A Chronicler of People’s Stories
By Joanna Simm
An interview with Gabrielle Kimm
Gabrielle Kimm is passionate about her writing, her latest book and her characters. In fact, you might imagine she was born to write historical fiction, so meticulous is her research and so obvious her passion for the genre. However, she had no genre in mind before she began her first novel, His Last Duchess. The inspiration for that came from her work as an English teacher, studying Robert Browning’s poem with a class. The idea ‘exploded’, as Kimm puts it, and there was a story that just had to be told. The research followed the idea, and she simply did ‘what had to be done’.
Interestingly, Kimm sees herself as a chronicler of people’s stories rather than an historical writer. The Courtesan’s Lover followed naturally from His Last Duchess, and grew from the author’s involvement with the character of Francesca. It is this fascination with character that makes Kimm’s work so enjoyable, as her characters are vividly expressed, rounded and engaging. She keeps the stories fast-paced too, never allowing interest to wane.
The era, the sixteenth century, was already set as The Courtesan’s Lover followed on from His Last Duchess, but a change of scene was required. The choice of Naples was fairly arbitrary: Francesca and her children had to be taken away from Alfonso and Ferrara, and Naples fitted the bill perfectly. Kimm describes it as an ‘ebullient, complicated, melting pot of a city’, a perfect backdrop for the troubled courtesan. Research also showed that Naples had a distinctive geography which is crucial to the events of the novel.
The Courtesan’s Lover is filled with engaging characters, but it is essentially Francesca who dominates the book and captures the imagination of the reader. Francesca is such a vibrant personality and so well understood by the author that it seemed pertinent to ask (although with no inference about her profession!) if Kimm felt any of her own personality had been transferred to the character at all. Her answer? ‘Of course there is something of me in her. There’s some of me in most of my characters (except, hopefully, the odious Carlo from The Courtesan’s Lover!), but none of them is recognisably me — or anyone else. I’ve never yet created a recognisable portrait of someone I know — I’m not sure that I’d like to!’ She does, however, concede that Francesca is braver and more resilient than she might be, given the same circumstances.
Thus far we had discussed character, setting, plot, research methods and inspiration, but these are, of course, all popular questions. Was there, perhaps, a question that remained yet unasked? One that might reveal more about the author and her writing? What question would the author herself like to be asked?
‘That’s a hard one,’ she says. ‘Perhaps something I haven’t been asked before is what I actually get out of writing? I think the nearest answer I can find is this: I love the feeling that comes when I am writing, when I realise that I’m discovering truths about my book rather than just making them up. There comes a point when writing a novel when you become a channel for your own creativity — unexpected things happen in the plot, or characters do something you didn’t know they were going to do. That sense of the story’s independence from you is just so exciting. It makes struggling through the difficult days worthwhile.’ She then adds: ‘Does that make sense?’
It makes, of course, perfect sense. Kimm is a supremely natural writer and storyteller.
Gabrielle Kimm’s latest novel, The Courtesan’s Lover, is published by Little, Brown Book Group (Sphere, UK) and Sourcebooks (US). Her website is www.gabriellekimm.co.uk.
About the interviewer: Joanna Simm is a freelance writer and copywriter, currently working in the south of France. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 60, May 2012