Saturday, 13 January 2018

Diana talks to Carol McGrath, author of one of my top three books for 2017, Woman in the Shadows

Hi Carol, good to talk to you.

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!
Do you want publishers to pigeon hole you into a particular historical era as an author?
Absolutely not. I shall be writing a novel set in the seventeenth century after I complete the Rose novels of which I currently plan two. They are set during the ‘magnificent thirteenth century’.

What is the genre you are best known for?
Historical Fiction.

If your latest book The Woman in the Shadows was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
Carey Mulligan would make a lovely Elizabeth Cromwell. However, Elizabeth does have silvery hair! Will Carey dye hers?

What made you choose this genre?
I am passionate about History and always have been. I always have read Historical novels, growing up on a diet of Jean Plaidy and Ayna Seton.

 How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
Historical Research and paintings. It is good to read contemporary novels as they can provide universal themes and plots.

Favourite picture or work of art?
The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck 1434. The colours are vivid, the portrait has depth and there’s a story there.

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?
I would like to write a contemporary woman’s story with a political edge, possibly with a photo journalist as my heroine and set in one of the countries I visit such as India or Japan.

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.
I have always loved writing. I love poetry and used to write it. I began to write seriously in my forties but was not published for another decade. I took an MA in Creative Writing at Queens Belfast and an MPhil at Royal Holloway. This involved thesis work and that held me up but was fulfilling.

Marmite? Love it or hate it? Hate it. Too salty.

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
I listen to Classical, Jazz and interesting Folk. I love piano music especially Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies.

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?
My characters but I absolutely would leave them to resolve a family crisis.

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

Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Tea and with a dash of milk. White wine is my tipple.

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I plan characters carefully and use an overall three part structure to design a novel’s narrative. I write into it and plan further. I make lists for each section and use spider diagrams a lot as I write. It still can take its own life.

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
Times New Roman. Clarity rules for me.

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
I would like to see the original inventory for Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars. Possessions can reveal so much about a character. (Gosh!Yes! How I would love to see that too!|D)

Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
Elditha from The Handfasted Wife sadly refused the happy ending I had planned for her. I cannot say more as it would be a reveal.

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I endlessly research but all this must be seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel. I aim to recreate the atmosphere of a period and the trappings of that particular Historical world. I do go on research trips and unfortunately was unable to visit Kiev as planned when writing The Betrothed Sister. The Ukraine became dangerous. However, I have a working knowledge of Russia. That helped. I visited Dublin to research the Irish Viking period whilst writing The Handfasted Wife. I had to visit Exeter to get the siege section right as well. I used Tudor maps of London when writing The Woman in the Shadows and visited The Museum of London as well as The British Museum and many Renaissance art works in various galleries.

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?
Oh yes. Padar had to be contained as he was upstaging Elditha and thus distancing her for a reader. I realised I could not use his POV when she was present in a scene. Rosalind, an embroiderer, is in danger of stealing the show from Queen Ailenor in The Silken Rose. She is currently banished to a convent but she will emerge and her story line will conclude. (Big smile)

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?
Generally I do not deviate but I invent extras to full in the dots and particularly to create interesting stories. I invented a fire in The Woman in the Shadows and the outcome of that to build tension, provide a story and highlight known aspects of character as regards Thomas Cromwell. I always try to be plausible.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
Yes, of course, but for me keeping to known facts matter. I invent around these and create hypotheses. I guess this is blurring!

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I am still  utterly in love with Padar and I am rather fond of Thomas Cromwell as he was before The King’s Great Matter. I do admire his wife, Elizabeth who tells the story. (I am rather infatuated with the early Thomas Cromwell myself... D)

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I read widely. I currently am reading Anne Cleeves and highly recommend The Crow Trap. It helps me understand plotting.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
You would want a delicious posset with beaten egg, milk, honey and spices whilst reading The Woman in the Shadows. Keep it warm by an open fire and curl up in your favourite armchair. Follow it with a shot of Benedictine.

Last but not least... favourite author?I love and re read Charlotte Bronte, especially Jane Eyre. I think EM Foster is my joint favourite author. I adore his work, especially A Passage to India. 

About The Woman in the Shadows:

A powerful, evocative new novel by the critically acclaimed author of The Handfasted Wife, The Woman in the Shadows tells the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Tudor England's most powerful statesman, through the eyes of his wife Elizabeth.

When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make herself a success in the business she has learned from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who also know the truth about her late husband.

Security – and happiness – comes when Elizabeth is introduced to kindly, ambitious merchant turned lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage is one based on mutual love and respect…but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an influential, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London.

The city is filled with ruthless people and strange delights – and Elizabeth realises she must adjust to the life she has chosen…or risk losing everything.

Read more about Carol McGrath here

© Diana Milne January 2018 © Carol McGrath, 1/1/18


  1. Excellent! A light-hearted interview which nevertheless contains some sound advice from a well-established author. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  2. Thank you, Mari and to Diana who has a wonderful sense of humour and who gave me the best interview ever. I loved the questions.