Facts and Imagination: Evie Woolmore and Jane Davis discuss writing historical fiction

This week, allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore interviews Daily Mail award-winning novelist Jane Davis, whose novel These Fragile Things she recently reviewed.

“…I’ve never seen the point in historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?” (The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman)
Evie Woolmore: When we were chatting about doing this interview, Jane, you said this quote had caught your eye.
Jane Davis: I should probably start my answer by explaining that Beauman has one of his characters speak the words, and all too soon it becomes plain that they are spoken precisely because his novel is historical fiction with a twist. He is giving himself licence to play with the theme. The blurb describes The Teleportation Accident as ‘historical fiction that doesn’t know what year it is’. That said, one of the things he acheives so successfully is that his characters are very modern, as they would have been, and are obsessed by all of the same things that plague us – one whose obsession while the Nazi party is growing is not political uprising but whether he will ever have sex again, for example – which provides an instant connection.
To some, the idea of writing any novel may seem like a fairly arrogant and self-indulgent idea to entertain. In an age when we are told that life expectancy will increase to 100, and fiction is classified as ‘historicial’ if the setting is over 30 years ago, we can all expect to dabble with history in our characters’ back stories. Since we’ll find their motivation there, it can’t be ignored. My intention when writing I Stopped Time was to pay tribute to men and women (like my grandmother, who lived to the age of 99), who experienced an enormous period of change. I could have done so by simply reading a history book (although my preference would always be a biography), but I chose to do both. It’s said that reading novels allows a person to live thousands of lives. The same can be said of authors. To explore a period of history through one character – or perhaps a small cast – brings history down to a very personal level, making it easier to digest. For me, reading non-fiction can be a passive experience. When I am writing, I am actually inside the story. Through my characters, I have to confront sights and sounds and react to them in the moment. In that sense, unless you are writing comedy, I don’t think it is possible to take historical fiction ‘lightly’. I’m afraid to say that I found The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, which was intended to be comedy, deeply offensive. Recent history is too raw and sensitive to be messed with.
EW: That’s an interesting point about recent history. Two reviews of my novel Rising Up reflected in different ways on the challenges of writing about the Holocaust: the novel is set simultaneously in the present and in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1942. While I had not intended to write ‘a Holocaust’ novel as such, the book does explore how our knowledge of the past might affect us were we actually to engage with the past. The city of Warsaw presents us with that question all the time. So should the present day character Tom tell the Ghetto character Ela what he knows of the fate of the Jewish people or not?

JD: Reviewers’ reactions to novels is always very interesting. One review described I Stopped Time as a feminist novel. I have yet to read Rising Up but can imagine that Tom’s dilemma provides a very interesting conflict.
EW: How do you perceive the temptation to superimpose our own contemporary values on historical fiction? It’s an issue that has reared its head again very recently with verbal anachronisms being spotted in Downton Abbey.
JD: I watched my first episode of Downton Abbey last week, not because I wanted to, but because my father-in-law assumed that I would have been tuned in from the beginning. No matter how many times I insisted that I didn’t usually watch it, he was equally keen to ensure that no-one spoke during ‘Jane’s programme’. That said, I do appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance between getting the ‘feel’ of the language right and borrowing directly from the language of the day. Ripper Street is another example of televised crime drama with a historical setting where it might be argued that the language was not absolutely authentic. I have to say that I particularly liked how one of your characters in Equilibrium exclaimed, ‘Mrs Keppel’s knickers.’ The knickers reference probably sounds far more risqué now than it was at the time. I have just found the extraordinary line: ‘Richer than the Keppel girls, Bertie was their godfather and their knickers were edged with lace,’ quite a leap in terms of subject-matter!
Taking the mid-twenties as an example, there were trends of speech – such as ‘sick-making’ – among the Bright Young Things that would just sound wrong to today’s ears. I have encountered the same difficulty writing accurate dialogue for contemporary teenagers. If you were include use of the word ‘like’ as often as it actually makes an appearance, all sense of meaning would be lost.
The issue of dialogue is one thing, but changing values is another. Here, an early editorial review of I Stopped Time criticised the apparent ease with which my main character deserted her young son. ‘Part of the problem, I know, is different mindsets. Today, we feel that a mother should always put her child above a husband or partner. A hundred years ago, children were seen as being relatively less important, and society structures and viewpoints placed the woman’s role as being with her husband – this is reflected in the fact that Lottie feels excluded from the raising of her child. I’m not suggesting that you traduce historical truth, but the whole thing should be much more of a crisis in which we in the twenty-first century can feel Lottie’s terrible suffering.’ In Equilibrium, one of your characters faces as similar dilemma, handing her child over to someone else when she knows that she cannot take care of her. It is not that I don’t understand how a nineteenth or twentieth century mother might seem ‘cold’ by today’s standards, but I do feel that writers have a duty to provide an insight into how things were and to illustrate how rapidly attitudes have changed. I recently found a picture on a historical photographic board on Pinterest of a Brooklyn mother who had put three of her children up for sale during the 1930’s depression. Far from receiving criticism, she was applauded for her practical solution of how to feed the other five. No-one felt the need to ask if her decision was heart-breaking. It had to be done. And presumably she had been forced to choose which of the eight to sell – the eldest, I’d imagine.

EW: And isn’t it interesting that the picture makes us do the work in thinking about the subject’s experience and probably makes us understand it more directly, whereas in a novel we have done that work for the reader, often only to be told that we’ve got it wrong, that we weren’t being realistic!
JD: Have you had a similar experience of having being asked to make a character’s decisions more understandable to a modern reader and, if so, what was your reaction?

EW: Not exactly, but it is the central dilemma of my novel Rising Up, in that because Tom and Ela are in different times, Tom (in particular) must decide that for himself. Are the actions taken by Ela and her sisters understandable to him in absolute early C21st terms of right and wrong, or are they understandable because he is applying the filter of hindsight? He must decide not only how much of Ela’s possible future he can or should share with her, but also how to respond when she begins to reveal how strikingly different her sisters’ behaviour is. Without giving too much away, her sisters have very different experiences of the Jewish Ghetto and the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, but even then, all is not what it seems. I think in a way – without necessarily intending to – I was writing about how difficult it is to understand the past without judging it – just as you describe in the photograph of the Brooklyn mother.
A criticism I have heard of Tom is that he is too passive and too focused on his own goal of finding out what happened to his grandfather. But that narrow-mindedness is an expression of his paralysis about the enormous burden the past can put upon us, that same paralysis that perhaps we have as writers of historical fiction at times, in how best to revisit and re-express the past. Is it possible for us to write a story that meets the demands of the way we read as sophisticated, worldy-wise C21st century citizens, while also doing justice to the fact that the values, attitudes and behaviour of the past are different? Are those two reconcilable? Does historical fiction require a different kind of reading mindset? I have wondered for a while if there are perhaps broadly three kinds of ‘historical novelists’: those who write in order to accurately reconstruct history in fictional or quasi fictional terms (Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel); those who write stories whose plot is reliant on and infused with the historical setting and thus which are historically very precise and well-researched (such as Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, which I recently reviewed); and those (like me) who write novels which are not principally historical but work effectively in historical settings. Do you share that view?
JD: I think that is a fair breakdown, and, like your novels, I Stopped Time falls into the latter category. That said, I don’t think that readers or publishers are nearly so analytical. Hilary Mantel has raised the game for anyone writing in the broad historical genre. Her masterstroke in Wolf Hall was focusing on Cromwell, who was once hailed a hero but has been demonised by more recent historians, and humanising him again by starting with a scene in which his father beats him to a pulp and then showing the reader his love for his wife. Philippa Gregory is a historian who has chosen fiction as the medium through which she will make it more accessible, in particular to women, whose lives she concentrates on and who are so often left out of the history books.
The expectation once a story is given a historical setting is that the author will have researched that era thoroughly. You might think that going back further in time would give the author more licence, but readers are now so well-informed that there is no such thing as ‘getting away with it.’ I was very pleased to receive a book review from a historian who said that the historical detail in I Stopped Time was accurate, without being overpowering or slowing down the plot. I see that your review of Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation talks about the reader being overloaded with historical information at times. The real challenge is how to transport the reader to another time and place without doing this. So how much detail is too much?
EW: Perhaps it’s not a question of how much is too much, but rather how much is useful and how much is identifiable by the reader? I agree that readers are now better informed or can at least check out information more easily, but my concern is about giving them information that they can’t use or doesn’t enhance their imaginative interpretation. A writer I find challenging from that point of view is Nicola Upson, whose historical crime novels use the novelist Josephine Tey as their central character. The plotlines are always interesting and well-crafted but at times I feel overwhelmed by the authenticity, for the novels feel absolutely jammed with more detail than I feel I can process as a reader. I feel as if I am made too aware of the research, too aware of the historical markers as I read. And maybe this is the central conundrum of historical fiction: in our lives we don’t take as much notice of the signs which mark our world for the age it is, but when writers craft historical fiction, they seem to put in more detail than the average person would take notice of as they live their daily lives. What happens if a detail I’m given doesn’t mean anything to me, if I can’t use it to enhance my experience of the novel? I don’t read much futuristic science fiction, but I wonder if it is a similar conundrum there: how much detail do you need to make it feel authentic without slowing things down and cluttering the reader’s experience?
JD: Returning to the most recent ‘historical’ fiction I have read, what I particularly liked about the central character in Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident was his complete lack of political awareness. Although Egon Loeser’s unswerving obsession over when he last had sex is an extreme example of self-absorption, happening as the action does in Germany in the 1930s. It is very interesting how the reader’s knowledge of the era is largely assumed and how the author uses this to his advantage. Although I hope that I am a little more aware than Loeser about what is happening in the world, I find it very interesting to look back at a decade I have lived through and think about what I now consider the most pivotal events were and how all of the pieces of the jigsaw fit together. You simply don’t see them at the time, at least not with a God’s eye view. With historical fiction, the benefit of hindsight that the reader brings to the book informs the way that the central character is judged. In the case of Loeser, Beauman’s skill is that, despite his many flaws, he remains likable. Rather than a simple obsession with lust, Loeser has convinced himself that he is in love, and the pursuit of love to the exclusion of all other activities somehow seems noble. At the same time, I love a good re-telling of a historical event from an unusual viewpoint, woven richly with historical detail, such as fiction by historian Alison Weir. In fact, Alison Weir’s non-fiction is also so beautifully written that reading it is a sensory experience. I am instantly transported to era with all of its colour, sound and smells. As with any writing, subtlety is key. The point at which fiction begins to feel like a history lesson is the point at which the author needs to pull back. The way to create an authentic experience is not by finding ways to shoe-horn in every fact you have uncovered. The same applies to any form of writing, whether it has a contemporary or a historical setting. The writer must know the character’s complete back story. They must then judge what the reader needs to know.

EW: The last question I’d like to ask you (though frankly we could go on all day!) is about how historical fiction can be a home to other genres. Crime is commonly set in historical contexts these days, but I blogged recently about how a historical setting can be an interesting frame for magical realist and supernatural novels. What’s your view on that?

JD: I agree completely. I am not widely read on magical realist and supernatural novels, but I particularly enjoyed Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist, set in London in 1838. Miss Cordelia Preston, an ageing out-of-work actress, terrified of returning to the poverty of her childhood, who emerges in the guise of a Mesmerist. One of the things that this book illustrates so clearly is how limited options were for women, and, save for the workhouse, how little welfare and support was available. The relatively recent past is a very valuable era to explore through fiction. Nostalgia is a very powerful force to draw on. Historical fiction is a tool by which we can measure the speed of change. I never fail to read fiction set the Victorian and Edwardian eras without thanking my lucky stars that I was born in the 1960s, post-war, with equality on the agenda and a right to vote. In his recent speech to graduating university students, Tim Minchin mentioned that the current generation will have a life expectancy and riches that their grandparents and great-grandparents would never have dreamed of. As the popularity of the series Who Do You Think You Are? demonstrates, there is a resurgence of interest in genealogy and a feeling of loss for all of those true stories that were never shared between the generations, of lost opportunities. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching we are going to see more and more war dramas. The clever ones will challenge readers’ – or, in the case of the recent televised drama, The Wipers Times – viewers’ perception of what they thought they knew. The telling of a story through the eyes of one character, allowing the reader to live another life, makes it real. It brings history to life.
EW: Jane, this has been so interesting, thank you so much. I thoroughly enjoyed reading These Fragile Things, and this discussion has given me a fascinating insight into your ideas and motivations as a writer. I have I Stopped Time already installed on my Kindle and am thoroughly looking forward to reading it!
You can find out more about Jane Davis and her novels on her website, and about Evie Woolmore and her novels here at allonymbooks.

Magical Realism and History: an arranged marriage?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses questions raised by two different reviews of her historical magical realist novel Rising Up.

In conversation with the author EM Havens recently (which will appear on this blog in a couple of weeks), I found myself pondering whether in writing historical magical realism I was making my life – and the lives of my readers – really difficult. In one of my other writerly incarnations I’ve print-published a couple of historical romances and I recently provided some questions for a book club discussion of one of them. The book is a divisive one – readers seem to either love it or hate it (no, I am not Hilary Mantel in disguise) – and I was asked afterwards by the club convenor to provide some additional information about the sources I used for researching the novel. I was reminded then how important it is to historical fiction fans that a novel be authentic. These are readers with a scrupulous eye for detail. They enjoy the immediacy with which the historical world is created for them by the author and many actively dislike ambiguity and uncertainty. They are in many respects the very opposite of those who enjoy magical realist and other ‘fantasy’ genres, who are quite happy – as EM Havens so delightfully puts it – to be in the dark for a few chapters.

I was thinking about these issues again when I read two recent reviews of my novel Rising Up. Set in Warsaw, a young woman trapped in the Jewish ghetto of 1942 finds she can talk to a young man in the contemporary rebuilt city. He is seeking his family’s past, while she is terrified for the future of her family. He holds the key, of course, for he knows what happens to the ghetto, but what does he tell her, and how and why can they co-exist?

As I’ve blogged before, Rising Up emerged from a number of visits I made to Warsaw, and an overwhelming desire to try to capture the lingering effects of the Holocaust and the ghetto in Warsaw. I didn’t set out to write a historically authentic Holocaust novel, though cleary the need to be historically accurate and authentic, not to mention respectful, was particularly important and I researched very carefully and thoroughly. But my aim as a writer was to find a way to make that lingering real somehow, to explore how memory and knowledge combine to influence how we relate to the past, and what might happen if the past became suddenly more present. I wanted to find a way to construct the story that expressed my own direct experience of walking round Warsaw feeling the constant echoes and whispers and reminders of the past. And because I think there are so many ghosts (constructed or otherwise), it made sense to me as a storyteller to make those ghosts real. What turned out to be magical realism gave me a way to use fiction to explore that.

In her review of the book, Zoe Brooks asks the very interesting question of whether it is “right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic?” There is always the danger that when fiction embraces very recent, tragic or symbolic history that the events will become trivialised somehow. It can be a very fine line, as I discussed above. So what struck me about Katharina Gerlach‘s review was that in some senses she was saying the opposite, that the “tiny and consistent fantasy element” enabled her to read about a situation she found personally very distressing but in a way she felt was authentic and genuine.

I wondered if I should have been even more aware of that tension when I was writing the book than I already was, but then I realised that, for me, that particular juxtaposition of the magical and the real allows us as writers and readers to negotiate ways of revisiting the real when the real is very troublesome. It does not mitigate or trivialise that reality (in this case the past) by choosing to do more than just recreate it authentically, but it does offer a different way to examine our response to the facts. Rising Up was not an attempt to rewrite those facts in any way, in fact rather the opposite, but it was an attempt to enable a contemporary witness (Tom) to understand them better through the reality of Ela’s existence. Living museums and archive footage attempt something similar. But much of our understanding of dramatic and tragic historical events from before the age of mass media has been created and preserved through story-telling, and I wanted to examine how those stories might be changed or affected when individuals in different generations find themselves connected in a way that linear time ought not allow. When the past becomes the present and futures are shared.

I am Rising Up‘s central character Tom Macindeor – or rather I was when I was walking around Warsaw seeing and listening to the manifestations of the past. I could not help but be affected by what was in front of me, and I allowed Tom to do what I could not do, to listen to the voices of the past so I could understand my present better.

allonymbooks: quality, independent publishing of excellent fiction

As the first anniversary of allonymbooks flies past,  we thought we’d remind you of the excellent novels that have been published by allonymbooks this year. All allonymbooks books are available for Kindle at all Amazon sites.

If you like a contemporary satire with a dark side, look no further than CRASH COLE IN ‘THE RAKE SPARED’ by Cadell Blackstock (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' cover

This is a scandalous tale with a supernatural twist. If you like your heroes to be decent honourable men, then look away now.

Crash Cole’s fans love him enough to literally keep him alive. But who hated him enough to want him dead? Just like Don Juan before him, celebrity TV biker Crash Cole finds himself at the gates of hell as a consequence of his dissolute and promiscuous lifestyle. Except this hell is of his own making. Hauled back from the brink of death by the unfettered love of his fans, Crash can now hear every one of their voices inside his head, a chaotic din that obscures his memory of how he nearly died in the first place. Learning to live with it proves more than Crash can bear, and with his body mending at a phenomenal rate due to the healing love of his fans, he goes on the run, aided by Julia, a nurse with a bit of a crush on Crash.

Virtually unrecognisable due to terrible scars on his face, Crash revisits his life and the accident, a voyage of discovery constantly overshadowed by the thoughts of those who wished him live and the silence of those who didn’t. But will he learn the truth before his fate catches up with him?

Love him or hate him, you’ll want to get to know him.

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If you like historical fiction or magical realism, Evie Woolmore‘s haunting and imaginative novels will draw you in from the first page. Find out why Read Dream Relax say that Evie is “one indie author worth reading”.

EQUILIBRIUM by Evie Woolmore (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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“…original, poignant, illuminating…”  “a “fine yarn” where spirits, mystery and love waver …”  “…evocative writing…highly recommended…”

Epiphany and Martha are sisters with a stage mediumship act in Edwardian London. When they are asked to give a private reading at the home of Lady Adelia Lyward to find out the truth about her brother’s death, Martha must face up to her past. For two years ago, her affair with Lord Rafe Lyward ended in pregnant disgrace, and her attempted suicide in the River Thames. But there is more at stake than Martha’s anonymous return, for Epiphany bears the burden of restoring the equilibrium, not just to the Lywards but to her sister and ultimately to herself.

The Historical Novel Society review says “the story is rich in complex characters … I recommend “Equilibrium” to readers who enjoy historical fiction with spiritualist influences.” Equilibrium is also Awesome Indies Approved.

RISING UP by Evie Woolmore (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

smaller_ru“…simple and beautiful, human and poignant…”   “…mystery, history and a bit of mysticism…” “….it’s one of the best books on the subject I’ve ever read…”

Tom Macindeor is an itinerant English teacher, spending the summer in Warsaw in the hope of finding out the truth about his grandfather, a Polish resistance fighter. But when he hears the voice of Ela, a young woman trapped in the Jewish Ghetto of 1942, a window opens not just on his past but the future of the ghetto and all those who live in it. Should he share what he knows of their fate, or will Ela’s search for the truth about her own family doom them both?

THE SALT FACTORY by Evie Woolmore (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

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Evie Woolmore’s latest stunning novel has just been published on Kindle, with a fabulous review at Read Dream Relax.

‘I never shoot a man unless there is no other choice.’

The motto of Thelonia Jones, deputy Marshall, makes perfect sense in the silver-mining mountains of Colorado. But back in Victorian England, hoping to settle the debts of her half-brother Cadell, Thelonia finds much that bewilders her. Why has her wealthy stepfather abandoned his mansion to die alone in a rundown cottage by the sea? Who is the strange little girl who brings seagulls and sick people back to life? And why has the owner of the Greatest Freakshow on Earth followed her halfway around the world? For all her ease around matters of life and death, even Thelonia will be surprised by just how high the stakes are about to get. They say the past always catches up with you. For Thelonia Jones, that means literally.

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If you yearn to be a teenager again – or are one still – try Flora Chase‘s luxurious young adult historical saga:

THE STRATTONS by Flora Chase (Available at all Amazon sites including Amazon UK and Amazon US)

The Strattons vol 1 cover

The Strattons, the first volume of The Strattons young adult historical saga, is set against the backdrop of the luxurious late Edwardian era, on the eve of the First World War. Four young people, aristocrats and servant, are about to find their safe, comfortable world changed forever. Each must come to terms with the expectations of their class, their gender, and their destiny, and decide whether to embrace them or find the courage to fight against them.

When their diplomat father, the 4th Marquess of Stratton, is killed in Germany, Freddie, Julia and Blanche Matchingham, and their housemaid Dinah, find their world changed forever. Freddie must abandon dreams of university to become the 5th Marquess. Julia is wrenched from the contented obscurity of her books to face the nosy aristocracy keen to marry off her brother. Shallow, sociable Blanche finds her ambitions to take London by storm thwarted by mourning and social restriction. And why is Dinah, the first housemaid, suddenly being sent away from Stratton? The arrival of a German prince and a factory worker will turn all their worlds upside down and each of them must decide what their future holds, and whether they have the courage to face it.

The right to a pseudonym

A lot has been written about the revelation that JK Rowling published a crime novel earlier this year under another pseudonym. The secret would have been safe were it not for an error of judgement by a partner at her law firm who shared the news with a friend who was not as discreet as he hoped she would be. Indeed it is remarkable in the internet-dominated world where nothing seems to be a secret for long that the secret remained one for so long.

The irony is that on the internet, no-one is who they seem. Our avatars, gravatars, handles, IDs, usernames and profiles rarely represent us either fully or entirely accurately. We can be as selective as we like about how much we share with others. So why is it so remarkable that someone would publish a book under a name other than their own? Why is it so extraordinary that they might want to conceal one aspect of their personality in order to reveal another? Metaphorically speaking, JK Rowling is not the first person to have removed their wedding ring while on a night out in a bar. Given the perpetual eagerness of print publishers and their marketing teams to put books and authors in pigeonholes, any writer who is trying to move across genres or, perish the thought, write in more than one genre is going to find that unless they obscure their existing identity they will always be dragging their past work with them. And with that, multiple perceptions and expectations – of editors, critics and readers. Whether it’s JD Robb or Iain M Banks, many established writers have used other names to distinguish their books, and to separate them from their stablemates.

But there is also the issue of a right to privacy. Writing is a deeply personal, private thing. The battles that go on in a writer’s imagination during the process of creation are characterised by daring, risk, challenge, autonomy and identity, as much as they are by creativity, inspiration and innovation. Furthermore, writing is generally done alone, and much of the work and the battles exist in the solitude within the writer’s mind. Even successful writers who have dominated a genre and spoken publicly about their writing process have a right to the privacy of that process.

And perhaps in some respect, that is what JK Rowling was trying to reclaim. The right to write in private, even when the book is published.

 

The Salt Factory by Evie Woolmore: new to Kindle next week

This week, Evie Woolmore discusses her new historical magical realist novel, The Salt Factory.

salty9_optionI was chatting to a friend the other day about my books and she asked, as people sometimes do, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I was able to answer, quite honestly, that the original idea for The Salt Factory came so long ago, that I can hardly remember. But it is a novel that, despite the agonies of plotting and rewriting, I have absolutely adored throughout.

As a reader, it is just the sort of novel I enjoy. It is a bubble of a world where time slows down and all the things we took for granted slowly stop being true. It captures that feeling of falling in love, of permanent change, of the dawning of a completely new perspective on the world. All those things happen to Thelonia Jones in one way or the other, and yet the novel isn’t really about any of them. It is, in the manner of all my novels, a book that seems to be about one story and ends up really being about another.

As Lector’s Books pointed out in my interview with them a couple of weeks ago, my novels do tend to have a twist in the tail, not in the sense of a thriller or a crime novel but in a subtle slide in the way the world is revealed. Unlike the writers whose magical realist works I admire, such as Erin Morgenstern or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I do not simply present my alternative world as is, without explanation, because for me the explanation Continue reading

Author as genre?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses the challenges of marketing across genres.

As I put the finishing touches to my new novel, The Salt Factory, and draw together the marketing plan to accompany its launch, I find myself facing once again that eternal dilemma: which categories to use on Amazon.

Fiction. Yes.

Now what?

In an interview with Diva magazine in 2011, author Sarah Winman was told by the interviewer that she was being described on the magazine’s cover as the new Sarah Waters. Winman’s reply? “Poor Sarah!…We’re very different. I don’t think I’ve earned the stripes to even be compared to her, quite frankly.” Winman’s modesty perhaps misses the point: when a generic label fails to be useful or available, an author name often stands in its stead. Yet which Waters was Winman to become? The “historical” novelist, the “gay” advocate, or the “supernatural thriller” writer, to name but three.

This is a tool that print publishers have used for years, describing an author as ‘the new’ somebody else. If you liked this, you’ll like that. It’s a testament to the old-water-in-new-bottles scenario that many feel print publishing has become over-reliant on, but it is also a mark of how little genuine development there has been that no one has yet come up with an innovative way for authors to market themselves differently.

I have blogged before about how rejections of my books by print publishers have generally concerned their perceived difficulty in finding a marketing pigeonhole for my type of novels. But if someone had actually asked me, I would have told them that if they liked Erin Morgenstern and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, then they would like my novels too. It’s a difficult thing to admit that one’s novel is bouncing off other people’s walls, when one of the things I know sets my books apart is the sheer originality of the ideas. But I can say with certainty that if you loved the imaginative possibilities of The Night Circus then you’ll love those same qualities in Equilibrium and The Salt Factory. If you think Zafón has captured the magical, mystical possibilities of Barcelona beautifully then you’ll find my evocations of the slip in time between contemporary and wartime Warsaw in Rising Up to be equally vivid and engaging.

I can say these things not because I copied what those writers did, because I didn’t. But  what I do have in common with them is a desire and an interest in using fiction to bend reality just a little bit to see what might be just beyond the boundaries of perception. I am nodding when I read them, out of admiration as a reader and out of understanding as a writer. You might no more describe Zafón or Morgenstern as science fiction or fantasy as you would an Evie Woolmore novel, but what are the alternatives? Indeed Amazon categorises The Night Circus as contemporary fantasy. But that category is so big that it also includes Ben Aaronovitch’s magic crime procedurals and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as various vampire and imagined worlds novels.

Zafón himself considered this issue in a Q&A about the creation of The Shadow of the Wind, where he says “it is a story that is made of many stories; it’s a story that combines humour, it combines mystery, it combines a love story, it combines historical fiction – it combines many different genres, to create a new one, a new genre, a hybrid that does all those things as well.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t give that genre a name.

Perhaps there is something in reversing the process and  ruling genres out, rather than in. In what seemed at first a daring idea, I began to consider whether putting my novels in the Historical Fiction category really was the best thing to do. Certainly they all have historical settings, but then I began to wonder what sets one historical novel apart from another. And what do they all have in common? Historical authenticity seems an essential quality in a historical novel, and the recent trend towards the novelisation of historical figures (such as Hilary Mantel’s trilogy) is one of many narrow trends within a genre that might otherwise be seen as relatively homogenous. Authenticity is certainly important to me, and I do a lot of research to make sure that settings are accurate, but am I contributing something new to the genre of historical fiction? No, probably not. Because what I am contributing is nothing to do with the historical aspect. And so, by way of an experiment, I am relocating my novels from historical fiction to historical fantasy, because I am, like Zafón and Morgenstern and Aaronovitch and Attwood, trying to say something new in fantasy.

I should like one day not to be the new Sarah Waters or the new Erin Morgenstern or even a other-gendered reincarnation of Zafón, but to be the only Evie Woolmore. My books are recognisably a genre in themselves, historical fiction infused with an otherworldly setting, worlds where the boundaries are blurred and things are not quite what they seem. But for now, my readers will be able to find my books under the big and welcoming umbrella of fantasy, where minds are open to distinctive voices saying interesting things.

An interview with Flora Chase, author of The Strattons – new to Kindle this week

To coincide with the publication this week of the first novel in The Strattons series of YA historical fiction, allonymbooks author Flora Chase tells us a bit about the novel, and what led her to write it.

Flora, why did you choose to write a historical YA novel rather than something in the currently popular YA genres of fantasy or dystopia?

I was told once by a literary agent that it’s difficult to pitch historical novels successfully to teenagers and young adults, but I’ve always wondered if that was really true. The 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has recently been celebrated and lots of writers have been talking about why they love it so much. For me, reading it for the first time as a teenager (a long time ago!), I felt a great sympathy with how long the process of courtship seemed to take, how much time there was to sit around and wait and think and pine for the person you were falling in love with. Falling in love is an agonising experience as it is, but if you impose a lot of waiting around on it, every tiny change is ripe for interpretation and dissection.

But in these days of instant messaging, texting, facebook and Twitter, young people wear their hearts on their sleeves and the pace of romance has accelerated, hasn’t it?

That’s right, and that’s why I picked the Edwardian era. The novel is set in 1913, just before the start of the First World War, and was just at the start of the period of mass communication. In fact, one of my characters, Julia, is terrified of the new-fangled telephone, so it is a period which combines that traditional slow pace of older historical periods with a new degree of urgency. It’s also quite a racy time – there was a lot of gossip and intrigue, particularly among young people who were going to debutante balls or doing the social rounds of their peers, there was lots of flirtation, fashions were beginning to become more daring, and I think that makes a great backdrop for the writer and the reader.

Tell us something about the characters.

Freddie, Julia and Blanche Matchingham are the three teenage children of a travelling diplomat, the 4th Marquess of Stratton, and they have grown up pretty much alone on their family estate in the English countryside. Blanche, the youngest, is perhaps the most modern of the three, an adventurous social butterfly who is eager to escape the boredom of the country house to enjoy parties and enter the exciting adult world. Her older sister Julia is extremely shy, more interested in books than people, particularly since she was dumped by a Continue reading