Q&A with Nicola Upson

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Interview by Harriet

It’s seven years since your first ‘Josephine Tey’ novel, An Expert in Murder, was published by Faber, and this year sees London Rain, the sixth in this highly successful series (reviewed here [link]).  You clearly hit on a brilliant idea – using Josephine Tey, a detective novelist (1896-1952) as a detective in this series. Could you tell us something about how this idea came to you, and what drew you to Tey in the first place?

The series started with a love of those eight brilliant and very different crime novels that Tey wrote – and that remains the main inspiration, six books on. When I first read The Franchise Affair, many years ago now, I thought it was one of the most remarkable and original ‘detective’ novels that I’d ever read. It’s both a warm, nostalgic snapshot of a vanished England – pick it up and feel the sun on your face – and a dark, subversive story, way ahead of its time; it’s witty and elegant, with characters you care deeply about, and it breaks all Golden Age rules – no murder, no detective, an unconventional romance; she shouldn’t get away with it, but she does. More than anything, I loved that voice which is uniquely hers and can’t be imitated – intelligent, wry, forthright, romantic at times – and I wanted to know more about her. I went on to discover her achievements in the theatre, and became fascinated by the chameleon-like quality of her personality – very different, depending on the circles she moved in, Inverness or London, family or theatre. I started by researching a biography to celebrate those two literary identities, and was lucky enough to talk to many people who knew her well and worked with her, but there were still many gaps and they began to be as compelling as the facts. It was actually my partner who – one night, over a glass of wine – said ‘Oh for God’s sake, make it up!’ So the idea is to paint a truthful picture of Tey as I see her, set against those interwar years which were so significant for independent women like her, and to place her in a fictional mystery each time, the genre for which we now know her best. I owe her a great debt. Had it not been for her, I might never have written fiction.

One of the most fascinating features of these novels is the way you have interwoven fact and fiction. Josephine Tey did exist, of course, though she was really called Elizabeth MacKintosh, and a number of other characters are based on people from her immediate circle. And of course the novels are woven around events in her own real life. I’m curious to know how the planning for all this takes place – it sounds as if it might be quite complicated!

In these novels, she’s very definitely Josephine Tey; it’s the woman who wrote those crime novels that I’m hoping to convey, not Gordon Daviot (the name she used for plays and historical fiction), who had a very different voice, or Elizabeth MacKintosh. But all the books start with something real about her life or work – the success of Richard of Bordeaux, a year-long love letter written to her by an actress, a Hitchcock film based on her work – and she was so interesting that I never have to make that up. And she has led me to a world of extraordinary people in the 1930s, from actresses and writers to prison governors and murderers, all of whom made their mark for good or bad. They find their way into the books, some more grounded in their real-life counterparts than others. As a rule of thumb, if a character has his or her real name in these books, they didn’t do it!

Putting Tey or any real person into fiction is always controversial and some people hate the idea, although fortunately they seem to be in the minority. When I decided to do it, I laid down a ground rule for myself that I would always be on Josephine’s side and fight her corner (and the marvellous thing about fiction over biography is that you don’t have to be impartial), that I would try to recreate a woman whom the people who love her work would recognise, but who would also be interesting and credible to those who have never heard of Josephine Tey. The novel always comes first, though – it has to: writing down the facts of someone’s life doesn’t always make for a good story, but telling a story (I hope) sensitively and imaginatively will always bring a character to life, whether real or fictional.

In the course of every book, there’s a time when fact and fiction become very blurred because they have to co-exist credibly within the context of the story I’m telling. Sometimes, even I lose track of which is which. A couple of years ago, en route to an event in Josephine’s hometown of Inverness, I caught myself looking out of the window, thinking about how dramatic she must have found the contrast in landscapes as she regularly made that journey from Scotland to Suffolk, getting to know the cottage she’d inherited – then I remembered I’d made that bit up!

These novels are also impressive for their the historical background – in London Rain this is the events of the 1937 Coronation and its coverage by the BBC, which comes to life extremely vividly. Can you tell us something about how you go about the research for the novels?

The research into Tey is ongoing and runs in tandem with each individual novel. Setting is the other main spur, and in the case of London Rain, the place that interested me particularly was Broadcasting House. I read Val Gielgud’s detective novel, Death at Broadcasting House, and saw the 1934 film of the same name, much of which was shot in the then shiny, new BH, and I knew that I wanted to recreate that world. There was an innocence about the BBC back then, which is sadly tarnished for us now by the stain of recent scandals, but back then the Corporation was an enlightened employer and a haven for creative pioneers like Val Gielgud, who, as Head of Drama, revolutionised radio drama and gave it the richness that we still enjoy today. And research always leads the book off at tangents you never envisaged: I discovered that Gielgud began his BBC career at the Radio Times, so the Radio Times went into the book, too. It’s an institution in itself, which I’ve always loved; I grew up with one in the house every week, and for a writer it’s a great source of social history – what a nation is watching or listening to says a lot about its concerns. I ordered a copy from 1937 off the internet, and it happened to be the Coronation Special from May of that year. Until then, I’d never dreamed of setting the book then, but that single magazine with its iconic Nevinson cover art told me so much about the mood of the nation: the determination to move forward after the trauma of the abdication; the celebration in the streets; the ceremony itself, which – after hundreds of years of confinement within the walls of Westminster Abbey – was suddenly made available to the Empire through the presence of those BBC microphones for the very first time. It was an extraordinary moment in British history, and I wanted to set a very personal human drama against that backdrop.

That’s just the most recent example of how research can lead the story, but it’s been that way for every single book.

As you know, I have a special interest in these novels because my mother and aunt appear as characters, though luckily so far they haven’t committed any murders! There are numerous other recurring characters based on real people –  I wonder if you could say something about the relationship between the characters you have created and the originals they are based on? Is there any evidence for the love affair between Josephine and Marta (who I think is based on the actress Marda Vanne)?

That’s a hard question to answer, partly because I do a lot of it unconsciously in the natural process of writing, and partly because it’s different in each case – Hitchcock, for example, was truthful to my understanding of the real person, but others depart much sooner, and I think that to unravel fact and fiction too overtly takes away some of the joy of the books. The thing I always stick to faithfully is honouring the creative work, whether it’s Tey’s or someone else’s; the success of Richard of Bordeaux, for examplewas largely due to the theatrical ensemble that staged it, and I hope that the achievements of Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, John Gielgud and Motley shine through in An Expert in Murder, even if I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent. (And your mother and aunt will never commit any murders, I promise! I enjoy having them in the books too much.)

To take the specific example you’ve given, though – Marta is a fictional character and their love is a fictional love, so it’s not really a question of evidence. The relationship began in Two for Sorrow, largely because I wanted to write a love story. That book is very dark; it contains a harrowing and extreme act of violence against a young woman, and I genuinely wanted to counteract that with another sort of physicality, with a real love and tenderness; crime novels are often happy to depict violence graphically, and for once I wanted a scene where one human being reaches out to another and for that not to be about power or violence or hate. It was a significant moment in the development of Josephine as a character and a way of demonstrating both her vulnerability and Marta’s.

Marta is a composite of several of the women to whom the real Tey was close during her lifetime – as was Tey’s character, Marta Hallard, who appears in several of her novels. One of my inspirations was indeed an actress called Marda Vanne, who – from April 1935 to March 1936 – wrote Tey a year-long love letter in the form of a diary. Finding that diary in an archive – page after page of thin blue paper, covered in tiny handwriting and partly in code – was such an exciting discovery. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing – loving, angry, funny, perceptive and scorchingly honest. Some of Marda’s words from the diary are quoted in Two for Sorrow, and Marta has other influences, too – but she’s her own woman, and my own creation.

For me, the fictional aspect of their love is its closeness, not its lesbianism – although there are some who take issue with that and have been very quick to let me know! But their ongoing relationship is as important to me as any of the individual plotlines within the series, and the way that readers have warmed to that and seem as concerned about their future as I am is really satisfying for me.

It’s interesting that in this most recent novel we actually see the first murder taking place, a new development in your work. How easy do you find it to work within the constraints of the detective genre?

I’m not trying to dodge the question, but I genuinely don’t think there are constraints anymore, and that’s down to the writers who’ve come before and smashed them: people like Tey herself, who wrote in a very modern way about the widespread effects of crime and made it possible for us to write books which can treat it as an entertainment without ever forgetting its painful reality. Then PD James and Ruth Rendell, who made the crime novel a living, breathing reflection of the society and landscape we live in. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said something about books never existing separately from each other, even though they’re read that way, and that’s so true of crime fiction; I’m benefiting from a genre which has roots in a strong tradition, but which has always been restless in its ambitions.

Can you tell us something about your own writing process? When and where do you write?

I’m lucky to divide my time between Cambridge and Cornwall, so I get inspiration from two very different landscapes, one characterised by a striking man-made beauty, the other overwhelming in its natural power. I usually write in the mornings, carrying on into the afternoon if things are going well, and I’m far too easily distracted – although I get more disciplined as the deadline approaches. I’m quite ritualistic about some of the things that I associate with these books and I like to have them around me when I work: a copy of Richard of Bordeaux, inscribed by Gordon Daviot to a friend who was in the original cast; other things that my partner has given me during the writing of each novel; a pen pot which a great friend of mine who died recently had on her own desk for years. I write on a computer which is never connected to the internet, and I’m so superstitious about that because it’s been with me from An Expert in Murder; I’m honestly not sure what I’d do if anything happened to it. I had to have it cleaned recently, because a series of long-haired tabby cats has enjoyed helping me write by sitting on the keyboard, and I hated it being out of my sight. And I almost always write to music; at the moment, it’s Joni Mitchell, but it could be anything from Kate Bush to Renaissance choral music or the Rolling Stones. In fact, the Stones and the death of Brian Jones were great inspirations for London Rain; there are eighteen Stones songs hidden in the text, and the string quartet which provides the music during the broadcast of Josephine’s play are called Charles, Michael, William and Keith.

Which writers have inspired your own writing? And who would you suggest people should read?

Josephine Tey, obviously. I’m very envious of anyone who hasn’t read her as they have such a treat in store. Reginald Hill’s books taught me a lot about being brave with series characters and trusting your readers to go with you. And PD James has been a huge inspiration, both through her books, which are unsurpassed in their fusion of plot, setting and character, and more personally as a friend.

I love reading Irish fiction, and women writers from the 1920s to the 1950s, like Stella Gibbons, Rebecca West, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen and Angela Thirkell. I love Virginia Woolf. One of my favourite books of all time is A Month in the Country by JL Carr, which I reread every summer. And at the moment I’m reading Light Years by James Salter – an extraordinary book, beautifully written and desperately sad.

What’s next for Josephine Tey? Are you working on a new novel, and if so, can you tell us something about it?

I’m currently working on a standalone novel. It’s set in the 1920s and early 30s and, like the Tey books, it’s a re-imagining of real lives, but it’s not a crime novel and that’s proving a completely different writing experience, one I’m enjoying very much. And then I’ll be back to Josephine in the autumn; some of the series characters were left with a lot to resolve at the end of London Rain, and I’m just as keen to see how they get on as the readers are!

Great answers — thanks so much, Nicola. I shall have to go back to London Rain and look for the Rolling Stones!

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Harriet is one of the Shiny editors.

Read Rob’s review of London Rain here.

Nicola Upson, London Rain (Faber: London, 2015). 9780571287758, 329pp., paperback orignal.

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