Diana Norman* talks about her work

*edited to add: Diana may well stop by here at some point, so if you have questions for her, please include them in the comments and you just might get an answer.

Serious readers of fiction — and I count myself as one of this group — often form strong attachments to their favorite authors. A reader comes across a new novel and falls in love with the story, the characters, and the voice of the storyteller. Soon that reader is compelled to go out to find anything and everything the author has written, without delay. If the fascination lasts, the reader will start wondering about this author who has so captured the imagination.

These days, readers have access to more information than ever before. Curiosity about the author’s background, how he or she started writing and dozens of other questions can often be addressed by an internet search. But sometimes there is nothing to be found. We are spoiled by technology, and disappointed when the internet fails us.

“Resplendent with historical details, filled with beautifully crafted characters, and kissed with a subtle touch of romance, Norman’s [A Catch of Consequence] is historical fiction at its best.” (Booklist)

Diana Norman’s first novel, Fitzempress’ Law (St. Martin’s Press; Hodder & Stoughton) appeared in 1980 with twelve more novels to follow, but until recently she has been better known in her native Great Britain than here in North America. Then, in 2003 a trade paperback edition of Catch of Consequence (see my notes here) was widely distributed and seriously marketed, which brought Norman a new and enthusiastic North American readership.

This trilogy (set during the American and French Revolutions) sent many readers out in search of the rest of Norman’s work, but most were disappointed. A great deal of her blacklist is out of print and very difficult to find. For example, Fitzempress’ Law shows up on abebooks.com for anywhere from $100 to $900. The good news: many libraries seem to carry some or all of Norman’s novels, which is where I found most of them. I must confess, however, to spending quite a lot of money to invest in a copy of The Morning Gift.

In all the years I have been reading Diana’s work, my questions have been piling up. Occasionally I would do a search, hoping to find information on how she chose a setting, where she found some particularly wonderful historical detail (see her comment about Oliver Cromwell, below), or why she used a particular approach. My curiosity was never satisfied until just recently, when I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions. The interview presented here is the product of our very lively email conversation.

As is the case with many of the very best historical novelists, Norman’s background is not academic and so to start, I asked her for some of her own history. Most specifically, how she came to write historical novels with such insight and obvious love of the subject matter.

My mother was a single parent and I went out to work at the age of sixteen to help support her and my two young brothers. I worked on a local paper in my home town of Torquay in Devonshire, graduated to a bigger one in London’s East End and finally made it to a national newspaper in Fleet Street where you don’t learn anything much except how and where to find things out. Oh, and a lot about human nature.

Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something.

History always fascinated me. One must know the causes of things or one is walking blind. If ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair had been aware of history, he wouldn’t have taken the U.K. into war with Iraq. My husband, daughters and I marched against that appalling decision (a) because it was wrong and (b) because history told us it would be disastrous. Sorry about that – I get carried away on the subject.Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something. To answer your question, I started studying history after I was married and found myself living in a Hertfordshire village having babies. Life in Fleet Street had been turbulent but exciting and, turbulent and exciting as looking after children is, it wasn’t enough.

I decided to use my spare time to write a novel about Henry II – the 12th century king who has always fascinated me, flawed perhaps but the instigator of one of those enormous leaps forward that have brought us out of the Dark Ages, a man who gave us the jury system, Common Law and who restored England after an annihilating civil war. (All right, the murder of Thomas à Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral was attributed to him, although the king was in France at the time, but St Thomas was a very, very trying man.) So, three novels about Henry and then I was off cantering through the succeeding ages, mainly trying to chart the course of women by means of novels. Male history wrote them out, unless it could blame them for something, but if you peer deeply enough into the archives you find amazing women, not necessarily the famous ones, but ordinary widows pursuing trades from which, officially, they were banned, women who kicked against the pricks (I use the term in more ways than one.)

Your interest in the untold story of women in history comes through in all your work. You create strong women characters who are put into the situations which test them and their beliefs to the extreme.

I come of a long line of strong women. At the age of fourteen, my Welsh grandmother was sent to England to work as a laundry maid in what was then known as a lunatic asylum without being able to understand a word of English. At first she didn’t know who were the staff and who the inmates, but she lived to old age to terrorise and fascinate us, her descendants. Women through the ages have had it so tough that I flounder in admiration at their struggle against prejudice and adversity, especially those who made the path smoother for those of us who came after. So, yes, I suppose all my heroines are bound to reflect that.

[asa book]0399154140[/asa] Most recently your work has taken a turn toward historical mystery with the publication of two very different, but equally compelling novels under the pen name Ariana Franklin. The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II’s England, but with City of Shadows you jumped to post World War I Germany. How did the change in focus and geography come about?

The answer is that I was running out of steam. Suddenly I was approached by a literary agent called Helen Heller – and if ever there was a forceful woman, she’s it. “What about an historical thriller? Change your name and format.”

Well, I’ve always adored thrillers and Helen’s suggestion that I should write one based on the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the sole survivor of the massacre of the Russian Tsar and his family in 1918, Grand Duchess Anastasia, was intriguing. Researching it, I found that it was impossible to make Anna the heroine – too flaky, too pro-fascist and bad-tempered by half, nor was she Anastasia, as was proved by DNA later; though it looks as though she convinced herself that she was. But there was fascinating stuff there; she met and approved of Hitler, for one thing. All grist to a writer’s mill.

The twenties and thirties were such turbulent times in Europe — especially in Germany. Did you struggle with your own feelings about the events of the time, or did your Fleet Street experience provide a way to stay objective and avoid author intrusion?

My family, like most British families, suffered during the war – but it was probably the one war the UK was involved in that had to be fought. Nevertheless, if the Allies hadn’t been so vindictive towards Germany after the first World War, Hitler wouldn’t have had the material to work on that he did – and I hope City of Shadows shows the disintegration and hideous inflation that brought him to power. It’s a murder story, of course, but I tried to set it against that real and depressing background.

Just one more question about City of Shadows, for fear of letting plot twists slip: Quite a few of the major characters would have to be called off-putting (for example, Prince Nick and Anna both) but you still manage to make the reader feel real empathy and in some cases, sympathy for them. Is the construction of these characters something you have to consciously work at, or do they simply evolve? And how do you feel about them?

It’s nice of you to say that. Thank you. But don’t you feel there always has to be an explanation for wickedness? And unless you try to show that, you’re creating characters that don’t throw a shadow.

I certainly do agree with you, and I think you’ve just coined an excellent phrase: characters who don’t throw a shadow.

Mistress of the Art of Death is the first novel in a trilogy about Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a trained physician and pathologist. The second novel in the series (The Serpent’s Tale) is to be released in late January 2008. Like City of Shadows, Mistress of the Art of Death is called historical mystery, though both novels — as is the case with all of your novels — hardly fit into one genre. Beyond murders that need to be solved, how does your most recent work differ from the earlier efforts? Or does it?

It doesn’t much. I like the corseting framework of thrillers. As the great Raymond Chandler once said: “When in doubt have a man come in with a gun.” In my case, if I’m writing about the 12th century when guns hadn’t been invented, it has to be a man with a dagger or a bow and arrow. But the principle is the same – it moves the story along. And there’s plenty of space to expand on historical background or make a political point about the time.

A bit of an odd question, but I hope you’ll find it interesting. If you were offered a chance to go back in time to spend a few days in one of your settings, which time and place would you choose? Assume that your safety (and your return trip home) are guaranteed.

Well. I’d hate to be seven hundred years away from the nearest aspirin, but I would risk it to spend some days in England in the latter half of the 12th century. People who don’t study them think of the Middle Ages as all the same, but the worst came after the Black Death in the 14th century, when a third of Europe’s population died so horribly.

It had a lot to do with the weather; there was a mini ice age in the thirteen hundreds which destroyed crops and encouraged the plague-bearing rats. Before that, in the age of Henry II, there were good summers and crisp winters that killed off a lot of disease. It was, for its time, in England at least, an enlightened and humanistic age – no witch-burning on a grand scale like there was later, no heretics going up in flames. The beginning of the Renaissance, really. Yes, I’d like to go back there – for a bit.

–Barry, Barry, did you know that Oliver Cromwell died of malaria?

Your husband is the well known and respected film critic Barry Norman. Is there a place where his interests in modern film and yours in historical storytelling intersect? Does he provide feedback on your work in progress?

–Well, good for him.

Oddly enough, no. We’ve been married a long, long time, Barry and I, and it’s been a success because we give each other space. He’s a fine writer in his own field as well as being a great film critic, and, of course, we discuss the mechanics of writing a lot, but we don’t let our work impinge on the other. I don’t think he’s ever read a book of mine until the first proof copy comes in, and vice versa – we work in such different fields that we don’t feel qualified to criticise the other’s work. Besides, we get thrilled by different things – him by films, when I prefer the theatre; me by gobbets of history that leave him cold.

This has been a really wonderful opportunity for me and for all your North American readers. I appreciate very much all your time and effort. To close, Is there anything you’d like to say us?

Just that I’m thrilled to bits to be suddenly getting such a lot of attention and finding a readership that is very intelligent. I mean that; the come-back I get is so interesting and so well-informed that I shake in my shoes in case I get something wrong.

I think every historical novelist has that fear. I know I wake up at three in the morning in a sweat because I realized (in a dream) that I was using the wrong kind of lantern in a scene. Your ability to make a time and place come alive is evident on every page, and yet you make it look effortless. When The Serpent’s Tale comes out in January, I hope you’ll come back again.

As I wrote yesterday, a pile o’ books could be coming your way Anybody who comments on the interview posts (yesterday’s, and today’s) will automatically be entered. That lucky person will get a pile o’ my favorite Diana/Ariana novels. I’ll draw a name at random sometime later next week. Everybody is eligible to enter this drawing.

——–

*If you google Diana Norman, you are likely to find many references to an English art historian by that name. The art historian is someone else entirely; this interview is with the Diana Norman who is a former Fleet Street journalist and novelist

Links:

Diana Norman and Ariane Franklin at Fantastic Fiction (from whence the cover of Fitzempress’ Law)

Diana’s page at Literature Map

A full list of Diana’s novels, with library and bookstore links (where available)


I would like to acknowledge Lynn (Paperback Writer) who contributed to this interview by brainstorming questions with me.

one more thing to ponder: funny women

color box: rosesThere’s an interesting article at AlterNet called Are Men Threatened by Funny Woman? It’s really worth reading, and gave me lots of ideas about characters (old and new). Here’s a paragraph:

“If you say to a man, ‘I know a woman who has a great sense of humor and you’ve got to meet her,’ they think she weighs 300 pounds and has an eye in the middle of her forehead,” Barreca says. “If you say to a woman, ‘This guy has a great sense of humor; you have to meet him,’ she immediately thinks he’s cute and will be a great lover and fun to be around. People think the girls who are desirable don’t speak, so the syllogism is don’t speak to be desirable.”

After I thought about this for a while, I came to the conclusion that as generalizations go, it’s pretty much on target. Or maybe not. Thoughts?

Also, a question: How do you describe a person to somebody who doesn’t know them? Some things you might say, in no particular order:

  • She’s (my ex’s, Maria’s, the grade school principal’s, Joe’s) (sister, mother, cousin, next-door neighbor, ex-wife, coworker, boss);
  • She’s the (nurse, teacher, homeless person, doctor, one who sued, the one who donated a million bucks, the one who slapped Alice);
  • She looks (alot like your sister Alice, my brother’s wife, that actress, whatsername, on that show, a young Elizabeth Taylor, like Rosie O’Donnell)
  • She’s got (a ’66 Mustang, a great sense of humor, no sense of humor at all, six kids, the J. Jordan McMillan chair at Harvard Law, three ex-husbands, the best recipe for coconut cream pie)
  • She’s (a terror on the tennis court, never too busy for coffee, always at the office, always volunteering at the Humane Society, polyamorous, really smart, not so bright, a nice person, a bitch, an interesting person)
  • She thinks (the London Underground is a political movement, children should be seen and not heard, photography is the only real art form anymore, the school system can be saved, the moon landing was a big farce, it’s her duty to bring people to Jesus, we shouldn’t have gone into Iraq, we should drop the A bomb on Iraq and just get it over with)
  • If you take one of the possibilities from each of the categories, you’ll come up with somebody who may surprise you.

    She’s Joe’s boss; the one who donated a million bucks. She looks like Rosie O’Donnell; she’s got six kids. She’s a bitch. She thinks the school system can be saved.

    With just this much, you know something about the mystery person being described, but you also know quite a lot about the person doing the describing.

    Does any combination of features jump out at you? Can you pull a character out of those six categories who is interesting enough to write about? You can also concentrate on the speaker — the person who is describing — instead of the person being described.

If you're going to fantasize publically…

I missed this story when it first made the rounds last week. Then I ran into it at Writers Unboxed.

The short version: a guy writes a novelette (*his term)), self publishes it, and does some promotion. Among other marketing approaches, he starts claiming that his book was an Oprah pick. He goes so far as to put a transcript of his on-air interview with Oprah. Oh, how she loved his book.

fakeblurbsWhen I first read about this, I wondered if the guy might really be delusional. Psychosis can do things like that, make you absolutely sure that you had tea with the Queen when you were last in London. Then there he came clean, apologized, and claimed it was “an error in judgement.” Which means, he wasn’t delusional, and it was a conscious decision on his part to perpetuate the fraud.

I have no idea if there will be legal action against him, but that’s less interesting to me than this guerilla-style approach to marketing. Damn the topedoes, full speed ahead. This is a writer who is so desperate for attention that he lost all perspective. What he did was absolutely wrong, but I can see how he got there. Those of us who struggle from book to book and contract to contract know how frustrating and discourging the process can be. Authors often play games with fake covers (see the blurbs here for Pajama Girls?) but this is usually for personal consumption and a bit of a laugh.

One other thing that I’ve been thinking about since i read about this fictionalized Oprah love-fest: why Oprah? If you’re going to make something up, if you’re willing to be exposed as a fraud, why not go all the way? Unless, of course, you know you’ll get caught and that there will be corresponding publicity (author goes off the deep end!), the kind that puts you on the front page of newspapers. Which is, after all, what the guy wanted. So maybe things worked out just the way he hoped.

If I had to make up a fake interview, it wouldn’t be with Oprah. Most probably it would be Jon Stewart. He doesn’t do novels, but so what? On paper we could have a grand old time. Or you could go at this sideways. If you had to make up a television interview with a major personality who (of course) adores your work, who would it be?

regarding the book trailer

I’ve had a few emails, so let me say briefly:

Book trailers are a fairly new approach to advertising forthcoming novels. There are a lot of them out there, all you have to do is search on Google Video or YouTube. The quality is pretty uneven. Some of the best ones are (as is to be expected) the professional book trailers done by, or paid for by, publishers.

A couple I like a lot:

Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Malkani’s Londonstani

I’m not so enthusiastic about the trailer for Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but that’s just my taste.

Generally I prefer book trailers that are collage-like with music/audio backgrounds. The ones I’ve seen that are live action with dialog … well, let’s just say that they don’t work for me. At all.

Brenda Coulter has a post about how she created her trailer for A Season of Forgiveness. If I have time I’ll put together a summary of how I did mine. Brenda works in the world of Windows and I’m on a Mac, so my approach was different.

If you look at book trailers on YouTube, you’ll see that some of them aren’t too fussy about where they get their images and/or music and audio. Most do take copyright seriously (as we are, after all, authors and make our living from royalties), but a few don’t. I bought the rights to some of the royalty-free images I used, but most of them were made available for use under the Creative Commons license. Ditto for the music. Full credits at the end of the Tied to the Tracks trailer, in case anybody is interested.

In a comment, Anne reminded me about Cory Doctorow‘s work on behalf of Creative Commons and the principles behind it. Cory releases the full texts of his novels in electronic format on the day the hard copy is released for sale in bookstores. Sometime I’ll have to find out how he and his publisher worked out the details of this.

Finally, a note: if you have time to go over to YouTube to have a look at the Tied to the Tracks trailer, please do. And while you are there, if you’d care to rate the trailer, that would be kind of you. The trolls are already out and active, in force.