Interview – July 2012

This interview appeared on www.femalefirst.co.uk, July 2012

What can you tell our readers about your current novel Fate?

Fate is the story of one man, an extraordinary man in many ways (not least because of his immortality) but also an ordinary man, a fallible, doubt- and guilt-ridden Everyman, who lives passionately and engages the huge complexities of his time with style and wit. It is, at one level, a swashbuckling picaresque; at another level it touches on the more serious themes of the 18th century: death and beauty, magic and science. It is also a heartfelt paean to the magnificent, reckless life of that time, with which I fell in love. Lord Francis Damory’s tale moves from the gilded salons of England, Europe and the Ottoman Empire to the horrors of the debtor’s prison, from a forgotten island in the Veneto to a Sultana’s palace on Cyprus. He has love affairs with courtesans and countesses, duels and chariot races, encounters with pirates, alchemists, anatomists, charlatans, visionaries, spies, murderers and monsters.

The book is set in 1717, how did you go about researching the history for this novel?

The book begins in 1717, and covers a hundred years of Francis’s life. First, I read general histories, to get an idea of what was going on. I did not want to have my characters wandering peacefully around a part of the world that was at the time engaged in war! I also had to be sure I knew exactly what sort of technologies were available. Then, I read as many primary sources as I could – the journals and letters of people who lived at the time. Of these, by far the most wonderful and useful was Giacomo Casanova’s great 12 volume History of My Life.  I was delighted to fall under his spell, as a more fascinating and engaging guide could not be imagined. If I could have one of those dream dinner parties to which one could invite anyone, real or imagined, from history or fiction, he would be first on my list and sit at my right hand.

I also studied the art of the period, the advertising, the illustrations, to get the look and feel. The clothes were, I have to say, utterly fabulous. One of my favourite scenes in Fate is a wildly extravagant shopping expedition (“shopping” as a word and as a concept was invented in London in the 18th century), in which our seventeen-year-old hero is encouraged and advised by a glamourous courtesan. I would not care to wear women’s garb – too confining! but men were magnificent peacocks, and I’ve had a silk frock coat made for me from a 1720 pattern, to swagger about in.

And of course the music, the music! I developed a real passion for the operas of Handel and now see as many as I can. Having thought of myself as someone with no particularly strong regrets, I have discovered one: I regret most deeply that I have never, and will never hear a great castrato sing. One of my most dearly beloved characters in Fate is the castrato superstar, Celestino il Divino; today his roles are taken by female mezzo-sopranos or countertenors, who I believe come closest to the ineffable sound of the not-man, not-woman castrato.

You book had been said to be a gothic novel, so who were your main influences for this?

This refers to the very kind words of Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat) about my first novel, Farundell. It was short-listed for a prize of which she was the adjudicator; she described it as “a marvelously dark and intricate literary gothic novel.” I was hugely flattered, and regard her as the most perceptive of judges! It is gothic in that it is set in a large and intriguing country house with a ghost (who is not a ghost) and other mysterious goings-on. Rather than specific influences, I think I was just drawn to the whole archetype of the young-man-arrives-at-country-house-and-discovers…something. If the Gothic deals with the territory where human experiences touch the unknown, the strange, the disturbing, then Farundell’s core story of the magical initiations of its three main characters: the Young Man, the Old Man, and the Young Girl, is certainly Gothic.

Who do you most like to read?

I like to read memoirs and other personal accounts, such as travelogues or letters. I find “real” people deeply fascinating, more so, even, than imagined ones. It has become more difficult for me to read fiction now that I write it; if it’s any good, the characters come alive in my head and distract me from my own characters. If it’s not good I don’t want to pick up its bad habits.

Where did the idea for the book arise from?

Fate is written from the perspective of Francis Damory, the ghost who insists he is not a ghost, the 18th century ancestor who flits so enigmatically through Farundell. He presented himself and demanded to tell his story: who and what he really is, and how he got that way.

How difficult is to get the right balance between historical accuracy whilst avoiding information overkill?

Very, if you try to do it from outside. Not so hard, from inside the character. You write what they experience and the necessary information is conveyed naturally. I was helped by having, in Francis, a protagonist with a very clear and idiosyncratic voice, sharp perceptions and a sense of humour.

You currently live in London, is this why you decided to set your novel there?

Fate takes place throughout the known world, as Francis is quite a traveler. It starts in London, on a foggy night in 1717, and London does play a vivid role, with its contrasts between the extremes of wealth and poverty, the exaltations of the highest art and the degradations of crime, disease and misery. I enjoyed setting Francis’s mysterious encounter with a Rosicrucian (as Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton set just such an encounter in Zanoni) on the slopes of Highgate Hill, where I lived until, in fact, yesterday. I now live in Oxfordshire, on the River Windrush (mentioned in Fate) and not far from mythical Farundell (ah, if only I could find it!)

How difficult was it to write from the perspective of a male character?

I have never found it any more difficult than writing from a female perspective; what I have to do is find the character’s voice, or, perhaps I should say, let it find me. It was not so much Francis’s masculinity itself that gave me pause, but other attributes took me by surprise: the physical impetuosity and mind-boggling risk-taking that only an robust, energetic young man can experience (he jumps into a frozen lake at one point); his extremes of violence and rage, his pleasure in fighting and even in killing. Other things, such as the particular love of a father for his children, the particular hatred of a son for his father, a man’s sometimes uncaring treatment of women, all seemed not so far from my own experience.

What have you got lined up for your fans next?

I’m now working on a novel set in Germany in the 1930’s, that involves some of the characters from both Fate and Farundell. One of the key themes of Fate has to do with Francis’s alchemical quest for human perfection, and one cannot engage with that subject without reference to what happened to that idea when the Nazis got hold of it.

What is the attraction towards writing a historical novel?

Having now written two novels, and working on a third, all set in periods other than my own, I still don’t think of myself as a historical novelist. An epoch is like a character: it carries certain ideas and associations that are useful to me in developing the themes I like, those of change and transcendence, of love and loss, of the quest and the fulfillment of the quest that is, perhaps, not quite what one had expected.