A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today we’re lucky enough to have an interview with Susan Barrett – a very talented writer of historical fiction. I first discovered Fixing Shadows on Leena’s recommendation and was very taken with its deft plotting, interesting characterisation and the impressive dreamlike quality of the narrative. Needless to say we are very excited to have Susan here – a coup for Vulpes Libris!
Lisa: Can you say a little bit about your inspiration for Fixing Shadows? And where did you start the narrative when you were writing it? (the first chapter was absolutely gripping btw.)
Susan: My inspiration, the peg from which the whole book originally hung, derived from a day dream about a woman for whom circumstance demands that she nurtures, while at the same time denying, her own child. It interested me what would become of the material instinct (quite apart from the mental health of the child) if this relationship was thus perverted.
I actually did write the book in, more or less, the same order as it was published – starting at the end, with the bodies of George and Duke as old men. I suppose the notion of the “inheritance of loss” (to nick a nice phrase) meaning the futility of believing that anything of the physical world will endure, is ultimately of importance, was exemplified by the opening image of the bombed-out house full of the accretion of the lives that had been lived there. Because I didn’t start writing with a well worked-out idea of plot, characters or themes, this was just an arresting/insistent image even before I’d worked out what greater significance it might have. Always at the back of my head was the notion of loss.
I don’t know where the idea of ‘pairing’ characters came from – I’m not a twin, never have been. Probably it derived from the feeling that what I was writing was not meant to be naturalistic. The genre from which Fixing Shadows derived and the dark messages it told suited this over-wrought, perhaps two-dimensional, style of characterisation.
Of the minor personages, once introduced some of them – as authors are always mystically banging on about – did seem to take on a life of their own, though. Lucy, the nursery maid, originally only existed to carry on a can of hot water. In the end I knew that she must have space in the book to provide a beacon among all the rest. It would perhaps have been too unremittingly bleak without her and Fred to show a little tenderness.
Susan: Originally I wrote the book as a screenplay (I’m afraid that is the pragmatic reason behind it being in the present tense – nothing arty intended,) which probably also explains why the chapters are so short, being like scenes in a film. For this reason, when I decided that a script format was too much of a straight-jacket for what I wanted to do with the story (all dialogue and no description, which was very frustrating,) I had already what amounted to a fairly elaborate plot summary from which to work. So, when I started to write the story as a novel, it was with this convenient over-view of where the action was going and who everyone was and how they were important. Also, I had already lived with both characters and plot for nearly a year. Obviously, as things progressed in novel form both became considerably more fleshed-out and elaborate. Again, I should say that I’m not the kind of writer who starts with a well-structured plot, I just follow along behind, fascinated, waiting to see what happens next, mostly led by the development of the characters. (It was a surprise to me to discover that Lord John was the father of Miss Mantilla’s baby though, once this became clear it made absolute sense – as though this had been the case all along. Weird.)
Regarding the number of characters, I’m afraid I just couldn’t help myself, they just kept multiplying. Although, given the scope of the novel and the number of decades it covers, it felt right to have a large cast.
As for keeping up the tension – I’m very pleased that you think I succeeded – it was difficult to maintain a handle on characters and unfolding events at times, but, I suppose the quick cutting between scenes helped keep up the pace. There were some examples, in early drafts, of slip-ups in continuity and I had to keep time-lines to remind myself of what was happening when in all the parallel lives (as well as in the world at large – ie when was the dock strike?) Also, the idea that the plot was a bit of a self-conscious joke ie an almighty pastiche of every single thing you might expect to find in a bumper triple-decker of an over-stuffed gothic Victorian novel, helped to keep things romping along.
Lisa: Carrie and Albert Flynn are a fascinating couple. Carrie, who stands “firm as an iron rod, anchoring them both against the winds of despair and doubt,” seems a driven and ambitious woman, rather than the passive character I was expecting. Was Carrie drawn from any real-life women you researched?
Susan: Carrie and Albert started out as minor characters who grew. Carrie wasn’t based on anyone in particular, either known to me or researched, however, thinking back, I simply decided to make her the opposite of what you might expect, ie sexy (in her tubercular way,) strong, unsentimental.
What fun writing this – it is a nice opportunity to post-rationalise, a bit of literary onanism.
Leena: Lately there have been a lot of novels, especially thrillers, set in Victorian times, but Fixing Shadows is one of the few I’ve read that actually has a Victorian feel to it. How much were you inspired by the literature of the period – Collins or Braddon, for instance? And what do you think makes all things Victorian – and the ‘dark side’ of the era in particular – so appealing to writers and readers right now
Susan: I will have to take your word for the number of Victorian thrillers around – generally I try to avoid contemporary takes on the Victorian novel as I’m afraid of being influenced. I never read Tipping the Velvet or Fingersmith for this reason. Maybe the Victorian feel comes from having immersed myself in Victorian writing – novels and journalism – which, I think, answers your subsidiary question in that, yes, I am inspired (and awed) by Victorian writers: Dickens, Collins, Elliot, Gaskill, Gissing et al, though, I have to admit, that I don’t know Braddon (how shameful! – I just googled her and discovered that she wrote ninety novels of which one, Lady Audley’s Secret, I certainly have heard.)
I don’t know if I can give you a conclusive reason behind the enduring popularity of the ‘dark side’ of Victoriana. Maybe it’s because it seems like the last era of before the ‘modern age’ (meaning the world as it became after the first World War) put romance and mystery to flight. I think that probably the wide-spread introduction of electric lighting has as much to answer for as any other factor. Literally the dark side. However, more seriously, it is probably the opportunity to wallow without embarrassment in that which we might find to be sentimental or just plain mawkish in the modern milieu, that attracts writers, and readers. Also, I think, there is a compelling complexity to Victorian society – the huge wealth gap, the hypocrisy, the energy, the squalor, the cruelty – that makes for vivid writing. Because so many Victorian writers were themselves trying to make sense of the injustices of their era they delved in these darkest of places (whether up chimneys, down mines or in the prison of a lady’s parlour,) and among the blackest of motives. These are big themes – so much bigger and meatier than whether Bridget Jones should wear her big pants on a first date – and, I believe, we hunger for them still although we do not like so much to confront them in contemporary fiction. Safest, most reassuring, to keep all that in the pea-souper past. Seems to me, the only current literature that comes close in terms of provoking that winning mix of pity and outrage in the reader, is found in that increasingly derided genre of the monstrously unhappy childhood disclosed.
Leena: Your use of language seemed very original to me, with colourful metaphors and some unusual syntax and word choices. Can you tell us something about that? I haven’t read your second novel yet so I can’t compare, but is this your ‘signature style’ or do you find yourself adapting to whatever you’re writing at the time?
Susan: Thank you for the nice comment about the language used in Fixing Shadows. I think that probably came about largely because I was floundering around trying to find my way through. Learning as I went along. Since I’d never written a novel before I found, to my surprise, there were many issues about the mechanics of writing ie tense, which person to write in etc, that I hadn’t even realised should be considered, before I had to consider them. I did have a rather detached and sardonic voice in my head as the all-seeing, voice of God, narrator which probably had an impact on language. Also I knew that the mood must be unrelentingly gothic. Anther thing I discovered while writing is that I was fascinated by the voices of my characters, in particular distinctive/specialist vocabulary: costermonger slang, upper class knut, middle-class maidens etc. This carried through into my next book, which is largely set in Yorkshire (taking in France, Cornwall and Italy). In the third I’ve been trying to incorporate the Edwardian theatrical slang and lower-middle class nuance suitable to an ex-theatrical landlady and daughter.
I deliberately tried to make my second book, The Inconstant Husband, lighter and more naturalistic than the first. In answer to criticism of the first I told the story, more conventionally, in the third person, concentrating upon (and fleshing out) my principal character, around whom the plot revolved. As a result of this the texture of the language is, I think, much less dense.
I should say that my ‘voice’ is influenced by what I’m writing and the character I’m writing about, but it is also evolving – as is my use of syntax etc – as I become more of a practitioner. Maybe at the cost of some accidental originality (?)
Lisa: What are the best aspects of being a published writer?
Susan: In answer to your questions, seems to me the best aspects of being a published writer is the endorsement. Being a ‘teacher’s pet’ type I do like to have my work read and ticked. Also, I wanted justification: having enjoyed the indulgence of my husband who supported me while I wrote the first book (mind you I was also looking after two little children as well, so my time wasn’t solely my own.) Finally, since giving up work (when I had the children) it was very nice to again have some status in the outside world (at last, a title again!) – though, this wasn’t a motivating factor.
Lisa: And was the road to publication difficult or relatively easy?
Susan: As far as the road to publication went – all I can say is: at first very, very slow and then surprisingly speedy. Once I’d delivered my complete manuscript to the one agent who’d expressed an interest it took four months for him to come back to me saying he wanted to represent me. After this I did some editorial work on the book and, just as I went on holiday, it was sent out to publishers. My agent contacted me by mobile phone a couple of days later to say that two publishers were interested. Made my holiday.
Lisa: I’m always interested in the daily writing lives of authors. When and where do you write? Do you write in huge splurges, or little and often?
Susan: My working day is still fitted around family (although, now both children are at secondary school it is much easier.) Still, writing takes a back seat during school holidays – I do find it difficult if there are other people in the house, particularly if I’m feeling guilty about ignoring them. On a normal writing day, I usually try to sit down at my computer around 10am, or so, but then often fiddle around with administrative things or, in fact, anything at all that comes to mind that will delay the moment of getting started. I tend to stop for the day around 5pm when my kids get home from school. Rarely, I write at the weekend – usually, this is when I’m feeling bad about a v. low word count for the week.
Within this writing period, as I am sure is the experience for everyone, things can either go really painfully/slowly/disappointingly or, more rarely, swimmingly/speedily/exhilaratingly. I do find it difficult to get back into the swing after a few days break (even the weekend) however, sometimes an enforced break is constructive as it gives perspective and also thinking time (which I find to be a very useful adjunct to the unavoidable discipline of just sitting in front of the computer screen cudgelling ones brains.) Obviously, when I’m writing a book set in the past, some writing time is actually taken up with research.
Leena: Please recommend five good books.
Susan: Five books I’ve enjoyed recently:
The Good Companions, J.B Priestley, published in 1929 this romping, good-natured book conjures up the fragile, fleeting England of between the two world wars, when existed still a land of rural, seemingly timeless, beauty alongside the last knockings of the great, dying beast of Victorian industry. It goes on the road with Pierrot troupe – itself already an anachronism -composed of an unlikely, but likeable, bunch of characters. Happy endings for all.
The Sea, John Banville. Man Booker Prize Winner. I don’t usually like modern books, however – to my surprise – I found this not only beautifully well written but also rather gripping. Neither a triumph of style over content, or of plot over exquisitely accurate writing. A perfect balance.
Gosta Berling, Selma Lasgerlof. A big hit when it was published in Sweden, in 1891 (subsequently made into a silent film, starring Greta Garbo.) Unfortunately, I think, no longer in print but available 2nd hand from Abe books etc. A fascinating bit of Nordic magic realism, that gives a revealing glimpse into the formative folk history – the stories it tells itself to make sense of the world – of an alien culture.
Camilla, Fanny Burney (1796) is a big fat book that took a summer to read. Although it probably could have done with a thorough good edit, and one sometimes looses patience with the principal lovers’ stubborn refusal to just get together and be happy, it is a lovely book and filled with deliciously sly wit and humour. Still, despite its venerability, a lively, laugh-out-loud book.
The Last of Summer, Kate O’Brien. Published in 1943 (in my edition, on economy paper with bits of straw in it) this is a slight book concerning the events of a few weeks in the lives of an irrelevant Anglo-Irish family squatting in a small corner of Ireland, but nevertheless packs something of a punch that lingers in the memory. Kate O’Brien, scandalously, became known as a writer of Lesbian-interest books, (particularly with Mary Lavelle and Land Of Spices) which were both banned in Ireland.
I also really liked Don’t Move (Non Ti Muovere) by Margaret Mazzantini – very perverse and unrelenting.
Many thanks to Susan. It’s been a real pleasure.
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