Interview by Victoria Best
First of all, I have to say that Annabel, my co-editor, and I are both enormous fans of your books. [Laurie: THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!!] We’ve both been reading since Perfect Meringues days. That was a contemporary novel but it wasn’t long before you moved into historical fiction – what motivated that development, do you think?
Partly frustration at being neither fish nor fowl, neither mass market nor Literary Novelist. My novels have had fabulous reviews but no great commercial success. That’s a pretty strong motive for making a change. But I also wanted to develop my writing muscles by attempting bigger stories, and I had often wondered why there was so little humour in historical fiction. Which leads me neatly to your next question.
No writer makes me laugh more reliably than you do – where did your wonderful sense of humour come from?
Who ever knows where these things come from? I can only say that my father was a very funny man and a horribly clever mimic so I suppose I grew up seeing the world through his prism. That said, it has been remarked more than once that I don’t look like a person with a sense of humour. To which I can only reply, ‘have you ever seen a picture of Mark Twain?
In your latest novel, The Grand Duchess of Nowhere, you’ve focused on the delightful Ducky, granddaughter of Queen Victoria (her real namesake) who married into the Russian Tsars. She’s a wonderful character – how do you develop a narrative voice for a historical figure who has actually lived and breathed?
It’s a responsibility – not on the brain surgery scale of things admittedly, but still one has a duty of care, and one must always bear in mind that there may be descendants who won’t necessarily approve of one’s take on their ancestor. But the thing is, my narrators, whether real or fictional, are people I’ve warmed to and I hope that is reflected in the voices I give them.
It felt like there must have been a great deal of research hiding in the background to this novel – how do you undertake your research, and however did you keep all those family relations and their multiple stories clear in your mind?
I wish I could say I have a carefully kept card index and filing system but I’m afraid I’m actually a research slattern. I do some preliminary reading, to establish a time-line and to get a flavour of the period but all I end up with is a scruffy pile of notes that I shuffle through occasionally. Where there’s a complicated family history, as with the Hanoverians in A Humble Companion, or the Romanovs in The Grand Duchess of Nowhere, I keep a family tree in the aforementioned scruffy pile.
You’ve written about several wildly high-profile families (Windsors, Kennedys, Romanovs); what is it about that them that you want to show to the wider world in your storytelling?
I think it’s very easy for a famous family’s oft-repeated mythology to take deep root but there’s almost always another (and more interesting) story there: the gypsy curse on the Kennedys (wrong), Wally Simpson’s ambition to be Queen (wrong), the po-faced and tragic Romanovs (not exactly. Now read on…)
What tempts you to a particular historical era or character? When do you know you could create a novel from them?
Without wishing to sound completely bonkers – something speaks to me. I might see a photograph or hear a little snippet of information. Sometimes I get this fizzy feeling in my solar plexus. Sometimes my mind just keeps returning to a topic. Either way I then know that I’m going to write about it, even if I don’t get round to it for many years.
How did you first get started as a writer?
Writing was always something I did. Christmas plays for school, stuff like that. I was also an avid reader as a child but I had no concept of writing as a profession. I suppose I thought books were just cranked out by a big machine called Enid Blyton. I didn’t really start trying to write in the hope of publication until I was in my 30s. And I was nearly 40 by the time I was first published.
I read in an interview you gave elsewhere such an intriguing comment: that you’d ‘collected monsters’ all your life. I’d love to hear more about that!
It’s probably because I’m a naturally quiet, law-abiding, unmemorable person. Putting flesh on a fictional monster allows my alter ego out of its box without any harm done. I think this goes also back to my father who had a sharp eye for oddballs and chancers, and a good ear for subtext. I’m a bit of a collector of obituaries too, because a good obituarist will omit to tidy away the kind of tell-tale thread that is a gift to novelists.
I’ve been reading your blog, which is always entertaining. How did you get into blogging and what do you like about the form?
I started blogging because you have to. To be a published writer and not have a blog these days is like walking down the street without putting your trousers on. And having started I discovered that blogging is a great platform for me for the following reasons: a) it’s mine, all mine, and no cloth-eared copy editor can barge in and ruin it; b) it feels conversational, even if no-one is listening; and c) it can be as daft, whimsical or deadly serious as I want it to be.
Your biography in the front of your books often states that you have been sacked from many newspapers and magazines – in a way that sounds most amusing – how do you manage to deal with the dreadful lack of security in a writer’s life these days?
It is dreadful and it keeps me awake at night. I’m now in my late 60s and I’m the sole breadwinner since my husband developed Alzheimer’s. Getting hired and fired has always been the freelancer’s lot and you do learn to bounce back, psychologically, but when you’re younger you can contemplate changing careers if things really aren’t working out. I fear that for me that ship has already sailed.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
THE GRAND DUCHESS OF NOWHERE by Laurie Graham is published by Quercus on 2 October, hardback.