An Interview with Joanne Limburg

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By Victoria

What I absolutely loved about A Want of Kindness was the voice you’ve managed to create. It was so brilliantly of the 17th century without ever losing clarity or sounding false. How did you go about creating it?

Thank you. It took a while to develop. I decided to use some version of the 17th century voice because I was committed to Anne’s perspective, and the language available to her would have determined the thoughts she was able to have, and the way she could express them. The problem was that I knew very little about that period or its literature, so I had to set about immersing myself in it. I started with the King James Bible, which I read right through, and looked into other religious texts that Anne would have been familiar with. These were the Book of Common PrayerThe Whole Duty of Man and Foxe’s Martyrs. Anne’s religious and moral vocabulary is taken from these. I was also lucky enough to be able to get access to the letters she wrote to Sarah Churchill, which are held in the British Library, and from these I picked up Anne’s characteristic writing style and her linguistic ticks (‘It is so much trouble to me…. I cannot hinder myself… you cannot imagine…I have so much kindness…) which gave me a basis for the first-person sections.

I stuck to the 17th Century vocabulary restriction for the other sections of the novel too, which meant I was very reliant on all kinds of 17th Century primary texts, and a very large Historical Thesaurus.

How did you feel about Anne and Mary by the end of writing the novel? They are such complex and real characters, infuriating and endearing all at once. What was it like to live with them for the duration of a book?

‘Infuriating and endearing’ is spot on! Anne hasn’t been written about much, and it may partly be that she is so very frustrating, with her stubbornness and rather short-sighted way of looking at things. She isn’t beautiful or brilliant or dashing. She is very much of her time, which can make her difficult for us to empathise with, but that was what I wrote to book to try and do. What drew me to her in the first place was her tragic obstetric history: I have experienced pregnancy loss myself, though nothing like on the same scale, and Anne’s story offered me a way to explore this subject in fiction – it happens to so many women, and yet it’s so rarely talked about. So I went into the project already identifying with her as a woman and as a mother, and that was a sound start. And then you can’t live with a character for four or five years, as I did, without becoming close to them.

I came to the end of the book feeling a little guilty towards Anne’s older sister, Mary. She seems by most accounts to have been a very likeable person, sociable, thoughtful and kind, but Anne fell out with her, and I was writing from Anne’s perspective, from which Mary can look rather unkind. I did feel for her though: she also suffered many losses, she was lonely and insecure and always so terribly anxious about doing the right thing.

At the front of my copy, you write about being drawn to Anne for some shared similarities but it wasn’t until you properly researched her that you realised what a story she had. What was that research like? Did you get completely sucked into a torrent of historical books and records? How did you keep it all straight?

Completely and utterly sucked in! It’s very seductive, and potentially never-ending: you read a book or a paper, there’s something in the bibliography that looks useful, so you move onto that and there’s something in the bibliography etc etc I’ve built up quite a 17th/early 18th Century research library (which I shall have to justify by using again) and I also subscribed to British History Online while I was writing the book. I had a historical crib, the various biographies as well, and I would pull dates from them all and bring them together in timelines, so that I wouldn’t put someone where they couldn’t have been or forget that somewhere offstage there was a crucial naval battle or parliamentary debate going on…. It was both hugely absorbing and a major headache.

How did you go about blending fact and fiction together? Were you conscious at any point of going beyond the scope of archive material and into the realm of imagination? Were there any particular liberties you took with history?

As I mentioned in the previous answer, I did my best to be meticulous and faithful to the facts as far as they’re recorded, but in the end I had decided to write a novel because I was interested most of all in the quality of Anne’s experience, and how she interpreted events, and that meant I would have to speculate. Most of the dialogue in the novel is made up – though sometimes I would throw in bits from Anne’s letters – and the first person bits, the interior monologues, are of course my invention, though, again, phrases from Anne’s letters did make their way into them. The only liberty I took knowingly was to have Anne encounter Grinling Gibbons’ carvings at Windsor at a time when they probably weren’t there – but by the time I found that out I was quite attached to the scene I’d made up, so I decided it wouldn’t do such terrible harm to leave it in! Also, although Mary Cornwallis did exist, very little is known about her, and none of Anne’s letters to her survive, so although someone with that name was Anne’s beloved friend, and was dismissed after the embarrassing business I write about in the book, I effectively made her up as a character.

That said, although I had committed myself to writing a novel, I included real documents – including Anne’s letters – where they were the best way of telling the story. I felt that it would be perverse to withhold those wonderful letters to Mary and replace them with something diluted.

At the very end, I wondered whether you might be considering a sequel? In all honesty this is probably wishful thinking, but even so…?

As I said, I need to justify the purchase of all those books! And Anne’s time on the throne is another story again.

You are a poet and a memoirist too – I wonder whether there were aspects of both these ways of writing that turned out to be helpful in creating historical fiction?

As a poet, I’m used to writing short pieces with lots of white space round them, and also in taking apart the language people use to see what they’re doing with it, and think both those things fed into the novel. Starting out with 17th language as a formal restriction wasn’t unlike setting out to write a sonnet, or a sestina, or a pantoum, and committing myself to a set of rules: although on the face of it, this makes for a harder task, in some ways it’s easier, as it sets the parameters for you and reduces the number of tiny decisions you have to make. From memoir-writing I knew how it felt to write something book-length, and giving an account of a fictional character’s experience from an inside perspective isn’t so different from writing about one’s own.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

Lots of notes first – in notebooks, on post-its, the back of envelopes – then a first draft in Word; after that scribbling all over the first draft; then an edited draft.

What will you be writing next – will you be tempted to carry on with historical fiction, or will you want the variety of something quite different?

I’m working towards a PhD in Creative Writing, and my creative project for that is another memoir, about bereavement this time. I have an idea for a very different kind of novel, but that’s all I want to say at this stage…. and of course I would like to return to Anne, and – in the nicest possible way – finish her off.

Which authors have most inspired you over your writing career?

Muriel Spark’s a big influence. Her novels are structured like poems, and I love her tone. Hilary Mantel, Penelope Fitzgerald and Janice Galloway were my historical fiction inspirations.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Read her review of A Want of Kindness in our Fiction section here.

Joanne Limburg, A Want of Kindness (Atlantic Books: London, 2015). 978-1782395850, 464pp., hardback.

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