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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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