Monday, 3 March 2008

Interview for Kent Libraries

As I may have mentioned, recently I did a talk at the new Thanet Gateway Plus library in Margate. Last week, I was asked if I would like to do an online interview for their website. Naturally, I was delighted and the rest of this post is what I have sent back. If you'd like to see other examples of people who've been interviewed on the site see here for an interview with Roopa Farooki, nominated for Orange Broadband New Writer Award.

Q. What inspired you to write Testament?

A. From somewhere in the ether (I never know where my ideas come from) the image of a ghost in an Oxford college floated into my head and the germ of the idea which became Testament unfurled itself.
I say this was the germ of an idea because the storyline has moved way beyond this initial image. Though the ghosts of the past are everywhere, there is no literal ghost in Testament and it is no longer based in Oxford (I decided not to make unnecessary work for myself in the research department) but in a fictitious medieval city which I have christened Salster.

Q. Your book has a well researched historical background. Did you use our local studies and archives sections in the Library for your book?

Thank you, I’m glad Testament came over as well-researched but I have to admit I didn’t use either the local studies or archive sections in my researches. Sadly, this says more about me than it does about the library’s resources. For some reason, I just could not bring myself to go in to my local library in Canterbury and say ‘I’m writing this novel and I need to know…’
My natural reticence/inability to ask for help was made worse by the fact that I didn’t know exactly what I needed to know because the story was at an early stage of development and a lot of the narrative in my books tends to grow out of the research I do. So, I just needed to know anything and everything there was to know about city life in the late fourteenth century, the practice of stonemasonry and the place of the master mason in late fourteenth century society.
There was also the fact that, in common with many writers, I find it difficult to talk about my work whilst it’s at an early stage of development. Talking about the story to people – even sympathetic and helpful librarians – might have exposed it to too much scrutiny and caused it to wither away through sheer self-consciousness.
So, though I did use my local library – and interlibrary loan – extensively, I just tended to go from bibliography to bibliography, reading one book then following sources to the next and on from there. It was a real journey of discovery and I made some amazing, quite serendipitous, finds. It’s not necessarily the research method I’d recommend but it worked for me in Testament.

What is your favourite Library and why?
Hmm. This isn’t an easy question. When my children were small we spent hours in the library at Canterbury, borrowing books each week and wandering upstairs to look at the pictures in whatever exhibition the Beaney Institute had on show at the time. Canterbury library is a light and open building, a feeling it shares with the new Thanet Gateway Plus at Margate where I did a talk a couple of weekends ago. I loved the new building, incidentally, it seemed an ideal place to read, browse and study.

The library I probably have most fondness for is the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, which is part of the University’s Bodleian Library. Like Kineton and Dacre college in Testament, it is an unusually shaped building (Kineton and Dacre has the great Octagon and the Camera is round) and I love the way it sits in Radcliffe Square, a jewel of architectural perfection. I spent a lot of time reading in the Camera whilst doing my degree, though I have to admit, I never ordered anything from the Bodleian’s famous ‘stacks’ as I had missed the introductory talk on how to use the library and was too embarrassed to ask!

My favourite library in fiction (apart from Terry Pratchett’s library at Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University which infinite due to the folding of time and space caused by words and their infinity of meanings) is the one I’ve invented for Kineton and Dacre college in Testament. It occupies the galleried top storey of the college’s central, octagonal building and sits beneath a lantern roof (a feature of great controversy in the book) where Simon of Kineton, the college’s master mason, imagines it being filled with sunlight for the studying scholars. This is the kind of library I dream about building for myself – a little wooden eyrie, filled with light and books. I’d only ever come out to make tea…

Q. Recently you visited the new Thanet Gateway Plus, did the Readers ask you any surprising or interesting questions?

A. One thing which really impressed me was that the readers managed to avoid the usual questions people ask authors which I wrote about recently in my blog.
Most of their questions were about how my historical research had found its way on to the pages of the book. I had talked a bit about the kind of research I had done into stonemasonry and carpentry, life at a medieval university, death and funerary practices (doesn’t sound interesting but this bit of research generated another whole subplot) and the history of the Lollard sect (the patron of the college at the heart of Testament is a Lollard – a follower of John Wycliffe and his early protestant, anti-clerical movement) and the readers were interested to know whether I had the story first and then did the research or whether my research in some way dictated the story. To which the answer, inevitably, was ‘a bit of both’.

One interesting question was whether expectations of life were very different in the fourteenth century and whether that had coloured my writing of both characters and narrative. It wasn’t entirely easy to answer that question since we don’t necessarily know what people’s expectations of life were. Certainly, the poorest people in that society would have been struggling to keep body and soul together and their lives would have been dominated by getting sufficient food and shelter. Brief glimpses of this kind of life appear in Testament but the book’s main protagonists are of a higher social class – artisans, priests, wealthy merchants - and their life is capable of sustaining a good deal more than the simple struggle to survive. As I said earlier, my research ended up involving an eclectic mixture of books, some old and some new, and it was interesting to see how historical thinking had moved on. For instance, in one book written in the nineteen fifties, the author stated quite confidently that the craftsmen of the medieval period would have had no notion of personal ambition. As the whole of Testament’s fourteenth century story is predicated on Simon of Kineton’s personal ambition this came as a heavy blow until I read on into the work of historians in the sixties, seventies and eighties and realised that this view of the medieval craftsman as being somehow fundamentally different from his modern counterparts had been superseded. More modern historians seem to agree ambition – not to mention backstabbing to get the best jobs – was likely to have been as rife then as it is now.

The readers were also very interested when I said that one of the skills of writing historical fiction is in not putting in to the book everything that you have learned in your researches. How did I decide what to put in, somebody wanted to know.
The test I used on myself was that if I found myself describing and detailing everyday things like house-decoration or clothes or food more in the fourteenth century part of the book than in the twenty-first century, I needed to cut it out. I wanted the two strands to feel similar in style and texture – to make the fourteenth century narrative as everyday as the contemporary one.
Unless historical details develop the reader’s understanding of a character or move the plot forward, I think you have to ask yourself whether they should be there.

Q. How would you recommend Testament to our Readers in Kent ?

A. Advice to budding writers is always to write the kind of book you like to read yourself. I like books which make me think, books which take me into a world I’m not familiar with but with which I can, nevertheless, identify and books which – above all – have a strong story line with well-developed characters. Testament will also appeal - obviously – to those who like historical fiction and to readers of mysteries as there are several mysteries to be solved in the book. A synopsis of the book can be found here and a very nice review of Testament can be found here .

A big thank you to Kent Libraries!

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