Seriously. I actually screamed when I saw it and made Benn jump.)

Like most of Maitland’s work, the novel is set in the Middle Ages- in this case, the time of the Black Death. A mysterious woman washes up on the coast and brings with her a deadly warning: sacrifice a child, or the plague will come to the fishing village. After the villagers obviously turn down her offer, the woman disappears and illness is left in her wake. Two young boys are at the mercy of a religious, end-of-days cult. Meanwhile, a young aristocratic mother is struggling to hide her illegitimate son up at the manor house. (#itscomplicated)

With the story, as usual, told from the point of view of different characters- a former court dwarf, made the way he is by a cruel first master; a religious zealot who may or may not have a dark secret and a poisonous mind; a mother who is looking for her sons; and the mysterious Janiveer, the woman washed up- you see the story from all angles. This means that there are lots of subplots, some more successful than others. However, the story itself is vast and it’s easy to get caught up in the action. Maitland has a knack of making the world in her novels feel real and there were times when I felt my emotions were on a rollercoaster. Which was quite good, because I was unable to sleep anyway, so the book gave me a legitimate excuse as to why I had to stay up.

The Plague Charmer will be a must-read for fans of Maitland’s previous work and anyone who fancies a historical page turner with elements of fantasy. Definitely a book to keep you going through the upcoming long autumn evenings.

Penguin Clothbound: The Woman in White- Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White (Nov):

I am so in love with Penguin’s clothbound editions of some of the best novels ever written. I was lucky enough, a few weeks ago, to benefit from my friend Carolina passing some of her collection on to me. (I am now planning a dedicated shelf for them, they are so insanely pretty.)

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One of the books she sent me was The Woman in White. I’d never read any Wilkie Collins before and as I’ve spent this term teaching Year 8 about Gothic literature-and realised that I hadn’t read a lot of the Victorian stuff I was telling them about- I decided to take the plunge with a book that is, quite frankly, GINORMOUS.

The novel tells the story of two young women, the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her brilliant half-sister Marian Halcombe. The story is told through a series of narrators, but chiefly through the eyes of genteel drawing master Walter Hartright. It’s a tale of mistaken identity, fraud and murder, with one of the greatest early detective novel villains, Count Fosco. Some of the storyline is, quite frankly, bonkers. But it’s never dull.

It was a brilliant choice for the darkening days of autumn and, although it took me ages to work my way through it, it was one of those books I really enjoyed getting back to at the end of the day. I could really sense how exciting it must have been as each installment was published (it was originally presented as a weekly serial in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round’) and you could imagine people huddling around to hear the latest twists and turns. As a modern reader, it can feel a bit repetitive, but it’s something I soon got used to; it can be easy to forget that all that Victorian verbosity served a purpose and that many people had never seen the inside of a stately home, or had any idea what London was like. It’s a glimpse into not only the seedier side of Victorian life, but also the normal everyday. I loved it.

Overall, if anyone asked me for a suggestion for a big book to get them through winter, this would definitely be one I’d recommend.

 

Review: Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

Joan of Arc (Oct):

I really enjoy Helen Castor’s work- if you ever catch her programmes on BBC 4, or get your mitts on a copy of She Wolves, her book about ferocious medieval English queens, I recommend taking a look. This book was one of those I bought quite a while ago and forgot I had, so was pleased to discover I had it waiting for me on my bookshelf!

I’ve learnt from experience that reading biographies of women from the medieval period can be frustrating; with the exception of queens, there’s frustratingly little in the way of material for biographers to work with and this is true even of Joan of Arc, one of the most famous women of the last 2000 years. How can it be, then, that one of the most recognisable names in European history- and one of a tiny handful of women- has so little in the way of a record of her life? There is only one picture of her from her lifetime and even that was drawn by someone who hadn’t seen her.

However, Castor does an admirable job of trying to get inside the head and the life of Joan and her remarkable courage in battle. Like most books about the period, I found a knowledge of the Hundred Years’ War and the Plantagenets (or, as they’re referred to by me, late at night as I can’t sleep and so I’m reading and also Googling their family trees ‘Those Bloody Plantagenets!’ Pretty sure Henry VIII used a similar phrase.) Because as much as we want to claim Joan as a feminist icon, or an idea to rally to our cause- and she has, as Castor points out, been used as a symbol for many, many causes, some often contradicting each other-her rise and fall was intrinsically linked to the fortune of men; cardinals, generals, the dauphin. When she agrees, in prison, to shun her male clothing and dress as a woman, there are strong suggestions that she is in some way sexually assaulted. She quickly recants her confessions and asks to be back in her men’s clothes. Like all women of her age, no matter how powerful, she was subject to the whims of the men in charge.

They say that history is written by the victors and this is especially true in the story of Joan of Arc. Denounced as a witch, then rehabilitated as a saint, her story has one of the most tragic and interesting trajectories of all of those medieval women we know about and Helen Castor comes close to making her seem real.