Historical Fiction Author – Jane Johnson

The Sultan's WifeJane Johnson, author of The Sultan’s Wife, The Salt Road and The Tenth Gift as well as numerous other books (under two pseudonyms) and books for children very kindly agreed to be interviewed on A Writer of History. She is from Cornwall and “has worked in the book industry for 20 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer.”
Why do you write historical fiction?    I’ve always been fascinated by history: growing up in Cornwall, you’re surrounded by it all the time, it’s such an ancient county and wears its history with pride – from stone circles and Neolithic tombs, to country houses, lost gardens and centuries-old villages. Then I lived in London for 20-odd years, and wherever you look in London, there’s thousands of years of history all around you. You can’t help but be influenced by it.
I started out writing historical fiction because I was intrigued by a piece of family history – that an ancestor (Catherine Tregenna) had been abducted in the 17th century from the Cornish coast by Barbary pirates and sold into the white slave trade in Morocco – and writing a novel about it seemed the most in-depth way of ‘experiencing’ her story.
What do you think attracts readers to historical fiction? And to such intriguing times as those you portray in The Tenth Gift (which I read a few years ago and truly enjoyed), The Salt Road, and The Sultan’s Wife?    That’s very kind, thanks very much! That pleases me hugely since The Tenth Gift was my first (semi) historical novel and I was very daunted at the prospect of researching and writing it. When I read for pleasure – away from my publishing job – it’s often to historical fiction to which I turn: it’s such immersive fiction, and I love to be swept up and carried away from my ordinary life, to exotic locations, other times, other lives. But at the same time I love to learn more about our world and what has made us the people we are today, and so I love properly researched, well-written historical novels.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?     I need to immerse myself in the research – each novel usually requires a year of research – before I write the book. It’s partly a matter of confidence – knowing what I’m talking about! – partly the need to feed the compost heap from which the story emerges. All those facts, all that information needs to be piled up and then to mulch down to a rich material that will allow the story to grow straight and true (or twisted and strange!) but with its own integrity and power. I don’t want to have to fact-check three times in every sentence, or even every page: it breaks up the flow. I always go back to primary sources first, since I’ve learned only too well that even academics wing it sometimes and I’ve caught a number of so-called experts out in fudges and errors. I want the work to be accurate and to reflect as truthfully as possible the times I’m trying to portray. The story and characters are of course paramount, but if you’re going to write fiction which purports to be ‘historical’ I think you owe it to the period and to the readers to get it as right as anyone can. I want to offer readers verisimilitude and good value: and I don’t want anyone to suddenly stop and say ‘hang on, I don’t think that’s right’ – that’s the easiest way to lose the trust between an author and a reader.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?     I grew up in the town of Fowey, where Daphne DuMaurier lived, and have always been a huge fan of her historical writing – Castle Dor, Frenchman’s Creek, The King’s General and Jamaica Inn: fantastically atmospheric writing. She’s very aware of and true to her settings, so I’ve learned sense of place from her.
Mary Renault’s Alexander and Theseus novels are absolutely the bees’ knees of authentic historical fiction for me: she’s taught me to research ruthlessly and to be fearlessly accurate.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf’s Hall and Bring up the Bodies demonstrate the most skilful and economic use of the English language: she’s a breathtakingly good writer on a technical level. And a master of the use of the first person narrative: reading the first while writing The Sultan’s Wife helped immensely with the technical problems of writing from Nus-Nus’s point of view.
The lyrical descriptions of Thomas Hardy, the detail and gusto of Bernard Cornwell; the clever storytelling of the Hornblower books; the sparkling dialogue of Georgette Heyer; the romanticism of Anya Seton and Jean Plaidy; the attention to detail of Patrick O’Brian…
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author?    Verisimilitude – a sense of place and time that readers can trust. Vivid characters using dialogue that rings true to its time without being either too modern or too archaic. Accuracy, and honesty (admit to how you’ve fiddled with history, if you have, in the Author’s Note!): plenty of verve and colour and a story that keeps the reader turning the pages.
You are an eclectic author writing under two pseudonyms as well as your own name and writing for both children and adults. What advantages have come from this range of writing? Any disadvantages?     I don’t believe in ‘brands’ – that is (as I know too well) a term bandied around by publishers, and it’s all about pigeonholing authors for the convenience of the book industry rather than for authors and readers. I believe readers read all sorts of fiction (well, I know they do) and don’t confine themselves to a single type of novel (what a dull place the world would be…) so I don’t see why I should be trammelled by a view of books I don’t share. So I am forced to take on different writing names in order to write the books I want to write. I would get bored very quickly if I had to write the same book over and over.
But yes there are disadvantages: the industry will penalize you for stepping out of line in this way and refusing to be trammelled!
What brand are you trying to create for yourself?     As I say, I don’t like the word or concept of ‘brand’: I’d rather say I offer the reader a certain sort of experience, and the experience I want to offer is one in which they are caught up in the story and carried away on a fast tide, surrounded by exotic sights and smells and people, and come away feeling they’ve been thoroughly satisfied by the shape of the story, and particularly by the ending of the novel. There is nothing I hate more than coming to the end of a 400-page novel and feeling the end is poor or that I have been cheated in some way. I like to leave a surprise or a twist which makes the reader look at the story anew, an ending which will often offer a different reading experience if they ever return to the novel to reread it. 
What do you do to connect with readers?     I encourage contact and I always reply promptly to emails and letters (I get a lot, which I love): I have a website where I blog and post information as often as I can, and am active on social media sites – on Facebook (Jane Johnson [writer]) and Twitter @janejohnsonbakr .
I also appear at festivals and bookshops when I can and love taking questions about life, love and writing.
What do you know about your readers?     Judging by those I’ve met and those who write to me they’ve a beautifully varied crowd, men as well as woman and of all ages. They read widely and they love to travel and are curious about the world. And they love a love story, no matter how unusual.
What data do you collect about your readers?     I don’t do any formal data collection. But I do keep their contact addresses and send them a note when a new book comes.
What strategies guide your writing career?     I’m not sure I have any strategies: when it comes to writing, I write what I love to write and let my heart rule my head. I believe that’s the only way to write well. I simply couldn’t write an urban fantasy or a vampire novel if I was paid: neither genre interests me sufficiently to give it my all – and a book has to take your ‘all’ or it’s not going to be worth writing, or reading.
What would you do differently if you were starting again?     I don’t believe in doing anything but following your heart, which I have always famously done (as evidenced by the fact that going off to Morocco to research The Tenth Gift ended with my falling in love with a Berber tribesman, marrying him, quitting my day job, selling my London flat and shipping everything to Morocco: 7 years on and we are still in love and sharing our lives so happily. It was the best decision I ever took). I fully believe that we are rewarded for our bravest decisions in life, rather than for hedging our bets; and in fiction as in life.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?

  • Follow your heart.
  • Do your research.
  • Be true to the period and to your characters.
  • Self-edit ruthlessly.
  • Listen to others’ opinions of your work but don’t take it to heart.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Keep writing.
  • Keep reading.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? Jane’s Question: Is historical fiction escapist?
I think historical fiction – well written and well researched – is as far from ‘escapism’ as you can get: history shines a light onto our world, even if in a different time and place. It teaches us about the nature of human beings (which never really changes – though we have the habit of regarding people from earlier times as being in some way less intelligent than we are, which is simply wrong) and about the lessons we never learn and keep repeating. It can be a powerful way to examine a relevant modern question – women’s rights, marriage, exploitation, slavery, arms dealing, political shenanigans, oppression, treachery, genocide, war… Sometimes it gets too close for comfort: I’ve been writing a novel set during the Third Crusade from inside and outside the city of Acre … scenes coming out of Syria have been enough to make me weep.
What thoughtful responses, Jane. Many thanks for sharing your ideas about writing. Several points spoke to me: the mulch analogy with regards to research, the notion of trust between author and reader and its connection to historical accuracy, and your perspectives on brand. I’m sure I will not be alone in also appreciating your thoughts on writers that have inspired you. 
PS – wonderful story about finding true love in Morocco!

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9 Responses

  1. Thank you, Jane, for the wonderful advice and the wisdom that we are awarded for our bravest decisions.

  2. Very interesting interview. Would Jane please elaborate on the statement, “the industry will penalize you for stepping out of line in this way and refusing to be trammelled” for those of us who are at the beginning phases of our writing careers?

  3. Hi Rachel, penalise in that publishers may not buy your next book if it’s not the same as the last, or lower your advance, or don’t support you. Some publishers are better about allowing their authors flexibility, but the book chains often will not order a different sort of book to the last or will order fewer copies, so that’s where the market steps in with economic sanctions to force you back into line. If, however, you have different names for different types of books, you can move between them, if you have the luxury of being published under your pseudonyms.

    1. Now I understand why my daughter’s favorite author, Amanda Cabot, also writes under a pseudonym that is impossible to figure out! In one word, it’s called survival.

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