That historical fiction is often seen as a separate genre to other novels always surprises me. After all, for all that LP Hartley said “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, surely the emotions and events that fill our lives – love, anger, revenge, joy and so forth – are timeless, crossing centuries and cultures?
Elizabeth Chadwick is one of our best-known authors of historical fiction. Her books are sometimes based on real people such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and sometimes not, but all combine meticulous research with a genuine gift for story-telling. Her latest novel, The Winter Crown, is out now in paperback and her next, The Autumn Throne, will be published in September. I was delighted to make contact and to interview her…
Q: Why do you write?
I was born a storyteller and it’s been a part of me from earliest memory. I can remember telling myself a story when I had been put to bed on a warm summer’s evening and wasn’t ready to go to sleep. I had a handkerchief with fairies printed on it and I distinctly recall sitting up in bed making up a story about the fairies. I can date that event to a time when I was just over three years old. Basically I’ve never not told stories. It’s who I am. It’s a bit like asking why my hair is wavy or my eyes green. It came with the model at birth!
Q: Were you a childhood scribbler or was writing something you came to later in life?
I didn’t actually write anything down until I was 15 years old but from the aforementioned early childhood I told stories verbally (to myself) to picture books, magazine photos, whatever inspired me. The way it worked was a bit like that scene in Mary Poppins where Mary and the children jump into Bert’s chalk picture and then they go further into scenery and discover a whole new world of adventures over the next hill. That’s what I did. The illustration was my starting point, but my imagination then took it and ran over the hills and far away.
I would often return to the stories I created and change and refine them. I’d introduce new characters. I’d change a yes into a no, just to see what would happen. I guess I was teaching myself the craft without knowing – learning it by osmosis. I was a voracious reader and that also helped me to understand story structure without me being consciously aware of it.
It never occurred to me to write my tales down until I was in my teens – for whatever reason – but when I eventually did, it was a revelation and I knew from that moment of first setting pen to exercise book that it was what I wanted to do for a career.
In my later teens I went to night school and took classes to learn how to touch type, and requested a typewriter for my 18th birthday (no computers then). By the time I came to be published in my early 30’s I was using an Amstrad ‘green screen.’
Q: How did you get your big break?
Having decided I would be a novelist at the tender age of 15, it took me until I was 32 to actually get there. In the years between I put in the bum on seat hours and learned my craft. By the time I reached a standard that was good enough to be published – I had 8 unpublished novels in my cupboard and that’s where many of them should stay. I loved writing them and I’m proud of them, but they were my learning curve.
My big break came when I sent my latest effort THE WILD HUNT, off to Carole Blake at the Blake Friedmann literary agency. I didn’t know anyone in publishing at the time. I was a stay at home mum with two small children. I worked in a supermarket at night filling shelves while my husband took his turn at childcare. Carole Blake picked me off her slushpile, liked what she saw from the first page, and offered to represent me. THE WILD HUNT became the object of a major bidding war between four different publishing houses. Michael Joseph from the Penguin group won the auction and as soon as my advance cheque arrived, I handed in my notice at the supermarket and bade farewell to the cat food aisle. THE WILD HUNT went on to win a Betty Trask award, which was presented to me in the Whitehall Banqueting Suite by HRH Prince Charles at a big literary event – light years away from stacking tins of Whiskas at the local Co-op.
Q: How do you begin a new project? Do you plan in detail or just start writing and see where the story takes you?
I have done both in my career re planning versus writing. At the outset with novels such as THE WILD HUNT, I used to write and see, but with that inborn instinct for beginning, middle and end. When I came to write more biographical fiction about real historical characters, then the framework was already there for me, but even so, I never knew exactly what small scenes and nuances would emerge to fill in that framework. I treat it very much as mix and match. I tend to know the major points along the way, but the scenery often surprises me.
Q: What’s your writing routine? Bustling cafe or silent solitude? Crack of dawn or midnight oil? Laptop or pen and paper?
I am a ferocious multi tasker and while writing the story I will be dipping in and out of Twitter and Facebook and answering e-mails. This means that my time is all melded together and I do work long hours. 7 days a week but with a few gaps built in to see friends or walk the dogs or do a bit of baking. Since writing is my full time job, I can work hours to suit myself most of the time. This means I tend to get up around 9am and go to bed about 2am. I’m writing this interview at 11.15pm after a day’s work. I’m eating dark chocolate and drinking tea!
I am working on a lap top, but it’s set up to look like a desk top. I have a full sized backlit Blackbird keyboard (so that the keys don’t wear out despite the intensive hammer I give them) and a large screen. The laptop sits behind these and I have a hub plugged in for all the peripherals such as printer, scanner, back up drive. I HATE writing on laptops and only do so as needs must. Too small is the main grumble. I do sometimes write with pen and paper. I play darts for an inner city darts team and sometimes if I have a close deadline I will take a notebook along and write rough draft in the pub…
Q: How polished is your first draft?
Not at all. It’s the dirty draft where the story gets put on the page. No one’s allowed to see it because it’s very raw. I don’t write fast at first draft stage though even though it’s a rough draft. I’m not one of your splat it down writers and that first draft is where I have to push myself. Editing drafts are huge fun and I can whip through them with pace and zest, tightening and refining. I would say that unless you’re an utter genius, you’ll need a lot more than one draft to get it right.
Q: What writer do you most admire and what would you like to ask them?
I have a long standing admiration for author Dorothy Dunnett. I love her dynamic, fearless, rich use of language and ideas. Every time you peel back a layer, there’s another one waiting underneath. As far as I’m concerned Hilary Mantel is a mere apprentice when compared with Dunnett although I’d put them on the same page with Dunnett way above at the top.
Sadly Dorothy Dunnett has passed away, but if she was here now I would ask her which books most influenced or inspired her as her career was developing, because she certainly inspired me.
Q: What book would you most like to have written?
That’s a difficult question. There are so many books I’d love to have written and in so many genres. Obviously I’d love to have written Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I’d love to have written Steven King’s The Green Mile because it is the most profound and moving book with so much to think about. Hanto Yo by Ruth Beebe Hill.
As a teen I harboured a romantic dream about writing a novel about American Indians, but gave that up after Hanta Yo, because it says everything. The author translated this novel about the Teton Sioux into the Lakota language and back again to gain the correct idioms and patterns of speech. It’s a wonderful book.
Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave because again the language is delicate and beautiful without ever slowing the story down or disappearing into its own clever prose fest. And finally George R. R. Martins Game of Thrones series because it would make me very rich, and although I’m not a fast writer, I’m twice as fast as he is, so we’d be finished by now!
Q: Aside from writing, what skill or achievement are you most proud of?
To be honest I never think about things like that with reference to myself. You do your best in every situation and when things work out you can be happy and satisfied. I tend to be proud of other people I know and love rather than myself, and knowing what they have overcome to get where they are. It’s not that I don’t value myself – I do, but my thoughts go out in different directions.
Q: Where is your happy place?
Wherever. I’m generally upbeat. I love my job. I love my dogs. A good happy place is just couching on the sofa with a trusting furry creature curled at my side. I love taking photographs. I’m never going to make my living from it, but it’s a joyful, creative hobby. I love the coast and countryside. The whole dance of life I guess.
Q: What aspect of the publishing industry would you like to change?
I think more communication. Authors often complain about being outsiders or being ignored, but a lot of this could be avoided or assisted by including authors in the process. Even the savvy ones often have no idea what goes on day to day in a publishing house and yet they are part of the team – the product provider! There is probably nothing worse to a publisher than a pushy author interfering and making demands that cannot be met, but at the same time, if good dialogue and communication can be established, and the author keeps within sane boundaries, then it makes for an inclusive working relationship and a flow of useful ideas that can be of benefit to all. Joined up thinking basically.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
First and foremost enjoy what you do. Writing is fun. Don’t get hung up on the rules because rules are only guidelines. They are there to serve you, not enslave you. Also I would say take your time. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to get your book out there in the market and don’t be discouraged by rejection but learn from it if it comes your way. In other words ask yourself ‘Is my book ready?’ I think that is vastly important in the days of self publishing. I look at some of my early unpublished material now and I know that I wasn’t ready for it then. Be firmly honest with yourself – without beating yourself up.
I have a lovely new contract to write about what William Marshal, my hero from The Greatest Knight, did during his 3 year pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s proving totally fascinating to research and I’m enjoying the writing very much.
Thank you so much for finding the time for this Elizabeth – I’m looking forward to The Autumn Throne.