A superhero powered by coffee and wearing a sacque-backed dress, read on and find out more…
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?
I can’t really remember not wanting to write stories, so the “origin’s episode” of that would consist mainly of a four-year-old me scrawling very short stories on the insides of the covers of my colouring books. The origins of my interest in history is only slightly more interesting. When I was eleven I discovered Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and was bowled over by it. Few books have influenced me as much: I knew the instant I put it down that history was my Thing.
Naturally, my early efforts were “The Three Musketeers” in various different forms. Gradually I discovered my own style, as well as the necessity of doing proper research. From the age of about 13 I kept nearly everything I wrote, but you can’t use them as blackmail fodder because I find them amusing rather than embarrassing. I did try to get two novels published: one about Charles I, when I was 14, and one of my first (of many) efforts to chronicle the life of William Pitt the Younger, at 18. Thankfully, both were rejected.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
My alter ego is a stay-at-home mother to two small children (5 and 3). They absolutely do not help in any way with my writing. Although my daughter once covered the first page of Chapter 3 of my WIP in green pen.
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
I am lucky to be married to a very tolerant man, whose superpower, I guess, is the ability to tune out the majority of my constant waffling about my research. That said, he understands how much my research means to me and has always been very encouraging about my need to pursue my writing dream.
I’d also like to mention my sister in research and partner in crime here, Stephenie Woolterton. She is truly, as I call her, my “Pitt Sis”. Her superpower is simply to be a wonderful, knowledgeable, and very dear, friend, and I am tremendously grateful our research paths crossed.
Where do you get your superpowers from?
To be frank, my claims to being a superhero are fraudulent. I’m really just a girl with a history addiction.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
I can write anywhere, so long as I can plug in my laptop. The first draft of my WIP was largely written during my hour-long commute to London from Cambridge, often sitting on the floor of a crowded train. Nowadays I write either in the room where I keep most of my books, or in the kitchen, which overlooks a river.
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 write as often as I can, which is not necessarily every day but, latterly, probably six days a week. I write best in the morning, and now my children sleep well tend to get up really early and write before breakfast. Since September my daughter has started nursery fifteen hours a week and my productivity has gone up dramatically.
I can’t promise I use my powers only for good, though. I’ve always had a thing for anti-heroes.
Granted, you probably don’t get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
18th century court wear. I am currently trying to make a sacque-backed dress. Because I am obviously not keeping myself busy enough with the writing.
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
Lack of motivation is definitely my kryptonite. I really have to push myself to sit down and write when I have the time to do so. Having small children in the house does not make for a good writing schedule; but even supposing I had no children, and could devote my entire day to writing, I suspect I would still struggle to motivate myself. In some ways I need the challenge to keep me going. I am the kind of person who needs deadlines, and obstacles, to succeed.
What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
There have been several. I jotted down the first ideas for my current WIP over Christmas 1998—yes, you read that right. The first obstacle was my undergraduate degree; the second, my doctorate. The third was, well… two children who survived on next to no sleep for the first two years of their lives. My WIP was researched and written in the intervals in between all these life-changing experiences.
Luckily I have always been persuaded that I have something special on my hands, or I might have given up long ago.
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
That a novel doesn’t write itself. In fact that’s been my mantra throughout my lowest periods.
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
My journey is not yet finished, so I hope there will be more, but I have made so many historical discoveries in researching and writing this book. My subject matter, John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, is virtually unknown, and if he is mentioned in the history books it is hardly ever positively. Piecing together his life from the historical record has been a bit like being led through a maze blind-folded, but it has been a real revelation. I have absolutely no regrets about him choosing me to write about him (yes, I am persuaded that is what happened).
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I would have done more writing the summer before my son was born. I’d have organised my notes more effectively (I won’t even go into how horrible it is to collect ten years’ worth of notes.) If I could get my hands on a time machine, obviously I’d seriously disturb the space/time continuum with my mucking about in the 1780s/90s, but I would also go back to about 1998/9 and suggest to my 19 year old self, “Pitt’s brother… why don’t you make him your protagonist?” Would have saved quite a lot of time, that.
Otherwise, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. Only quicker.
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why?
Keep writing even if you do not feel inspired. And keep a notebook.
Also, as much as I hate to admit it, the person who told me “get up early to write before breakfast” was right. I find that, with the assistance of a large pot of coffee, I do my best work between 5 and 7 am.
Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.
The Long Shadow is not finished yet, but I hope to be sending it out in the new year.
If I were to write a blurb for the back of my unpublished book, it would read something like this:
John, Lord Pitt inherits one of England’s most celebrated titles: the Earldom of Chatham. Horrified to discover his new estate is heavily mired in debt, John flees abroad with his regiment. His younger brother William is left to shoulder the burdens John cannot bear to face.
An older and wiser John returns from foreign service to be caught up in his brother’s meteoric rise to political power at twenty-four. But when John is blamed for the failure of a major military campaign William falls victim to memories of John’s past unreliability. His resulting actions threaten to shatter their brotherly bond.
Exposed to public ridicule, his ambitions crushed, John struggles to overcome a lifetime’s habit of coming second to step out of William’s shadow. But blood ties are not so easy to overcome, and John’s attempt to control his own destiny has tragic consequences.
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
I have a few ideas for future novels, but what I really want to do next is write a nonfiction biography of the 2nd Earl of Chatham. Honestly, he deserves it.
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