Reader Interview – from the US west coast

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

It’s been awhile since I posted any reader interviews and . . . here’s a reader from the west coast of North America sharing her thoughts about historical fiction. She’s a voracious reader as you will see.

Tell us a little about yourself.  I am 62, live in the West Coast of US but grew up back east.  Both sides of my family came from little towns and I spent every summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holiday there.

My whole life direction changed when I got married after college.  I had planned to be a teacher but I ended up working for my husband. I love reading, needlework, volunteer work, gardening and genealogy.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.

I have always been a voracious reader as were my mom and dad.  I read almost a book a day but have tried to slow that down because I actually run out of books.  When a weekend or holiday comes up, I “stockpile” a bunch of books so I won’t run out.  I would estimate I read around 300/310 books per year.  I only read one book at a time, and since we now have to watch our money, I get all of my books from 2 neighboring library systems.  Due to money issues I do not have an e-reader or mobile device to be able to read my books but I have given thought to investigating them.

For a long time, my two best friends were also avid readers and we would quietly drop books off at each other’s houses like abandoned babies waiting for a new home.  Sadly one has moved away and the other has passed away so now I have no one with whom to share books.  I adore long books and dislike short stories and for that matter poetry and science fiction.  I also enjoy biographies, and self-help books.  Lately due to some family medical situations I have been reading books on nutrition, health, and psychological disorders.  My very favorite fiction though has always been historical fiction.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Author, where geographically the novel takes place, time period.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I love learning about other places, in other times.  I love getting lost in a book and being able to forget my troubles or my pain.

My family has always done genealogy and when I started tracing lines, I had a blast.  I researched the female lines and discovered numerous Revolutionary War soldiers and one Mayflower ancestor.  I think researching genealogy, wondering about what ordinary people did or had to do to live is the biggest reason for my enjoyment of historical fiction.  I find those questions so fascinating.

For example, I read Paris by Edward Rutherfurd a few months ago.  In the middle of my exclusively Protestant English and few Scottish family lines, I have one French line.  Turns out they too were Protestant because they were French Huguenots.  This was the first novel since Tracey Chevalier’s Virgin Blue that I had read that told of French history and why and how the Huguenots were treated.  It was a fascinating learning experience.

I don’t like historical fiction that is incorrect or just unbelievable.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I enjoy fiction about the various time periods in the United States and Great Britain the most. I am enjoying novels about India and Australia and have enjoyed books about Japan. I just finished The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley and it was just wonderful. I don’t seem to like books about the Middle East or South America or Africa so far.

The last few years I seemed to find everything about the Tudors fascinating (Hilary Mantel, Nancy Bilyeau), years ago medieval times (Sharon Kay Penman) then I went through a WWII period. Once I find one book about a time or an area, then I search for others.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    All of these authors write well-written, intriguing, original stories. I love books most when I can’t predict what will happen and would not even think of skimming. The best books have something in them for me to learn.

Favorite historical authors (I am a boomer so I am fascinated by anything before I was born) these are not in any order:

  • Nancy Bilyeau – The Chalice, The Crown
  • Lucinda Riley – The Midnight Rose, The Orchid House
  • Sharon Kay Penman – Sunne in Splendour, etc.
  • James Bassett – In Harm’s Way
  • James Clavell – Shogun, Tai Pan, King Rat
  • Tatiana de Rosnay – Sarah’s Key
  • C.S. Harris – Sebastian St. Cyr novels
  • William C Harris Jr. – Delirium of the Brave
  • William Martin – Back Bay, Cape Cod, The Lincoln Letter,
  • Edward Rutherford – New York, London, etc.
  • Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall
  • Colleen McCullough -The Thorn Birds
  • John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga
  • James Michener – Hawaii, Centennial
  • Leon Uris – QB VII
  • Herman Wouk – The Winds of War, War and Remembrance
  • Deborah Swift – The Lady’s Slipper
  • Fiona Mountain – Lady of the Butterfies
  • David Liss – The Whiskey Rebels
  • Anne Perry
  • Kate Morton
  • Charles Todd

Current general fiction writers I love

  • JA Jance -Joana Brady, JP Beaumont series
  • Diane Chamberlain, “The Midwife’s Confession”
  • Kellie Coates Gilbert, “Mother of Pearl”
  • Kevin A. Milne, “The One Good Thing”

Romantic fiction writers I really enjoy

  • Mary Balough
  • Jane Feather

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I used to share books and had great discussions when my mother and cousin were alive. But they passed away. Then my two dear friends are no longer around, so I have no one who shares my specific reading interests. I have tried a few book clubs but found that the general level of interest was for an Oprah type of book. Very few of them appeal to me.

To find new books, I have looked on Goodreads and have had success picking from compiled lists of certain historical era books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    I love historical books because I want to learn about the era and also the location. Young women in particular had little actual freedom in the past or worked so hard. For an author, keep it real. Don’t have a character doing something that would not have been practical for them to do in that time period. Geographical and historical descriptions make stories come alive. I often have a world atlas close by so I can track where a character travels.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    There are many more average or poor working people in the world than society or wealthy traveled ones. Books with normal characters are more intriguing.

That’s an amazing list of favourite authors! Enough suggestions to keep most of us reading happily for a year or two 🙂 Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about historical fiction.

Favourite Historical Fiction

Downith, a blogging friend and fellow Canadian, tagged me to write a post on The Alternative Booker Award sharing my five personal favourite books and asking five more bloggers to share theirs.

The notion of ‘favourite’ is difficult for me and I am prone to forget past novels as more recent reads push them aside like a surging crowd. And then, of course, there’s the tricky aspect of genre. A favourite non-fiction is difficult to compare with a favourite historical or mystery – I read them for different reasons and they prompt different pleasures. Stop dithering, Mary, and get on with your list.

Not surprisingly, my list concentrates on historical works.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje still lingers in my memory and I often dip into it for inspiration as I struggle to create a scene. Who can forget the author’s lyrical writing and the anguish of lost love amidst the certainty of death?

Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman transported me into the medieval times of the 13th Century, telling the story of King John, Llewelyn the Great of Wales and Joanna, “daughter to one, wife to the other”. It is no wonder that Penman was listed the number one favourite historical fiction author in my 2012 survey of readers.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was an exhilarating read. To me, Mantel probed the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind in a way that was compellingly insightful. She deserves all the accolades received for this work.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson is historical non-fiction at its best. Truth is preserved but the telling is like a marvellous story that facilitates both enjoyment – if such a word can be applied to a time when Hitler’s grip tightens into a stranglehold – and learning.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a celebrated story of WWI. My copy is heavily underlined not only with historical facts but also with examples of Faulks’ wonderful writing style. This novel is often cited as an important work for its descriptions of the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches.

Selecting five books seems an impossible task in the realm of historical fiction and non-fiction, but I believe these will still be remembered years and years from now.

Tagging others for their picks – as a proud breaker of rules, I’ve decided not to restrict myself to five 🙂

Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial

Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade

Sophie Schiller author of Transfer Day who writes a blog under her name

Dianna Rostad who posts on Facebook and tweets and pins

Theresa Hupp who blogs at Story & History

Judith Schara who actively comments on my blog and writes historical fiction

Jack Durish who blogs under his own name

Kirstie Olley who blogs at Storybook Perfect

Debbie Robson who blogs under her own name

Char Simser who used to blog at A Librarian’s Life and now tweets and is very active on Facebook

Anyone who wishes to participate and does not maintain their own blog, is welcome to guest post on mine.

Top Historical Fiction Authors – Hilary Mantel

I am very pleased to announce Hilary Mantel as the fifth interview in the Top Historical Fiction Author Series. In a recent survey of 805 individuals, readers ranked Ms. Mantel in the top twenty favourite authors.

As part of my book club list in 2011, I read Wolf Hall. Discussion amongst our group was wide ranging and enthusiastic as we debated the merits of Ms Mantel’s work, the intricacies of plot, the vividness of language and how Cromwell’s time, place and persona came to life. Next up for me is Bring Up The Bodies, her recently released sequel.

I can see that you have written several books of a more contemporary nature as well as a book of short stories. Why are you currently focused on historical fiction?    I started out with historical fiction. I wrote my French Revolution novel,  A Place of Greater Safety, in my twenties, though it wasn’t published till much later. The impetus for that book was simple: I thought ‘I want to read it,’ and as it didn’t exist, I set about creating it. I was fascinated by the Revolution but all the stories I read about it were highly romantic and focused on the royalists. I thought the revolutionaries had the better stories: more unlikely, more human. Later I came across the story of the eighteenth century Irish giant, Charles O’Brien, and the surgeon John Hunter.  Its quality — the quality of a gruesome fairytale — seemed to cry out for an imaginative treatment: so I wrote the book simply called The Giant, O’Brien. I’d been thinking about Thomas Cromwell for many years, as the focus of a great untold story. I half-expected someone else to write it. But as the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession approached, I decided to have a go. I didn’t know then it would be a trilogy; I thought in terms of one book, which became Wolf Hall and came out in time for the commemorations in 2009.

You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books?     I try to bring to historical fiction just the same qualities I would bring to a contemporary literary novel. In other words, it’s the best writing I can do. I hope readers are interested by the quality and scope of my research, which I take seriously; and by the fact that I don’t twist the truth to fit the story, but try to find the dramatic shape in real events. I also want my readers to know, to appreciate, that all historical accounts, whether fact or fiction, are compromised to some degree, and that we can never arrive at the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I regard the enterprise as a joint effort between writer and reader. If one of my books leaves the reader with questions, and a desire to know more, then I’m happy.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?     To work from general accounts of an era to biographies of major figures, then of minor figures, then to the specifics of what I need to know, culled from the evidence that is closest to source. And at the same time, to cast the net across a whole culture, listen to their music, read what they would have read, look at the pictures they might have seen: who makes their world-view? To visit places if it’s feasible. To learn about food, furniture, clothes, all the small material things, and also to learn about the prejudices, assumptions, value judgments of a particular era. To leave most of this on file; but to select, for the reader, the telling detail.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?     I like Anthony Burgess, Gore Vidal, Thomas Keneally, JG Farrell, Barry Unsworth: all these writers have at one time or another given me heart, and encouraged me to be both playful and serious. And ambitious.

What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?     Integrity, so that you’re true to your material. A strong and flexible imagination. An ability to live with the ambiguous. And a facility to suspend judgment, and work with alien world-views; it’s false to project 21st century western values back into the past. These are the qualities I’ve tried to cultivate generally as a writer. I may not always be able to live up to my ideals but I try to infuse them into everything I write.

How do you select new stories to tell?     I look for the ones I think I can tell better than anyone else: stories that resonate with my interests and seem to play to my abilities. You have to have a driving desire to tell the story; historical fiction is hard work, and commitment is everything.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?     I spend a great deal of time on background research and fact-gathering, so I have a good overall picture of where my story is going. Then, just before I write a particular scene, I gather all my notes and sources and reread them, so that all the different versions, the different voices are fighting in my head, all the characters are urging me to listen and pulling at my elbow. Then I write a scene very quickly, in something between a rage and a trance.

With a cooler head, I then go back an unpick it, to see if it does the job I need it to do and if there’s a neater, shorter way of putting over the points.

Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it?     All my books are different, whether contemporary or historical. So I’m the opposite of a brand. I have never allowed myself to be pushed by a perceived drift or shift in the market, but have always gone my own way and presented my publisher with the result. This is perhaps why I wrote for 12 years before finding a publisher; I was unwilling to compromise. This is also why it has taken me so long to sell books in large quantities. I didn’t build up a core readership because I could give my publisher and my readers no idea what would come next. Artistically, I think this is a good thing. Financially, not so good.

What do you do to connect with readers?     Just write as well as I can. My primary responsibility is to the next book, not to a marketing effort. That said, I do all my publishers could reasonably require of me by way of media interviews and public events, and I put my heart into them.

What do you know about your readers?     Since Wolf Hall was published, my readers are in 32 countries. So it’s hard to know or guess anything. But the main assumption I make is that my readers are highly intelligent and don’t appreciate being spoon-fed. My books will never be for everyone, because they demand an effort of attention. They’re not quick reads. But I hope they stand up to being read twice, maybe more, and that the reader will find different things each time.

What data do you collect about your readers?     Their opinion is important to me, and I hear it online and at festivals and events. But analysis of the market I leave to my publisher.

What strategies guide your writing career?     It’s a long game. You may incubate a project for twenty years. Never despair and never throw anything away. Ideas transmute in the darkness of a drawer, and what doesn’t work now may find its application in the far future.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?     I probably wouldn’t have chosen to enter the market with a long and difficult historical novel during the late 1970s, which weren’t a great time for historical fiction. I found it almost impossible even to get anyone to read my manuscript; they expected romance, and it was a political novel. I would have been published quicker if I had written contemporary fiction first. But I can’t really regret it. A Place of Greater Safety was a young woman’s novel. I couldn’t possibly write it now, any more than I could have written my Thomas Cromwell novels when I was young.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?     To find a story that you are really committed to, and a cast of characters that enthralls you, whether they are real people or fictional people set in an era that attracts you. And then to read and research as widely and diligently as you can, but be prepared to let that research simmer as background knowledge; only a little of it will ever emerge onto the page. Don’t be tempted to bend the facts, because one lie trips another, and before you know it you’re in fantasy land. Shape your drama around history; be flexible, be supple, be ingenious.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?     You’ve covered it, I think, Mary. Except I’d just like to mention what comes next: after Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the final part of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, at present entitled The Mirror & The Light.

Many thanks for such an insightful interview, Hilary. Your advice such as “find the dramatic shape in real events”, “work with alien world-views” and the notion that all historical accounts are compromised to some extent will resonate for many readers and writers. As someone who has a cabinet stuffed with research materials, I particularly like the thought that “ideas transmute in the darkness of a drawer”.