New Voices: Joanna Campbell Slan, Charlotte Betts, Liz Harris & Maryanne O’Hara
by Myfanwy Cook
Jane Eyre was the book that changed Joanna Slan’s life when she was searching for an idea for an historical mystery series. Though she had already authored several mystery novels, Slan had never ventured into the realm of historical fiction. Her historical fiction debut, Death of a Schoolgirl: The Jane Eyre Chronicles (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012) owes its inception to Charlotte Brontë. Slan explains that ”
After all, she’s the perfect amateur sleuth: observant, curious, unwilling to go along with what people tell her, smart, courageous and decent. Of course, Jane is very much the antithesis of the Georgian era. Opposites, when you are writing, make for the most fascinating stories. There’s George IV and crew, devoted to excess, caring only about their looks, forever preening, horribly inconstant, and with a total lack of substance — and then there’s Jane, the perfect counterpart who is self-contained, measured, unpretentious, reasonable and loyal.
“It’s a cliché, but true, that those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it. Right now, in the States, we see a lot of behavior that George IV would have enjoyed. There are celebrities with no virtue other than the way they dress. There are serial marriages because people wed only to enhance their status. There are fathers who abandon their children. So, it seems to me that the timing is perfect for a new look at the Regency and the decade beyond. Except that I don’t want to create a paean to its glorification of excess. I want to show how a woman who disagreed with those excesses would make a fascinating character.”
Charlotte Betts, in contrast, drew her inspiration from the diaries of a real person: Samuel Pepys. Betts writes that, “In the eleven years before The Apothecary’s Daughter (Sphere, Piatkus & Atom, 2012) was published, I completed six contemporary novels. Then it occurred to me that I should write an historical novel because that was what I enjoyed reading. My research lead me to the diaries of Samuel Pepys, and the die was cast.
“What fascinated me was how Sam’s character shone through and as I read about his worries and joys, I realised that people in Restoration London may have had a different perspective, coloured by political and social attitudes of the day, but they still fell in love, fretted about daily trivia and grieved if a friend suffered.
“I discovered a map of London in 1666 and mentally walked the narrow streets. Higgledy-piggledy, timber-framed houses were cramped together and sewage ran through open drains. I imagined a dark and airless city; hot and stinking in the summer, bone-chillingly cold in the winter with a permanent pall of seal coal smog hanging over everything.
“Then I visited India and was shocked by the juxtaposition of great wealth and utmost poverty. People lived in the streets in shelters fashioned from packing cases, making fires and cooking in the open, while dogs nosed through heaps of detritus. Suddenly my vision of Restoration London was brought to life!
“I pictured a green-eyed girl with red hair living in this bustling, malodorous city. She would be strong-willed but able to cope with everything life threw at her. And so Susannah came into being.”
The importance of place and setting were also major influences for Liz Harris. Her first novel The Road Back (Choc Lit, 2012) is a split-era historical novel, and located both in London and Ladakh, which is a region of India north of the Himalayas and west of Tibet; it is a place that rarely features in historical fiction. Harris hadn’t heard of Ladakh until three years ago, but she writes “I had, however, always been interested in how people lived at other times, and in other parts of the world, and when my cousin, who now lives in Australia, asked me to find a home for the album complied by her father, my late uncle, after his visit to Ladakh in the mid 1940s, I was very keen to read his album.
“A home for the album was found in The Indian Room of the British Library, and as soon as it reached England, I read it from cover to cover. As I did so, I fell in love with Ladakh and became increasingly fascinated by the lives of the Ladkhi, living as they do in a high-altitude country with virtually no rain.
“I knew at once that I had to write a book set in Ladakh, and I began to research the country in depth. I already knew my heroine, Patricia. She had been in my head for several years. Born in Belsize Park in the 1950s, she was a lonely child, living with parents who’d been torn apart by grief over a tragedy that happened to the family in the past. But I didn’t know Kalden, whose story it was also to be. All I knew was that he came from a village in the Buddhist part of the country.
“So I continued with my research until one day, I read a very interesting fact about life in Ladakh. It was a Eureka moment. I had found the predicament facing Kalden, and The Road Back was born.”
Maryanne O’Hara’s novel, Cascade (Viking, 2012), focuses on “the age-old struggle between duty and desire”, but the inception of Cascade was “inspired by many ideas: about art, about the 1930s, and about a dying Shakespearean playmaster, but the biggest inspiration was the setting. Cascade, Massachusetts is loosely based on four towns in Massachusetts that were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir in the 1930s. I first visited this reservoir as a child, and was forever haunted by the idea that a town could be flooded, and just cease to exist. As I got older, I learned that these drowned towns happened all over the country and all over the world.
“My main character is a painter, Desdemona Hart Spaulding, a woman who creates art that she hopes will matter and outlive her. Putting her in a threatened setting seemed a good way to compel her, and readers, to reflect on what is deemed valuable in the cultures we find ourselves living in.
“From my earliest days, whenever I’ve looked upon an old painting, I’ve always gotten up close to really inspect the brush strokes, as if acknowledging them can somehow provide me with a more vivid sense of the person who once lived and breathed and wielded that brush. I hope Cascade brings the past to life, and I hope it also makes readers consider: If you knew you would be gone tomorrow, and you could leave behind only one thing that said, This is who I was, what would it be?”.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is fascinated by the originality of debut novelists and their ability to find hidden characters and corners of history to entertain and inform their readers. Please do email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists that could be featured in future issues.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 62, November 2012