*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.
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.
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.
[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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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.