Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Interview with M.M. Bennetts

Today we're welcoming M.M. Bennetts to the blog. She was gracious enough to answer my interview questions and tell us all more about herself and her work. Read on to find out more!

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May I just say how very pleased I am to be answering your questions and talking about this book.  It was a work that was a long time in coming--percolating, you might say.  And I'm always so delighted when it's touched someone.  That means more than you can imagine.  So thank you for having me...
 
1. History is obviously an interest for you, given your background, but what made you decide to write about this era?
 
The truth?  It was one too many university lectures on the Black Death.  I'd started life as a mediaevalist, you see, and I was specialising in15th century Italian history, which I loved.  But...one afternoon, the lecture was on the bubonic plague which had ravaged Europe in the 14th century.  It wasn't the first time I'd had to study it.  And I sat there listening, thinking, "That's it.  I can't do this.  I just can't."
 
At the time, I was living on an old family estate and the big house there had been designed and built by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).  And I simply loved the architecture of that building.  I loved the painting and portraiture of the era too, and for most of my life, I'd been playing the sonatas of Beethoven (1770-1827), so I had a route into their thought-processes through the music they listened to.  So you could say it was the art, architecture, music and poetry that really sucked me in.     
 
2. I will admit history is not my best subject. How much of the detail in Of Honest Fame is accurate?
 
The detail is all accurate.  The history is all accurate--as accurate as I could (with a bibliography of some 200 books) make it.  The details of the horrors in Poland and Silesia as the French troops advanced into Russia, that's what happened.  There was a coup led by General Malet to seize control of the French government--just as I've described.  The 29th Bulletin with Napoleon's version of what happened to the troops in Russia as well as his return to Paris, that too is just as I've described.
 
What I wanted to do was create a cast of characters with whom the reader would wholly engage, so that you'd see the history unfolding just as they saw it, just as they lived it.  And although I did create these fictional characters and weave them into the web of history, those individuals who really existed--Castlereagh, Planta, Beethoven--well, as to them, I hope and believe that I've captured them accurately and honestly. 
 
3. You have a large cast of characters. Did you develop the details of each character's story individually, or together within the bulk of the story line?
 
One of the things I've always loved are novels--like those of Dickens--which have several storylines and at least two 'heroes' on the go at any time.  Like in Our Mutual Friend or A Tale of Two Cities. So the answer to your question is really both.  The character of Boy Tirrell was just there.  As he is.  Dunphail was there.  Thos Jesuadon too was just there from the outset of the idea.  But other characters, like Tom Ladyman, Barnet, Lady Wilmot, they just turned up on the page.  I'd sit down to write and think, "What next?" and there they'd be and they wouldn't hush up.  So I just gave them their heads.
 
Lady Wilmot was the most surprising of all of these because I had planned to have no other female characters but Miss MacDonald.  At all.  And then, there she was.  And her impact on the other characters was palpable and she turned everything upside down.  And no one was more amazed than me.
 
But to answer another facet of your question, I don't see myself as developing my characters' stories or even the story line.  I have an idea of a plot that catches my interest--in this case, the intelligence war between France and Britain.  But the characters, well, I just let them come to me and reveal themselves.  I let them live in my head until I know them inside out and they do the talking.  I then sort of throw them into the story and the history and see what happens and how it all unfolds.  It's an organic process.  I don't ever impose my will on them or on their reactions to things--they're not puppets for me to use as mouthpieces.  They're themselves.    
 
4. If you could choose one character that is really the main focus of this book who you would say that was? (For me, I would choose Boy Tirrell.)
 
I think that probably the main focus is Boy Tirrell.  Though others might argue it's Thos Jesuadon.  And probably that says I did it right.  Because intelligence networks--the ones that achieve something--are not the work of one individual, they're collaborative efforts.  There's a head, there are deputies, there are the field agents, there are the informers.  It's never a one-man show.  There's no such thing as James Bond.  Not really.
 
5. The use of dialect is very well done in this book. Did you become familiar with era-specific dialects through your academic pursuits?
 
Thank you for that!  I'm very glad the dialect and the slang worked.  One can never be certain, you know.
 
I read a great many journals and collections of letters of the era.  I also read their periodicals--newspapers and monthly magazines.  So I have their language in my head all the time, their turns of phrase, their idioms, their catch-phrases.  Sometimes if I happen across something I really like, I write it down for use later.  (Like "mushroom Corsican upstart"--that occurs frequently in private letters between political/military men of the period.)  I also use Captain Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1810.  So I always have this sense of how they spoke and thought--though of course, one must filter that for a 21st century audience.  I mean, if I wrote like the authors who wrote for the Ladies' Monthly of 200 years ago, you'd be gagging--it's so thick, some of it, that it's the literary equivalent of day-old porridge sitting like a glaucous lump in the bottom of the pot.  You can't slice it, you can't scrape it out...
 
6. I haven't read your first book May 1812, so for my sake as well as my readers, isOf Honest Fame a direct continuation as far as the characters go? Or were there new characters in the second book?
 
Of Honest Fame follows May 1812 in the sense that the action starts in midsummer 1812--a month after the finish of the other--but it's not a sequel.  It features some new characters, shares some characters, although the protagonists of each are only in the background of the other.  In that respect, they're perhaps similar to Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels.
 
The two books (and probably subsequent books as well) are meant to show different facets of the period and of the Napoleonic Wars and the Home Front.  Although they take place in a sequential order, set against the backdrop of emerging historical events, each stands on its own and each can be read without any knowledge of the other.  So they complement each other, but they're not sequels in the traditional sense. 
 
7. If I had picked this book up not knowing anything about you as the author, I would have believed this was written in the period discussed in the book because it seemed to be so well-captured to me, except for one aspect. In many books around that period the romantic and sexual areas of a relationship are very subdued. Of Honest Fame did utilize these more. Can you tell us more about your focus on the relationships in the book?
 
I take this as a great compliment.  Thank you.
The idea we have of a polite society engaged in a domestic comedy of manners such as Pride and Prejudice, that concept existed solely between the covers of a book.  It's not the whole truth though.  And I am rather devoted to the truth. 
Analysis of English parish records from 1785 show that 58% of women marrying for the first time were already pregnant.  (This number is arrived at by counting backwards from the date of their first child's birth.)  By 1800, that number was down to 40%.  So clearly there was a growing emphasis on morality, supported by the grass-roots religious movements of the age, such as Methodism.  But 40% is still a pretty high number--not at all as the later Victorian image would have us believe was the norm. 
 
One of the major themes of Of Honest Fame is redemption.  Europe was in a desperate state.  In 1812, they had been at war for twenty years.  From Portugal to Russia, the poverty was inconceivable.  All totalled some six million people died because of Napoleon's lust for power and personal glory.  Such a terrible waste of life.  Such great darkness and unending hopelessness!  How do you dispel that black night of loss on such a scale?
You begin by lighting a candle.  One candle.  One at a time.  One candle, one life.  And however slowly, soon, that candle will light another and then another...
 
I should probably say at this point, SPOILER ALERT.  If you've not read the book, please do skip to the next question...
 
When Marianne Wilmot entered the scene, she had an instant impact on all the characters and therefore on the plot, as I said.  And that really surprised me, because I just hadn't seen it coming. 
But having accepted that, within weeks of her appearance, I kept hearing in my mind the opening lines of a sonnet by Shakespeare:  "Being your slave, what shall I do but tend/ Upon the hours and times of your desire?   I have no precious time at all to spend,/ Nor services to do till you require..."  And I realised those lines had come to reflect the inner man of that character upon whom she had the most startling effect.
 
To me, there is absolutely no point to a love scene unless it illustrates something about the characters which simply cannot be demonstrated in any other way.  If it's not going to be an illustration of change or development or a facet of that character one might understand in no other way, then forget it.
  
And all the while, that sonnet, it kept speaking. And I knew that those were the words in that character's head when he was with her and when he wasn't.  His burgeoning affection for her was transforming him and he became the embodiment of that sonnet--at least privately. 
 
So his relationship with her became a kind of redemption from all that he was and had become as an intelligence man, from the grim realities of war, from all the anger and resentment.  She evoked in him such complete self-abnegation and utter devotion...such selflessness and care.
   
No one was more surprised by it all than me.  But I couldn't deny him it.    
 
8. Who are your favorite authors?
 
Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O'Brian, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Dickens.  Plus the greats:  William Shakespeare, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins...
 
9. Do you have any interesting quirks or rituals when you write?
 
I don't believe I do.  I may make a cup of tea.  I often listen to the same movement of a symphony or a sonata or a composition over and over again if it keeps me in the mood for what I'm meant to be writing--especially if working on a scene takes several days.  When I edit, I throw the discarded scenes or rewritten pages on the floor (the dog plays with them there).  My family says I have an 1812-face.  They say they can tell when I'm not in the room but I'm in 1812 by the expression on my face and they know to leave me alone...but I have to take their word for that--I've never seen it myself.
 
10. Can you tell us about any projects you have in the works? Especially when the next book is coming out? That last chapter just about killed me! 
 
Well, as you will have gathered, I do way too much research.  I go completely overboard.  I want to know everything--including things like what kind of horseshoes they had or what they had for breakfast or how they heated their houses.
 
I have the title.  The new book will be called, Or Fear of Peace.  And, while I still have another half dozen books and memoirs to read, the writing is underway, the plot is working itself out in my head, the characters are coming forward and saying, "I'm in..." 
So I am aiming for the new book to come out in autumn 2013, if not sooner...And I sincerely hope and trust that everyone will be patient with me, because the next one has to be, well, you know, even better...

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Thanks again to M.M. for taking the time to answer these interview questions. If you're interested in getting a copy for yourself head over to Amazon or enter to win this week only at http://www.britsunited.blogspot.co.uk/