HEYER TODAY EPISODE 3: HEYER’S TECHNIQUE – EMMA DARWIN ON WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION

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SARA-MAE: Previously, on Heyer Today. [See last week’s episode here – link to previous episode]

BETH: Georgette never fully recovered from the sudden loss of her beloved father. Two years later in her contemporary book, Helen, she writes of a grief so huge, so devastating and so terribly dumb.

GENNA: I caught on when they started dropping the subtler hints, but in the beginning when I started reading it, I was very much like, okay, nice next, but when they started dropping the hints, I was like, oh, okay, that very much sparked my interest.

SARA-MAE: Wait a minute, I always thought he stank of manure…

SARA-MAE: Welcome to Heyer Today! Last week, we converted one new reader to Heyer’s work – if you missed our discussion with playwright, Sonali, and my cousin Genna, about These Old Shades, do go back and listen. That’s one out of two converts so far. Yes, I am adding them up.

This week I’ll be chatting to Emma Darwin, and, apart from being possibly the only author to be simultaneously listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book, AND the Romantic Novelist’s Association Book of the Year, she has one other small detail about her ancestry that people tend to fixate on. Yes, she is Charles Darwin’s great-great granddaughter. But she’s so much more than that, an accomplished novelist and teacher and yes, a fan of Georgette Heyer. Yet, her past has shaped her life, as she discovered when writing This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin.

On her website she writes: “Writing the novel became a fierce struggle between my heritage and my identity as a writer – and ultimately a struggle that nearly killed me. When I was better, I realised the only way to write about the creative lives of my family was through the lens of my own creative struggle, telling the story of my journey through my family as I tried – and failed – to write the novel.”

As one reviewer said: “She explores the tricky business of historical novelists walking a tightrope between research and imagination.”

There is a fascinating, and relevant thread here, tying Emma to Georgette: both were attempting to walk this tightrope the reviewer describes – and both managed to do it with grace and humour.

More directly, Emma’s written A Secret Alchemy, which reached the Sunday Times Bestsellers List, and was named as one of The Times’ Best Paperbacks of that year. It’s set in the exhilarating world of the Wars of the Roses.

I’m dying to discover more about Emma’s love of Heyer – with her PHD in creative writing she’ll be able to really dig into Heyer’s novels with me.

EMMA: I find the lives of really professional writers very fascinating. The two biographies of her also as an insight into the professional writer I think, is really, really interesting. With my writing tutor, you know, writing mentor head. Though obviously, the book trade has changed enormously, but actually the business of getting your bum on that chair and writing one or in her case, sometimes two books a year, you know, is fascinating to look at.

SARA-MAE: I’m going to ask you more about the biographical process later. But let’s begin with the basics.

EMMA: I am a novelist and a non-fiction writer. And I also do a lot of mentoring and teaching writing. And in fact, my most recent book was published a couple of years ago, and it’s called Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, which, hopefully does exactly what it says on the tin. So, I’m also very interested in the process of how books end up looking like a book on the shelves and the process of getting them to that point.

SARA-MAE: Yes, and I’m sure that most writers of historical fiction will be very interested to find out the minutia and the mechanics of it.

EMMA: Basically, I love Heyer because I just love being in that world. But I do think that technically she is extraordinarily good and she’s really worth studying from that point of view as well. We can all learn a lot from what she does, those of us who write historical fiction.

SARA-MAE: Yes, as a technician, I think that was one of her greatest strengths, wasn’t it? I do not know how she churned out two books a year to such a high standard. It took me four years to write my first book, and I’m still working on the eighth draft of my second!

EMMA: Well, she had enormous depth of research. And all in her head. I mean, obviously, she also had it on her bookshelves, but what it meant was a lot of the stuff that we have to go away and find out, she just knew.

SARA-MAE: How does this depth of research help an author?

EMMA: Well, it helps in two ways. One, you don’t have to go away and look it up. But also, it means that on the page, it comes along very, very naturally. And it comes along just as part of her imaginative process, which is partly why, on the whole, she matured as a writer. You never feel that there are these huge lumps of historical information being chucked at you. It comes along as naturally as if she was writing about her own high street, in her own time, and that’s part of it.

She’s writing within a short span of time, she’s writing about a very narrow slice of the world and actually, an artificial one. It bears about the relationship to the real Regency world as PG Wodhouse does to the real 1930s. And I think in lots of ways there are they’re rather parallel those two, because they serve up this very particular world and if you discover it, and you like it, you kind of settle down for life.

SARA-MAE: Yes, exactly. I love PG Wodhouse as well.

EMMA: Yeah, yeah. And it’s consistent. And that is a lot to do with the fact that they’ve found a voice that works. They found their voice. And so, there’s a lot of things that, book by book, she’s not having to work out from scratch each time. That, and an extremely supportive husband and only one child who went to boarding school. I think that helps too.

SARA-MAE: Yes, exactly. And I don’t think he was even allowed to stay in the uh… when they were living in that sort of posh… the Albany or, as Stephen Fry corrected me, it’s just Albany.

EMMA: Yes, yes, Albany. And there was something about… they did manage to get a special dispensation for him to stay in the school holidays, but he was not around day-to-day needing taking to school and picking up and giving having his socks darned. And that would help!

SARA-MAE: What do you think of her use of gin and Dexedrine to… I’m always interested in how writers such as yourself… what’s your process? Would you ever consider gin and Dexedrine to keep you up all night?

EMMA: I’m not sure, can you buy Dexedrine these days? You certainly could then. I wouldn’t use gin. [It’’s] not unknown for a bottle of wine to feature. I would, but I have learnt, on the whole, that if I stay up very late, not just till bedtime, but well beyond normal bedtime, I do get lots written but actually I take out the changes the next day and the next couple of days. And I’m not sure… I mean it can be the right thing to do because if you’re on a roll then you probably want to go with it… But you do then actually find the next couple of days, even if you can write, you don’t write nearly as much. I suspect that one’s average over the week is much the same, whether you do it in one mad go all night, or whether you do it in steady chunks through the week. Also, I used to find when I was doing that with essays at university that I invariably got an outrageously appalling cold shortly afterwards, it’s terribly bad for your immune system, I’m sure Dexedrine is as well!

SARA-MAE: I have a feeling that it probably isn’t the best.

EMMA: But, you know, it gets the books written. And it depends whether you think that’s worth it. One way to make a name for yourself. To make sure there’s a new book every year to, you know, for everybody… they’ve only just finished noticing the last one when the new one comes along. And that sustains that career in a way that it’s quite difficult to do otherwise. It’s still the case for my friends whose writing lives are in that mould: [where] there’s got to be a book a year.

SARA-MAE: I ask Emma whether there is some merit in the idea of training your brain to squeeze out an entire book very quickly… sort of like a mental tube of toothpaste.

EMMA: Yes. Well, I mean, I think it depends a lot on what you want to do. I think it’s only feasible if, as with Heyer or, as with someone who’s writing a detective series with a serious detective, but there has to be a lot of stuff you don’t have to make up from scratch. If you look at the most exciting authors at the cutting edge of literary writing, you know where the art form is going, they will not be doing that because they are… at the beginning of every novel, they go right back to zero, what am I doing? How am I going to do it? You know, Heyer is not thinking, “How do I write this novel?” She’s thinking, who are my people? Where is it set – between 1719 and 1830 or thereabouts? You know… who’s in love with who, who doesn’t want to be in love with who, and so on. And those are all incredibly important questions, but she’s not thinking, shall I tell it backwards? Shall I tell it inside out?

SARA-MAE: Yeah.

EMMA: You know, she’s not thinking about the voices. And that’s the thing. And I think that’s a big difference.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, she wasn’t troubled by post-modernist ideas.

EMMA: Ah, I think not. Though, certainly her comments on other people’s writing that I’ve come across in the biographies are extremely shrewd. I mean, like any writer, she reads much more widely than she writes. I don’t know What she would have thought of some of what’s being written these days. She might just have shrugged and then said “not what I want to write”, which we all have to do. And we all have to make our peace with the kinds of books that we admire, but don’t write.

SARA-MAE: This is a tough thing for any creative person to get to grips with. If your heroes are people like George Elliot and Austen, it’s hard to look at your own work and go, ‘yep, this is pretty good’, or it is for me, anyway. But if you allowed this feeling of inadequacy to stifle you, you’d never write anything. There’s room and readers for many different kinds of books – and they don’t all have to be ‘high art’. The reason Heyer has been so misunderstood by many is because she meets at the intersection between high and low art. But, as I saw someone saying on Instagram recently, there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, is there?

EMMA: Yes, you do what you do and there will always be someone to despise you for what you do. Whatever you do. You know, everybody has snobbery, some people’s snobberies are the other way up. I write what the book trade… well, the most positive term is ‘Book Group Fiction’, which is on the kind of literary/commercial borders. And that’s just me. When I was trying to write and getting feedback, it was before the rise of the book group. So, it was considered a tricky area to sell into. And I used to think I should try to be more literary, I should try and be more commercial… and my sister looked me in the eye and said, “But Emma, that’s who you are. You like Virginia Woolf, and you like Georgette Heyer.” So, I’ve learned to live with it and decide, well, I’m just gonna have to do what I do, as well as I possibly can and Heyer does what Heyer does. Well, she invented a genre. How many people get to do that?

SARA-MAE: Unfortunately Heyer is often lumped in with her far less talented imitators, or worse, seen as a bodice-ripping fluffy romance author, not that I have anything against romance novelists, I read an awful lot of them. But she’s so good, I feel she deserves to be in a class of her own.

EMMA: Yeah, I think that always happens with an innovator. I mean, I used to grumpily think that I didn’t like Mahler. I still don’t like Mahler because he sounds like film music. Well, actually, that’s because it’s the other way around. [Laughs] Film music sounds like Mahler because Hollywood music was largely written by refugees from Austria and Germany who fled the Nazis. And so, it was written by Mahler’s pupils, as it were. But if you listen backwards, you know, you hear it the wrong way around. And I have to say, I don’t read other Regency stuff. I only read Heyer.

SARA-MAE: It doesn’t surprise me that Emma doesn’t read other Regency romances. People on the Georgette Heyer Facebook fan club often suggest books they think will satisfy the Heyer itch. Since doing this interview I’ve read a few more of these sorts of works and I actually really enjoy many of them – but not for their likeness to Heyer. In fact, the more they try and ‘ape’ her distinctive Heyerisms, the more they annoy me or seem like a very hollow and unsatisfying attempt. With Heyer there’s such a sense of her strong guiding hand, I always feel enveloped in the warmth and elegance of her world.

EMMA: Yes, it is because she invented it, but I think it’s also because when she was finding her voice, when she was working her way towards what Jane Aiken Hodge in her biography calls her ‘golden vein’, she was drawing on the original sources. She was drawing on Austen, she was drawing on Johnson, she was drawing on the fiction written at the time, the ‘silver fork’ novels, as they’re called. And so, in a sense how well it is built of the original sources, when people write Regencies now, what they’re doing is they’re third hand, because they’re drawing on an already digested form, if that makes sense.

SARA-MAE: I’m going to be talking to author Mary Jo Putney in episode 16 all about this, possibly perceived, problem. Mary Jo is a best-selling author who’s written many Regency romances, so it will be fascinating to hear her take on the challenges of writing historical novels through a 21st century lens.

EMMA: But I do occasionally pick them up and think, ‘ooh, that looks fun’, and I read about two pages and think, well, I can’t be doing with this. I mean, I see that because I work with people who write historical fiction a lot, obviously because I do myself and because of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is now out there… what I find is that a lot of beginners are channelling their favourite historical novelist. So, you know, a lot of secondhand Bernard Cornwell, a lot of… some secondhand Heyer. And so, of course, it’s important that that’s where they get a lot of their sense of story. But if they want to write something that is really fresh and jumps off the page, they’re going to have to go back to the places that Cornwell drew on, the places that Peter Akroyd drew on. Because that’s the only way you’re going to find something fresh and original. And of course, that’s what Heyer did.

SARA-MAE: Emma’s book The Mathematics of Love is set in Regency England. And I was interested in whether or not Emma struggled, being such a Heyer fan, when it came to slipping in any of Heyer’s famous cant.

EMMA: Not too much, actually. I went back to Austen. Obviously I grew up on on Austen, my mother used to read her to us aloud. And reading aloud is brilliant for getting the sort of cadences… but I did go back and look at her sentences. There are a lot of memoirs from the Napoleonic Wars. I had a lot of that. I did know where I could find the sources that Heyer found for the camp. I mean, it’s all there. Most of it’s on the shelves of the London Library. And I didn’t go and find them because that wasn’t who my character was. He wasn’t an idle young man about town playing with thieves’ cant for the fun of it. I mean, I’m absolutely sure there are Heyerisms in there. If I went and looked, and that’s fine, you know, she’s tuned my ear, just like Peter Akroyd’s tuned it, you know. And I read a lot of Dick Francis as an adolescent, I spent most of my time alternating between, you know, 1970s racecourses, and Almacks in 1815. So, you know, you never quite know where bits come from. I don’t remember having to tell myself not to, I think they just didn’t because of who my character was, who Steven was. And he was a soldier and wasn’t in that world, but maybe I can’t remember to be honest. [Laughs]

But I’m sure that the cadences… in some senses, what I did was what Heyer did and went back to the originals. You know, it’s worth remembering she was born in 1880… [Editor’s note: 1902] Her earliest books are now… I realised this the other day with a bit of a shock… the earliest books are written exactly halfway between us now and the period she’s setting them in. The Black Moth came out in something like 1921.

SARA-MAE: As we mentioned in last week’s episode, Georgette wrote her first book at the age of nineteen – ludicrously young. This is a very lowering thought for those of us still wrestling with manuscripts in our thirties.

EMMA: I think one has to remember that women’s lives and the education of women was an awful lot narrower. You know, we all know an awful lot about biology and physics, than I’m sure she did. You know, and her father had a good library and she just… and there was no telly. So, you know, she just would have spent a heck of a lot of time reading. Mine came out different because I am different.

SARA-MAE: Everything we’ve been talking about comes back to the question of finding your voice as a writer – but in our early work we often lift our skirts and show the er…ankles of our influences? Wow, that metaphor was tripping over itself. Get it? (Sheesh I’m glad I didn’t tell that joke to Emma.)

EMMA: I’m never bothered by a student who’s writing feels like them trying to write like some famous writer, I think that’s completely fine. It’s a very natural process. What you want to do is then encourage them to kind of move on from that with the tools that it’s taught them and then find what their own particular synthesis is of what they’ve read, and who they really are.

SARA-MAE: Emma’s written two books, A Secret Alchemy and The Mathematics of Love, in which she tackles two very different time periods, Mediaeval and Regency. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt it myself, because the thought of all the research involved puts me right off, whereas both Emma and Heyer appear to be drawn to that very academic side of writing, enjoying poring over historical texts. Emma’s resources were a little closer to home. In The Mathematics of Love (a seductive combination of regency romance, gothic novel and Bildungsroman) she drew on the experiences of yet another of her famous ancestors, Thomas Wedgwood, who pioneered advances in early photography. Incidentally, her family tree is littered with talent and genius, with at least ten Fellows of the Royal Society and several artists and poets (including the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams)…

EMMA: There’s kind of two stages to the challenge of researching in order to write historical fiction. And first is finding the star. And you know, frankly, it’s an awful lot easier if you’re researching the stuff of your own country. And it is there and a lot of its online now, though, not all of it. But I think there’s a second process that has to go on, which is what Rose Tremain calls ‘leaving the research behind’. And she says, all the research you do, whether it’s historical or, you know, for other purposes, you know, geographical or factual, she says it must come untethered. It must loose definition until it’s ready to be used by the creative brain.

SARA-MAE: Emma cites this quote in its entirety on her excellent blog: The Itch of Writing. It comes from Rose Tremain’s essay “The First Mystery”:

“…All the research done for a novel – all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been – must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question…

Graham Green, when asked by a journalist how he would make use of an important experience he’d had in South East Asia, replied: “It’s yours to remember and mine to forget.” He was talking about the novelist’s task of reimagining reality. Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction. Data transferred straight from the research area to the book will simply remain data. It will be imaginatively inert.”

EMMA: One thing I’ve noticed is that if someone says please write a blog post about your process, a lot of my process is actually about trying to allow that business of letting go of the facts. I never write worse than when I’ve got the textbook in the other hand, because the printed words, they’re terribly powerful, it’s very…they dominate your brain, and they have a source of authority. That means they march straight across from the textbook onto my own pages, and it’s extremely difficult to tell them to bugger off. And so I have to do that by putting the book back on the shelf and going away and doing something else. And then writing the scene when I forgotten it all. And just trusting my memory. Maybe I took notes, but I haven’t got the notes in my hand now… trusting my sense of story to bring up the stuff that the story needs and not bring out the stuff that’s just tasty historical material that I want to put in. You have to let the story control what it needs. And it might need really very little.

When I am working with writers and actually just when I read historical fiction that I don’t think is very good: published stuff, very often it feels as if the research tail is wagging the story dog. I’ve got plenty of history stuff on my shelf, what I want is a story that reads as naturally as if they’d written a story about London in 2017. And I think that’s what Heyer’s good at.

SARA-MAE: A lot of Heyer’s very deep research is undervalued by critics. Her books on the Napoleonic Wars, An Infamous Army and Spanish Bride in particular, were meticulous in their period detail. I have to say, though, these two are not my favourites, but An Infamous Army is still used as a teaching tool at Sandhurst. Georgette was very proud of this.

EMMA: And I think she suffered actually from the fact that the spine of the story was, you know, a man and a woman getting together and failing to get together and all that stuff. And the fact that she was a woman, she suffered…historical fiction in general suffered as well from being dismissed from it being assumed that it was silly lady novelists… that’s actually partly to do with how history developed as a discipline in the 20th century, but she did suffer from it and [was not] taken as seriously.

SARA-MAE: Heyer longed to be able to write more serious novels like Penhallow, but they simply didn’t sell as well as her Regency romances or her detective fiction. And because she always seemed to be strapped for cash, she ended up focussing more on these sorts of works. Personally, I find Penhallow very tough going, possibly a deliberately punishing read about a family in Cornwall with an abusive patriarch. Also, her ‘tec fiction as she called it, isn’t as successful. For me, her Regency work is where her genius really came into its own.

EMMA: I do like Golden Age detective fiction, I adore Sayer and Allingham. And I like Christie. I mean, I don’t find hers particularly… I don’t think she took them terribly seriously, to be honest. They always were, you know, on the whole, they’re a nice break from writing what she really wanted to write and you know, and they made some extra money. I think one problem is that they date because they’re contemporary to then, and therefore they feel very ’30s and ’40s. Whereas historical fiction, actually it dates because you know, she is writing in the ’30s or the ’40s. But it doesn’t…it’s not so obvious that it dates because the slang is Regency slang. Her heart’s clearly in the historical stuff. I think she did, to some extent, in order to keep on publishing and keep on selling… I mean, God, the amount she sold, she must have made choices about what to write and what not to write. I mean, it’s notable that she’s writing a broader spread of, of different kinds of things earlier. I know Jennifer Kloester talks about how you can tell from the some of the jackets and so on, her historical fiction was published as fiction, if you see what I mean… general fiction that happened to be historical.

It’s only as the century goes on, that she starts being slotted into that niche. I mean, I think that would be common…I can’t say I’ve studied it in detail, but I think you’d find that was true with a lot of historical fiction writing that historical fiction in general got shoved off into a ghetto. I mean, it always reminds me a bit of Terry Pratchett saying you can write about, you know, the future of the universe, the depths of the heart, but as soon as you put a dragon in it, it gets put in science-fiction. It’s a bit like that… you can write about absolutely anything under the sun and as soon as you put a corset in it…

I think it’s changed enormously… I was a teenager when people like Peter Ackroyd were writing and then and there’s people like William Golding and John Fowles, and I’m afraid it’s partly because they’re men, they got taken more seriously. But also, it was that history with a capital ‘H’ is the discipline in the 20th century, it went through very sort of scientific stages, it reacted against the Victorian idea of kind of grand stories of great men and got down and dirty with, you know, parliamentary division roles and got very, very technical and was trying – possibly as a reaction to what had happened in the First and the Second World Wars – it was trying to be very emotionless and very much not about great people, or even small people, but not about people, but about social movements. And of course, Marxism had a big influence. Social movements and economic structures… and therefore anything that looked as if it was telling stories about history was deeply suspect, rather vulgar and probably very “girly” –  in quotation marks, I hope you realise!

And so, Heyer, along with people like Mary Renault, who is one of the great 20th century novelists, but because she’s writing about ancient Greece, she for a long time was considered… you know, parked off in that ghetto. And so, I think Heyer has suffered from that too.

SARA-MAE: We talked earlier about Heyer’s imitators, but it suddenly occurs to me that in some ways, you might say that Heyer was imitating Austen, whom she greatly admired. There are some people who wouldn’t want to mention Heyer in the same breath as Austen, such is their disdain for her. What does Emma think?

EMMA: I think Heyer clearly draws enormously on Austen. I think she has different settings. The voice very clearly draws on that, you know, if there’s a fluffy cloud somewhere with the world’s great writers on it, unquestionably has Austen on it. I don’t think it has Heyer on it.

SARA-MAE: This gets to the heart of one of the things I want to explore over the series. What makes a writer canon? What excludes Heyer, for example, from the fluffy cloud? I suppose for one thing, she wasn’t remotely religious, which is one of the reasons some of her Medieval novels didn’t quite ring as true as her Regency era books. She never fully understood the depth of passion for God, which people of those times would have felt. Still, what is it that sets top tier writers apart as classic authors?

EMMA: I’m talking about the hundred greatest writers all the way around the world there. But you know, that’s a bit like saying because we’ve got Beethoven, we don’t need Franz Lehar.

SARA-MAE: I admit, my classical music knowledge is sketchy. I had to look Franz Lehar up – FYI he was an Austro-Hungarian composer known mostly for his operettas… I have to admit, I’d have slotted him and Beethoven into the same category. So, for the sake of the other dummies out there, let’s swap him out for a more low-brow option: Nickelback? The Spice Girls? Bon Ivor?

EMMA: It’s not a particularly useful thing to put them up against each other. It’s apples and oranges to some extent, you know, any more than it’s useful to say, is Wodehouse as good as Dickens? Well, who cares?

SARA-MAE: This is an interesting point, and also, what do you mean by ‘good’ anyway? The reason I’ve been drawing the Austen/Heyer parallel, is because, often when I mention Heyer to people, they look at me blankly. So, it’s been easier for me to say, if you want that Austen fix, why not give Heyer a go?

EMMA: Depending a bit on what you love about Austen, but yes. A friend of mine, called [Heyer] brain chocolate, and I think that’s absolutely perfect. I certainly think if you like a really clever, witty, ironic… I think one thing that Heyer suffers from this is that people don’t see the irony? She’s very sharp. Somebody called Jane Austen sharp-tongued comedies about sex and money. And she’s absolutely right, though there is always at the heart of a Heyer, you know, the question of can a man and a woman work it out so that they can make a partnership.

You know, there’s a lot of irony. There’s some very sharp descriptions. She’s quite cynical in some ways. What it’s not is ever sentimental. And always shrewd, I think, is the word I want.

SARA-MAE: Yes, very shrewd about her characters, particularly the ones she’s kind of…her sort of tropes. Her heroes and…speaking of which, what are your favourite Heyers? And why?

EMMA: My favourite-ist of all Heyer, is Venetia.

SARA-MAE: That’s mine as well.

EMMA: Well, I think also, it’s because Venetia is one of her most proactive heroines. And she, you know, she basically does make her life, you know, with incredibly limited possibilities for a gentlewoman of that date to actually have any agency about shaping her own life. And she really does. It’s difficult not to succumb to that. I never know it’s DAME-erel or DAM-erel… I think partly because one of my personal ‘buttons’ is the bad man who heroically won’t ask you to marry him because he’s a bad man, that kind of thing. Terrible, terrible. But also, because it’s a particularly equal partnership. In how they make friends, what they like about each other. You know, in any world that’s appealing and particularly in a world where the genders are not equal at all. I think it’s a very convincing exploration of how to make a marriage equal, when the world doesn’t think you are, if that makes any sense.

SARA-MAE: And also how the fact that she has, like you’re saying… she has so much agency and dynamism even though she’s surrounded by selfish men in her life, that kind of… the ones who should be seeing to happiness and she has to take it into her own hands. And everybody in her life wants to tell her exactly how to live it and what you should do and she’s determined to bypass that and be happy.

EMMA: Yes, and to do things that are not terribly respectable, and to pull herself free from the selfish people. All the people who don’t care. I think it’s a lovely book. And actually, of course, Damerel is the least selfish of all in the sense that he refuses to ask her to marry him because he knows that she’ll say yes. And he doesn’t think she should say yes.

SARA-MAE: Yeah, he doesn’t think he deserves it.

EMMA: It gets me every time.

SARA-MAE: I know…and just the dialogue and the humour. And also, it’s not like she’s blinded to his faults. She loves him in spite of his faults. And they joke about his peccadilloes and things, which is really fun.

EMMA: His disreputable behavior. I mean, you know, it’s crossed my mind that the real Damerel would have had syphilis.

SARA-MAE: Not a good look.

EMMA: Not a good look. But actually, of course, I mean, that I do think is part of the appeal. One has to admit to it, that it’s not the real world at all. No, and there are lots of ways in which it conforms to an ideal sort of, well, the ‘golden world’ and you know, that’s part of the comfort that’s why one reads her when one’s got flu.

SARA-MAE: Hmm. So just to finish off on a biographical note. In her biographies, Heyer can sometimes… she comes across a little bit caustic, a tiny bit crusty when it comes to dealing with people.

EMMA: Oh, yes. I think she’s very forthright. Yes.

SARA-MAE: As someone who’s had numerous books written about various illustrious family members, I really want to know if Emma thinks a biography can truly get to the truth of a person? I’ll caveat this thought by saying I think both Jennifer Kloester and Aiken Hodge did a great job, especially Kloester, who had access to a treasure trove of letters which Aiken Hodge didn’t.

EMMA: Yes, I agree, I think they did. And actually, I have to say that I don’t think I would have liked her at all. [Laughs] I mean, the caustic side, it can be good fun, and it’s definitely what makes her books not marshmallowey and soppy. It’s because she can be very sharp about people. I think her politics were extremely… not mine. You know, she was an unashamed snob, which is one reason that it works in the historical fiction because you know, the class divisions there, whatever you think of them being wrong, historically, you don’t have to pussyfoot around them, because everybody agreed they were there. Much more problematic in the second half of the 20th century. I don’t think I would have liked her at all.

In terms of biography, I do think they both bring her alive. A biography can bring someone to life in a way to the extent that a photograph can. If you ever see two or three photographs of the same person, they can look remarkably different, and have a very different feel. And part of the biographer’s job is to create a sense of a convincing, whole person. But another biography might create a very convincing person who does seem a bit different. Herbert Butterfield, who was a very interesting early 20th century historian who, interestingly, was not as passionately anti-historical fiction, as most of them and wrote an interesting little book of historical fiction about different periods and how it brings history alive. And he said, just because there are a million views of a mountain, does not mean that all views are true, or no views are true. Which I think is really, really worth… it’s actually very worth hanging on to when you’re thinking about historical writing as a discipline. But I think it applies to biography as well as the sort of… there is the core truth which is the real person. And then good biographies give you a really good sense of that real person, but they cannot be the real person. And then there will be biographies you read and you think, ‘This is not a view of the mountain’! That’s not the mountain, but nothing can be the mountain, except the mountain.

SARA-MAE: I suppose what Emma means here is that, unless you’re talking to the person yourself, Mohamed going to the mountain so to speak, you can’t really get at the pith of someone, only an approximation based on assimilating many different facts. Perhaps biographies always bear the writer’s stamp. Jennifer Kloester talked to me about this in an upcoming episode – and she had many previously undiscovered letters at her disposal. But even letters and diary entries can be misleading. That’s why I don’t keep a diary, I tried it once and it was hopelessly self-indulgent. What I mean is, even these sorts of epistles might be misleading as to the true nature of their subject – though I suppose it depends who we’re writing for.

EMMA: There’s always the question of audience, you know, one’s writing a letter to a particular person. I find that very fascinating in fiction, actually, because you have a more direct sense of ‘audience’ and also when one writes letters to a particular purpose. I mean, even in the days when people wrote  letters instead of phoning up, there was a reason that you spoke to this or that person. I always think it’s a bit hard when someone digs into some famous person’s letters and finds them being a bit of a snob.

We all talk differently to intimates from how we do publicly. But that’s not the whole picture. People’s public-facing – photographers know this – how the person presents themselves is just as interesting.

SARA-MAE: In spite of her real-life crustiness Heyer is one of those authors I can read again and again, a port in a storm where I can rest assured that I’m in safe hands as soon as I open one of her books.

EMMA: Yes, you know what you’re going to get. And of course, that’s one of the ways you make a career writing the same sort of book is that people buy them knowing that they’re going to get something which is both new and interesting because it’s a new story, but also utterly reliable in what sort of pleasures it’s going to deliver. You know what you’re going to get, I mean, statistically the most likely next book for any person to buy, is a book by an author they’ve just read. And that is because you know what you’re going to get! I recently chaired the debut Crown Judges…

SARA-MAE: Emma’s referring to the Historical Novelist Society competitions which they call the ‘Crowns’, much like the Crime Writer’s Association has the Dagger awards.

EMMA: And I was blogging about those books on the shortlist and what a historical fiction writer could learn from any writer really. And I find the word that kept coming up was confidence. And these are new writers, then I was trying to think, okay, it’s all very well telling people to have confidence when they write, but what’s it made of? And I realised, it was about knowing what you’re trying to do and doing it very wholeheartedly. Not pulling back, not having doubts. Well, you might have doubts in the writing, but it comes across as I’m doing it wholeheartedly and wholly, and that gives the writing this coherence and consistency and working in a particular way. With Heyer one sinks into it. You know, it’s going to work. And I’ve made some converts. I usually suggest reading either Venetia or The Grand Sophy.

SARA-MAE: What does Emma say to convince people to read Heyer?

EMMA: Her research is impeccable. But also she’s very sharp and she’s very, very funny. And I say try… if you want something funny, then The Grand Sophy probably is as funny as any of them. And there’s this sort of energy, partly because of who Sophy is, you know, there’s a tremendous energy there. And also in some ways, it’s kind of classic Heyer because there it is in London, it’s the social round, all the balls, you know, all that stuff. But for the really…in some ways, the deeper certainly there is a quite a deep exploration of what makes two people be the right people for each other. I think Venetia maybe because it’s slightly slower paced, and it’s not endless balls. And also because there are obstacles in the way of them getting together. Time for Heyer to explore what it is that makes this sort of deeply satisfying partnership that we really want to work. Certainly, I would always prescribe for anyone writing historical fiction. A) For voice, not to imitate it, but to discover what a consistent voice feels like. And also, for how the research (and particularly the later books), it doesn’t stick out as research.

SARA-MAE: No, she wore it very lightly.

EMMA:  And I’m sure it was because she’d done it so often.

SARA-MAE: Thank you so much for spending time chatting with me today.

EMMA: You’re very welcome. It’s lovely, always very happy to talk Heyer.

SARA-MAE: To finish off, I ask Emma what’s she’s working on at the moment, and where you can find her on the interwebs.

EMMA: Emmadarwin.com, they can find out more about writing on my blog about writing which is This Itch of Writing, which you can Google. And I have just finished the first draft of a big novel, there’s a lot more to do, which is set in the 16th century, which is a great big beast. I mean, my next job is to get out of the machete and have a real hack at it. So, I’ve just finished that. And I also just wrote a rather peculiar memoir, lovely to talk to you.

SARA-MAE: Cheers. Have a great day. Bye.

SARA-MAE: Remember I mentioned her novel This Is Not a Book About Darwin? This is the memoir she’s talking about – you can buy it now at any good book seller. The 16th century book she’s referring to is A Secret Alchemy – which is also available to buy. Go and grab these fabulous reads now.

Next time, we’ll be having our second book club episode, covering Devil’s Cub – be sure and hop over to Audible to listen to the audio book – it’s a fabulous, swashbuckling read, featuring murder in the first chapter (well self-defense), a kidnapping and a hero with what some might call… severe impulse control problems.

I’ll be trying to convert the bassist from my band, Khalid Ham to Heyer’s work, and, as he’s the same age as the hero, trying to establish if the modern youth duels and shoots the flames off candles quite as much as their regency counterparts.

All of that, plus we’ll be looking at what was happening in Georgette’s life at the time – with brilliant voice actors recreating Heyer’s excursion to Tanganyika, Africa…hint, there’s a rhino involved.

Till next time, don’t be a muffin-faced clunch – stream us on Heyer Today.

This episode was recorded, produced and edited by me, Sara-Mae Tuson, with production, writing and research help from Beth Keehn and Will Dell from Aurality for production support. Mike Scott for picking up milk and stellar production assistance.

Thanks also to Geraldine Elliot, Talitha Gamaroff and everyone who supported me in creating this work. Suzy Buttress in particular, but the podcast community at large for so much inspiration and encouragement.

The music used in this episode is from Emma Gattril’s wondrous album, Chapter I, as well as Jerome Alexander’s luscious Message to Bears tunes. Original music was composed especially for the podcast  by Sara-Mae and Tom Chadd.

Comment and take part in our discussions on social media, we’re @fablegazers on Instagram and @fable_gazers on Twitter.

Remember to rate, review and subscribe…I can’t tell you how much it helps small indie companies like us to thrive.

Heyer Today is a Fable Gazers production.

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