Hi Jen, it is lovely to speak with you. I am sure that you are tired of being asked the usual questions that interviewers ask authors, so hopefully this interview is an interview with a difference and I have come up with some unusual questions!
First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it! Please may we make a film of your book? Yes, of course! (Slightly tongue in cheek, I must admit, but wouldn’t it be great?) 😊
What is the genre you are best known for? I suppose that has to be historical romance. The light, fluffy kind with a happy ending, but not quite so proscribed plotwise (I hope!) as the category romances. I always try to introduce some adventure, humour and drama as well as the romance.
If your latest book, ALBA IS MINE, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role? Aidan Turner! No doubt about that. I think he would make an excellent Finlay of Alba – just the right amount of dark, brooding good looks, an excellent actor and a voice I could listen to all day. He could even use the Irish accent as my character is three-quarters Irish! I could wish Aidan was a little taller, but one can’t have everything.
What made you choose this genre? I don’t remember specifically choosing it. I always wanted to write and the stories that interested me always seem to be set in the past. Even at age eleven I was an avid Mary Queen of Scots fan and later I supported – and still do - Richard III. Thinking about it, the end of the Stuarts marks the end of my interest. The history I follow is definitely pre 1600. I did write one contemporary romance set in an old French water mill – which just happened to be where we have spent many happy holidays – but it didn’t do well. Most of my readers are in America and perhaps France doesn’t interest the majority of them. If it does, I don’t imagine it is rural France they head for; more likely to be the art galleries, museums and fashion houses of the major cities.
How do you get ideas for plots and characters? I’m lazy. I don’t go looking for ideas. I watch tv, listen to the news, read a lot when I’m writing and every now and then something I’ve seen or read will make me think “now that would make a good plot.” Some of them stick, some of them don’t last til morning, but if it does then I’ll make a note of it and when I’ve finished what I’m writing, I’ll fiddle about with it and see if I can make something of it. Usually I can, though it may very well change direction several times before I’ve finished with it. I’m terrible for wanting to re-write things, like the two books I had with an American e-publisher; when the rights came back to me I re-wrote ALBA before I published it myself. I’m doing the same thing now with the other one which has the working title Eilidh and the Viking and this time the ending will be very different to the original. To be honest I was never 100% happy with it, so now I have a chance to get it right.
Favourite picture or work of art?
I don’t think I have one, which is not to say I don’t appreciate either or both. Michaelangelo’s Pietà is superb. I take a lot of photographs and have done since my teens and some of them I put on my blog or on Facebook.
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?
The short answer is no, because I’m doing what I want to do. I’ve thought of doing a crime or thriller since they seem so mega popular, but I don’t have the kind of mind that loves puzzles. Nor do I have the patience to work out all the little clues and red herrings.
Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously. Wanting to write was a conscious desire from childhood but I didn’t have the confidence to attempt it until I was thirty and even then I kept it very much a secret enterprise. It was hard work with a typewriter and Snopak!
I believed all those who said you needed to live a little before attempting to write a book! Now I don’t.
My first husband’s job moved us 40 miles north and for eleven months I was “resting” as the actors say. That was when I began writing, starting with a 20 page outline of something that eventually became ALBA IS MINE. Then I got a new job, and the urge to go to university and the writing went on hold until I was through and out the other side. Doing English Language and Literature at Newcastle meant interesting courses on Animal Language, Computational Linguistics, and Art and Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England with Professor Richard Bailey, which chimed very well with my story, so I began writing again with all that OE poetry echoing in my head.
The real break came when my second husband spent a summer scanning 200 plus A4 pages of typewritten ms into the computer. It was a time when we had to learn how to use computers in our jobs, as well as at home, so the whole thing was a tremendous learning curve.
Marmite? Love it or hate it? Bread and butter with Marmite on top - I love it! Makes a good hot drink on a cold winter’s day, too. YES!!!
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...?? All I want is my warm little room (I share it with Tim the dog) my desktop pc, a comfy swivel chair, relevant books around me and total silence. I’ve tried music, but the CD comes to an end, stops and I never notice, so it seems pointless.
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters? Luckily I don’t have the problem! The family are grown and gone, and Bill often tells people he is going to make a hatch in the bedroom door so he can slide my meals through without disturbing me!
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job? I’m a very happy retired person with no inclination to go back to work! If I were young now I think I would lean towards some kind of graphic arts, or conservation in the art and National Trust world.
Coffee or tea? Coffee, black, no sugar.
Red or white? I like both but white tends to keep me awake these days so I drink more of the red, but I’m always prepared to make an exception for a Cloudy Bay Pelorus.
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way? I have a rough direction more than anything detailed and head off each day in the right direction. Most days it works, but some days I have been known to tie myself in a knot. Recently I decided that Eilidh would be a more interesting character if she expressed her own first person POV rather than deep third; that meant leaving chapter 25 and going right back to the beginning and re-drafting her scenes. I know I’ve missed lots of pronouns and will need to check it carefully at the end, but it will be worth it.
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose? Since I self-publish I suppose I do have free choice; for QUEEN’S COURIER I discovered Bookman Old Style and rather like that so I shall stick with it unless I fall across something better.
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be? I watched Helen Castor’s part 3 of Lady Jane Grey on video last night. As a Cambridge professor of medieval history with access to almost any piece of research, she could not come up with a definitive document to prove a point. Characters gave their view of points in history, but they all differed. Given the expense of printing, the lack of literacy, the time it took for news to travel, whether news was ever truly disseminated to the public at large makes me feel that you look at the evidence and you select the piece nearest to your own conclusions – which may or may not be correct!
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? Oh, Rada came up over the horizon and did that for me in ALBA IS MINE. How did you cope with that!? I let her get on with it and it worked out beautifully. Since then I’ve been in a little better control of wayward females.
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips? As much as I can. Living near Newcastle on Tyne can sometimes feel as if I’m out in the sticks when London authors all get together and have fun. We’re not really, we have three or four good universities within reach and we’re at the hub of three large public library services and record offices. There are also a good many authors up here and we do meet up! The trouble is eleventh century Alba is not renowned for documentation, so it’s a case of discovering information wherever we can – archaeologists are a great source and the surviving poetry, as near as we can get it to the time we’re writing about. Ignoring horned Viking helmets and the weird black leather armour with numerous straps and buckles that must have taken hours to get into, so popular in tv dramas, there’s lots of more accurate costume information available. Research is a great excuse for trips – Dublin being a case in point, and I’ve spent many holidays in the north west of Scotland and Caithness. Never made it to Orkney. The places I use in my romances – Gybford, Matfen Grange, Craigsmuir – they all exist here in the locality if under slightly different names and I know them well.
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? MacBeth was a starting point for ALBA IS MINE. Outraged that Shakespeare made him a short reign villain when he reigned as a good king for 17 years, I thought I could write the true story. Of course I couldn’t, because there isn’t enough information from those times and Dunnett beat me to it with King Hereafter. (We exchanged letters about that!) King lists exist, but that is about it. Thorfinn, Malcolm and Duncan were real people; Malcolm was murdered, and Duncan was killed in battle, but the rest is my imagined 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? See above!
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred? See above!
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters? I’m very fond of Finlay.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure? Historical fiction, historical romance, some crime and thrillers and anything that takes my fancy.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book? I only ever drink coffee while working, so maybe coffee.
Last but not least... favourite author? Head of the list – Dorothy Dunnett. Others? C J Sansom, Sharon Bolton, Diana Gabaldon, JoJo Moyes, Kate Morton, Ian Rankin, Anne Cleeves (Shetland series)
Alba is mine is available from these web links:
About the book:
In 1034, the fuse has been lit that will change the kingship of Alba. When his place in the succession is rejected, Finlay of Moray rebels against his uncle the king and sides with half-brother Thorfinn of Orkney.
With his intended bride married off to his cousin, his boyhood friend joining the opposing side and the threat of war looming, there is little happiness for Finlay. Wanting to cement the bond between them, Thorfinn badgers him to marry his beautiful sister, but Finlay, reluctant to abandon hope of his first love, grimly resists the idea.
This absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.
© Diana Milne January 2018 © Jen Black, 18th January 2018
The Matfen Affair, February 2017
Alba is Mine, October 2017