If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
And origin’s episode? Dear me. Right. Well, once upon a time, there was a wild child who was given to playing lots of fiendishly difficult music by the likes of Beethoven and Chopin. This had the double value of releasing a great deal of passionate energy and annoying the wild child’s elder brother to distraction. A wondrous bonus!
Occasionally, this wild child did her homework assignments–not too often, one wouldn’t want the teachers to think they had the upper hand or anything. But sometimes, these assignments would take the form of writing short stories or things like that–even poetry, at which our wild child also excelled. And indeed, some of the despairing teachers actually told the wild child’s father that they expected her to become a writer. This of course the wild child dismissed as camel drool and paid no attention…
However, skipping ahead, we can see our wild child sitting by an open coal fire in a small Scottish cottage not writing her essay or preparing for her orals on Roman Quattrocento art and architecture, but instead using her composition books to write romantic/historical stories to while away the hours, having already bought and read all that the local bookstore had that week. And within one of those composition books there was the description of the front drive that eventually was used for the front drive of Britwell Park in the novel, May 1812. And yes, it’s an actual place where I walked and which I loved. The composition books, I’m happy to say, disintegrated. The story evolved. The history became more and more important. The historical research became more and more in depth…but the wild child’s hair still resembles that of Beethoven on a bad hair day. And the poetry still gets written too. Sonnets.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
Er, you’re probably not going to believe this, but those who meet me find me exceedingly well-mannered and polite intellectual historian; probably I’m considered by many to be posh, always appropriately attired, and likely to do things such as be invited to Buckingham Palace to take tea with the Queen–which I have done. Avoid the chocolate cake there, it’s rather dry, whereas the petits fours are fabulous–best fondant icing EVER! Then there is my fondness for horses…and Beethoven, to whom I am still devoted…and dogs…
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
By which, I suppose you’re asking about Tomtom. He’s a little white pony with the speed of Red Rum, the temperament of a naughty Peter Pan, a tremendous fear of rabbits (you know they eat little white horses, don’t you?) but his most astonishing superpower is his greed for carrots…Other partners–well, of course, my mates from the stable with whom I go riding–they ride like cavalry superheroes, of course, but they also provide me with lots of fodder to work into my novels–their characters, their senses of humour, their wry wit, their fearlessness, their physical prowess and courage…
Where do you get your superpowers from?
Music. Poetry. History. You see, I’ll read a history book–a fat tome that would make most people shudder in anxiety over the sheer size of the thing–and all these facts and numbers and dates and battles and situations will begin to play out in my mind like a storyboard. It’s not history. It’s life and I am there, immersed in it, smelling it, tasting it, hearing it…and before long, I’ll find myself weaving a character or story through this sea of unfolding images and impressions. I don’t have control over it, I simply must become quiet enough in myself to hear it and see it all.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
I have a book room, and unsurprisingly, it contains lots of books, my books. But that’s not it. Everyplace is a secret lair, you see, because I am generally such a quiet body that no one knows that whilst I wait in a parking lot I might be concocting a battle scene–writing it out on bits of receipt or the backs of envelopes. Or whilst I’m driving to school, I’m envisioning the plains of central Europe, their villages in ruins, their lands stripped bare by plundering Napoleonic armies, or a drawing room where Beethoven is being played upon a fortepiano…it sounds quite different, a fortepiano does. So, I’m not so much a secret lair body as a sprawler–I can and do write or research anywhere. Even in the bath. Though a word of advice–don’t try writing on soggy paper with pencil. It doesn’t work out well.
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?
I never stop reading poetry: Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins. I never stop researching the Napoleonic period. I listen to and continue to play a lot of Beethoven, Einaudi, Chopin…though lately I’m a bit hooked on the work of Helen Jane Long. Very evocative, she is. As for ensuring that these powers are used only for good–the glib answer is that I ruthlessly edit myself and throw out 95% of the dross I write. The more intimate and personal answer is something that Ted Koppel said many years ago: “Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach.” That is my standard…to see the history, the stories of all these lives caught up in this world war, and to be there with them, and through my being there, to put the reader there–no distance, our hands together warmed by the fire in the hearth, our faces chapped by the same winds that blew across Europe in 1812…
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
Pretty much like something I regularly wear: top boots and scruffy breeches (jodhpurs). Though I’m happy to say, our waterproofs are much more effective than theirs were 200 years ago. And the other great thing? When we get soaked by being on the horses in all weathers, we can come home to warm houses and dry our soaking clothes on the radiator, or better yet, in the dryer! How fantastic is that? Can you imagine how many houses smelled perpetually of wet wool 200 years ago? Yuck!
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Depression or melancholy as they used to call it. I don’t write well or at all when I’m emotionally at the bottom of the pond. I implode in silence. The big challenges in writing are two sides of the same coin: knowing too much or not knowing enough. Either drive me bonkers. I’ve had to chuck out whole segments of novel because I’ve found out that the historic personages weren’t in that location at that time at all, they were 100 miles away in Bohemia, and didn’t eat sausage, or something like that.
What was the super-villian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
Ehem. I was severely ill and in hospital three years ago and am still convalescing and fighting my way back life and to fitness, so the real answer is, er, death. As for vanquishing it? I pray a lot. And many people were praying for me (and still are) during this dark time. The first challenge was learning to move my head, to work my left hand, to walk…that was followed by learning to ride again. And funnily enough, it wasn’t the getting on the horse or staying on the horse that scared the heck out of me, it was the dismount, because you need shoulder and arm strength for that, and I just did not have any. At all. So my question was, “How in the blazes am I going to get off?” My eyesight had gone wonky too–so I had to learn to read again without having the words slide off the page–such a nightmare that, those cheeky words just playing hide and seek all over the place… And whilst I’ve been recuperating, I’ve been researching and putting scenes down on paper, rewriting a thousand times the beginning, then chucking that out and starting with a different beginning for the new book…
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
Patience. Humility. To never give up. Courage. And to never stop looking. Never stop listening. Never stop drinking in the poetry and beauty of the world through all my senses…
The first time I held May 1812 (my first novel) in my hands was a knock-out! There were no words for the elation one experienced in that moment. Crying, laughing, dancing–none of these would have been even a portion of enough. Meeting the author Robert Low, whom I admire greatly, and finding he loved my work, knew it well enough to tease me about it, and the friendship that has grown there. Learning that May 1812 and subsequently Of Honest Fame had been longlisted for the Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I suppose losing out to Hilary Mantel for the short list was okay too. But probably amongst the best experiences is the moment when one needs a character for a scene to perform a certain task and they’re there, complete, whole, unique in my head. That’s magic!
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I’d not get deathly ill and get put into hospital shortly after the release of my second book!
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.
Probably that would be about horses. A very wise trainer once told me that horses are prey animals, so anything that looks like it might be a lion is to be fled from. But he also pointed out that if you’ll look after the horse in those moments of threat, that horse will never forget and will always look after you when the chips are down.
So a while after that, I was out riding on the Downs with a charming liver chestnut; it was May or June an we were cantering up this long hill and I watched in horror as this massivo bumble bee came rumbling along to land on Bally’s nose. As I watched it come, I was thinking, “Please, God, NO!” Anyway, this enormous creature landed on my boy’s face and crawled round and round Bally’s nose, bless him, and there was nothing I could do. It’s not like I could crawl up his neck and reach over with my crop to flick the blighter off or anything. And as it’s crawling about, Bally’s doing this series of mini-bucks and with every one a spurt of greater speed.
He must have bucked me about 30 times…and my friends at the top of the hill were watching in amazement–apparently they’d never seen anyone sit that many bucks in a row. Eventually, the bee lifted off and flew away. Anyway, we got to the top of the hill and were heading into long grass, and Bally’s bucking away, when suddenly he swerved because he knew he wasn’t meant to go into the long grass. And that was a manoeuvre too far.
I slid off, reins in hand, to sit plump down on this very soft hummock of grass. So it was fine. But bearing in mind that the horse comes first, I stood up to soothe him and to see if he’d been stung, and I fumbled in my pocket to see if I had any mints for him, to calm him down and let him know what a good boy he is and how brave I thought him. So a couple of polo mints later, he was a happier boy, and I remounted and off we went.
Fast-forward a couple of years: we were out riding in 80 mph gales and driving rain…don’t ask me why…and all the horses were skittish because the wind was knocking branches down right and left and they were crashing and breaking on the ground all about us.
But not Bally. Bally was cool as a cucumber and had the steadiest most determined canter all the way home, never a flinch. He took care of me and kept me safe–soaked but safe.
Another thing I learned when I was about 17. I was learning a fiendishly difficult thing by Rachmaninoff and every time I turned the page, I swear it got ten times harder. And finally my teacher advised me to start on the last page and work backward, that way, I’d learn the hardest stuff first and it would only get easier as I went. She was right.
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
The new book, Or Fear of Peace, covers a period of the Napoleonic wars that absobloominglutely no one talks about, at least not in English. The last phase of the war in 1813 and 1814.
And it’s this tremendously inspiring time because there are all these countries and generals and diplomats and everything who’ve been whipped and whipped by Napoleon for the last decade and now, they’re finally pulling their socks up, reorganizing their armies, working together, fighting and coming together in this united effort to throw off the French yoke. And the stunning thing about it is that as I’ve been reading the eye-witness accounts from the period, the language of the Prussians and Russians is exactly like that which was used following the American Civil War–they had viewed French domination as bondage, as slavery, as oppression.
So I’m very excited about the people I get to write about. They were amazing, just tremendous in every way! The other thing that’s very exciting about it for me is that it takes up the story of both the war and the stories of a few characters I introduced in my last book, Of Honest Fame. So it’s a bit of a follow-on from that. But the bad news is you can’t get it just yet–I’ve had a few health issues recently which have slowed the process down a bit. But I’m working on it. Believe me!
Well, originally I had thought I’d write four books about the Napoleonic wars and then quit. The history seems to have disagreed with me. There’s too much fascinating stuff I’m desperate to cover. So, I think there are at least another three novels after the one in progress, each of them covering an aspect of the war that no one seems to have noticed besides me. And there are those who believe that I ought to write about Waterloo as well. And I don’t want to. But we’ll see.
For more information and all sorts of historically interesting bits, there’s my website: www.mmbennetts.com and there’s also my FB page under the clever title, May 1812.
Look forward to hearing from everyone there! Slainte! And thank you so much, Maria, for having me…yes, I’d welcome another cup of tea…most kind.
You can find M.M. Bennetts at: