Is it a good time to be a woman writing? Do you think the Woman’s Prize for Fiction has changed things?
The thing is, I’m very careful not to make claims for the influence of the prize or not. It’s impossible to know how much things might or might not have changed; we all must be circumspect seeing where we are now, and assuming that x follows y. What I do know is that no woman writer thinks of herself as a ‘woman writer’, any more than a man thinks of himself as a ‘man writer’, because we’re writers and individuals first, but it’s still worth focusing on the fact that there have been some sorts of work that have been more valued within the literary prize-giving environment than others; there has been a lively debate that has changed the way people publish and the opportunities for publishing.
[on Emily Brontë] her imagination existed entirely outside the expectations of a woman of that age, of that class, in that period of time… that is, for me, what a real artist is about – someone who is unfettered, and it would just be fascinating to hear what she’d say.
I think the fact that people notice if there are no women on a shortlist is a good thing, not least because the majority of books published are by women, so I think that there has been – not just in books, but in a general sense – a sophisticated discussion of gender across the board, about why still in 2014 there are very few permanent exhibitions of women artists in art galleries; why the first woman ever to conduct the proms happened only last year; these are sensible and proper questions to ask, because if great art is above gender, which I think it is, then the absence of women in many fields is something which should be looked at and talked about.
For me, I do think, because publishing has always had a lot of women in it, and because of many things – the prize included – that when you look at the representation of women and men in publishing, on the best-seller lists, on prize committees, in running companies, publishing is a very balanced art-form in comparison to many others, and that should be a cause for celebration because the wider range of voices you have, not only women, but voices from ethnic minorities, from different religions, with disabilities, it’s all of these things. The more voices you have the richer our reading and writing experiences are, and the more pleasure we get.
TMO: Imagine you could spend a day with any writer, living or dead. Who would it be, and why?
[a pause] It would be Emily Brontë, I think, because I think it’s quite astonishing the level of extraordinary determination that that one particular writer had: she was a visionary and a poet – hundred s of poems – and this extraordinary one novel, surviving the loss of her mother and her sisters. This incredible imagination which meant she could produce works of complete subliminal beauty but also violence, and passion completely unfettered by the expectations of her age; her imagination existed entirely outside the expectations of a woman of that age, of that class, in that period of time, who left her home in Yorkshire three or four times at most. I would want to spend time with her just to listen to her, because that is, for me, what a real artist is about – someone who is unfettered, and it would just be fascinating to hear what she’d say.
You’ve spent a lot of time in France, and much of your fiction is based there. Has French literary culture changed you as a reader or writer?
Not really, in that when I’m in France I’m almost always either researching or writing. It has changed me in terms of non-fiction. I’ve spent a lot of time reading French non-fiction, and there are very clear differences in the way that non-fiction and history in French culture is published, compared to American and British non-fiction and history. It is more literary. It is often more interpretive; they have, not quite a blurring but fiction and non-fiction / biography are much closer together in France in some respects (although that is changing in the UK as well). I’ve learned a great deal from that, how to do that sort of writing, a different way to present facts. Their lyricism in writing about history has certainly influenced the way I write or include historical fact in my fiction.
TMO: Historical fiction is an interesting and problematic genre isn’t it?
I don’t describe myself as writing historical fiction. I describe myself as writing adventure fiction, though everyone says ‘adventure fiction is so old-fashioned, nobody knows what it means’, but that is what I write. I feel that I’m writing in the same sort of tradition as Rider Haggard. Old-fashioned stories that are inspired and based on history and place, but it’s the adventure that drives it forward – not the history.
In the U.K historical fiction which was terribly discredited up to twenty years ago, is now possibly the premier literary genre. It now has no negative connotations. That’s partly because of the very recent success of people such as Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won the Booker prize twice, with novels that are historical, about history, with real people from history at the heart of them. We’ve come a very long way in the UK market, from the sense that historical fiction was a little bit passe. That was exactly the view of it twenty years ago, when I was a publisher, but it’s changed a great deal now.
The new series of novels that I’m writing will still very much be adventure, but at the same time they will be closer to historical fiction in that there won’t be the time-slip backwards and forwards that occurred in the Langeudoc trilogy. That will be an interesting challenge for me, to stay very much in the historical period, rather than reflecting upon it from a modern day perspective.
TMO: It seems to me that there’s a real affinity for historical fiction at the moment – both from critics and readers alike. Why do you think that is?
I think that there is genuinely, in the UK, and probably in France, the United States and other countries, a level of, not necessarily despair, but real disbelief at the political, social and environmental state of the world around us. There is a sense that everything is spinning out of control. This has been written about a lot in the UK media recently, with people admitting that they can’t bear to turn on the news or read a newspaper because it’s too depressing. I think in fiction sometimes when things are very stable and settled people often want to read contemporary fiction, fiction that’s about the state of the nation etc. But often when people are feeling quite fragile, sometimes reading about the same human emotions but set within a completely different historical setting, is a way to engage with the things that are troubling to us now, but in a way that doesn’t make them directly comparative.
I think that’s partly what’s happening. I write about faith and the consequences of faith, about war and the consequences of war, the consequences of women and men having unequal power, too much power one over the other, and what that means for my characters in the 13th Century, in the 19th Century and in the 20th Century. These are all things that we think about now, but they are harder to think about in the context of now. There’s an element of that in it.
Of course there’s also a great deal of wonderful contemporary fiction, but I would say that people analysing the world now, most of that is within the thriller and crime genre. I think many of the very great crime writers of the day, people like Denise Mina, Michael Connolly, Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, are addressing political issues within their crime fiction.
Let’s talk a little bit about film. It strikes me as strange that, despite the fact that your books have sold millions, and have a devoted readership, there have not been any major film adaptations (Labyrinth was developed as a TV movie). Is that due to a reluctance on your part, or is it something about the books that resists adaptation?
It’s to do with the books in a way. Funnily enough, we’re in the middle of a bidding war for The Taxidermist’s Daughter at the moment, which is exciting, and in fact I’m writing a screenplay, with my husband, for The Winter Ghost, and it’s because these smaller books have a linear narrative. They’re not complicated to put on the screen. We had a go with Labyrinth, and I felt that if anyone was going to be able to pull it off it would be Ridley Scott, who has that epic sensibility, but also that close attention to individual characters and storytelling. My big books, though, because of the time slips, because they’re complicated, they are challenging to put on the big screen in a way that can be absorbed and be contained within a three hour plot. As a result of that [the Labyrinth adaptation], there were many good things that I learned, and I will work on Sepulchre and Citadel and they will be a bigger television series, rather than trying to do a big film.
With Winter Ghost and The Taxidermist’s Daughter, they’re simple, relatively simple to put on the screen. I’m enjoying the screenwriting enormously.
Does film/cinema influence you as a writer?
It doesn’t influence me at all. Film is not a priority for me. I see an enormous amount of theatre, but not much film. Writing a novel is about creating a world, whereas a screenplay and writing a film is about a moment in some respects. It’s about this character, what do they want, how are they going to get it etc., and the number of words and language that you have in a film is tiny compared to a novel, so it doesn’t influence me at all. I don’t have a cinematic mind when I’m writing.
What’s interesting though, about the Taxidermist’s Daughter, is that when I read it I thought ‘oh, that’s very filmic’, but it wasn’t in my mind while writing.
One thing that struck me about The Taxidermist’s Daughter was the violence. There are some very graphic scenes that are quite shocking. At the same time I’ve been thinking a lot about the amount of violence featured in most tv thrillers. Do you worry about including violence in your books?
That’s a good question, because I do think that there’s far too much gratuitous violence in crime fiction. An enormous amount of it is sexual violence against women, and I think it’s really troublesome, that it’s such a part of common everyday entertainment. I’ve always had a little bit of violence in my books. For me if it’s integral to the narrative of the story, without which the story can’t quite work.
I was surprised myself at how dark The Taxidermist’s Daughter was in that way, but it came out that way because of mirroring the techniques of taxidermy, because Cassie has been turned, she has lost any sort of proportion, and it has become in her mind a simple like-for-like replacement as a way for making the villains pay. It’s oddly also part of the Gothic fiction tradition, when I went back to those great books, they are fearsomely violent and I did debate with myself as to how far I wanted to go with that, and in the end I made the decision that because it was important in terms of the enduring damage that was done to Cassie as a character, that couldn’t be healed and could never go away, and couldn’t be brushed under the carpet as these things generally were, the consequences of her treatment were so horrific for her that they had to be horrific on the page, and also within the context of Gothic fiction, all those books have very explicit violence, but in the way that I’ve tried to do it as well. If you read those scenes in Frankenstein, they are very violent, about what is happening to the creature, and the companion made for the creature, and all of these things, so for me it was acceptable within the context of the genre, and the sense of what the character had suffered. I do though fundamentally dislike violence as entertainment.
I wonder, though, is there a difference between violence in a book and violence on the t.v? Perhaps books are a better artistic form in which to frame/examine violence?
The reason that theatre and novel reading go together are because in each of those forms they are active. In film and television the audience is passive, sitting watching something that has happened, there is no live engagement and your eyes have to go where the camera goes. When you’re sitting in the theatre, or you read a book, there are things left up to you – how fast you read, what colours and shades you bring to the text, where you look on the stage. There’s an independent engagement with the book, and that makes a difference.
For this book I used a technique, that I pinched from Val McDermid, that with the exception of the very end of the book, the stuff that is ghastly in The Taxidermist’s Daughter is in italics, as a way of coding how the reader reads. One of Val McDermid’s novels had all the interior monologues of the serial killer in italics, and reading it I felt that it gave me a choice as to how far I wanted to read into that character. On the page the reader is in control, and that makes for a fundamental difference.
TMO: You’ve also written plays. Has that had an influence on the rest of your writing?
I enjoy writing dialogue, and have a lot of dialogue in my novels, but of course in a play all the things that are in some ways defining for my writing, the descriptions and landscapes, aren’t up to me! They’re up to the designer and the director. You can say a room, 4.00 o’clock, 1912 and that’s it. It’s not up to you to animate everything else, so it throws you completely back on to Character and how they express themselves in words, and that’s a brilliant discipline to take back to fiction.
Because I’ve done a couple of plays recently, I absolutely think that one of the reasons that the reaction to The Taxidermist’s Daughter has been so positive is because I feel that rigor required in writing for the theatre rubbed off on the novel, being sparer, focusing absolutely on each word that is spoken meaning something and carrying some sort of weight, and I think that’s one of the reasons that many of us who are novelists write in other forms, because the more you write the more likely it is that you will get better, and we all want to get better with each book we write.