Sunday, 18 April 2010

Interview with an Author: MARIE-LOUISE JENSEN discusses writing historical fiction

Hi Marie-Louise and welcome. 
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m half Danish, half English, I live in the UK, I speak four languages and love reading and writing. In fact I’ve always lived as much between the pages of a book or in some story I’m making up in my head as I have in the real world.
I have two sons and I’ve discovered the joys of children’s books all over again with them as they grow. I never got on very well with modern adult books. I’m not grown-up enough.


Bound by a vow made to her dying mother, Marianne sells her few belongings and leaves Grimsby.  Her destination? Denmark, where she will search for her father, Lars Christensen - the golden-haired fisherman her mother fell in love with many years before.
The journey will be long - and dangerous for a young girl travelling alone. As Marianne boards the fishing boat that will carry her across the North Sea, she wonders: will Denmark be the fairy-tale land she has dreamt of? Will she find happiness there? Will the father she has never met welcome the arrival of his illegitimate child?
And why didn’t he return for her mother, as he promised he would?

What inspired you to write Between Two Seas?

I wanted to explore the issue of dual heritage and belonging. I’ve also always been fascinated by the era of the expressionist painters in the north of Denmark – our Victorian age. The isolation and poverty of Skagen in those days made for a very unique place.

Between Two Seas was your debut novel and it was shortlisted for several awards – the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2008, the Glen Dimplex New Writers Award in Ireland, the Hampshire Book Award and the 2009 Branford Boase Best Debut Novel Award. This is a fantastic achievement and how did it feel to receive such a wonderful response for your debut novel?

Obviously I was delighted! I got to go to lots of parties – including one in Dublin, and I’d never been to Ireland before. The support of Waterstone’s in shortlisting and promoting my first two books was invaluable. It was a really exciting year and a half. The new-writer prizes are fantastic.

Was Between Two Seas your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

It was my first full-length manuscript, yes. I had a go at the first few chapters of The Lady in the Tower before I started Between Two Seas, but I was making a terrible hash of it. Between Two Seas was a fairly straightforward narrative set in a time and place I care passionately about, so it was a good first novel for me. When I tackled the Lady again a year later, it became a completely different story.

How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

About 18 months. I had the story idea in the early autumn of 2004 and began work on it in December that year. I was offered a two-book deal by Oxford University Press in February 2006. It was the publishing that took a long time: almost two years from acquisition to publication.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

No, my agent dealt with that! I wrote the novel on the Writing for Young People MA at Bath Spa University. When I’d finished, I sent it to agent Rosemary Canter, and was lucky enough to be taken on by her. So I didn’t have to do the sending out to publishers and getting rejections. It only took her two months to place it.

Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

I don’t know that it did. I had a writing group of people I’d met on the MA and we all worked quite closely together, workshopping each other’s work chapter by chapter as we had done the year before. It was a bit more scary though – I felt I couldn’t make a mess of the second book, as I already had the two-book deal.

Shortlisted for the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize 2009.

Spring 1540 - I am afraid. You are in grave danger. Mother, will you run away with me if I can free you?

The servants call it the Lady Tower: the isolated part of the castle where Eleanor's mother is imprisoned after a terrible accusation.
For four years Eleanor's only comfort has been their secret notes to one another. A chance discovery reveals a plot to murder her mother. Now Eleanor must free her before it is too late.
But with danger and betrayal at every turn, she can trust no one. Especially not her father. Eleanor must use all her cunning to survive.
For she soon realises that it is not just her mother she needs to save ...but also herself.

What inspired you to write The Lady in the Tower?

The story of Lady Elizabeth Hungerford locked in the tower of Farleigh Castle for four years – and the fact that no one knew how she escaped. It caught my imagination on a visit to the castle and made me want to write a story about it.


"A sense of menace grew on me all morning. A shadow of approaching doom. That was the first warning…"

Stolen from her family by a cruel Viking chieftain, Thora's future looks bleak. Yet Thora has visions, and in one she foresees a daring escape with a new companion. Seizing this chance involves stealing a ship bound for Iceland - but someone must die.
The journey is dangerous, and a fateful encounter will change the course of their lives.
Soon Thora will know hardship and the bitterness of forbidden love. And all the while she and her new-found companion fear their crimes may catch up with them….

What inspired you to write Daughter of Fire and Ice?

The Icelandic Sagas which I read at university many years ago. They made me fall in love with Iceland even though I’d never been there. Before I’d even finished Between Two Seas, I was planning stories set in the saga-age of Iceland.

What made you decide to focus on writing historical fiction?

It wasn’t intentional. It just so happened that my first story ideas were set in the past. But we did a lot of experimenting with different styles of writing on the MA and it was very quickly obvious that the historical ‘voice’ was my strength. I didn’t get on so well trying to write as a contemporary teen. It’s a lot to do with what you read – I love old books, 1700s and 1800s: Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Gaskell, Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Dickens etc. Historical novels too – I spent my teen years, for example, devouring Georgette Heyer. So I was never going to write ultra modern, I suppose.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I plan them, think them through and dream them. That’s not to say they don’t change as I’m working on them of course. Sometimes I run into unexpected problems, or have new ideas. For example the character of Ragna wasn’t planned for Daughter of Fire and Ice, but she changed the whole story plan once she made her appearance.

How much historical research do you do for your books and do you enjoy this part of the writing process?

Lots! It would be unforgivable to make careless mistakes. I have to research clothes, food, customs, places, look at old maps, and generally immerse myself in the era. I’m sure I still get things wrong, but I try not to.
I love the field work: visiting places for research. But the library stuff isn’t my favourite part of the process. I’d rather be getting on with the story, but it’s essential, and I often get ideas when I’m researching.

If you haven’t already been, do you try to visit the countries you write about? 
Definitely. I wouldn’t personally be happy writing about somewhere I hadn’t experienced. I didn’t need to go far to Farleigh Hungerford Castle, and I go to Denmark every summer, so I know it really well, but Iceland was a massive trip. We saved up for a couple of years, took the car and tent up there on the ferry and really explored. It was amazing and my boys always say it was the best summer ever. We visited every Viking/saga site we could get to and soaked up the landscapes. It’s a country like no other.
My next book is due to be set in my home city of Bath, so no big trips coming up!

When writing historical fiction do you think it’s important not to laden the narrative down with too much information? That sometimes, less is more? How do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
I would certainly agree with that. I think the important thing is the story, and I consider the history as colourful background. It formed the people’s lives and minds, so I always think the better I know it the better, but that doesn’t mean I want to bore the pants off my readers with all the details. I include things that I can mention or use casually or as part of the plot.

What, if anything, do you think potential historical writers should bear in mind when writing for a younger audience?

I think it’s important not to make the language too difficult. I try and keep my writing accessible. I also think it’s important to think about what a modern teen might relate to in terms of themes, issues and character traits.

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

My own kids – no. They are teen boys and my fifteen year old can’t stand romance. “Mum, why do you have to spoil a perfectly good story right at the end?” is his regular complaint. They do read them in proof though and are very loyal and supportive (apart from about the kissing).

Rewrites and Revisions: How much do you do throughout the writing of your books? 

Tons. It never ends. I reread each chapter regularly and always find things to change. I abandon whole chapters – sections even – and start again if they aren’t working. And then there is the final big rewrite before the manuscript goes to my editor and then of course the big rewrite to take in her (always excellent) advice. And then there are the copy edits, and then the proof pages…..

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

I read pretty much everything that was on the market from the literary to the trashy – from C.S. Lewis and Rosemary Sutcliff to Enid Blyton and pony stories. I particularly loved Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I also read lots of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology – in children’s editions, not the full-on originals.
I think there is a fantastic choice of books by talented authors available today, and I’m very jealous of the YA fiction, as it simply didn’t exist when I was in my teens in the 80s. I had to make the difficult transition to adult fiction far too young. I think teens today like a huge range of genres: no two readers will love the same list of books. We’re all different and the variety on the market is proof of that.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Check out your local book shop and library and get to know the current market. You’d be amazed how many people still send in manuscripts to publishers with covering letters explaining they’ve written in the style of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome. The chances are, the agent/publisher won’t take more than a cursory glance at your precious manuscript after that. You need to know what’s been done recently, how well it’s been done, what appeals and why. THEN you can start to write. Also bear in mind that writing is a craft and needs practising. And it’s hard work as well as fun.

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Be realistic about what you can earn as a writer – for the majority of us, it’s not enough to live on. You do it for the love of it.

My next book is publishing January 2012 and is another Viking adventure: it’s called Sigrun’s Secret and is set in Iceland and York.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Popular Posts

The Bookseller