Monday, 18 November 2019

An Interview With Elizabeth Lowry

NB: This is a  'pinned' post to facilitate navigation from Elizabeth Lowry's website.Please scroll down to see new and current posts.

Dark Water, Elizabeth Lowry’s second novel, was published on September 6th to great acclaim.
The Guardian’s Book of the Day, The Times’ Critic’s Choice and Book of the Month. Historia Magazine included it in their list of best recent historical writing. Numerous bloggers, including myself, and other publications are running out of superlatives. With good reason. It is a work of depth and substance that only comes along once in a while. 

I am thrilled beyond measure to have had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present - An Interview with Elizabeth Lowry.

 Dark Water has left a lasting impression on me. There’s been so much to think about long after I closed the book. My mind boggles at the thought of how you approached the planning and plotting of this story. Can you give us some insight into the initial motivation for the book and how the idea for it first came to you?

Well, I’m interested in questions of identity and how we define personality. After you asked me this I went back to my very first notebook for Dark Water (I had three in the end) and found I’d scribbled down this remark by Primo Levi: ‘Man is a mixed-up creature; and he becomes all the more confused, we might add, the more he is subjected to tensions: at that point he evades our judgement, just as a compass goes wild at the magnetic pole’. William Borden sprang out of that, I think, and out of a love of Melville’s sea stories.

 The novel is offered as an historical novel, although I found it to be much more than that. But you must have had to do some extensive research. I found the narrative to be so realistic and convincing, I never doubted for a moment that I WAS back to 1833 Massachusetts. I also wondered if you actually spent some time below decks on a ship, the descriptions were so palpable? Can you tell us a little about the research you undertook?

I didn’t know much at all about ships (though unlike Hiram Carver, I don’t get seasick!) before I began to write Dark Water. It was quite an education. I had before me the painful example of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket without doing his homework. A scathing early review pointed out that in Chapter One the jib of a ship in a storm is still mysteriously flying even though the mast has been ‘carried away’ by the waves just moments before. (The jib is a small triangular sail that is set ahead of the foremast and is usually rigged to a stay extending from it. Oops.)
I found Melville a good teacher – his memoir White-Jacket about his stint on a US man-of-war was written expressly to explain the ins and outs of life at sea to landlubbers like me. We also share some source material. The route steered across the Pacific by Borden following the Providence mutiny draws on the real-life story of what happened after the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk by a whale in 1820. On losing the ship the survivors made for the coast of South America in open boats. An account of this disaster and their journey was published by the first mate, Owen Chase, and was used by Melville as the basis for Moby-Dick (though he was much more interested in the whale). I had help too in the form of marvellous sea-going accounts by other sailors of the time, such as Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast describing his experiences as an ordinary merchant seaman. Dana was a gentleman sailor (like Melville) who enlisted for the adventure of it, rather than from necessity. Once he’d had enough he could afford, unlike your average tar, to go home and retrain as a lawyer. That’s why his book isn’t called Ten Years Before the Mast!
I didn’t get to tour a real wooden man-of-war until I’d already written the early scenes on the Orbis, and took a trip to Boston, where the USS Constitution is kept in dry dock. It was useful to be able to check if I’d got the physical details right. You know, though, when approaching Dark Water I wasn’t drawn so much to the technicalities of ships or sailing as to what a nineteenth-century man-of-war could represent – an enclosed community with a rigid hierarchy and its own inflexible rules. The metaphysics of ships, if you like.

 Geographically that part of the USA is one of my favourite parts, especially Martha’s Vineyard. There is an indefinable thrill associated with those islands and I always feel that affinity when I read about them. I regret never visiting Nantucket. It seems crucial to the book. It conjures the ghosts of Melville and Moby-Dick, adding another atmospheric layer to the story. Are those places familiar to you or did you make some special trips?

I was born in Washington DC but left at a very early age, and hadn’t been back to the east coast at all until I tackled this book. I’d written a good chunk of Dark Water when I decided I’d better go and take a look at the places in it: Boston, of course, but Nantucket especially. It’s easy to get a sense of Boston and its history from paper sources; Nantucket was more slippery. An island has a totally different sense of space to the mainland. I spent about two weeks in Massachusetts in the summer of 2016, walking around Boston’s Beacon Hill and climbing all over Old Ironsides, as I mentioned just now, before staying in a tiny grey shingled cottage in Sconset on Nantucket – pretty much as Carver does, except that I didn’t have a Mrs Bunker to cook my meals.

Hiram Carver? He is the supreme paradox of us all! He behaved abominably at times, especially towards his own sister and her happiness. Yet in spite of it I simply couldn’t bring myself to dislike him. There’s something within him that seems to be within us all maybe? He and Borden seem to be two halves of a dichotomous whole. How did you go about creating such characters? Or did they eventually start to develop themselves!? I’ve heard some writers speak of how once created the characters do go on to develop their selves almost as if the writer has no part in it!

I’m so glad you don’t completely dislike Carver. I don’t either. The challenge, as with William Borden, was to write someone who couldn’t be pinned down too easily. I felt I had to give him some significant redeeming features, in the form of his youthful anti-authoritarianism, his willingness to question the mores of his time and place, and his instinctive sympathy for the social outcasts he is treating at the asylum. Once I got going he added his own flourishes. But of course he is the worst cannibal in the book. By the end he has consumed Ruth Macy as surely as he consumed Richard Mansfield, Frank Goodwin, Adam Thornton, his sister Caro, and William Borden. The irony is that he’s also trapped himself. By achieving a position of supremacy in the society he once despised, he has – as he knows full well – given up his last chance at freedom. 

 The sea as a metaphor is wonderfully sustained throughout the book and together with considerations as to the real meaning of madness encourages the reader to ponder the frailty of the human soul. When Hiram suggests to Ruth that all we’ve created out of freedom is a prison it struck such a mournful chord with me because it’s so inviolably true. I found it a pivotal moment in the story and I wondered whether it was your intention to throw these metaphysical ideas out there in the hope that the reader might ponder some solutions?

Yes, absolutely. And if anyone can find a solution, I’d love to hear it.

 The book has much to say about the invisible line between sanity and insanity. The passages set in the asylum were both fascinating historically and sociologically. All too easy to ‘get it wrong’ but you didn’t! How did you set about writing these sections of the book?

Writing the asylum sections was tricky because I was hoping to show how fine that line can be, and how common, even ordinary, mental disturbance is – but couldn’t use any of the vocabulary we have at our disposal in the age of psychiatry. When I was reading the memoirs of some nineteenth-century asylum patients it seemed obvious that a few of them suffered from maladies which would now be quite easily treatable with psychodynamic medication, and this got me thinking. I wanted to approach these scenes through a sort of double perspective. In the book Adam Thornton, for example, clearly has what we’d today call bipolar disorder, with a two-to-three-week depressive phase, followed by a month-long build up to mania. Richard Mansfield insists that Thornton is mad, but Borden and Carver sense that something else is at play here, and the modern reader will too. What is ‘madness’, anyway? The doctors and attendants aren’t exempt: Richard Mansfield is a morphine addict; Felicity Joy exhibits a form of OCD when washing the asylum floors; Frank Goodwin is a binge eater. The younger Carver himself, whose refusal of food is really a rejection of his overbearing family and everything they represent, is anorexic.

 Suffering, whether oblique or realised, physical or emotional, play a huge part in the book. So many contemporary parallels, for example Richard’s dependence on drugs, Frank’s relationship with food, Hiram’s confusion with his sexuality take this beyond the historical. Was it emotionally demanding to write?

I wrote the book during a period of great personal stress and sadness and the wonderful thing was that I knew, while writing it, that it was acting as a very real life preserver for me. So yes, it was demanding, but not more demanding than actually getting through that time. 

 For me the most uplifting characters are the patients in the asylum! They seemed to have ‘got it right’! Was that your intention or am I… insane?!

You are quite clearly bonkers. Just joking – spot on. As Carver says, they’re at liberty to express the sorts of foibles and idiosyncrasies the rest of us have to keep in check. That can be quite appealing.

 Quite coincidentally as I was writing these questions I noticed that you had referenced Janet Frame on one of the social media platforms. I’ve always found Faces in the Water to be a seminal work regarding sanity, insanity and institutions and wondered whether her work had any influence on your writing?

Janet Frame is an expert at rendering mental anguish. I recently tweeted an excerpt from the second volume of her autobiography, An Angel at My Table, because I’m including it in a feature for the Guardian on my ‘Top Ten Books’ about psychiatric institutions. Her story is truly horrifying. She was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic in 1945 and spent eight years in and out of mental hospitals in her native New Zealand. In spite of this she managed to write a collection of short stories, The Lagoon. In 1954 she was scheduled to have a lobotomy, when the doctor who was due to perform the procedure read in the paper that her book had won a national literary prize. He cancelled the operation and she was released from hospital. In her autobiography she says, without any exaggeration, ‘My writing saved me.’

 How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?

At the moment writing is my day job, though this hasn’t always been the case. I write between dropping my children off at school and picking them up again, a working day of about six hours. It never seems long enough. I was a teacher for many years and I’ve written while taking detention and before registration in the mornings. When I’m away from home I set my laptop up on a bedside locker and write there. You can’t afford to have special rituals or be too fussy about your circumstances when your next thought is liable to be interrupted by someone saying “Mu-uum”. (Hello kids, I love you too.)
 I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

Not sure if I can pinpoint the very first book that moved me to tears, but I do recall, with weird immediacy, learning the alphabet itself. I was at the Walworth Barbour American School in Israel and must have been about five years old. We were taught the alphabet with an ingenious story flip-chart. In this story you were taken on a journey through a jungle, over mountains, across seas and deserts, and each day, as you travelled, you met a new letter. An audio cassette tape played alongside and made it all seem doubly real (there were no interactive whiteboards or DVDs then – this was the 1970s). I really had no idea what came after A, or B, or C, so every day was a total cliff hanger. I lived for these sessions and I was forlorn when we reached Z and they stopped. The excitement I felt for those 26 days is still vivid to me – I’ve probably never known anything like it since. Just thinking about it has made my heart thump.

 And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it?

Soon, I hope. I’m working on a novel about Thomas Hardy, set in the weeks immediately following the sudden death of his first wife, Emma. In the thirty-eight years they were married their relationship had become very strained: though they were living in the same house they only met once a day, over dinner, and had stopped speaking to each other. But he is shattered by the loss of her. Then, while he is still overwhelmed by grief, he finds a record she has written about their life together in which she accuses him of a very specific and very terrible thing (you’ll have to wait and see what that is), and he has to start re-evaluating their entire marriage – and himself.
The novel is called The Chosen, after one of Hardy’s poems. While describing it to you I’ve realised that like Dark Water it’s a story about suffering and the unknowability of the other, even the people to whom we’re supposedly closest. And about memory and identity and the mystery of human motivation. Which brings us back to where we started our interview, doesn’t it?

My heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth for this frank, informative, erudite  and entertaining interview. If you’d like to hear more of her I include a link to a radio interview Elizabeth did for BBC Oxford with Kate Orman -

And my thanks, yet again, to the wonderful Ana McLaughlin at Quercus books for introducing me to this book in the first place and for facilitating  this interview. 

Wakenhyrst - Michelle Paver

I’ve wanted to read this for the longest time so when I saw it on the library shelf, a spanking brand new paperback, I grabbed it quick and I did a silly, happy dance which only narrowly avoided the library staff phoning for assistance!

I read Thin Air, some years ago now it seems, and was impressed with it. I was also extremely happy to find that a quote from my review was used on Redhammer’s website! Here’s a link to that review for those who might be interested,

Paver has a talent for the atmospheric and she displays this to remarkable effect in Wakenhyrst. The word ‘gothic’ seems bandied about nowadays but not all stories accredited with that moniker truly seem to embody those aspects that really make a story ‘gothic’. Paver does. This is gothically gothic ! It is consummate story telling with its themes of sorcery, mysticism and superstition. Witches and devils, gargoyles and murder, the reader is trapped within the spell of the story desperate to know, to discover what really happened between Maud Stearn and her father, Edmund Stearn. The chilling, brooding mood is sustained to the very last full stop.

In true story telling tradition a journalist seeks out Maud, in the mid nineteen sixties, and her story is divulged and forms the meat of the book. The reader is sent hurtling back to a pre WWI English village, Wakenhyrst where the Stearns live in their house, Wake’s End. The relationship and dynamic between Maud and her father is tense, taut, you get the feeling that it could snap at any moment. Maud is coldly trapped within her gender and her father is unable to see her as she truly is. He only sees the stereotype of women of that era, and someone who he can put to good use. I do not wish to offer any spoilers except that sometimes I feel like I’m the last person to get around to reading this, so would it really matter? Nope, I won’t be persuaded other than to say that Edmund Stearn is an archetypal gothic character almost, a manic, deluded, controlling obsessive. A monster?!

For me one of the main characters in the book is devoid of all human characteristics; it is the swirling, misty Fen that seems to envelop Wake’s End, the big house occupied by the Stearns. Coupled with a sense of ‘Fennish’ folklore and murmurings of starlings,  it was as if everything and everyone were trapped within a deep claustraphobic prison. 

There’s plenty of scary stuff to keep you up at night but I defy you to put the book down! It is a treat to read a book such as this. The experience is one with that indefinable sense of being treated to something so satisfying and complete, so substantial. If you haven’t read it,read it,if you have,why,read it again!

Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Flower Girls - Alice Clark-Platts

I won’t fib, I was totally up for another D.I. Erica Martin story when I heard that Alice Clark-Platts had written another novel. But conversely, being the contradictory little wotsit that I am, I also enjoy seeing a writer diversify. Yet Ms. Clark-Platts hasn’t strayed too far from her comfort zone with this mystery story that has a police and courtroom presence in it. The ‘cop’ this time is Lorna Hillier, astute, instinctive, tenacious and philosophical,

‘Hillier is certain that criminal impulses lurk unbidden in everyone. But it is only the people who act on those impulses that guilt can claim as its victims. The rest of us feel it but shake it off, thankful to God, or whatever it is that guides our moral compass, that we are able to control it.’

That not everyone can shake it off, certainly within the fertile imaginations of the crime novelist, is paradoxically a blessing for we wouldn’t have the stories we do if everyone behaved themselves!
The miscreants here seem to be sisters, Laurel and Rosie. When the novel begins one is behind bars, one isn’t. The greatest disservice I can do is offer any spoilers here because the novel pivots on the reader discovering, layer by layer, what happened then, and what is happening now. It did remind me of a case in the news over twenty five years ago but the author did reference that. It’s tight, taut and twisty. Dark, and possibly a little depressing, but it was never gonna be uplit now was it?! The characters are edgy, uneasy, you never quite get to trust any of them and then you start mistrusting yourself, your own instincts, for what really did happen with The Flower Girls? 

I often wonder, when you discover an author whose work you continue to enjoy, whether you subconsciously intuit their thought patterns and can see where the novel is headed? Certainly you have an affinity with their narrative style and characterisations but plots are nebulous things and vary greatly. I did surmise some of what was going on but I did not anticipate the final ‘Conclusion Blast’! It was a goody! And the poor reader is left open mouthed, possibly rereading because you can’t quite believe it and then as you process the implications you feel a cold chill travel down the length of your spine. Then you close the book. 

And in my case you return it to the library where someone else is desperately waiting to read it. 

Friday, 15 November 2019

Zero - a fragment

I wish I’d never fallen in love with Zero. The name means nothing to me now. It meant everything to me then but I should have taken heed. What’s in a name? Nothing and everything. But I was finding my way. Fresh out of college; away from the halls of residence and the refectories. Away from the privileged kids who didn’t receive grants because their daddies earned too much. No more tutorials and dissertations. No more lectures and seminars. No more set texts, I could read whatever I wanted to. And see, Zero, was kinda famous. He was a shit hot guitarist in a local band who always believed they were on the cusp of something big but they never were. They were never even on the cusp of something little, really, just locally famous. And I got a kick out of watching Zero, with his sunburst finish Les Paul, strutting across the various stages of all the dives and bars he and the band played in, strumming the blues and everyone watching like they couldn’t get enough. And I couldn’t get enough. 

Sunburst Finish by David Rain
Courtesy Flickr
Zero was smart but he was a bad ass at heart. His moral compass was questionable sometimes and he used people and cast them aside when he was done. I knew that after knowing him for a very short while. Not a criminal exactly but I remember the day he was in court for possession of amphetamine and I was scared, I mean really scared, that he was going to prison. He didn’t. He just turned up smiling with those goddamn cute little dimples he had that melted me whenever I saw him smile. One thing, though, my whole life I don’t think I ever talked with anyone the way I talked with Zero. We could sit up all night, just talking. Now I can’t hardly remember what we said but I do know that we both listened to  each other and I think he was one of the few people who really listened to me. He told me once that I was a real person, not like the others. and that made me feel real good. So I told him everything and he listened.

He liked to read. So did I. He liked to write. So did I. He kept a journal. So did I. He liked cats. So did I. And music? Well, we shared so much music. Music to dance to, music to sing to, music to fuck to, music to think to, music to listen to even. I can credit Zero with influencing my musical taste even now and some of my favourite books are those that he recommended, no, insist, I read. He just knew what I'd like instinctively.

But I think that being a local hero went to his head. It kinda goes with the territory that women of all ages were interested. Rock chicks. I was smart enough for him but not  pretty enough nor dangerous enough. I mean I smoked a little dope now and again but I  wasn’t into the whole speed thing which he loved. I liked that I wasn’t because it told me that I wasn’t just some infatuated groupie hanging on his every word. But plenty of women were. And he liked that.  

I tried to play it cool. I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t care but I figured the best way to lose him was to act all hurt and affronted. So I didn’t. He told me I was a star, a constellation!  I felt pleased. But star reminded me of the asterisks he put in his journal to show every time he screwed. I might be a a fucking constellation, but a constellation in a major galaxy it seemed. Then he wanted to borrow money. I guess it wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things but it was a lot as far as I was concerned. He wanted to cut a solo disc without the band. He had the songs. He had the musicians. And he had the backing singers. He just needed the backing. Yeah, I should have said no, but I didn’t. I gave him  the money. And you might be thinking that he never paid me back. But he did. With interest, But he wouldn’t let me sit in on the recording session. I was devastated. All my  encouragement and support for his music, and putting up the money, then this? And I  knew then that there was a fundamental change. Actually there were three fundamental changes; they were vocalists, all younger than me, all prettier than me. The oldest story in the book, huh?

So that was that. It dwindled as things do. And considering how much we talked when things were good it was ironic how little we spoke when things were bad. One of the last things he ever said to me was that I annoyed him and I got on his nerves. Ouch! Yet I don't think it was anything I did or said, it was that he no longer had a use for me. For him things had run their course. He was ready to move on. I could say I was heartbroken. And I was, but if I’m honest I knew deep down that it wasn’t a forever thing. He was never a forever person, it wasn’t his nature. I knew that. Maybe I wasn’t either. But it did affect my perception of relationships that has persisted to this day. Nothing is forever.

You might be wondering if he ever made it in the rock business? Was the record he cut a success? No, it wasn’t. But ironically one of the backing singers went on to become world famous. I won’t say her name because it wouldn’t be right. I went to see her perform once, she had a damn fine voice. And I felt kinda sorry for Zero that he didn’t make it because he was a damn fine guitarist. 

However I did meet up with him again many years later. He put a letter through my mum’s door. By then I had my own house and was fairly established professionally. He wasn’t to know that of course. In the letter he apologised for having hurt me which touched me because he showed no awareness of that at the time. The tone of the letter suggested something of a farewell. Alarm bells went off in my head because I knew his mother had committed suicide. And I didn't know if he had become fragile. I always felt  there was the potential. So I wrote straight back with my address and phone number. He called. Straight back. We talked on the phone  Hesitantly to begin with. But it didn't take long to realise he was the same old Zero. We agreed to meet for a drink. Actually we didn’t meet. He picked me up. In a beat up old Ford. Guess he wanted to see the house, how well I’d done for myself maybe.I was curious to see what time had done to him. It was dark in the car and I couldn't see him clearly. I didn't want to stare either. We didn't say much but it was like the hundreds of times we'd sat just like this in a car on the way to somewhere or maybe we were going nowhere. 

We went to the closest pub to my house. He parked up and we walked silently to the entrance. We sat across the table from each other. I got a clear look at him then. Age. I'd forgotten how much older he was than me. The difference didn't seem to matter when we were both younger. He admitted to needing spectacles some of the time. It was almost an apology!  Although he’d lost all his shock of unruly, curly blond hair the dimples were still there. As the alcohol dissolved and melted our time skins we fell almost into our old style of chatter, which felt good, and continued until the last orders bell sounded. There was an unspoken reluctance within both of us as we slowly made our way to the exit. He dropped me back at the house. There was no attempt at affection, not even a peck but I was okay with that. He drove off and out of my life. I never saw him again. And truthfully? I remember wondering what I had ever seen in him!  Zero. The name means Nothing to me. Should never have fallen in love.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Gemini - a fragment

I am Gemini. Two sides to me. Two spirits. Two minds. One heart. Juxtaposition. Paradox. Dichotomy. I walk with myself in parallel. What I see and hear and feel I disguise with my other self. Vice Versa. My yin and yang oppose and conflict me. I cannot make a decision. and if I do it’s the wrong decision. 

I look up. I look down. I look happy. I look sad.  One self does not know the other self. I need convergence to find some harmony in this life dungeon. There are pauses; this morning. I saw the sun peering over a cloud formation that looked like a mountain range and I thought I had woken up in the Alps. Dents du Midi. Behind the houses a leaf shed ash tree rose above the roofs like a fantasy peacock looking down. Then my one heart leaps. I see a butterfly and both my selves are breathless with the symmetry and beauty. And my one heart could burst with an approximation of love. But where do butterflies sleep at night? And the bees! So furry, so purposeful and motivated. I wish for longer pauses. 

However what rises must fall. and how it falls. Down. Abyss. Chasm. Depths. Depression. I am Gemini. None shall know me for I do not know myself. One of me repulses while the other tries to attract, without success. Repulse wins. Always. Why? Part of me is square and the other part is round and they will not fit together. I do not fit together. I am apart. Astrology biology. Could it be possible? 

One self tries to fit in whilst the other knows that it is not possible. But what of my one heart? It hurts. It bleeds. It is broken. Not just by love but by life. It tried to feed my two spirits without success. My heart is green, chakra green, not red. Red is the blood colour, flowing. Red is life. Red is danger. If my heart turns red, should I be afraid? Or should I rejoice? Always the balance. Seeking the balance. Scales, Weighing it up and getting nowhere. Trying hard but failing as the weights refuse to counter balance. A pendulum. Rhythm. Missing. Not firing. 

Stepping out. Another pause. Sun. Sea. I stand on these cliff tops and I see the sky as a blue dome arcing from all horizons, enclosing my selves on this planet. The sun can restore me; like a solar cell I recharge. The sea can restore me. Like a rising tide I am uplifted. But which self? Both selves? Or just one for the sun and one for the sea? Is this my one hope? My one chance at salvation. It’s cold and the wind blows. Screeching of seabirds puncture the peace. They see me. They see deep inside me. Gemini, they scream. We know you. But the sea is ours. Crows, carrion seekers. Timid, shy. Wary. Their agonised calls rend the salt air. Their obsidian plumage shines in the sun. Gemini, they caw, we know you. But the sun is ours.

Is there nothing for me? Nothing I can make my own? I confuse. I confound. I perplex. I can see it in your eyes. All of you. Glazed eyes. Not comprehending. Try to do the right thing, say the right thing, feel the right thing, think the right think but I fail. I am the wrong thing. But there have been moments. Fleeting but so sweet, so neat, so pure. Can I feed off the memory of those moments. Can I analyse? Consider what made those moments different? And for a while I am excited, hopeful even for if I can do that can I recreate them? Can I make my two selves fuse and let me join the world? 

No, I must retreat. My two selves must hide away. Disappear into the lives and minds of others though their written words. Safe. There I am safe. But as the tears flow from one self the other dissolves into cackling, hysterical laughter that deafens me. I am Gemini.

And finally my heart splits in two.

Photos courtesy Flickr - commercial use allowed.
Butterfly and bee by me, one from each of me.
Words courtesy me. Both of me. 

Monday, 4 November 2019

An Interview with Janet Roger

Guest Interview with Author Janet Roger

After reading that rare thing, a literary crime story, I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to interview author, Janet Roger. My thanks to her for all her time and input.

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Two candles flaring at a Christmas crib. A nurse who steps inside a church to light them. A gunshot emptied in a man’s head in the creaking stillness before dawn, that the nurse says she didn’t hear.

It’s 1947 in the snowbound, war-scarred City of London, where Pandora’s Box just got opened in the ruins, City Police has a vice killing on its hands, and a spooked councilor hires a shamus to help spare his blushes. Like the Buddha says, everything is connected. So it all can be explained. But that’s a little cryptic when you happen to be the shamus, and you’re standing over a corpse.

My review is on the blog but you can click here

I'm pleased to welcome historical fiction author Janet Roger to Bookphace:

 You are a new writer to me so I wonder if we could begin with a little background, and your writing journey?

Well, I’m a long-ago Eng. Lit. graduate who started as a lumberjack and wound up in the City of London. The City being that single square mile that sits inside London’s original Roman walls. Today it’s the capital’s financial center, it's Wall Street if you like. As I get older, that journey from very tall trees to very tall buildings feels increasingly as if it happened to someone else. I’m sure I’m not alone in that, but still it’s an odd sensation. Anyway, I suppose the Eng. Lit. thing can go one of two ways: either you’ll be inspired into writing yourself or you’ll be too terrified even to think about it, because you know what went before. I paid my dues to the terrified club.

 Secondly may I say how much I enjoyed Shamus Dust.  I found it a most impressive debut. Can you tell us a little of its genesis?

You’re very kind to invite me. The answer to this one is quite complicated, but in the end it’s entirely about a time and a place. The Shamus Dust story is spun from a puzzling event I came across in that time spent in the City. It had happened in the early years of the Cold War, when hundreds of its acres were still flattened rubble from wartime bombing. You see, those blitz sites turned out to be archaeologists’ dreamland. For a few short years, digging there gave them unimagined access to the two-thousand years old Roman city right beneath their feet. And they wasted no time. Before reconstruction got seriously under way they’d made monumental discoveries: a Roman temple, a Roman fortress on the line of the wall, even the foundations of an arena - a Roman coliseum, no less. And there was the puzzle. The discovery of the temple and the fortress made instant splash headlines. Yet London’s very own Roman coliseum - yes, there really is one - got overlooked. Seriously! And then entirely forgotten about until a rainy day almost forty years later, when the drawings were noticed again in the archaeological record. That idea completely bowled me over. A Roman arena the size of a football field had simply been missed by the professionals! I suppose, since I’d been raised in Eng. Lit., it was natural to start imagining how the story might work as fiction. After all, it was hard to credit as fact. Shamus Dust, of course, tells it very differently. It goes back to the Cold War years, when rebuilding the City was up for grabs, fortunes were staked on a construction boom and those blitz sites were some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. In this telling, the interests include high-end racketeers as well as corrupt City grandees, who think delaying construction would be very bad karma indeed. Cue a monumental discovery on a construction site that nobody will get to hear of. Cue also the apparent vice killing that gets Shamus Dust under way. And then cue the hardboiled gumshoe who gets hired for the cover-up. A reviewer put it this way: Imagine Polanski's masterpiece, Chinatown played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. I can’t do better.

 I thought the attention to detail was outstanding. It made the book very visual, very film-like for me. I wondered if the cinema of that genre has any influence on your writing?

Yes, it very definitely does. I’m an especial fan of that first, classic, Cold War period of film noir. In fact, I’m just now working out how to take myself from here (South Australia) to the Film Noir Foundation’s annual bash in San Francisco next January, called Noir City Film Festival. I came rather late to realizing how important those films had been for writing the women in Shamus Dust. Because, let’s face it, the hardboiled fiction of the same period - like the world it springs from - had a problem seeing rounded characters that weren’t straight and white and male. And yet women in films noirs, for example, often make astonishingly more nuanced and convincing portraits. Perhaps because, in the end, there was no escaping putting the role in the hands of a woman. On the one hand, Shamus Dust is a pastiche of the hardboiled style. On the other, its women are driving the story, which requires characterization beyond the range of ‘40s detective fiction. Film noir, I think, shows how to do that and yet stay within the terms of the genre. Needless to say, the camerawork of those movies - and its fetish for bright silvers and ink-black shadows - influences the wintry mood of Shamus Dust throughout.

 I loved the snow leitmotiv throughout especially when the thaw sets in towards the end of the book, and I found it very powerful in creating a mood.  Hard Winter - Cold War - Cool Murder - all appeal to the wordsmith in me! Was that a clear intention from the outset?

How I wish I could tell you I had it all mapped out from the start! It’s not that I don’t make lists, you understand, just that I’m first-class at never paying them any attention. Yes, that snowy, freezing London of the story makes me shiver too, and it was a real one. The whole of Shamus Dust moves the events it’s spun from, something like five years back in time, to Christmas and New Year 1947. That monster winter though, is from a year earlier still. Photos and newsreels of the time show you stunning pictures of immense blizzards that went on and on. The sea froze off England’s east coast! The snowscapes are irresistible, so I borrowed them. I think the slow thaw that sets in arrived quite naturally as the story began to resolve. As for the subtitle, I’m glad you like it. The book was complete when it dawned on me that English readers - especially those less ancient than I am - were having to look up what a shamus is. I thought they might need a gentle nudge that they were looking at a private eye noir.

 The depiction of a post blitz London is palpable. Do you know that area of the city well? And can you tell us little of how you approached what must have been painstaking research?

Well yes, I had two separate spells in the City, so I was breathing the air (and noticing the last scars of wartime bombing still hidden away in corners). There are two thousand years crammed into that single square mile, so the history is hard to avoid. Also there was the marvellous Museum of London, Guildhall Library, and the bookstores and second-hand bazaars that were everywhere. In fact, any walk through the City is an involuntary history lesson. Now that I think about it, that was just as well, because we’re talking pre-internet search here. Shamus Dust was written and then shelved for years until I had time to go back and reconsider it (still a member of the terrified club). I don’t really see myself as a  painstaking researcher, but - hands up - I’m basically incapable of passing by a museum or bookstore, and having a story to follow was a great excuse. I haven’t gone back in recent years, but last time I looked there seemed to be fewer London bookshops than I remembered. Sign of the times, no doubt, but such a shame.

 It’s a book that requires the reader to pay attention. The story is intricate and I can’t begin to imagine how you went about plotting it! Could you tell us a little of the process?

Seat of the pants! I write scene by scene, let the arc of the story develop and follow where it leads. More inspiration than method, but I think you guessed that, didn’t you? The hardest part, I think, is more often deciding the scene. I mean the when and the how of it, who’s involved and where the immediate story is headed. I really have no time at all for scenes (my own or anyone else’s) that simply park the narrative, characters and setting to no purpose. Every scene ought to move the reader forward. A recent review really delighted me when it said, Don't make the mistake of skimming anything, there's a lot on every page and all of it is important. Don't blink or you might miss something … Once I’m decided about a scene’s function, the first draft will often write fairly straightforwardly. There are exceptions of course, and my feeling when that happens is that I’ve probably got it all wrong, had better go back to square one and rethink the whole thing. We’ll draw a veil over the endless self-editing. 

 A further example of your attention to detail was in your observations of people from an age gone by. They were very acute and accurate. These people almost stepped off the page at me. How did you go about achieving that?

This could be your hardest question yet. It’s true I’m very visual. I do paint and draw. And I picture a pattern on the ATM keypad because I can’t for the life of me remember a code - not a thing you admit to in the City! But you’ve put me in mind of Graham Greene describing the inspiration for his main characters in The Third Man (it gets still voted the best ever British film noir). I looked it up for you because it’s priceless, and coincidentally enough he wrote this in 1947: I walked all up Piccadilly and back, went in a gent’s in Brick Street, and suddenly in the gent’s, I saw the three characters…I hope to God it lasts. Now, Graham Greene is no slouch at research. But he knows that somewhere along the line you absolutely need to conjure some small magic from somewhere. Not from the Brick Street gent’s in my case, though probably from somewhere equally unlikely. I really haven’t a clue, but if I found some characters that worked for you, I couldn’t be happier. 

 How do you approach your writing? By that I am wondering if you have a special place, special time, any special routines and rituals?

A whispered admission. Because I imagine there must be something deeply Freudian about this. But the truth is, I have a mortal terror of routine. Even the idea of a ritual drives me completely nuts. I’m quite happy not writing for months on end, and then doing nothing but, when the spirit takes me. And since I’m also an unmitigated itinerant, writing - like everything else - gets done wherever I happen to be, in the hope I’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. Slow boats to distant ports tend to get a lot done. Does this sound like a notifiable disease to you? Perhaps we should keep it to ourselves.

 I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer so a question I always ask is if you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears, if any?

As any lumberjack (probably forest worker, nowadays) can tell you, only gurrrls tear up. But now you mention it, I remember coming to the end of Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour at a tender age, and the sense of loss on turning the last page. The cure would have been to pick up the next volume and roll right on from the Plantagenets to the Tudors. But there was no next volume. So instead I started over again on the personal and political rivalries, the dynastic ambitions of powerful families and the war that inevitably followed. Did I enjoy it second time around? Every minute. Is it history? Not exactly. Did I care? No, but that was after a tear of frustration. 

 And finally having enjoyed this novel so much I am bound to ask when we can expect another new one! And is there anything you can tell us about it?

I’m quite well on with something that’s effectively a sequel to Shamus Dust. It’s called The Gumshoe’s Freestyle, set six months later in the City (of course), in the summer of ’48. Those Cold War years made interesting times. Freestyle ties up some loose ends, returns to some characters from the first story and develops with them. Actually, there’s a plant towards the close of Shamus Dust, though you do have to know your Raymond Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of some passing link between two cases that Newman (the shamus, did I mention that?) and Marlowe will never know they shared an interest in. That said, Freestyle stands on its own and brings in an entirely new case. It’s been interesting deciding which characters to go back to, how fleeting or important they need to be, and of course, how to introduce them to a reader who doesn’t already know them from the earlier story. 

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About the Author

Janet is an historical fiction author, writing literary crime. She’s published by Troubador Publishing in the UK and represented by JKS Communications Literary Publicity in the USA. She trained in archaeology, history and Eng. Lit. and has a special interest in the early Cold War. Her debut novel, Shamus Dust: Hard Winter, Cold War, Cool Murder is due 28 October and is currently attracting widespread media interest.

Twitter             @janetroger