Saturday, 12 August 2017

A blast from the past! Looking back to the first ever *Diana talks...!* Diana talks to Liz Harris.

Last year I was fortunate enough to attend HNS16 at Oxford. This is the conference for the Historical Novel Society and it was a wonderful experience.

Although she was constantly busy and often going in the opposite direction, I  managed to catch up with author Liz Harris whilst we were stuffing 'goody bags' for the delegates and I asked her a few questions.

I tried to make the questions unusual!

 If your latest book, THE LOST GIRL, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

The two main characters are Joe Walker, who, when seven years old, found a new-born baby lying beside her dead Chinese mother at the edge of a mining town in SW Wyoming, and Charity, the name given to the Chinese baby, whom Joe persuaded his reluctant family to take in.
As an adult, Joe would be lean and attractive, with warmth in his eyes, and I can easily see Robert Pattinson, made famous in the Twilight series of films, as Joe.

(Note from Diana: Hmmm. Maybe I had better have another look. 

And another!)

Charity must look 100% Chinese, and the Chinese actress, Liu Yifei, would be very good as the adult Charity.  Liu Yifei is not yet particularly well known in the UK, but she would be after she’d played Charity!

Liu Yifei

If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!)  you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?

Of the six novels I’ve had published, four are historical and two contemporary.  I’ve loved writing in both of those genres, but your question has made me wonder if there’s another I’d also like.  I’d only want to write in a genre that I read and enjoy, and as I don’t really like science fiction or fantasy and paranormal, I’d avoid those.

However, I love crime novels and am an avid reader, and I’ve suddenly realised that I’d enjoy writing a crime novel.  This hadn’t occurred to me before, but now you’ve got me thinking.  I don’t have a plotline in mind at the moment, this being a new idea, but I’ve a feeling that I’ll be working on one from now on.  Watch this space!

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

I prefer to write in total silence – I never listen to music. My musical preference, classical music, would fill my mind and make me soar on the back of its wonderful emotion, and I fear I’d leave my written words behind.  Generally, it’s better when author and words are united!

Having said that about silence, I can work very well in a cafĂ©.  This isn’t as contradictory as it sounds: I can block out all sound around me and hear only my characters’ voices, see only their setting, and lose myself in the conflict that faces them, so it’s as if I am alone. 

But sitting by myself in my study, in total silence, is my ideal working condition.

What is the worse book you have ever read? What made it unreadable for you?

May I slightly qualify the question and replace ‘worst book’ with ‘the book you’ve least enjoyed’?  Worst is subjective, and I’m aware that someone, particularly if the novel was published in the days before self-publishing, must have thought the novel worth publishing for it to have appeared in print.  This doesn’t mean that it’s to my taste, though.

I’ve picked a novel that I tried to read long before I started writing myself, but found totally unreadable - Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce.

This took a mind-boggling 17 years to write, finally being published in 1939, and was James Joyce's final work. It’s written in an experimental, idiosyncratic language, with large passages of stream of consciousness, which was, to me, incomprehensible.

I think reading a novel should be an enjoyable experience, one in which the reader can easily lose him/herself in the world created by the novelist, not something which demonstrates the author’s erudition, but of which the meaning is a struggle to grasp.

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

To be an actress.  My mother was an actress, and from her I’ve inherited a love of the theatre and cinema. Before I had a family, I did a lot of amateur dramatics, which I enjoyed enormously.  Whenever I’m writing a book, I see the scene I’m depicting, and when I plan a chapter, I always think, as you’ll just have noticed, in scenes.

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

It depends upon the time of day.  After breakfast, it’s time for a mug of tea, and also late in the afternoon. In between that, I have coffee just about every hour on the hour.  That’s not as unhealthy as it sounds as I drink it quite weak!

For lunch, I’d probably choose white wine, but I’d always have red in the evening.

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

I automatically use Times New Roman, size 12, for books, messages and everything else.  I got into the habit of writing in this font and size when I found that it was the preference of most publishers.  It now feels strange to use any other font and size.

You’ll see, however, that I’m not such a die-hard conservative that I can’t cope with a different font - I resisted the instinctive urge to change the font in which your questions were printed, and I stayed with your choice! 

(Note from Diana: Thank you!!)

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

I’m lucky in that a large number of the Wyoming newspapers from the 1800s are online, and I’ve been able to read them.  There’s nothing I’ve felt that I needed to read, but been unable to access.  When I struggled to find the minutiae of the life of a second generation homesteader in the 1870s and 1880s, I solved the problem by going to Wyoming myself and interviewing the people who could help me.

Historical fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?

I write novels set in a historical period, with an authentic historical and geographical background, but my characters are fictional.  I have never yet included a ‘real’ character, and I think I’m unlikely to do so (I’d never say never!). 

Generally, I prefer to read books where all the characters are fictional, but I must confess to loving the novels of Georgette Heyer, which occasionally feature real characters, although they’re not usually central to the story line.

If I did include ‘real’ characters, I’d remain true to the known facts of their lives.  If those facts were inconvenient, I’d work around them, but I wouldn’t alter them.  I can’t see them spoiling the plot because I’d have plotted so as to incorporate what is known about their lives, and I’d have used those facts to enhance the story.

Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?

No, I can’t see myself doing this.  When writing something historical, I think we should get the history right.  I prefer to make the story fit the facts, rather than jiggle with facts in order to make them fit a preconceived story.  As I research the history for my novel, I develop the story line(s) – these grow out of what I find.  For example, when researching the background to The Lost Girl, the moment I read about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, I knew I had a story line.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this, probably because my characters are fictional creations. The only blurring is between what is real and what is unreal: my characters, as I grow to know them, become real people to me.

When I went to Wyoming to research A Bargain Struck, the first of my three novels set in Wyoming Territory in the 1880s, I followed the 100 mile route from Rawlins to Baggs that my character, Ellen, took in a stagecoach.  I stepped out of my air-conditioned car at the very spot where Ellen stepped out of the stagecoach.  I’m breathing the air Ellen breathed, I thought, and I’m standing on the actual ground where she stood.  And I burst into tears.  Re-living Ellen’s route, albeit in a slightly more comfortable manner, was highly emotional because Ellen was so real to me.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

I’m always interested in them, and care about them, and enjoy reading what they do, whether it’s something good or bad, but I can’t say that I’ve ever hated them or fallen in love with them. Because I give the ‘hero’ characteristics I admire, if I met him in real life, maybe. As for the ‘bad guy’, I try to make him at least two-dimensional so, although I dislike what he does, I understand and pity him, rather than hate him.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

I read every kind of book, except for science fiction (although I have read and enjoyed John Wyndham) and fantasy (although I loved Dracula, by Bram Stoker).  I have just finished the Booker Prize Winner, The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai, and loved that, and before that I read and really enjoyed a crime novel by Jane Casey.  I’m an eclectic reader, in other words, and always have been, but my all-time favourite author will always be Jane Austen.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book, THE LOST GIRL?

Nothing alcoholic!  When I happened upon the history behind The Lost Girl, I was appalled by the treatment of the Chinese by the Americans, although I understood how it came about.  By knowing what happened in the past, we are, hopefully, less likely to repeat those same mistakes in the present.  Alcohol (very pleasantly) dulls the senses, and I want the reader to be alert at all times as to how the tensions of the period, similar to those today, impacted on the lives of Joe, his family and Charity.

Last but not least... favourite historical author?
As a teenager, I read every single novel by W. Harrison Ainsworth, to whose works my mother introduced me.  I loved them all. My interest in history began with him.
To come to a more recent favourite historical author, on the top of the pile of books I want to read is At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier.  I absolutely loved The Last Runaway and I can’t wait to read this, her latest novel.
Thank you very much for interviewing me, Diana.  These were interesting questions, and I’ve enjoyed answering them.  I’m now going away to think about a plot for a crime novel!

Liz's wonderful study. Who would not dream of working here?

 Thank you very much, Liz, for the care and thought you put into the answers and the time spent away from the conference. I really appreciate it as will our readers.

About Liz:
After graduating in Law in the UK, Liz moved to California where she led a very varied life - from cocktail waitressing on Sunset Strip to CEO of a large Japanese trading company. Upon returning to England, she completed a degree in English and then taught for a number of years before developing her writing career.

She is published by Choc Lit. Her debut novel, THE ROAD BACK, was voted Book of the Year 2012 by US Coffee Time & Romance, and in the same year, EVIE UNDERCOVER was published, first on kindle, and recently in paperback.

A BARGAIN STRUCK, published in September 2013, was shortlisted for the RoNA for Best Romantic Historical, and later in the year, THE ART OF DECEPTION, a contemporary novel set in Italy, was published digitally.

A WESTERN HEART, a novella set in Wyoming 1880, was published digitally in spring 2014. THE LOST GIRL, her most recent full-length novel, was brought out in 2015.

Liz has a story in each of Choc Lit's anthologies: ANGEL CAKE in Choc Lit Love Match, and CUPCAKE in Kisses & Cupcakes. Each anthology is a collection of short stories by Choc Lit authors, with a recipe accompanying each story.

© Diana Milne July 2016

© Liz Harris September 2016

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for replaying this interview, Diana. I thoroughly enjoyed looking back at the answers I'd given. Re the crime novel, I did, indeed, this summer come up with the idea for a suspense story. I was in Umbria at the time, where I've set two contemporary novels, and I was thinking that at some point I should do a third set in Umbria. By the end of dinner one evening, I'd come up with the idea for a story, and roughly plotted it out. Maybe I'll write it one of these days. For the moment, though, having finished a novel set in Darjeeling, 1930, I'm well on the way to completing the first in a trilogy that is a multi-generational saga. The crime novel is there in the background, though, for one of these days. :-)