Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher: blog tour review plus Q&A with the author

This post is part of the blog tour for Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew – be sure to check out the other posts!

AMANIKNEWBLOGTOUR

I was very glad to be offered a review copy of this book. The Little Brown website describes it as ‘tender and savage’ and this is certainly true – the pains and passions of life are explored and considered in all their beauty and horror. The descriptions of Provence are vivid and colourful, and took me right back to our holiday there last year. Fletcher obviously has a passion for the area she describes – a place filled with history and nature, and the lives of those who live there.

Van Gogh himself is very ‘in touch’ with nature in this novel, and seems happier to be out in it than in amongst buildings and people. He is troubled and vulnerable when we meet him, having recently committed that famous act of self-harm, severing the lower part of one of his ears, and now residing in a psychiatric hospital. To Jeanne Trabuc, the wife of his doctor, van Gogh is doubly mysterious as both a patient at the hospital and as an artist. She is captivated by his creativity and what she sees as his freedom from the constraints of an ordered life. She is mesmerised by the story of his ear, and the rumour that he once wandered into Place du Forum in Arles completely naked, in the rain, at night.

To Jeanne he represents freedom, creativity, boldness, and the potential richness of life. She compares him, sometimes unconsciously, with her own husband, Charles. He is professional and ‘buttoned up’, and lives by rules and routine. She herself is a housewife, forbidden to talk to the patients or go inside the hospital, left to her housework. When van Gogh arrives she is instantly intrigued by him, and actively seeks him out – in secret of course.

While van Gogh is the ‘big name’ here, the story is really about Jeanne, and her life and  marriage. She reflects on the feeling of loss she has now that her children are grown up and living far away, and the loneliness she feels now that Charles insists on separate beds. The question of intimacy in their marriage – both psychological and physical – is an important theme to the novel and something that Jeanne thinks about often. The ‘man’ in the title is van Gogh, this mysterious artist, but also Charles. He is the love of Jeanne’s life and yet sometimes she feels that she no longer knows him. Her passion is contained within her, and as she talks more with van Gogh and learns about his art and life, she realises that she must release it. She hears about his troubles and his pain, and realises that you must live with passion, and that life is beautiful. Her boldness grows throughout the novel and she refuses to settle for her lot. Jeanne is brave in her own small way, and she fights for what is worth having – her marriage and her happiness.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a portrait of a time and a place, and a marriage. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and I recommend it highly.

isbn9780349007625
Virago 2016 cover (image: littlebrown.co.uk)

The author Susasn Fletcher kindly agreed to answer some questions I sent her, which I hope will entice you to read this wonderful novel even more.

What drew you to write about Jeanne Trabuc? How did you get into her mindset and her life?

I first became aware of Jeanne through Vincent’s letters. I knew I wanted to write a novel about van Gogh; I also knew that I was interested in that year of his life – May 1889-1890 – where he was at his most prolific, in the olive groves of Saint-Remy. So I began to read his letters to Theo, from that time. Vincent’s description of her – the warden’s wife – was so astonishing that I felt compelled to find out more. She was a plain, middle-aged housewife who was unlikely to have either seen much of the world, or been educated well. This was my starting point: to imagine a life in which there weren’t such luxuries, and how small such a life would be

Did you travel to Provence to get a feel for the environment and the buildings of the asylum?

I did! And it was one of the most wonderful weeks. I stayed in a tiny annex, on the outskirts of Saint-Remy, and I’d walk along the lanes into the town every day. It was June, and everything was in blossom. The asylum itself is still there; it’s still a working hospital, so the majority of it is inaccessible. But there’s a small museum about van Gogh’s stay at Saint-Paul, with a replica of his little room. I’d go to the hospital most days, walk through the fields surrounding it with my notebook. As for the Trabuc’s cottage itself, I got conflicting information as to which it was, or where it had been – so I was left having to make my own guesses. Even so, I came back with such a vivid, strong sense of Jeanne and her life there. It was a turning point in the writing of the book.

Did you have to do much research into the treatment of and attitudes towards mental health in 19th century France? What did you learn?

My research didn’t, in fact, take me too far into the treatment of mental health in France in general. The two things that I did, however, need to know and understand were, firstly, what van Gogh suffered from – what he was prone to, how others perceived him and how he perceived himself – and, secondly, the regime at Saint-Paul. Saint-Paul was not particularly representative of other asylums, at the time, in that it focussed on simple diet, rest, regular baths and the freedom to write, paint or read. As for van Gogh’s conditions, I think there’s debate even now as to what he suffered from. The likelihood is that it was a combination of things: bipolar disorder and epilepsy are two strong possibilities.

How did you go about learning about Van Gogh’s time at St Paul? What was the most interesting thing you learned about him?

The best resource, by far, was the letters that he wrote to his brother during his stay. Van Gogh wrote to Theo throughout his life, and they were saved and published after his death by his sister-in-law Jo. Without them, we’d know so much less about him, and his life. What I loved most about these letters was that they show Vincent’s tenderness, and vulnerability: I’d assumed they’d be troubled, hard, perhaps aggressive in their tone. In fact, they are beautiful meditations on his work, on life, his condition and his loneliness. He also had a sense of humour: there’s a wonderful sentence in an early letter, from Saint-Paul, in which he laments the bland food there, and the downsides of the patients having so many beans!

Finally, what are you working on now?

I’m frustratingly coy when it comes to talking about works in progress! But it’s another historical piece, set in rural England before the First World War. I’m having to research flowers, at the moment – which is an absolute gift of a thing.

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Published by Virago, an imprint of Little Brown, in June 2016. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Available at Wordery and Foyles.

Interview with Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon

Katherine Clements’ debut novel The Crimson Ribbon was published by Headline on 27th March. I reviewed the book just after publication, having read it earlier in the year, and I must say I loved it. An historical novel with a bit of a Sarah Waters ‘romp’ feel, laced together with intelligent exploration of the sociopolitical issues of England in 1646, particularly for women.Thanks to the magic of Bookbridgr and the lovely Caitlin Raynor at Headline, I was able to ask Katherine a few questions about her work. Enjoy!

Katherine Clements. Image: headline.co.uk
Katherine Clements. Image: headline.co.uk

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What made you want to write about Lizzie Poole, and this period in history?

I’ve always been passionate about history and studied it at university. I became particularly interested in the 17th century after reading Rose Tremain’s wonderful novel “Restoration”. I began reading history books about the period and was fascinated by the English Civil Wars. It was in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Oliver Cromwell that I first encountered Elizabeth Poole, a mysterious woman who appears in the historical records as she attempted to influence the trial of Charles I. I was intrigued by the way that she was given serious consideration by some of the most important men of the day. This led to more research about women’s history during the period and I decided I wanted to explore some of the things that interested me; women’s role in society, new freedoms brought about by the war, new religious sects, radical political thinking and the witchcraft trials. After that it was a process of finding a story that allowed me to explore some of these themes. Using a relatively unknown figure gave me some factual structure but a lot of freedom to do this.

How did you develop the character of Ruth, and intertwine her life with that of Lizzie?

I first began to develop the character of Lizzie but it soon became clear that the voice in my head was not Lizzie herself and I needed to tell Lizzie’s story through the eyes of another. Creating a completely fictional character gave me more freedom and allowed me to bridge the links between some of the real-life characters. I had researched the real Elizabeth Poole, and there were facts that I wanted to maintain, for example, where she lived, where she worshipped, her relationships with certain people etc. so I had a structure to start with. Then it was like solving a puzzle fitting it all together. I love that process – part research, part imagination – and the light bulb moment when the answers come.

‘Witch hunts’ and religious persecution are very important in the novel – how did you go about gathering information and recreating the mood and culture of the time?

I did a lot of broad reading before I started writing. I learned about the political situation, the religious tensions, the role of women, attitudes to witchcraft and practical stuff about clothing, food, domestic arrangements, travel, currency etc.

Once I was writing I focused my research on the specific concerns of the book and learned in more detail about things like printing and pamphleteering, the witch hunts in the 1640s, the emergence of new religious sects and political groups like the Levellers. I did several research trips too. I went to Ely to visit Oliver Cromwell’s house and the Cathedral. I visited Wicken Fen to get an idea of what the Fens might have looked like before it was all drained. I visited Abingdon, and of course London. I find it helpful to understand the size and layout of the places I’m writing about when comparing with old maps. I went to Sealed Knot re-enactments (they do brilliant social history camps as well as battle re-enactment). I went to museums and 17th century houses, looked at art, listened to music, read literature and other writing of the time. I read historical fiction set in the period to see how other authors had handled things. All of these things are helpful to me in some way. Basically, I became a bit obsessed. I still am. (Just ask my poor friends.)

Joseph is a very interesting character, as he is both a soldier and a revolutionary involved in printing. How did you develop his character? Was he based on any real people?

Joseph isn’t based on anyone in particular but he represents the brutal experience of many men who were involved in fighting in the wars. I was interested in how certain camps in Cromwell’s New Model Army became disillusioned as the war went on. They felt they weren’t given the things they had been fighting for, plus they often weren’t paid and had to put up with appalling conditions. As Cromwell and the other Army leaders asserted their power, the more radical factions in the Army felt betrayed. I wanted someone to bring the progressive politics to the novel, and to challenge Ruth’s perceptions. Joseph’s character developed so that he has some modern ideas, working the illegal press and encouraging Lizzie in her writing, for example, but also provides a counterpoint to Lizzie’s unpredictability.

How did the title come about? Ruth has a red ribbon from her mother and associates them with her; Lizzie also wears a red ribbon. Did this image come to represent something deeper for you?

The title actually came rather late, after much discussion with my publisher. I originally had a working title that they weren’t happy with, for various reasons, so we decided to bring out the symbolism of the crimson ribbon that runs throughout the book. You’re right that Ruth associates the red ribbons with her mother, and when Ruth and Lizzie exchange gifts, Lizzie gives Ruth a pair of the same. Unbeknownst to Lizzie, this has significant meaning for Ruth and the exchange seals the bond between them. It’s the point at which Ruth commits herself completely. Ribbons were traditionally used in hand-fasting ceremonies and this imagery was in my mind too. Ruth is bound to her past – to her mother and to the Cromwells – but also trapped by her relationship with Lizzie. I’ll be interested to see what other meanings readers bring to it.

As you are an historian, do you think you will continue to write historical fiction? Are you planning another novel?

I’m not a historian by profession but I love it so much I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. Perhaps that will change in the future but my next two novels will certainly be historical. Right now I’m working on the second, which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. (You might know the 1945 film with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason that was loosely based on the same story). The legend tells of a noble-born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real-life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new.

2014 Headline cover. Image: goodreads.com
2014 Headline cover. Image: goodreads.com

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My thanks to both Katherine Clements and Caitlin Raynor at Headline for this interview.

Published in the UK by Headline on 27th March 2014. My copy was very kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Q & A with Eva Stachniak

I recently reviewed Eva Stachniak’s Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great, in which Catherine reaches the end of her life and looks back on the key events of her life. It was the first time I’d ever read a whole book about Catherine, and I had to take the opportunity to ask Eva a few questions.

Eva Stachniak. Image: brieflyspeakingbiz.com
Eva Stachniak. Image: brieflyspeakingbiz.com

1. Given that you grew up in Poland, which Catherine the Great divided, what were your feelings towards her prior to writing about her? Did researching both this novel and your previous one, The Winter Palace, affect your view of Catherine in any way?

In the Poland of my childhood Catherine was feared and hated; I had an image of her as ruthless and hypocritical. I’m not disputing the historical accuracy of this image—Poles, Ottoman Turks, Ukrainian Cossacks all had good reasons to be less than enthusiastic about Russian imperial policy. But the truth is that I knew very little about her then.

When I was writing my novel, “Dancing With Kings”, I had to include Catherine the Great in a few scenes. This is when I started researching her, and slowly a more complex and nuanced picture of her had emerged. In the end, I have become fascinated by this extraordinary monarch even if I still do not accept or condone all of Catherine’s political decisions.

2. Was it difficult to write about Catherine’s last 36 hours? It must have been tricky to get into her frame of mind and describe her experience.

I read a lot about the mechanics of a stroke and the effects it has on the sufferer’s perceptions. Luckily, our modern medicine can do a lot for stroke victims, making recovery possible. Survivors often write compelling accounts of their experience. One of them is Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight”. Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist, gives a thorough, informative, and moving account of what was happening to her as her brain was drowning in blood. I found her book extremely useful in imagining what Catherine must have felt.

3. A lot of time passes in the narrative; when you were writing the novel how did you organise the timeline and not get muddled?

I always keep a pretty tight schedule of all events and characters, year by year, month by month, and often day by day. Otherwise it would be impossible to navigate through the complex material that historical research provides. In this schedule, I include the most important historical events alongside the events from the lives of principal characters. When—as it was in “The Winter Place”—I introduce a fictional character into the mix, I make sure everything that happens to him or her matches the historical context.

4. Catherine has very interesting relationships with both her children and her grandchildren, and had a difficult relationship with her mother – did you think a lot about mother/child relationships and how they affect us? I felt that aside from politics and lovers, motherhood was a very important theme in Empress of the Night.

It was important. Catherine was not a good mother to her children. Some of it can be explained by the fact that she was separated from them at the moment of their birth. Before she became empress herself, Catherine had no say in the matter of their upbringing. All of that made for a very troubled relationship with her first-born son, Paul. What began as awkwardness, eventually turned into resentment and mutual hatred.

With her grandchildren Catherine had much better and healthier relationships. She loved them very much, especially her grandsons, and was very actively participating in their lives. She played with them, designed their education, wrote books for them. In one of her letters to her German friend Baron Grimm she confessed that she has just designed her grandson’s play clothes. The existing, traditional ones, she found too restrictive.

You’ve mentioned Catherine’s mother. Princess Johanna of Anhalt-Zerbst was not a nurturing woman. From what I read about Catherine’s childhood, it looked like her mother was jealous of her. This must have had a very strong impact on Catherine’s psychological makeup. You are right that I find these relationships intricate and illuminating.

5. What made you choose the title Empress of the Night? Obviously Catherine was Empress of Russia, and for me ‘the Night’ makes me think both of her love affairs and of the darker side to her life and reign, some of which is explored in the novel. Was this intentional?

Your reading of the title is perfect. I wanted to evoke the darkness of the night before her death and the darker side of Catherine’s quest for absolute power. Her contemporaries assumed that—during her stroke—she was not aware of what was happening around her. The most recent studies of the brain suggest that she might’ve realized and understood quite a lot. This was my assumption, and the final inspiration for the novel’s structure.

Many thanks for agreeing to answer my questions, and congratulations on the book.

You are very welcome.

Bantam Press cover. Image: goodreads.com
Bantam Press cover. Image: goodreads.com

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Published by Bantam Press in the US, and by Traverse Press in the UK as an ebook on 25th March 2014. My copy was kindly provided by Bantam and The Helen Heller Agency for review.

Donna Tartt Interviewed on CBS

A little more Donna Tartt excitement for you!

She recently recorded her only American TV appearance for This Morning on CBS, and here it is! The interviewer has some great questions but quite an odd way of talking that is a bit off-putting, and fades out the ends of Donna’s answers – but it is still excellent, especially as they go to see The Goldfinch (the actual one!!) in New York, which is wonderful. Enjoy!

Clip: Kirsty Wark Interviews Donna Tartt

I was stupid enough to be busy on the night when BBC Four showed a Review Show Special of Kirsty Wark interviewing Donna Tartt – and now it is gone from iPlayer! But I found a section of it that Newsnight put on YouTube – so here it is…

It is an utter joy to hear the ever reclusive Tartt speak about her work, as well as to hear her read from The Goldfinch. Makes me even more excited for seeing her in Oxford in a couple of weeks!

Interview with Katerina Cosgrove: Part Two

Here is the second half of my interview with Katerina Cosgrove, author of Bone Ash Sky (see my review here). We talked about how conflicts and opposing beliefs can affect personal relationships, and how really we are all more similar than we are different.

This interview was transcribed and edited from an audio recording so please forgive any grammar errors. It also contains spoilers.

My questions and comments are in italics.

UK hardback cover. Image courtesy of Hardie Grant.
UK hardback cover. Image courtesy of Hardie Grant.

Throughout the novel love and sex connect people in various ways – so do you think people from opposing sides can have a harmonious personal relationship?

Yeah I think they can – and again it comes down to education doesn’t it? if you think of India, where Christians, Muslims and Hindus live in relative harmony, and they intermarry – so I think it’s possible. I think – what difference does it make which god we worship? Or if we worship no god? I mean, I come from a family where my mum’s greek, quite conservative, my dad’s Australian and agnostic, doesn’t believe, doesn’t know if there’s a god; so again it worked it some ways, but in other ways obviously it broke down. It’s a hard one.

I think its quite interesting within the novel that there are several different coples, and these issues always affect them in some way whether they stay together or they don’t.

Because as humans we’re so wedded to being right, we’re so wedded to thinking we have the truth, we know, and everyone else is wrong, even in relationshops. I see it myself, I do it with my husband; not on fundamental issues but on little things.

I think everyone does to a degree. You can get along and be happy and those things always exist within you.

Because we define who we are with our beliefs. But wouldn’t it be a freedom if we had none? If we just said it is what it is with nothing extra on top of it. We’re always adding extra on top of what is.

How did you go about creating Anoush? That she’d be female, Armenian, and that she’d be in 95 and 96?

It’s  probably because the first itme I ever went to the Middle East was in 1995. I was 21 and it made such an impression on me, it was a total culture shock. So I think on an unconscious level, it wasn’t conscious, that was where I set the present day action. And then on a conscious level, chronologically speaking it needed to be the 90s because of the [Lebanese] civil war and the [Armenian] genocide. I couldn’t have brought it forward to now. So there was that as well. There was a chronological reason and an emotional underlying reason as well.

I did think, especially towards the end, when she meets with Sayed, and you’re thinking what would it be like now – we’re in a post 9/11 world and this was a pre 9/11 world, so I thought that was quite an interesting contextual factor, that it would all be different now.

Yeah it would be much harder to fall in love with a guy like that now.

And also she wouldn’t be able to get the access to him – that was a big thing. I was very young in the 90s but there wasn’t that kind of awareness of these issues.

No it hadn’t become global – it was contained to the Middle East, whereas now its bled into everything.

I wonder what it would be like now, to have a similar story.

She wouldn’t even have been able to see him – he would be in solitary, a Guantanamo situation.

I want to ask you now about your writing process, because I know the book took you a long time – so did you work on it steadily, or did you have gaps?

I had big gaps. What happened was I did the bulk of the research  in 2002 – I had lots of trips overseas but the first research trip was in 2002 – and then in 2003 I was given a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland; and I went there for two months and started the book, and finished the first draft in that period. So it was written fast and furious, it was the shitty first draft. And then the rewriting took anther ten years! When I finished that first draft I gave it to my agent and said, have a look at this, do you think I should keep going, and he said yes! So then came the long process of writing and rewriting and chucking.

And there was more research, more trips?

I did more trips along the way – so I did about three more trips in those ten years. I was learning more and more about where I needed to go and what I needed to do and also my daughter was born in 2005 so for a whole  year I don’t think I did anything – I was just in shock! Then I had a melanoma in 2009, and my sister died in 2010. So there were a lot of big life events stuck in there that took me away. But it was good because I needed that space.

And I suppose when personal things happen to you, and you’re writing this book alongside, do personal things affect how you go back to the book?

Oh yeah, definitely. It deepens your view of life and death and love. Those three things – again I keep talking about the older I get, but the older I get the more I realise all that is left is love, we don’t have anything left but love at the end of our lives, so in some ways this book is about that too.

I can see that.

Everything else falls away, it doesn’t matter.

That also makes me think of relationships within the book – something like with Selim and Sanaya, even though they have all these things fighting against them, when they’re together they’re just together; they’re just the two of them.

And everything else doesn’t matter. I’m sure we’ve both had that experience, with boyfriends that aren’t right but it doesn’t matter, everything else is ephemeral. Like when I saw my sister’s dead body before me, all I could see was love. All the worrying, and the anxiety, all the acquisition that we care about – success, money, ambition – who cares?

I know what you mean – I’ve never been through that experience, but when you get down to fundamental family things. When my sister had her baby, you realise that’s all that matters, that’s all there is.

It is.

It’s an amazing moment to realise that.

It’s almost like a crisis moment, but not in a bad way, just an opening, like a shattering of everything. We go along in our lives, everything’s mundame, and we think it’s always going to be like that – and then bang, something happens, she had her baby, everything changes.

I think with Anoush, she kind of has that moment more than once in the book, when she connects with people, and especially at the end with Inam, the little girl – she connects with her, it’s difficult at first, but she does it. And the ending is like a moment of peacefulness, after all this that’s happened, like this is what matters, this is what we’ve got at the end.

And like you say it’s a moment – all we have a moment. We can be worrying about what’s going to happen tonight or whatever but we only have this now. We don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Do you have plans for more novels? Are you working towards something?

Yes I do. I’m thinking about a sort of post-apocalyptic eco thriller, so more of a big picture, getting away from the sectarian, political stuff, and into the earth. Are we still going to be here, what are we doing to the planet, that sort of stuff. But also for a while I might be away from writing. I have have a website I’m setting up, which is a death memorial website for people to memorialise their own deaths, so that will probably be my next project.

But then writing will come back in?

Writing is always there, I cant not write; but I’d like to have a bit of short term gratification! Because writing is long term.

I can imagine, when I was reading this book, it such an emotional book and quite intense, there are lots of intense moments – it must be quite draining to do that so it must be nice to have some breaks.

Yeah and be normal for a while; and also not to be divided – because when I’m writing, I’m divided between my writing life and my real life, and sometimes it’s not great as a mum because I’m not present with my child. I’m there and not in the moment with her. And that’s the most important thing to me now. Writing is what it is but I can live without it; she’s the most important thing to me.

So it’s getting a balance between the two things.

Yes, definitely.

Katerina and I at the Hardie Grant office.
Katerina and me at the Hardie Grant office.

My thanks to Katerina for taking part in this interview, and to Steph Vizard at Hardie Grant for sending me Bone Ash Sky in the first place.

Interview with Katerina Cosgrove: Part One

After reading her novel Bone Ash Sky, I was lucky enough to be invited to interview author Katerina Cosgrove at the offices of her publisher, Hardie Grant. Bone Ash Sky is Katerina’s second novel and “is the story of an American journalist who goes home to unravel three generations of war and genocide, love and renewal, in Armenia, Beirut and modern-day Lebanon. When Anoush Pakradounian steps off a boat and feels Levantine heat on her cheek, she thinks she knows where she’s going: she thinks she knows who’s right and who’s wrong. Yet nothing about her family’s past is black and white.” (Quote from Hardie Grant’s UK website). 

UK hardback cover. Image courtesy of Hardie Grant.
UK hardback cover. Image courtesy of Hardie Grant.

The interview below was transcribed and edited from an audio recording, so please forgive any grammar issues. It also contains spoilers! My questions and comments are in italics. 

My first question is what got you started – what made you want to write about the Armenian genocide, and then into Beirut in the 80s as well.

For me I didn’t know anything about the Armenian genocide for years, as most people don’t; and I had a friend whose parents had survived the Jewish Holocaust and he always used to say ‘Armenian Holocaust’, and what’s that? So then I started reading here and there and ended up being so inspired that I went to Armenia.

Wow!

So I went to Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, and just took the same route as those deportations through the desert – saw the bones, the lakes, you know, I was just so overwhelmed by this genocide that none of us know about, and that the Turks still deny. I thought this is a story that needs to be told.

Yes, definitely.

And then it segued into Beirut, and I’ve been to Lebanon a couple of times and I always felt an affinity with that culture, so it was an easy way to encapsulate all my loves into one book.

And it carries through to the future quite nicely, it’s a nice connection.

So, I know you conducted a lot of research – I remember reading on the Hardie Grant website that you went to all these archives and libraries to find all these records and so I imagine you had a lot of material to work with. So how did you go about collating it, putting it all into one volume?

It  was hard! The book originally, it was much bigger, even though it’s quite a tome now! And my agent kept saying, cut it down, cut it down, but it was hard for me at the stage cos I was still so invested in it. But as time went by and as my perception of my characters journeys deepened, they were telling me what to cut out because the research was being focused into their stories, so it was much easier to say this doesn’t matter, this doesn’t matter – this is what matters.

So the characters lead, as it developed?

They lead me to focus on what I needed for their story. Which is always the way I think, it’s that characters who tell you. If you can’t have a reltauonship with the characters you’ll always be in the dark.

Yes, I’ve heard a lot of authors say that the characters sort of do their own thing  – that the writer just has to let them do what they want to do.

Yeah, and it sounds quite wanky when we as writers say it.

But it’s true!

Yeah the more we get to know them the more they tell us and sometimes that takes years, as in my case – many years!

Each strand of the narrative could almost stand alone as novels because they’re so dense, and there’s so much there – so how did you maintain a sense of balance and continuity between them? And also because of the different time periods.

This is really interesting because I started the book chronologically, so I wrote the book from beginning to end, from 1915 to 1996; and then looked at it and went ok, and then started chopping and changing. So that’s how that happened. And then the nuances started changing because when you put two timeframes together, then the reader has alternate information.

They kind of reflect on each other don’t they?

Yes, so the reader knows something different each time.

There’s a huge cast of characters, and more characters come in later in the book – and even though they’re all intertwined in some way they’ve all got a very different story, a different viewpoint. So my question is how do you create each one vividly, fully formed?

That’s hard. I think that is just constant rewriting. I’m the sort of writer who will wirte a page or a scene or a chapter, and then go back it and go back to it and constantly hone it; and each time I go back to a scene I’m a different person, so obviously I bring more to it, so I’m morphing with the novel as I go.

It changes all the time.

And it’s probably why it took ten years, becayuse I needed to be that person to write this final form. And if I’d taken abother five years again it would be something different.

You could just keep developing it.

Well you could, but you’d go crazy!

History and legacy are hugely important in the book – were those things been important to you and your family and in your life already?

Yes. I wrote The Glass Heart when I was 23 or 24 and it was very healing for me to go back to Greece and hear those old stories and feel like I belonged somewhere because I always felt displaced – my dad’s Australian and my mum’s Greek so I was always floating between two cultures, which can be great but can also be slightly amorphous. So, yes, history and heritage has been impotant – but at the same time the older I get the more my empahasis has shifted to universality – in the sense that I’m more interested now in the similairities between people’s histories and who they are, and their identities – you know we all need the same things – rather than their differences. I think that just comes with age. And since having a child as well, I look at all the other children and I think they all are the same, they need the same things.

Regardless of where they’ve come from.

Yeah and regardless of what prejudices they’ve been fed or whatever. For me that’s what I’ve tried to do in the book, is show that we are more alike than different.

I think that comes accrooss very well actually, because even though the people are on warring sides, they still connect with each other and they still have the same problems and the same issues.

We all need love, we all need to eat, we all need to sleep – you boil it down to that and you wonder why we have war.

Exactly, that’s very true.

So, gender I also found was a very important issue, throughout the different time periods – you can compare the women in the different time periouds. So I wanted to ask how strongly you feel personally about feminist issues in general, but also about the differences between Western and Eastern attitiudes to women and the treatment of women.

I would classify myself as a feminist – I was brought up that way by my mother, who always said, you know, you’re equal to anybody, not just men, but to anyone in the world. I strongly do believe that Islam is a repressive religion. Even though I haven’t been brought up in that culture, I don’t know how much I can say; but I’ve just come back from Abu Dhabi. I was in a 5 star resort where the men were all swimming and the women were all veiled, in black, in 40 degree heat. And you just look at that and you think how can you justify that? How is a woman’s body so polluting or so dangerous that it has to be covered up? I totally get 1000 years ago in the desert perhaps, but now? After we’ve been exposed to so much. It’s one of those insurmountable issues that you can’t get your head around and you can’t get to a point where there would be a change. I suppose it comes down to education. I think if a child is taught from year dot that this is the way we do things then what hope do they have?

If it’s ingrained in their society for thousands of years, you can’t just change that overnight.

And I think there’s a sense of superiority in it, even by the women, that our culture is right, we are right. We’re right and youre wrong. So the women perpetrate the injustives on themselves as well. Which makes it so much harder because they don’t see themselves as victims, they don’t see themselves as repressed. And they look down on us, they think that we are lost, that we don’t know the truth. I do not see how it could change. And I come from a culture – my grandmother, because of 400 years of Turkish occupation in Greece, Greece became very orientalised and still is in some ways. So my grandmother at the age of 12 had to put a scarf on – when she hit puberty she became a woman and she had to have her head covered. So I have first hand experience of that. She wore a scarf on her head until she died. She thought it was normal.

That’s the thing, whatever you’re brought up with is normal.

Unless you’re a rare person  who questions everything; and I think that where education comes in. If an education can teach kids don’t take anything at face value just because an adult tells you – question it. I think that’s the key. But that’s in small pockets of progressive western society.

Several characters in the novel throughout the different time periods contemplate the morality of the war in the Middle East – so I wanted to ask about your viewpoint, obviously it’s a very complicated question, but morally justifying war – especially in this context when it involved religion and national identity – do you think that makes a difference?

On a personal level, I can’t justify war. But because I’ve written a book of fiction and I’m trying to get into my characrers heads, I can understand their motivation. I can understand why they would want to kill, why they would want to be suicide bombers, but I don’t know how I would be in that situation, because if I had nothing to live for, why wouldn’t I become a suicide bomber?

And I suppose that’s again to do with what youre used to and your culture. A character like Issa, it’s ingrained in him that that’s his life mission.

That’s right.

And he couldn’t do it any other way for him, but for another person they would look at him and think, that makes no sense.

And for him also he feels he might get killed anyway, so he might as well get killed with glory.

Kind of a death wish.

There is a mercenary aspect to it. So there’s two levels, there’s my personal view and the views of my characters that are embodied in me in a sense – they’re me too.

And you’ve got to communicate what they want to say.

And I try to understand as deeply as possible and not judge them.

That must be quite hard, going through, when you’re so close to them.

Yeah, like the women in Abu Dhabi – I was trying to understand what their motivations are without judging them, but the judging came through – cos I’m human.

So you have to balance those two things.

Exactly.

Part two of this interview will be posted later in the week. Bone Ash Sky is a very intelligent and moving novel that I highly recommend.

 

Interview with Tanya J. Peterson

As part of the blog tour for her novel Leave of Absence, author Tanya J. Peterson agreed to answer a few questions about her work, and her motivations for writing about mental health and raising awareness. You can also read my review of Leave of Absence here.

leave of absence blog tour1.  What was your inspiration for Leave of Absence? What made you want to write this story?

I had a very specific motivation for writing this novel. I want to correct the negative, and incorrect, stereotypes that exist about people who experience mental illness. Fiction can be a powerful vehicle for conveying basic truths, and I hope to use it to increase understanding of what mental illness is truly like. With correct knowledge and increased understanding comes empathy.

I care about this subject deeply because I have experience with mental illness both professionally and personally. I’m a Nationally Certified Counselor, and I’ve worked with people in different capacities. I experience mental illness personally, too, as I have bipolar I disorder as well as various difficulties with anxiety. I’ve seen people deal with stigma, and I’ve dealt with it myself.  I think that stigma exists not because people purposely want to judge others cruelly.  Instead, people have been exposed to incorrect information through mainstream media. If people can receive accurate information through stories and fictitious characters, I believe they will see mental illness differently. Thus, I wrote Leave of Absence.

2.  Do you feel that mental health and psychiatric issues have enough representation in modern literature, both fiction and non-fiction?

They definitely haven’t had enough of the right representation, that’s for sure. Mental illness has seen better treatment in non-fiction than in fiction. There are numerous fantastic informative texts, and there are moving memoirs that give the public a glimpse into the world of people experiencing mental illness. With fiction it’s a different story, though (pun intended!). So many movies, television shows, and novels seek only to entertain, and as such, they take full artistic license to weave tall tales that bring in big dollars. As a result, society has very inaccurate representations of mental illness, and these false depictions turn into the negative stereotypes that become stigma.

3.  What do you feel are the best ways to draw attention to these issues and destigmatise mental health problems?

There are numerous approaches to this, and that’s a good thing. The more that can be done in diverse ways, the more effective the message will be. For me, the best way is through stories.  Stories are about people. Stories have characters with whom people can connect. Decreasing stigma involves humanizing mental illness. What better way to do this than through stories?

4.  How vital was your experience as a counsellor when writing about mental health issues and those who treat them?

I’m grateful for this experience because it has given me a depth of understanding not only of the facts of the illnesses but about the people behind them. I was able to create an accurate, realistic portrayal of the mental illnesses in Leave of Absence, what they’re like for the people who experience them, what helpers sound like, and even what behavioral health hospitals are like.  It was very important for me to make this story accurate, and my background in counseling contributed to that.

5.  Now for some questions about writing – which writers do you admire? Who inspires you?

I enjoy writers who give depth and meaning to their stories through their characters. I read for character and theme much more than I do for plot. Saul Bellow, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison do this well, and they are definitely inspiring to me. I’m certainly not claiming to be on their level!

6.  What is your writing process like? Do you work to music, at home, on a computer? Do you share notes and drafts with anyone?

I’m a writer of the early-morning variety. I wake up around 5:00 each morning (give or take a little), make a cup of tea, and settle down in front of my computer. On beautiful summer mornings, I take my laptop out on my deck and enjoy the morning air. I typically prefer my writing space to be quiet, but if I do have music playing it’s something classical in the background. I research, brainstorm, add little notes to the various sections of my novel’s binder. I re-read what I’ve written, and I make changes. Then, with my sketch of the current chapter in mind, I settle into the actual writing.

I typically don’t share notes and drafts, but I will do so on occasion. I’ve had consultations to help improve my writing ability. And of course I have the work edited, and I make revisions. So yes, I do seek input, but I don’t belong to groups because I’m not much of a social writer.

7.  How long did it take you to write Leave of Absence? It’s an emotional story so was it difficult to write at times?

Writing is the one activity I do where I can truly experience flow, that state of being in which one is completely mindful and in the moment. As such, the writing proceeds fairly quickly.  I wrote Leave of Absence in approximately four months. I often lose myself in the writing and almost take on the experiences of the characters. This helps the flow, I think, and it does make it emotional which I think is a good thing. If I’m connected to my characters, hopefully I can write in a way that helps others connect, too.

8.  Lastly, do you have any plans for another novel? Your first was a YA novel so would you revisit that readership again or stay with adult fiction?

I’m working on a new novel now, actually. Like Leave of Absence, it is adult contemporary fiction and of course is about mental illness. It’s drastically different from Leave of Absence, of course. I anticipate that all of my novels will be similar but different. They’ll all address mental health issues but will focus on different topics and will be written in different ways (for example, this new one uses first person point of view rather than close third person). I have no plans to return to YA. I simply don’t consider myself to be a strong YA author. I admire those who can do it, but I’m not one of them.

Lizzi, thank you so much for hosting me on These Little Words as part of my virtual book tour!  I so appreciate both your review of Leave of Absence and this interview with you. It’s nice to have a chance to spread the word about a novel I care about! Your insights and your questions have been fantastic. Thanks, too, to all of your readers! I appreciate everyone taking the time to learn about Leave of Absence and about me, too!

Tanya J. Peterson
Tanya J. Peterson

Published by Inkwater Press in April 2013.

Many thanks to Tanya for taking the time to answer these questions, and to her publishers for asking me to participate in this blog tour.

Interview with Emma Chapman

Emma Chapman’s debut novel How To Be A Good Wife will be published on 3rd January 2013 by Picador, and is already creating a lot of ‘buzz’ and excitement. I reviewed the novel earlier in the week and now here is my interview with Emma. Enjoy!

2012 proof cover

Firstly, congratulations on the book, it really is excellent! You have said that a documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder inspired How To Be A Good Wife – has psychology always been an interest of yours? Did you have to do much research to create Marta’s state of mind?

Emma Chapman: I have always been interested in what makes people who they are: where the line between genetics and environment lies.  After watching the initial documentary, I did a great deal of research into Post Traumatic Stress and a number of other more controversial disorders related to early trauma.  I was particularly fascinated that it seemed possible to repress memories subconsciously as a coping mechanism: to be unaware of things that had occurred in your own past.  I think everyone does this to an extent, but I wanted to envisage a character where this was taken to the extreme.  It was also important to me that the character was not totally reliable: to raise the question of whether we can ever truly trust the complexities of our own minds.

What else inspired you? Were there any writers, books, or films that you were thinking about when writing the book?

So many.  For clean writing style, and an unreliable narrator undergoing psychological stresses, I have always admired “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. There is quite a canon of literature exploring themes of female psychological instability which can also be read as a reaction against submissiveness to men: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and “The Awakening” (Kate Chopin) to name just two.

On a less literary note, while I was writing, I also watched the film ‘What Lies Beneath’, which until the rather too supernatural ending, questions whether to believe husband or wife, and has plenty of suspenseful moments.

The novel is very intense and vivid – was writing it an immersive experience, especially since it’s in the first person?

It was incredibly immersive: I actually found myself thinking like Marta in my everyday life, which as you can imagine was an unsettling experience!  I felt so close to her, so much inside her head, that it became quite claustrophobic.

I also had a horrible feeling of inevitability about Marta: that her ending was not going to be a happy one, and it took me a long time to reconcile myself to that.  Having put her in such a terrible situation, it was difficult to find a way out without removing the ambiguity surrounding what actually happened, which for me was crucial to the book.

I found the focus on time really fascinating, as Marta always seems to be checking her watch, and the clock in the strange room seems to stand out in her ‘visions’; she is also deprived of the knowing the time towards the end of the novel and finds this very frustrating. This obsession with time suggests a lack of and a need for control that has been taken away from her – was this the intention?

Yes. There are so many things in Marta’s life in the present, and in the room, which are out of her control.  Time and cleanliness therefore become very important to her, continuing into her married life.  I wanted to use these themes to show how although Marta progresses through different environments (the room, the house, the psychiatric facilities), her lack of control remains.  Her life is always in the hands of other people. The ending, for me, was the only way for her to take back that control.

 Did you consider gender roles when writing? For instance, with issues of control and dominance, as well as the image of the woman as a victim, and female ‘hysteria’?

Yes. As I have mentioned, many twentieth-century books that explore this theme influenced me.  I was brought up in a family where it was never even suggested that I couldn’t do the same things as my brother: it didn’t even cross my mind.  Through school and university, I began exploring the conventions of the past and how they held women in a very specific role that is not only limiting but also damaging.  If we are left with only the home, although in many respects we can find it fulfilling, is it enough?  Freud’s work on ‘hysteria’, and books like “The Feminine Mystique”, which explores the dissatisfaction of women in the 1950s, demonstrate that perhaps these archaic women’s roles result in psychological problems for women.  A bad marriage can still result in a limiting of a woman’s potential, and I suppose the book is an exploration of that.

How did the Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway help you to write the novel?

It was invaluable.  It forced me to show my work to like-minded people when I had never done that before.  It gave me the time to focus on the novel, and to take it seriously.  It gave me a good headstart.  Also, it taught me that writing is a skill like any other: something you can improve on.

What are you planning for you next novel?

My second novel is about a war photographer during the Vietnam War.  It explores the role of the observer in a conflict zone: asking whether you can ever stay on the outside of such situations without intervening, and if it has a future impact on your mind and your home life.

I recently returned from a three-month research trip where I was also teaching English.  I set up a teaching volunteer scheme on my return, which you can read more about here www.vietnamvolunteerteachers.com.

Emma Chapman. Photo credit: Claire Weir

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Many thanks to Emma Chapman and Emma Bravo at Picador for this interview. How To Be A Good Wife is published by Picador on 3rd January 2013.

Interview with Liza Klaussmann

Liza Klaussmann’s debut novel Tigers in Red Weather was published by Picador on 2nd August to great critical and commercial success, having already been very popular with book bloggers and literary critics. A carefully plotted family saga covering twenty years, with secrets and lies sizzling at their summer house. I reviewed the book in July and absolutely loved it. And now, just for my readers, here is my little interview with the author herself, Liza Klaussmann. Enjoy!

Picador cover

The tone of the novel reminded me of Truman Capote and Carson McCullers. Were any writers a particular influence on you when writing Tigers?

I’m so flattered by the Capote reference ( I adore him), but I would say that Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin and  Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Underground were three novels I thought about while writing Tigers.

The passage of the time adds amazing depth to the characters and shifts the focus between them. How much did the cultures of the different decades influence how you wrote each character?

It was definitely on my mind while I was doing it; I thought about what kind of reactions the character’s would be having to the events happening in world around them at each specific time. I made up playlists of songs from the specific time periods for each section and would listen to them while I was writing. That’s probably why there’s so much music referenced in the book. But their changes also have to do with ageing and how growing older and experience affects them.

The women in this novel are fascinating – they play such pivotal roles in the family and are so multi-faceted. Did you take inspiration from women you knew in real life? Or any others in particular?

Well, my grandmother, who died just as I began writing this novel, was the inspiration for Nick — a strong, charismatic woman who could be cruel as well as fragile at times, but who looms large in the lives of the rest of the characters. Helena and Daisy are complete inventions. But Helena is character that I think many people may recognize — someone whose disappointments lead her to play the victim at every turn, and yet still she has some great qualities (at least in my mind), not least of which is a dry sense of humor.

Tiger House is where ‘it all happens’ and is where Nick and Helena spent a lot of their childhood. Is there something to be said for places that hold a lot of memories affecting families’ behaviour and relationships with each other?

I think they’re a perfect place for stories to unfold — that’s probably why there are so many books that use family homes as the scene for drama. I just saw the West End Adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and was struck again by how these sort of summer homes also carry with them all the memories of the past that can haunt and poison the present. From a writing standpoint, they are also heavy with sense memory which is a powerful well to draw from, creatively.

Tigers in Red Weather is your first novel and has already created a lot of ‘buzz’ and hype, and looks to do very well when published in August (congratulations!). What are you planning next?

I’m working on my second novel, which is a fictional retelling of the lives of Sara and Gerald Murphy. It is also a novel that concerns family, but the type of family that is created by a group of people, rather than the one we are born into. I am also fascinated by the societal view of the spectrum of sexuality in the 1920s, the period during which the book takes place.

Liza Klaussmann

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Many, many thanks to Emma Bravo at Picador and of course Liza Klaussmann for providing this interview.

Tigers in Red Weather is available everywhere now – read it!