I’d like to introduce my special guest this week M.M. Bennetts.
When did you first start writing?
Oh dear! In school, when my teachers demanded it, and only then.
I started writing poetry when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and was a published poet by the time I was eighteen. But I was first and foremost a pianist–my life consisted of Beethoven and Chopin from the time I was eight.
While I was working on my Masters at St. Andrews, I did start to write prose–that is to say ‘unassigned’ prose–and start to think ‘on the page’ about what it must have been like to live during the early 19th century, but that was chiefly because I was bored and had read all the historical fiction that they had in the local bookshops.
It wasn’t until later, when I was scheduled to compete in this rather significant piano competition, that I had to seriously consider what else I might do with myself if I were not to have a career in music. I remember contemplating the required music–there was this piece by Schumann and I took a look and thought, “I’m not learning that!” If you can imagine it, it was just pages and pages of black notes with very little white in between…I just thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” So I pulled out. It was a stupid and idle thing to think and do, particularly as I had all the rest of the competition pieces in my repertoire, but it’s what I did.
Then I knocked about for a bit, doing this and that, and finally a friend said, “Look, I think you should be reviewing books–nobody reads as much or as fast as you…” He knew a book editor and got us together and it went from there…
What did you do with your earliest efforts? Did anyone read them? Did you still have them?
My early poetry, that is? There was a rather fierce and highly educated nun who was a friend of the family, and for some reason, I wasn’t terrified of her (though most people were). I shewed my work to her and she encouraged me and got me reading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Theodore Roethke and Robert Frost. That led to a lifelong love and study of poetry, and that’s still present in my work. But no, I haven’t kept the early stuff.
What made you choose to write in the genres/time periods you write in?
Probably, the late 18th century and early 19th century is my comfort zone.
I’d been performing their music–Beethoven, Field, Mozart, Haydn for years. Those guys, they always just ‘made sense’ to me. It wasn’t any work to learn their music. Then, when I was living one of the outlying farms of a big house just outside St. Andrews, I fell in love with the architecture of the period. The big house was one of Robert Adam’s early designs. And I loved it, just loved it. Everything about it–the landscaped park, the long drive up to the house, the interior, my small tied-workers’ cottage. So I started–on the side–reading everything I could about Georgian architecture and visiting the places mentioned in my research. I’d done the history as part of my degree work, but this is when I really started going in deep. I doubt I’ve ever really emerged.
So historical fiction that is intimately caught up in the issues and events of that period is really the only logical choice for me.
What do you enjoy most in the writing process? What parts of it do you really dislike?
What do I enjoy most? Ha ha ha. Finishing. That moment of joyous exhaustion when I know that the chapter I’ve just completed is right and it’s magic. That the imagery, dialogue, characterisations, the writing, the action are all just perfect, that they drive forward inexorably, that the dramatic tension is as taut as it can be, and it’s magic. Bearing in mind that it’s very likely I will have written and rewritten any given chapter, any given scene maybe 20 times…maybe 30.Dislike? Beginnings. I hate, loathe and despise writing those opening scenes and opening chapters. I haven’t found my rhythm. I’m obviously trying to do something I’ve never done before, trying to approach the ideas with new eyes and new words and images and I’m never sure whether I’ve chosen the right place to start. Should it be with this battle? With that argument? What about with a view of the Channel three months earlier? I’m a mess when it comes to openings.
If you write in multiple genres how do you make the switch from one to the other? Do you find it a welcome change, crazy-making or a little of both?
Whilst I was working on May 1812 and even on the opening chapters of Of Honest Fame, I was still writing regularly as a book critic for The Christian Science Monitor. And that was a bit crazy-making. Okay, it nearly drove me round the twist. Because if a book was really below par, there I’d be thinking, “How can they publish this rubbish?” If it was good, there was always the problem of getting side-tracked or being influenced in terms of style or ideas.
Also, one reads a book one is analysing and criticising very differently than a book that’s being read for pleasure. The red pen is in hand all the time. So then, you bring that literary analysis full-on onto the work-in-progress. And that’s a nightmare. Because you’re subjecting your own work–often in its most unpolished state–to the same standards as a Booker Prize winner that’s had all the benefit of uber-editors, proof-readers, and everything. Fatal!
Historical fiction takes a lot of research. What is the most memorable or interesting thing you’ve learned along the way?
Do you know, I love it all. I love learning. I’m inexcusably curious. I always want to know everything and more importantly to understand. I’m fascinated by the detail of their daily lives, by the detail of the different customs and cultures. My favourite things are usually the hands-on part–the learning to load, shoot and clean breech-loaders and flintlock rifles, including a 14-bore which was used at Waterloo. That was such a moment! I was in heaven.But there’s also the unparalleled joy of being in the audience when the great historians of our age are lecturing–Colin White, N.A.M. Rodger, Saul David, Amanda Vickery, Andrew Lambert, David Starkey…I love the way they challenge me to think and to consider things from new perspectives and entirely different angles, and to deepen and enrich my work ever more profoundly.
And there’s the utter delight of museum research–the hours and days spent in the Musee d’Armee in Paris, studying the uniforms of the Napoleonic era…things like that.
Perhaps the most memorable, or at least among the most memorable, was happening upon the exhibitions in celebration of the bicentennial of Napoleon’s coronation in 2003 in Paris. Until then, I’d had no idea–I doubt anyone had–of just how addicted to bling he was! Nor indeed, how short he was. His coronation robes were right there on display in the Louvre, as close to me as my hand, and just beyond was the famous mural of the coronation by David. And I’ll tell you what, when they called him little and stumpy, they weren’t exaggerating. He was little! 5’3″ at the most. And he was tubby. Even then. I just couldn’t get my head around it!
How do you get your ideas? Where do you look for ideas?
D’you know, I don’t know the answer to that. It’s not one thing or t’other. There are the characters and plots that just appear, fully-formed, in my head. And everything about them is already, as it were, settled and in 3D, and it all just unfolds itself to me–what they look like, their quirks, their intelligence, their speech.
Then there are the events which through my study of the period I know were life-changing, not just for individuals but for the course of things, and I’ll think, “I’d really like to explore what it was to have been there…What effect did this event have on them short-term? What effects long-term?”
Then there are, if you will, the themes and sub-themes. And sometimes I know that I want to weave an idea into the fabric of the work and explore that. Or sometimes–as happened when I read Adam Zamoyski’s 1812 about the French invasion of Russia–I’ll think, I have to talk about that, I have to weave in the realities of that catastrophic series of events and depict what happened to the civilians there…and that becomes a moral requirement for me, really.
Tell us a little about your current project.
Ha ha ha. When I finished writing Of Honest Fame, it hadn’t ended the way I’d planned it. Which kind of took me by surprise. And I knew then, there was another book which took that story further to its completion.
So I started researching for that, and found, to my surprise, that there was a great deal of war in 1813 and 1814 before we could get to the fun and games of the Congress of Vienna in autumn 1814. Not only that, but it wasn’t in the theatre of war about which everyone who’s read the Sharpe novels knows, which is Spain, but it was in what is now Germany, at places like Bautzen and Leipzig. And then, of course, the Allied armies of Russia, Prussia and Austria invaded France and defeated Napoleon’s remnant of an army by April 1814.
And I thought, “This is mad! Nobody knows anything about this! I’ve got to do this and do it properly.” So to date, I’ve probably read another 30 some books and many eye-witness accounts and journals. The language barriers are a bit of a challenge since I don’t read Russian and my German couldn’t be said to be great, and there’s almost nothing in English about this phase of the war. But I’ve found loads of fascinating material.
So the new book, Or Fear of Peace, (which is a quotation taken from a letter written in August 1813) takes several of the characters from Of Honest Fame through to the end of the war and explores those events through them. The goal must always be to put the reader ‘in the room’ of course, so that’s what I’m aiming to do for this period of the war…
What’s up next for you?
More writing, I assume. I’d love to tell you I’m chucking it over and am preparing to compete on the dressage circuit, but that’s not going to happen. I’ve had a number of readers insist that I must write a novel about Waterloo. Which I don’t want to do.
But I do have in mind writing something about the latter part of the Peninsular campaign–I love Spain and when I’ve visited there, I’ve had several conversations with people who’ve insisted that I must write about it for them and include what happened to their village or their family…they still love the English there, so much.
You know, up in the small villages in the mountains, often you’ll see atop the church a weathervane in the shape of a British infantryman. And everywhere I’ve been, they’ve shewn me these weathervanes which are called Mambros, you see, because the Castilians couldn’t say the word, Wellington. So they called him after that other great British general, Marlborough, which they pronounced, Mambro. And these wonderful, dear people, they want their story told. So probably, I’ll try to do just that.
And may I just finish with thank you so much for having me. I love having the opportunities for sharing these wonderful experiences I’ve had whilst writing and researching…
You can follow M.M. Bennets at http://www.mmbennetts.com or on Twitter@mmbennetts