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  • William Landay

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    William Landay is the author of the highly acclaimed Mission Flats, which was awarded the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best debut crime novel of 2003. A graduate of Yale University and Boston College Law School, he was an assistant district attorney before turning to writing. His latest books is The Strangler. He lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next book.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Strangler?

    William Landay Well, I think most novels have multiple sources, since a novel of any ambition will usually take on more than one topic. So let me answer that by citing a few of the seeds of this story.

    One was the simple fact that Boston, now one of the most prosperous cities in America, was until fairly recently a city withering on the vine. For most of the 20th century Boston endured a very long, very steep decline. The industries that once fed the city (textiles, shipping, manufacturing) all abandoned it. Even in the post-WWII boom, when virtually every major U.S. city grew exponentially, Boston actually lost population. Essentially, by the time we reach the year of the Strangler murders -- 1963, also the year of my birth in this city -- Boston seemed destined to become another dead city, a husk like Detroit or Newark. So what happened? Why did Boston not become Detroit or Newark? I knew there was a good brass-knuckles political story there, and I wanted to tell it.

    I also knew there were some of the other sort of brass knuckles stories, too. A very bloody mob war was going on in the city's underworld. And the Strangler case, of course. I remember first hearing that Albert DeSalvo, the presumptive Boston Strangler, might have been the wrong man. Now the possibility is widely accepted; when I first heard it, the story was making the rounds of law enforcement and it would have struck most citizens as plainly ridiculous. But the idea worked on me over the years. I confess, the Strangler case itself was not what fascinated me (and readers of my novel will find that the historical Strangler is only one piece of a complicated mosaic). What fascinated me was the idea that this city, so busily reinventing itself, allowed it to happen: a serial murderer (or two, or three, because there is no consensus about how many hands actually committed the murders ascribed to the Strangler) was allowed to get away with it.

    So there was this confluence of events in Boston at this time that made it a fascinating period. And I wanted readers to see what I saw: this mysterious, impenetrable, tough-talking city, now long gone. I wanted to bring that whole city to life, then send the reader strolling through it, like a flaneur novel in which the reader accompanies the narrator through a city and registers the sights and sounds along with him. So I created these three brothers and sent them out into different corners of the Boston crimeworld in that wonderful horrible year of 1963 to see what they'd find there.

    MT: Your novel Mission Flats won the John Creasey Memorial Dagger for best debut crime novel of 2003. How did winning affect you and your writing?

    WL: It didn't affect my writing, certainly. I wish it could make writing easier. Unfortunately, when you close that door and you're alone in front of the computer screen, all those external things -- prizes, reviews, as well as everyday things like phone bills and mortgage payments -- all those things vanish. Don't misunderstand: I'm very grateful for winning it, of course, and I have no doubt that it brought me a lot of new readers who would not otherwise have taken a chance on a new writer. But as a practical matter, I tend to be completely obsessed with whatever novel I am working on at the moment, and past novels seem very far away indeed.

    I will say this: my 5-year-old son Ted loves the dagger award and he occasionally asks me to take it out of the drawer so he can see it. The prize itself is a small thing, more like a letter opener than an actual dagger. But Teddy thinks it's cool, and anything a dad can do to appear cool in his son's eyes is a comfort.

    MT: Was your time as an assistant district attorney all the research you need to write your crime novels?

    WL: No. Not even close. In fact it took me a very long time to overcome the misapprehension that my experience would directly feed my crime novels. The trouble, of course, is that the real life of cops and prosecutors is by turns too dull, too chaotic, too repetitive, and too shapeless to be the stuff of good drama. A crime novel that is absolutely true to life would be a bad book. The material has to be shaped. So I had to learn, through writing some very bad books indeed, that much of what I knew had to be thrown out the window. I heard John le Carre say in an interview once that for a novelist "it is better to be credible than authentic," and it is precisely so. So now I research fanatically. The research for The Strangler took months and months, and much of it was original research, interviews and such -- painstaking work. And the point, of course, is not to become an expert in this or that subject; it is just to be able to write convincingly about the the setting, like a piano player playing rhythm with his left hand while the right hand bangs out the tune.

    MT: What aspects of your novel did you find most challenging to write? And how do you go about overcoming those difficulties?

    WL: Well, it's all challenging. I am not one of those writers who says, "The characters took over, I merely took dictation," or "I merely watched the story." That said, one of the hardest practical problems was the question of how to weave together fact and fiction in this book. Most of the settings in The Strangler are absolutely accurate, even obscure places like bars where the characters meet. And of course the historical background story is based in fact: the Strangler case was real, as was the Mob war depicted in the story, and the bulldozing of the West End of the city. So it was a constant effort to get the balance right between fact and fiction, always with le Carre's words in my ear: "It is better to be credible than authentic." That is, tell a ripping good story first, then worry about getting the facts right.

    MT: How long did it take you to write The Strangler?

    WL: About 18 months, not including some of the editing and polishing that goes on after the manuscript is submitted in nearly final form.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    MT: Directly on a computer, always. In fact I think I am among the oldest of that first generation who really grew up writing on computers; I'm 43, and my roommate in college had a primitive DOS computer with an early version of WordPerfect on it, and I've been writing that way ever since. By now, my handwriting is a disaster. I think that computers are absolutely liberating for writers because they make revising so much easier. There is a temptation, I suppose, to edit your prose too much, until the life is drained right out of it. Still, on balance this seems like such a boon. If I were forced to write longhand, my career might be over.

    I do rewrite, but not a lot. Not as much as some. I am a fanatical planner and outliner, so I already have a pretty good idea where I'm going when I sit down to write a scene. That allows me to focus completely on the sentence-writing, which is, I think, where the greatest satisfaction and the greatest art is. You cannot focus completely on each sentence, you cannot become completely immersed in a scene, if all the while a little voice in the back of your head is whispering, "Now, which clue should he find in this scene? How will this scene fit with the next one?" and so on. Well, maybe some writers can -- I can't.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    WL: I have two sons, ages 3 and 5. So the short answer is: nothing. Which is to say, I spend most of my time rushing around to swimming lessons and soccer (football) games and birthday parties. But I love music and sports and movies. At least I seem to remember I did.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    WL: No. I don't have an audience in mind at all. That "ideal reader" sounds like a fatally inhibiting idea to me. As I said, when I sit down to write, the goal is absolute, trance-like immersion in the scene I'm working on. In a way, the sensation is of a complete absence of thought. It is impossible to inhabit the scene perfectly, I imagine, if you're trying to imagine how the whole thing will be received by some hypothetical ideal reader.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    WL: Forget it, pal. I've made a lot of mistakes in my brief writing career, but talking about unwritten books is not one of them. Suffice it to say, it is a crime novel set in Boston, unconnected either to "Mission Flats" or "The Strangler."

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    WL: Too many to name. I am asked this question a lot and I never seem to give the same list twice. So with that caveat... I love F. Scott Fitzgerald and especially Gatsby for the beauty of his prose. I love all the old dead Englishmen who wrote gentlemanly, expert "entertainments": Greene, Maugham, Ambler (I am reading Ambler's Journey Into Fear now). The next generation of Americans seems over-stocked with giants: Bellow, Roth, Updike, DeLillo -- all very different from one another, each great in his own way. Among individual books, again too many to name. Some that leap to mind: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. I'd give my right arm to be able to write like Jonathan Lethem in The Fortress of Solitude or Michael Chabon in Kavalier and Clay. On and on.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    WL: I'd feel presumptuous giving any. Just write, I suppose. Writing is not like violin-playing or ballet; there are lots of rigid, formal exercises you can do to learn those arts. But writing does not have any such training program. So: just write. And don't listen to critics.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    WL: I'd just like to thank everybody who gave Mission Flats a read -- the response in the UK was tremendous, I'm still bowled over by it -- and I hope you enjoy The Strangler. And thanks to The Book Depository for having me. It's been a pleasure.

    MT: Thank you, William.

  • Deborah Blum

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of four books, most recently Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Before becoming a professor, she worked for four newspapers, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for a series on ethical issues in primate research. She is also co-editor of A Field Guide for Science Writers along with Robin Marantz Henig and Mary Knudson. She serves on the program committee of the World Federation of Science Journalists and is a past-president of the National Association of Science Writers (US). She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, two sons, and a very large boxer.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Ghost Hunters?

    Deborah Blum: I was exploring the early history of psychology for another book and I stumbled across quite a few references to the American philosopher William James having lost his mind over the supernatural. I'd always thought of James as a rather stuffy academic and it made me curious enough to dig a little deeper. One of the first things I read was a report he'd published about a missing dead girl. It was such an impossible, intriguing story that I eventually used it to start my own book. From that point I was hooked.

    MT: How much research did you have to do?

    DB: I'm a compulsive over-researcher so probably more than I needed. The most important work I did was at two archives: the Houghton Library at Harvard University, which houses the James' correspondence, and the archive of the American Society for Psychical Research, which holds a fabulous collection of letters from early psychical researchers, both in the UK and the US. I culled through 19th and early 20th century newspapers and magazines, read books published by most of the researchers in my story, read modern accounts of the era. I used libraries, of course, but I also acquired quite a decent occult library of my own, currently filling three bookshelves in my basement.

    MT: Which do you enjoy most, the research or the writing?

    DB: Oh, research! The real adventure is in that. One is always learning unexpected things, discovering interesting characters. Then you have to make sense of it, share your discoveries with other people, and that's the writing, which is a lot more work. The joke among my writer friends is that we'd all much rather talk about writing than actually do it. Having said that - when it works, when a sentences takes flight, it's an amazing rush. Addictive, really.

    MT: What was the most interesting/unexpected nugget of information that your research unearthed?

    DB: The astonishingly consistent pattern of people sensing another person who is - unexpectly- at point of death. The Victorian researchers calculated that experience, which they called a "crisis apparition", at more than 400 times above chance. But what was equally interesting to me is that while researching the book, people would spontaneously tell me their current experiences which often replicated those in the book. It was actually sometimes unnerving.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book Deborah?

    DB: About three years, start to finish.

    MT: Do you think we are all, actually, always going to be ghost hunters, perhaps because the finality of death is such a difficult thing to face?

    DB: Yes. But I think the wish for an afterlife is only one reason. Life seems much more interesting if it offers the possibility of magic or mystery. And I don't mean to sound like a stuffy academic here. Things do happen that we can't explain. I think one should always allow at least some room for possibilities.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    DB: I write directly onto a computer and I rewrite and rewrite. The first draft is usually just for me to get my ideas onto the page. From that point - or so I hope - it all gets better.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    DB: My children would tell you that I am a complete nerd, so, first. I also teaching writing, at the journalism school of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I spend a lot of hours coping with two teenage sons, one of whom is learning to drive. When I'm not being a writer, professor, mother, or wife, I goof around with friends, go antiquing, and occasionally volunteer for political campaigns, by which I mean for any candidate who will oppose our current lunatic President.

    MT: Did you have any idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    DB: In this case, I wanted to cast a fairly wide net. Paranormal skeptics tend to dismiss the whole history of psychical research out of hand; I hoped to intrigue some of them into considering the really interesting philosophical questions that run through the story: how do we define reality? who owns the power to set its limits? And I hoped to interest people already interested in the supernatural, offer some insight into the dilemmas of trying to create an occult science. And finally, I hoped to just catch people interested in a good read and interesting subject.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    DB: I've got a contract to write about poison and murder, although it's so early I probably shouldn't say much more.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    DB: I don't really have a single favorite writer although the one book I've carried around since high school is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I'm among many people who think Ian McEwan is a brilliant writer; I loved Amsterdam for its icy amorality. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, about the destructive effect of colonialism in Africa, is just an amazing novel. John Steinbeck's East of Eden has the best suicide scene ever written. Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club is a wonderful history of 20th century intellectual development. And before I make myself sound too drawn to the deeper, darker side of reading, my favorite recreational books are early 20th century mysteries. They're just a blast - stylish, witty, elegant social comedies with a murderous twist.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    DB: No, just thanks for the opportunity. It's a pleasure to try to answer interesting questions and talk about some of the ideas that I think matter.

  • Xiaolu Guo

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Xiaolu Guo was born in a fishing village in the south of China in 1973. She was awarded an MA in Film from the Beijing Film Academy in 2000 and has worked as a novelist, essayist, screenwriter and filmmaker. Having studied documentary film at the National Film and Television School in London, she now lives in Berkshire and is working on a new novel. Village of Stone was published by Chatto last year, and has been shortlisted for the 2005 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers?

    Xiaolu Guo: It's just when I arrived in London from Beijing 4 years ago, everyone laughed about the way I spoke English and they though it was a crazy way to speak. I thought this might be a good idea to start writing a book in English, or about English culture. So the idea was really starting from the difficulty of the communication as a native Chinese in England.

    MT: Why did you decide to tell your story in this particular form (each chapter starts as a definition of a word), rather than via a more straightforward narrative?

    XG:The only book I read during the first year I came to london was the Oxford edition of the English dictionary. I thought my western mind was shaped by that dictionary. Words after words; that is the key towards everything.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it Xiaolu?

    XG: Three years. But at the same time i made three films too.

    MT: This is the first of your novels to be written directly in English. Writing in a second-language must have been a huge challenge -- how did you vercome the hurdles?

    XG: I don't think 3 years living in England, for a native Chinese like me, is enough to write in English. It is impossible. But with this novel, it is possible because it is all about broken English. It is not a very usual experience I guess. And I don't think I can use this word "overcome" -- how can I?

    MT: You are also a documentary film-maker. Which do you prefer, writing books or making films!?

    XG: Both. First I am a writer. That is my identity. Then I make films, because some stories are very good working with visuals - images and sound.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    XG: I wrote notes and most details on my notebook, especially when I was in cafes or on the road. Then I would edit them on my laptop. Not much editing. I am a raw author and I want to keep my feeling flows in a certain speed when I write.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing and not making films? Is there any time left for anything else!?

    XG: When I'm not writing or filming, then I read books and watch films, also eat and look around the world. I travel a lot, with my films. Because I am kind of free, I am the boss of my own life so I don't really work in a crazy way. I can sleep 9 hours a day.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    XG: Well first of all, I imagine my friends will read it and they will have a say about my books. I don't think of the mass media and all the invisible readers very much. If they like my book then it is a special bonus.

    MT: What are you working on now Xiaolu?

    XG: Two films, then a short story collection, then some crazy novel ideas which jump in front of me every morning when I am fresh.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    XG: I would repeat reading some books I have already read in Chinese translation before, like JD salinger, or Boris Vian's Foam of Dazes, or Margrite Duras, or Charles Bukowski. I have been reading The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa as if reading my own diary. I love those old books and I am worried I would never read any new authors with rest of my life.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    XG: Skill of writing is one thing, feeling or sensitivity is another thing. I think feeling is so important for an artist or a writer. I read so much of bad writings without feeling and heart but only with skills, and I hated them.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    XG: Thank you. And you can read some more of some writings on my website: guoxiaolu.com.

  • Nell Freudenberger

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    In 2001, the New Yorker printed four short stories by unpublished authors. Nell Freudenberger was one of them (Jonathan Safran Foer was another). The legendary agent Amanda "Binky" Urban immediately signed Nell and a bidding war broke out over her first book. Lucky Girls was sold for a six-figure sum and went on to be nominated for the Orange New Writing Prize. The Dissident is her first novel.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Dissident?

    NF: When I was in high school, a Chinese artist visited our school for several weeks. He was called a "Visiting Scholar;" the idea was that he would teach us traditional Chinese painting in ink. This was a single-sex, non-sectarian preparatory school in Los Angeles, where the students wore short, pastel-colored little-girl dresses (pink, white, yellow or violet) with the school's initials monogrammed on the right sleeve. At the time, a visiting scholar from China seemed very exotic to me, and it's hard to imagine what he must have thought of us. I don't remember his name, only that he had three of them, and that they began with X, Y and Z. He didn't speak English and of course none of us spoke any Chinese. I remember fantasizing that our glamorous, wealthy art teacher (she drove a red Masarati) was helping Mr. XYZ defect.

    Mr. XYZ's classes were silent by necessity; he would communicate that we had made a mistake by tearing the drawing off the easel, leaving a fresh sheet of paper underneath. He made us copy rocks, bamboo, and finally-the crowning achievement-a lobster, over and over again until we got the strokes right. Apart from the novelty, I think I was attracted to the Visiting Scholar's classes because he was the first art teacher who had ever told us that we were wrong. Until that point, our teachers had encouraged us to "be creative" or to "express ourselves;" I think it was a relief to me to hear that you could learn to make a piece of art by copying. I was not a gifted art student (to say the least) but I think the lessons of that painter can be applied to writing. You learn to write by copying the writers you love, consciously or unconsciously, and hope that eventually you come to something of your own.

    The narrator of this novel gets involved with artists similar to a group of real artists who lived in Beijing in the early nineties. They included Rong Rong, Zhang Huan, and Ma Liuming, who are of course very famous today. At the time, they were living pretty much hand to mouth in a dilapidated neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city, which they nicknamed the "Beijing East Village." Rong Rong's arresting photographs of their collaborative performance projects were another inspiration.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    NF: About three years.

    MT: Your first book Lucky Girls was a collection of five short stories. How did you find the progression to writing a novel?

    NF: Before I wrote those stories, I wrote a 600-page novel about a commune in Massachusetts whose denizens manufactured fruit juice and didn't believe in romantic love. Needless to say, it was not something I wanted to share with anyone. I started writing the stories in Lucky Girls after I threw out those other pages, and it was a relief to be doing something different. Nevertheless I think I felt more comfortable when I got back to writing a novel; it's an easier form, much kinder to mistakes. Even the stories in my first book weren't that short (I kept hearing that they weren't "magazine length.") I have a friend who complains that her stories are always within a few hundred words of each other, and wonders why there isn't more variation. I think most writers have length that is natural to them, and that mine is a little longer.

    MT: Aside from the obvious issue of length, what would you say is the main diffence in writing shorts to writing a novel?

    NF: It's a completely different kind of idea. Every story I've ever written has started all at once, with a sentence. It's not necessarily the first sentence but it's usually one that winds up in the finished story. The Dissident is my first novel (not counting the fruit juice disaster) and it started in a very different way from any story. I probably played around for six months with these characters before I wrote anything that actually wound up in the book.

    MT: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing The Dissident? How did you overcome them?

    NF: "Freudenberger," in case anyone was wondering, is not a Chinese name. It was very inconvenient to write a novel with a Chinese main character. I had been studying Mandarin, and I had gotten interested in contemporary Chinese art, but those things were hobbies-I never expected them to be part of a novel. When I started writing in this character's voice, I thought it was just something I had to write out: I thought I would continue until I couldn't write any more, and that it wouldn't take very long to be done with him. The problem (at least for me) is that I don't have an inspiring new idea every day; for whatever reason, this was the character whose voice felt most comfortable to me. (I think that's why his section of the book is in the first-person). When I figured that out, I was pretty discouraged. I knew I had a lot of work to do if I was going to make his background convincing.

    I was interested in continuing my Chinese classes and in going to art shows anyway, and so that was how I started. I begged a first trip to China from the U.S. State Department, which has a program that sponsors cultural exchange programs between "specialists" in particular fields. Eventually I pitched a travel magazine article that allowed me to go back to Beijing for a month and interview some of the artists whose work I admired. My feeling about research is that it should be something you're interested in to begin with. Your interests will make their way organically into what you write; you may become more deeply involved in something because you're writing about it, but I don't think that hunting down facts is very helpful to fiction.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing? Lots of research or none at all?

    NF: I can barely write a thank-you note in longhand. Computer-generated papers were a requirement at my high school (along with those dresses) and I don't feel comfortable unless I can move back and forth inside sentences. I think I write relatively fast, and I spend a lot of time revising. I know I drive editors crazy, changing things again and again. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Orhan Pamuk mentioned that some writers use a typewriter; others (like himself) write longhand; still others, "profit from the ease of a computer." Oh no, I thought when I read that -- that's me, profiting from ease!

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    NF: I travel a lot. I study Chinese. I read a lot. (This questions always makes me feel like the most boring person alive). I do yoga (ashtanga style), and I tutor students at the Bronx Academy of Letters, a small New York City school focused on writing. Last year I taught a more formal creative writing class there; I'm not much of a public speaker, but I would rather face a hundred adults than eight fifteen year-olds. At that age they have automatic bullshit sensors; you really have to know what you're talking about.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    NF: I think it's important to remember that you're writing to someone. Not a particular or an ideal someone, but someone. The year after I graduated from university, I got a job teaching English at a high school in Bangkok. During that year I noticed that the letters I was writing to people at home were much better (and much funnier) than the fiction I was trying to write in my spare time. It should be obvious, but I think that for a lot of young writers (who don't have any readers yet) there's a feeling that you're only writing for yourself; you forget the writer's obligation to make the reader want to turn the pages.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    NF: A novel, I hope. It's a story about two couples who go on a honeymoon together in Bangladesh and what happens to them afterwards.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    NF: I'm not going to win any points for originality, but George Eliot and Tolstoy are my favorite writers. Middlemarch and Anna Karenina are probably my favorite novels; I also love Tolstoy's story Family Happiness. Among contemporary fiction writers I really like Peter Carey, V.S. Naipaul, Ha Jin, Grace Paley, David Mitchell, Norman Rush and Alice Munro. I also love Paul Bowles' stories and Elizabeth Bowen's novels.

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    NF: I don't think I'm quite at the tip-giving stage yet. 'Write every day' is the piece of advice that was most helpful to me. I think you learn to write by reading, but that's not really advice; all writers read all the time anyway.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    NF: Thank you.

    MT: Thank you, Nell!

  • Suzannah Dunn

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Suzannah Dunn is the author of numerous books of fiction including Darker Days Than Usual, Blood Sugar, Past Caring, Quite Contrary, Venus Flaring, Tenterhooks, Commencing Our Descent, Queen of Subtleties and The Sixth Wife. She lives in Brighton.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for writing The Sixth Wife, a novel about Katherine Parr?

    Suzannah Dunn:'Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived': Katharine Parr was the 'survivor', widowed after four years of marriage to Henry, and I'd assumed that was that; I'd assumed there was nothing much to be said about her, no story to tell. I knew - from previous reading of books from Jean Plaidy to Antonia Fraser - that Katharine was in her thirties when she became Dowager Queen, (so, kind of 'middle-aged' for a Tudor), and that she was a kind, cautious, clever woman. No quirks, no scandal. So, again: where's the story? But then I did a bit of re-reading (I don't remember why! - don't remember what I was looking for), and discovered that I was wrong. Six weeks after Henry's death, Katharine married handsome, funny, reckless Thomas Seymour. And it was, in the end, (and the end came quickly - c18mths later), the death of her. What drew me to the story was not the historical angle but, on the contrary, the timelessness of it: nice, clever woman in her late thirties marries whom she thinks of as Mr Right and all her friends know is Mr Wrong. Could happen to anyone. DOES happen to anyone. Unfortunately. Why/how did it happen to Katharine? And I was interested in her having a first 'late baby', because that's what I did and we think of it as a very modern thing to do. And her 'death scene' - which happened over 5 or 6 days (I bet most of us think of 'death in childbirth' as being quick, but of course it was often due to infection and took this long) - is horrific, pitiful, utterly compelling.

    MT: How long did it take you to write it?

    SD: About a year and a half, I think. It was my first book after the birth of my son (like Katharine, I had a 'late baby'; I had my baby just before I was 40) - and he's almost four, now! I struggled to get it done, what with my share of the childcare and my teaching job at Manchester University (I ran the MA in Novel Writing, there, for seven years). The final fifth or so, I wrote during a two-month house-swap in New Zealand, which sounded as if it would be ideal (an escape from the winter!) but was very hard, work-wise, because, of course, we had no childcare (no nursery, as we had back home).

    MT: How much research did you do for The Sixth Wife? Did you miss researching when you finally decided you had enough material and you needed to get on and write it all up!?

    SD: I have to admit that I'm not a reader of 'primary sources' - I don't read Tudor English. So, my research comes from 'secondary sources' - books *on* the Tudors rather than *by* them! I let other people (historians!) do the dirty work. But I do read widely, I think, (I hope!), from books on various aspects of Tudor life (such as food and clothes) to books on particular people (biographies - for example, on the Duchess of Suffolk's husband), as well as, of course, general (social, political) histories of the period. Most of the books are out of print, so I order from libraries or buy from abe.com. I read down each book's bibliography, and go from there (I mean, I see if there's anything that sounds interesting, and then try to find those books). I visit places, too (it's a way of getting off work!). Sudeley Castle, obviously, for this novel. But there are the other obvious Tudor-y places: Hampton Court (Henry's kitchens are reconstructed there), and Hever Castle. And, well, then lots of others: anywhere Tudor! I never stop reading alongside the writing. I'll be adding historical detail up to the last minute, as and when I come across something relevant.

    MT: How did you make sure your research didn't bog down your novel's narrative?

    SD: Good question. With the earlier novel, the Anne Boleyn one (The Queen of Subtleties), it *did*, I think. Anne is SO well-documented, and I wanted to be faithful to the facts. (So, if for any reason you need to know your Anne Boleyn - for an exam or something - read that novel of mine!) Although I'm fond of it, I think that novel creaks a bit under the weight of the historical detail, the huge story it has to tell. This story was simpler. Tightly focussed (it all takes place in about a year and a half, and almost all of it in one place ie Sudeley Castle). I think that kept it on track, saved it from being bogged down.

    MT: Do you think novels can help us understand history better?

    SD: Oo, I don't know! (What's the right answer, here?!) Can I say, 'MINE do'?! Well, I'd really love it if mine did: that's what I'm aiming for (I'm aiming for a lot of other things, too, of course - engaging characters etc etc blah blah). And I'm sure many other writers' books do, too, of course. (I'm trying to think of examples but it's 9.30pm and I'm tired, brainless; sorry!) One of the reasons for my writing in 'modern English' is that I want the characters to be understood as 'real', as indeed they were, rather than as People From History, if you know what I mean. I don't want to stress their distance from us; I want to do the opposite, explore and show how much we share. The slightly stilted, slightly formal dialogue that used to be a feature of 'historical fiction' gives the impression, I think, that the people were quaint, and the characters in these stories of mine (indeed, in their 'real lives') were anything but.

    MT: What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced in writing The Sixth Wife? How did you overcome them?

    SD: Oh, the practicalities of getting it written, definitely: sorry to be boring in my answer, but that's the truth. Getting the time to do it. No easy answer, there.

    Also, though: spending a year and a half in the intimate company of someone I didn't much like (the narrator, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk - 'being' her, for all that time). Before I ever started writing the novel, Catherine intrigued me, and in some respects I was drawn to her (her passion for two sons, her zeal for religious reform, her marrying one of her servants, her lack of compromise and outspokenness and no-nonsense demeanour) but in other respects she puzzled and even repelled me (her complaints about the costs of looking after Katharine's orphaned baby, and her refusal to testify for her old, good friend Edward Seymour even though it wouldn't have harmed her to do so and even when she knew he was facing execution). In the novel, the one fictional aspect is Catherine's intensely sexual affair with her pregnant best friend's husband - and this made it hard for me to like her (and, here, 'her' means the character in the book, the partly- fictionalised one). I *understood* her, I think, in the end, but didn't much like her. And, as I say, that was gruelling: spending so much time 'in her head'. She tells herself a lot of lies.

    One major challenge was wondering how on earth these very well- attended Tudors managed to have affairs! (And, believe me, they did have them, lots of them.) As far as I can see, 'nobles' were never alone! I had to think hard about how and where Catherine and Thomas could have conducted their trysts. I hope I made it credible.

    Other challenges included working on such a small canvas: that tight focus, the very few characters. In some ways, easy, but it's a challenge to make sure there's enough to engage the reader. Also, that long, long death scene at the end: this was utterly true to the facts, but I was anxious to prevent any flagging of the reader's interest.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    SD: I make notes in rough - loads of them, notebook-loads - and then tidy them up onto the screen, very slowly (often little more than a couple of paragraphs per day!). I write pretty 'clean' first drafts, as they say: they don't need much tinkering-with.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    SD: Worry about not writing. I 'parent'. Sleep. Gossip. Swim.

    MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    SD: No, absolutely not: never thought of this!

    MT: What are you working on now?

    SD: A novel set in Mary Tudor's reign ('Bloody Mary'); *about* her reign, about *her*. But told through the eyes of a Spanish male! Mary's a challenge because, I feel, we English don't touch her with a barge pole. No novels and films etc about Mary, because - to put it mildly - she's not glamorous. Her sister, Elizabeth, was, of course: lots of books etc about her and about other women from the period, such as, of course, Anne Boleyn. But Mary, no: she's seen as a hypochondriac 'old maid', a religious maniac and tyrant; and her reign is popularly understood as a disgraceful failure. But actually she's utterly fascinating! - not least because she was England's first-ever ruling queen and trapped between people's idea of how a ruling monarch should be (all-powerful) and their idea of what a woman should be (married, and subservient to her husband). She tried to find her way through that contradiction, but just couldn't. There are other reasons she's fascinating, but you'll just have to trust me, for now - I really can't go into them here, now, or I'll be here all night. Just read the book when it comes out! She married the prince of Spain (her nephew) when she was forty and newly on the throne. He came over here (briefly) with a huge household of Spanish attendants, and my narrator is one of them.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    SD: Alice Munro, the Canadian writer. And my favourite of English writers is Rupert Thomson. I have to admit that I don't really think in terms of 'favourite books'; I don't know why. Well, no: maybe it's that the list - if indeed there was a list! and there isn't! - would be changing so often that, well, it wouldn't be a list. There are of course many books that I really like, that I have loved reading. But please don't make me list them: it's 10.15pm now...

    MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    SD: Stop yourself all the time and think, check, 'Hang on, is this really, really how this is/would be?' ie would someone really do this, think this, feel like this, say this? Otherwise, you run the risk of writing 'characters in books', (characters who could only live in books), without realising it. Secondly, 'fine writing' is all very well - and it IS 'very well', it's obviously a v good thing! - but is there more to your story? What's driving it? Why should we, your reader, keep reading? What intrigues us or unsettles us to the extent that we have to read on...

    MT: Anything else you would like to say Suzannah?

    SD: Nope! Let me go to bed!

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