Thursday, 3 June 2010

Featured Novel for June

After a hiatus of several months, Macmillan New Writing returns to winning ways with Deborah Swift's debut historical novel, The Lady's Slipper. The author took some time out from preparing for publication day tomorrow to answer a few of my questions about the book and her writing.

It is 1660. The King is back, but memories of the Civil War still rankle. In rural Westmorland, artist Alice Ibbetson has become captivated by the rare Lady’s Slipper orchid. She is determined to capture its unique beauty for posterity, even if it means stealing the flower from the land of recently converted Quaker, Richard Wheeler. Fired by his newfound faith, the former soldier Wheeler feels bound to track down the missing orchid. Meanwhile, others are eager to lay hands on the flower, and have their own powerful motives. Margaret Poulter, a local medicine woman, is seduced by the orchid’s mysterious herbal powers, while Sir Geoffrey Fisk, Alice’s patron and a former comrade-in-arms of Wheeler, sees the valuable plant as a way to repair his ailing fortunes and cure his own agonizing illness.

Fearing that Wheeler and his new friends are planning revolution, Fisk sends his son Stephen to spy on the Quakers, only for the young man to find his loyalties divided as he befriends the group he has been sent to investigate. Then, when Alice Ibbetson is implicated in a brutal murder, she is imprisoned along with the suspected anti-royalist Wheeler. As Fisk’s sanity grows ever more precarious, and Wheeler and Alice plot their escape, a storm begins to brew, from which no party will escape unscathed.

Vivid, gripping and intensely atmospheric, The Lady’s Slipper is a novel about beauty, faith and loyalty. It marks the emergence of an exquisite new voice in historical fiction.

Hi Deborah, tell us a little about your novel, The Lady's Slipper.

Hi Tim,
The Lady's Slipper is the name of a wild orchid which until recently was almost extinct in Britain. It is still so rare that it has round the clock police protection whilst it is flowering, which is now. When I came across the flower, complete with guard, I thought it was one of the most bizarre-looking wild flowers I had ever seen.

I combined the idea of the rare flower with an interest in seventeenth century history - specifically Quaker history.
The story is about characters who come into violent conflict over the fate of the orchid, and it is also a love story.

How did the book find its way to Macmillan New Writing?

My agent had tried unsuccessfully to place The Lady's Slipper, so I sent it off myself, following the instructions. I was flabbergasted when Will rang to say they wanted it, because I had read in an article that they get thousands of submissions.

One of the unexpected things about professional publication is working with an editor. How did you find that experience?

For me it was immensely reassuring. I come from a theatre background and was used to having creative discussions with directors and scenic artists about design. So I enjoyed the input of other people who were intent on making the book shine. I think unpublished writers imagine that there must be pitch battles whilst the writer fights to keep their original idea - I never felt that at all, Will was someone with an objective eye, who had 'got' what I was trying to do and was alerting me if I had gone astray. And I loved it - I like all that nit-picking over small details.

Historical fiction is currently very popular, and with Wolf Hall winning the Booker Prize, also attracting critical acclaim. Why do you think we love to read stories set in the past, and what attracted you to the period you chose?

Hmm. I think we just love good stories. If they are set in the past then that gives us another context to examine some of the age-old questions in a new way. And the fact that the history has survived as a tale in the first place means that it has a certain power already, from being told to generation after generation in school. I am just reading Robert Lacey's Great Tales from English History, and the stories that survive - King Canute, Hereward the Wake, Thomas a Becket, all have something extraordinary about them to keep us interested. So the challenge with historical fiction is to make your story as big as the History in which you are placing it.

In my case I have taken the period of 1660 - right on the cusp between repressive Puritanism and the excesses of the Restoration, when people could still remember the bloodshed of the Civil War. It seemed to give me maximum potential for conflict, misunderstandings and torn allegiances, and meant I could give each character a radically different past.

What is your typical writing day?

There isn't one! But I'm best writing in the mornings, and best doing a bit every day. But it can't always be like that, so I just fit it in wherever I can in between my other bits and pieces of work. If I have a good idea and can't get back to it, it feels like torture to wait for the next 'writing slot,' so I carry a notebook for these desperate moments. (Shows picture of of untidy scrawlings.)

It is traditional for us to ask our writers to supply Four Random Facts about yourself - and we aren't letting you off this one!

1.I have a scar on my left wrist from trying to be too clever with fire poi (flaming torches on the end of chains)

2. I have been the back end of a pantomime camel.

3. I have learnt how to massage people with my feet, whilst hanging off a rope. (This skill is currently on hold.)

4. I am one of the few people left in the world who takes two sugars in tea.

Do you have a writing mantra?

Not really but if I did it would be "Stop making tea and bloody get on with it!"

Do you compose by pen or by keyboard, or what....and why?

Keyboard so I can edit as I go along. I have never learnt to type so it is a slow process, using only a few of my fingers! But it seems to tie in with the amount of thinking time I need to compose my sentences. When I write by hand I seem to get extra woffle. But I like the romance of a pen, and write letters with a proper fountain pen and Quink.

Who are the writers you most admire? Can you trace their influence in your own writing?

Mostly it's plays that have influenced me. I spent years analysing texts to create set and costume designs - everything from Shakespeare to Pinter, to Tennessee Williams, to Mamet and Hare. So there is a strong sense of drama that wants every character to have a moment in the spotlight, and for the curtain at the end of a chapter to come down with the reader wanting more.

Book-wise, I have been impressed by Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Tracey Chevalier and Geraldine Brooks. I love Rose Tremain and Philippa Gregory who write historical fiction in very different ways, and because I've read so much of both I would love to think perhaps they are influences too. (Someone will have to tell me!)

I know you have a second novel underway. Can you tell us anything about that yet?

It tells the story of Ella, one of the characters from The Lady's Slipper, but it is not a sequel - more like a companion-volume. I hope it will stand on its own without needing to be propped up by the first. I have done a few drafts but it is still growing and developing, and I have still a few juicy bits of research to do before I tie it all together.

Deborah, thanks very much for your answers. Best of luck with The Lady's Slipper!


Faye L. Booth said...

Congrats Dee! Yikes, you're braver than I am - I'm a huge wimp about anyone seeing my notes!

Deborah Swift said...

Ah yes, but fortunately the pic is so small nobody can actually see the extent of my mad notes. And if they did, my handwriting is awful, so they'd need to spend hours deciphering it! Thanks for your good wishes.

Faye L. Booth said...

Not if you click on it, it isn't. Click on an image uploaded to Blogger and the full-sized one pops up on a new tab.

Ann Weisgarber said...

I couldn't resist. As Faye directed, I clicked on the notes. One in ten were prostitutes! That got my attention.

I wish you all the best, and I'm excited The Lady's Slipper will be released in the States this fall. I believe this makes you the first MNW writer to have a U.S. deal in place prior to your UK publication. You're making MNW history.

Enjoy this time, Dee. You've worked hard to get here.

Deborah Swift said...

Oh dear, seems like the notebook might end up being more fascinating than the finished book - though I have to confess it's pages from my current one for the WIP and not the one I used for TLS.

David Isaak said...

I have a friend who's learning to spin fire pois. She's taking classes at an arts center up in Oakland called The Crucible that is all about pyromania of diverse sorts.

Just one question, though: Can you please define "woffle"? (I'm not sure what you're getting more of when you write by hand...)

Alis said...

Great interview Dee and thanks for that notebook page - fascinating! MUST get a copy of the book. Weekend's job... Keeping fingers and toes crossed for its success.

Deborah Swift said...

Hello David - "Woffle" might not be a real word - I use it to mean padding and extraneous stuff and general off-the-point rambling. Does anyone else use this word or is it only me? Perghaps it should be spelt "waffle" but then that looks too much like an edible snack!

David Isaak said...

As well as being a pressed pancake, here in the US "waffle" is a verb meaning "to vacillate or obfuscate"--something our elected officials are said to do.

But we need a word for what you're describing. I'm happy to call it "woffle". It sounds like what it is.

I just wanted to make sure "extra woffle" didn't mean something that should be sought--and me with no idea I needed any!

Frances Garrood said...

Congratulations, Dee, and the very best of luck with your novel.

Now I'm off to try and do that thing with the notebook...

Matt Curran said...

This looks great, Dee! Really wishing it's a big success and will pimp the book to everyone I know!