The HNS catches up with Jenny Barden, author, conference organiser, and now a farmer too!
RL: Let’s start with the small-holding – what are the highlights of your first year in the country, which correspond with your first years as a published author?
JB: Yes, the first year on a farm was probably not the best fit with the first full year as a published author! An understatement is to say it was a culture shock. I moved from suburbia in the London commuter belt to a working farm deep in rural Dorset while frantically trying to get my first book ‘out there’ and finish my second book to deadline. But the farm is beautiful, and on a sunny day there’s no place I’d rather be. Highlights have been getting on top of a long list of maintenance issues, including stopping the troughs leaking so they resemble Niagra Falls when they freeze over; being able to have a shower upstairs without water coming through the hall ceiling; learning how to use my Aga so I can cook by candlelight and throw a dinner party in a power cut; getting the boiler to work so I can write without having to wear an overcoat; bringing in the hay, smelling its sweetness in the barn, and walking through the mown fields to our copse feeling like a lady in a park styled by Capability Brown; walking our dogs along the ridge overlooking the Cerne Valley; feeling the breathing shadows of history
in the ruins of Iron Age hill forts, tithe barns, cottages and ancient churches; riding our Friesian warhorse; nurturing our hatchling Norfolk Black turkeys, East India ducks and the two Dorset Horned lambs in our tiny starter flock; watching the swallows swooping around the stables after returning from Africa to nest here again; surviving last winter without being flooded! – and making the farmhouse home. There’s also been the joy of getting my second book published…
RL: But you are still invaluable to the HNS. What draws you to the HNS? What is most exciting about HNSLondon14
JB: The HNS is wonderful not least for all the many friends I’ve made through attending conferences and chapter meetings; it’s a ready-made circle of shared passion: we all love historical fiction. For any author it provides the potential for building a great platform, through contributing articles and reviews, online or in the magazine, networking at conferences and local meetings. For readers and writers the society also provides access to a mine of useful information, about new releases and trends, through author interviews and other features. There’s a chance to rub shoulders with some of the greatest names in the genre, no more so than at the UK Conference to be held at the University of Westminster’s Marylebone campus over 5-7 September. HNSLondon14 will star a host of fabulous names in fiction, non-fiction, academia and the publishing industry. Conn Iggulden will be there along with (in no particular order) Lindsey Davis, Elizabeth Chadwick, Kate Forsyth, Suzannah Dunn, Giles Kristian, Robyn Young, Andrew Taylor, Rory Clements, Harry Sidebottom, Angus Donald, Elizabeth Fremantle, Hallie Rubenhold, Anthony Riches, Douglas Jackson, Antonia Hodgson, Emma Darwin and many many more; the list goes on and on! There’s accommodation on site available for those who want it, the facilites are state of the art, the dinners will be delectable, and the whole event is going to be fantastic!
RL: You are also event managing the RNA conference this year. What are the highlights of that?
JB: The RNA Conference will be held near Telford over 11-13 July and I’ve helped put together the programme. (‘Managing’ probably suggests rather more than I actually do! The RNA’s wonderful Conference Manager, Jan Jones, deals with the administrative side of things). The highlights will be hearing from top editors in the field of romantic fiction, academics, key booksellers and bestselling authors, along with leaders of other organisations such as the HNS. The RNA is much looking forward to your appearance at the conference, Richard! There’ll be a drinks party sponsored by independent publishing at Amazon, and Amazon representatives will be on hand to offer help with any issues; there’ll be insights into the latest initiatives from HM&B and other publishers, talks on subjects as diverse as ‘drawing inspiration from prisoners’ and ‘love and the Titanic’, practical sessions on e-publishing, and editors and agents on hand taking one-to-ones to help launch and develop author careers. There’ll also be author showcase events at Telford’s Wellington library and Blists Hill Victorian Town within the Ironbridge Museums. In other words, there should be something for everyone with an interest in romantic fiction.
RL: But you still find time to research. Tell us about your recent trip to the IOW.
JB: The Isle of Wight will be the backdrop to several crucial scenes in the book I’m working on now about a lady to Queen Elizabeth who gets caught up in the defence
of England during the threat of invasion from the Spanish Armada. Of particular interest to me were the approaches to the Solent from both east and west, Carisbrooke Castle (from which munitions were ferried to the English fleet), and the lookout stations along the southern coast. One of the crucial battles was fought at sea off the Isle of Wight and I was particularly interested in how this might have been observed from the cliffs on the island. Some of the places I looked at have an obvious connection with the story, such as the underground gunpowder store in the castle
grounds; others will find a way into the story somehow simply because they made such a vivid impression on me, places like St Catherine’s Oratory, a stone hexagonal tower dating from the early fourteenth century which is all that remains of a church devastated by the Reformation. It has one of the best views of the sea to the south and would have made an excellent vantage point for a beacon. I can see it already, ablaze with light, picking up signals from the headland near the Needles…
RL: And the book blog tour? How did that come about? How challenging is it?
JB: The virtual book tour for The Lost Duchess was initiated by Amy Bruno of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours who organised a ‘virtual tour and book blast’ which other reviewers and bloggers have kindly offered to join in since, so its now grown to quite a size! I’m extremely grateful to Amy and everyone involved – the enthusiasm for the book has been overwhelming, and the reviews have given me immense encouragement. I’m keeping a record of them on my website with credit to everyone who’s made a comment on my reviews page. Giveaways, interviews and a feature also form part of the tour, and while Erin El-Mehairi made me work quite hard in answering her 18 detailed questions for Oh, for the Hook of a Book, I’ve enjoyed every moment of connecting with readers, reviewers and bloggers who’ve been good
enough to show an interest in my writing. On top of this I’ve had events and appearances at libraries and other places such as the talk I gave yesterday to ‘the Monday Readers’ at Wincanton Library in Somerset. They were a delightful group, wonderfully well informed with lots of stimulating questions. The challenge is in finding the time to do as much as I’d like to – there never seems to be enough of it!
RL: Tell us about what drew you to Roanoke.
JB: My interest in Roanoke was sparked by a footnote in a biography of Francis Drake which I was reading as part of the research for my first book, Mistress of the Sea. In that book there was a reference to Drake stopping by along the coast of what was then called Virginia in order to make contact with the men left on Roanoke who garrisoned the fort built there under the patent of Walter Raleigh. This was the first I’d heard of Roanoke, and once I started looking into the history, and learnt about the mystery of the later colony’s disappearance, I was well and truly hooked. The real fascination for me was in thinking about those cryptic messages left by the colonists which no one was ever able to respond to: the letters carved in conspicuous places which suggested a destination without providing an explanation for the colonists’ disappearance or an answer as to why, three years later, no one came forth to greet the search party or signal their whereabouts. The mystery remains to this day and, as anyone will know who has looked closely at the story, the more the puzzle is turned over the more questions it reveals. I thought it would make a fabulous setting for an epic romantic adventure.
RL: What can you tell us about the next book?
JB: The next book I’ve provisionally titled The Queen’s Lady and it’s a love story and adventure at the time of the Spanish Armada. The principal characters are a lady who serves Elizabeth I, who becomes very close to her, and a seafarer returning from the Roanoke expedition who is enlisted with the English fleet to help see off the invaders. Both are real characters in history and the story will be grounded in fact. I’d better say no more about it since it’s in the course of development now!
RL: Any advice to other people trying to juggle as much as you do?
JB: Yesterday I helped trim the hooves of a Dorset horned ewe and shear her by hand; today I’ve been digging mud out of pot holes and gateways and filling them with chippings. In between all this I wrote an article on ‘History and Love – how can we ever unravel the truth?’, gave an author talk at a local library, and dealt with queries on an upcoming conference. It’s a strange juxtaposition. I spend much of my time in mud and poo of varying states of liquidity, and yet I write historical fiction that (so far at least) has featured adventures with a love story at their heart. Ultimately it comes down to prioritising, and, as every juggler knows, keeping your eyes on the balls and not on your hands!