Richard Lee talks with Kate Lord Brown about The Perfume Garden and the allure of the Spanish Civil War
KLB: Historical fiction is fascinating because it touches many genres, and just as history itself is interpretive, it allows you to choose facts as the scaffolding for your novel, then weave an illusion within the realms of possibility around it. The Perfume Garden is rooted in history, but for me the story and characters are paramount. I’m a ‘new’ writer and still learning, but people have compared my work to Kate Morton’s and Victoria Hislop’s.
RL: Are you more drawn to the modern characters or those in the past – or is it the secrets you like best?
KLB: The secrets of the Spanish Civil War drove the story. I started researching it ten years ago when we lived in Spain, and the ‘pact of forgetting’ was still firmly in place then. I deliberately chose a twin timeline to trace the shockwaves of the war – so we see Freya and Charles Temple as young idealists going to Spain with the International Brigades to fight for democracy in the 1930s, and then see them facing their ghosts in the present day.
RL: The thing that piqued my interest first was doing up the dilapidated villa. Have you done this is real life?
KLB: The Temple family have my dream home. I have renovated houses – my father restored listed buildings, so my holiday jobs were always on building sites. There was a beautiful abandoned house nearby in Spain, and every time I passed it I thought how wonderful it would be to restore it.
KLB: I’ve been fascinated by the War for years. I grew up between the moors in Devon, and a couple rented the nearest farmhouse to us for a time. She was glamorous, and had designed costumes for Fellini, but her husband was more aloof. I heard my father say over dinner one night that this man had fought in Spain during the Civil War – on the Nationalist side. That moment of discord – or ‘dischord’ really, like a wrong note sounding, stayed with me. ‘The Perfume Garden’ weaves together much I love – history, Spain, photography, fragrance, but it all began over twenty years ago with a winter dinner around the fire near Exmoor.
RL: I gather you live in Qatar. Where do you research?
KLB: Long distance historical research wouldn’t be possible without the internet. I do visit sites, archives and museums, but with C20 history, there are incredible resources online. I specialised in the C20 at the Courtauld Institute, and that academic discipline is useful with research. I always think it is like sculpture. Initially, for me at least, it is like quarrying out a piece of stone from the main texts – for ‘The Perfume Garden’ I read everything I could by Thomas, Beevor, Preston, and the accounts of Lee, Orwell, Malraux, Hemingway. Only then, once I had this huge mass of material, did I start to carve out the story I wanted to write about the women and children in the war. The last stage is the fine details – finding unpublished accounts in archives, talking to people who are experts in their fields, or who lived through the events. The generosity of these people in helping with specific questions is something I am immensely grateful for.
KLB: It’s the story of three women pilots during WW2, and the inspiration was a tiny obituary for someone who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary. We have WW2 pilots in the family who flew Lancasters, and I’ve spent a lot of time at airfields over the years, so there was an immediate connection with the story of these brave women. I was fortunate enough to research the story at the ATA archives, with the only woman now flying a Spitfire and with ‘Spitfire Girls’ now in their eighties and nineties.
RL: You’ve had many jobs in the art world. Were they as glamorous as they sound?
KLB: They were great – but not always glamorous! After university I helped run events for a festival based at Wingfield College in East Anglia, which meant taking care of performers one day, and typing in fingerless gloves the next because there was ice on the inside of the windows, (C14 timbered building, no heating). Then I worked for many years in Chelsea, curating collections for embassies and palaces in the Middle East and Europe. It was a dream job – one minute hanging a collection in a royal residence, but then getting to work with artists and framers at some studio in a railway arch in the East End. I loved the variety, and met so many incredible characters. Then, one day my husband announced he wanted to retrain as a pilot, and we took the huge step of selling up and moving to Spain. The rest is history – and we haven’t stopped travelling yet.
RL: Which authors do you read for pleasure now? Any big influences?
KLB: William Boyd, Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker are great histfic influences. There are normally several books on the go – nonfiction for research, novels and poetry. Even with Kindle there are never enough bookcases in the house. After hearing Artemis Cooper speak at the Emirates Lit Fest, I’m currently reading ‘Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure’, and loving it.
RL: What are you working on now?
KLB: I’m editing a WW1 story, inspired by a piece of jewellery. It has been fascinating to research on the one hand the last great cavalry battles, and then to work with the gentleman who takes care of the Queen’s jewels. I’m also researching a new book, and have been talking to an American professor in his nineties who helped thousands escape occupied France. It’s a privilege discovering these wonderful bits of forgotten history – I think writers are like magpies, you always have your eyes open for the next glittering spark for a story.
Find out more about Kate’s writing at www.katelordbrown.com