I had a lovely time answering questions set by the author Jennifer Alderson. If you want to know who I chose to sit next to on a long flight (got in a bit of a panic half way through that one and had to call in Lily Tomlin) and what the question was I wished she’d asked me, read on!
There’s been a bit of a debate recently about whether historical fiction writers should add bibliographies to their books or not. Hilary Mantel, a woman who likes to put cats among pigeons, commented in an interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch on her “cringing” contemporaries in historical fiction who “try and burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”
She goes on to say this: “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complimentary.”
My immediate response was a highly sophisticated one. ‘Fuck right off dearie.’ I mean – what got into her? A case of getting out of bed the wrong side? Too much steak for breakfast?
A few things come into play here for me:
- My father was a historian and I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to him grumbling about inaccurate historical detail in TV dramas. At the time I remember wishing he’d shut up so I could follow the story
- I studied history at Oxford not particularly happily
- My last two books – FAR AWAY and TITIAN’S BOATMAN have been historical fiction and I’ve attached bibliographies to both of them.
The reason why I do it is not particularly to “burnish my credentials”. I mean what the hell does that mean anyway? It’s because I think the reader might be interested to read some of the books that have fired my imagination. As a reader I like bibliographies and often track down books from them. I appreciate the fact the writer has taken the trouble to do it. It is work to put together a bibliography. It would be much easier not to do it.
I do not in any way feel cringing.
There is of course another element in play here. In creating a bibliography you are giving away your sources. I like that because there’s a part of me that likes to demystify the process of writing. I want you as my reader to know that fiction writing is not a mystery carried out by magicians. You too could read these books and you might write this sort of book. It sort of democratizes it in some way. Sometimes it does occur to me that a reader might read the books in my bibliography and go, ‘Well, you got that wrong didn’t you?’ Or even, ‘So that’s where you pinched that from,’ but so what? Bring it on!
As a reader of historical fiction I give the writer a fair amount of latitude. After all it’s fiction. I did a history degree and I know the difference; fiction is much more enjoyable! When I read it I do not assume every little thing is accurate. I expect the main big things to be right i.e. the date of a battle or the date of some one’s death but sometimes things can be disputed. For example no one knows exactly when Titian was born so as a writer you take your pick within a certain range and stick to it.
However I very much like the idea of someone who has read my book then reading the things I have enjoyed in researching the book: Pietro Aretino’s letters are great fun – he’s fantastic and I’d like as many people as possible to have the pleasure of reading him. And aren’t you curious to read the letters and poems of a Renaissance courtesan, Veronica Franco? Those closest to me have had me banging on about them for years so why not spread the love? Don’t we all take pleasure in word of mouth recommendations? Why not make that easy for the reader? Books I have read and not enjoyed like Paul Morand’s Venices, an unbearably portentous book, I didn’t include.
One of the characteristics of a cult leader is that it all comes from them personally. It is their genius as opposed to the fact that they might have cobbled together a bit of CBT, a bit of EST and a bit of mindfulness and mixed it with a bit of charisma and bobs your uncle. Never trust an individual who doesn’t acknowledge their teachers, who doesn’t acknowledge their sources, who makes it all about their genius. I don’t want you to think it’s all me. I don’t want you to think it’s all my talent as a writer because that’s not what I believe.
I like the idea of you following your nose into my research material and may be thinking, ‘Oh, look at this juicy element. Why didn’t she use that?’ I’d quite like that. I’d like to know what your story might be. I don’t want it to be mysterious because it isn’t. I remember when I was in my twenties and all I knew was that I wanted to write but I had no idea what to do or how to do it. I did courses, I had teachers, I read books on writing, I joined writing groups. I still have teachers. All those elements contributed to me becoming and staying a published writer.
So what do you think about bibliographies? Apologetic cringing or an act of generosity to the reader? Do you think I have been burnishing my credentials? I’d be very interested to know and when I say interested that’s in a slightly Tony Soprano/horse head in the bed sort of a way. Only joking. I just want you to realize this is an entirely cringe-free zone from a non-cap doffing person. Excuse me, dear reader, while I walk backwards away from you in a suitably groveling, servile manner while begging you for comments … Oh God, what happened there? Maybe Hilary was right all along. PS You should all read her books – every one of them. Every single one. She’s a genius, she really is. She’s just completely wrong on the subject of bibliographies.
I got a delivery of my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN this week. Hurrah! And it has a lovely quote from Francesco da Mosto on the cover.
“Travelling across time and place, this compelling intrigue captures the beauty of several Venices and the essence of Titian – the city’s most scandalous genius.”
Thank you Francesco!
It made me think of this quotation by Alice Walker, an author I love:
“There is an ecstatic side to writing. It’s like jazz. It just has a life.”
To be perfectly frank the ecstatic side of doing the actual writing sometimes passes me by but I can tell you there’s nothing quite like taking delivery of finished copies of your book for the first time especially when your publisher has done such a fantastic job. There is the lovely Man with the Blue Sleeve. What a fantastic jacket! Hope you like the look of it. Very much hope you read it and enjoy it! It’s published January 26th.
Forgive the ecstasy but sometimes a gal just has to celebrate and scatter these !!!!!!!!! around like crazy. Then she gets on with the business of wrapping her parcels and swearing because she’s run out of Sellotape (why can’t you tear modern Sellotape with your teeth?) and wondering what size Christmas tree she’s going to buy and why she has failed to put the recycling out for the last three weeks and why she hasn’t written a Christmas card yet and, ‘Oh God the post office is going on strike, isn’t it?’ and (London-centric) what on earth is the matter with the Piccadilly line these days and how dare Sainsburys play Shirley Temple Christmas songs to you when you’re trapped doing your shopping and why can’t they have Fairytale of New York by The Pogues instead… Hope your Christmas preparations are going better than mine and many thanks to Thomas at B&W for the lovely pictures.
Many thanks to all those who sent me their reactions to the painting of The Man With The Blue Sleeve. It was fascinating. Here is a summing up of your responses:
- cocky, flirtatious, silky to the touch
- good looking, a bit flirty but in a nice way, on closer inspection disgusted, contemptuous or perhaps hurt, vane, his eyes are different colours
- fanciable, slightly naughty
- cheeky looking, looks like he is up to no good
- supercilious, far too good looking for his own good
- full of revelations which are as yet hidden but not to me (I’m not sure about that but thanks for the thought!)
- one of you had a poster of him hanging on your wall when you were a student which shows a level of good taste and sophistication sadly lacking in myself at that age
- one of you had a mother who had a poster of him hanging in the dining room and apparently he frightened people because they said his eyes followed them around the room and since he was a dead person he must have been a ghost!
So my man has got about a bit. The man is certainly a member of the patrician class in Venice because that sleeve is probably breaking all the sumptuary laws going but he has the money to pay the fine. Titian was only about twenty when he painted him, so he would have been looking for rich patrons to support him and maybe that explains the rather contemptuous look on the man’s face. The Man with the Blue Sleeve at this point in the painter’s life is the one with the power, with the patronage. I think he looks like he’s had a night on the tiles. That eye is very pitted. Interestingly his eyebrows look as if they’ve been plucked. Later on in his career of course it was Titian who had the power and he had princes, popes, doges, kings and emperors queuing up to be painted by him.
It is fascinating and almost impossible, in a time when any one of us can pick up a phone and create an image of ourselves, to think of the power that a portrait had in the 16th century. You had to go to a lot more trouble and have a great deal more money to produce an image of yourself.
What happens in my book is that an actor who is undergoing an emotional crisis goes to visit the portrait and then a conversation ensues …
But you don’t think I’m going to tell you what he says, do you? I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until January 26th to find out. All I can say is that when The Man with the Blue Sleeve speaks, it will be absolutely … No, I’m not even going to tell you that. But thank you all for taking part!
Do you have a favourite painting? One that you absolutely love. Tell me why.
Photo: courtesy of Letitia Blake 2016
Ah, isn’t he lovely! This is Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve. A painting that has such a prominent place in my novel Titian’s Boatman that it is also its sub-title. The book is published at the end of January by Black and White publishing. This fine fellow was painted by Titian in 1510, when the painter was twenty years old and hangs in The National Gallery in London.
So this is the story of me and The Man with the Blue Sleeve and how he muscled his way into my novel.
I was between books. Never a good time. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for whatever reasons, I need to write and I need to be working on a story and if I’m not the effect isn’t good and the effect is physical. It’s like having the ague. A more modern version would be that it’s like the first few days before you know you’ve definitely got the flu. You don’t feel ill enough to go to bed but you know something is going on and it’s not good. In the meantime you irritate everyone you come in contact with. I hesitate to quote Boris Johnson but I was definitely in a state that might best be described as a whinge-o-rama. My partner had had enough of me, pointed at the door and said, ‘Be gone.’ So out I went.
There was a 22 bus and I got on it. The bus went into town and I got off at Piccadilly Circus. I wandered. There was The National Gallery. I went in and my wander took me, as it often does when I’m in this condition, to the room with the Titians, currently Room 2.
And there was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and I stood in front of him and stared and I realised I had been here many times before. And then I felt it, the thing that makes a writer know that this is the trigger, (the poncy word is donné) the thing that sparks the beginning of a novel. The thing that is given to you. There he was. There I was. And I knew my next novel was spluttering into life.
“We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.”
It was only once I was up and running with the book and was telling people about it that I realised how many other people loved the painting. You have to develop a shorthand description for works in progress because often the simple truth is you have no idea what you’re doing but it’s embarrassing to say that because you sound like a driveling idiot. So I started saying, ‘It’s about Titian and The Man With The Blue Sleeve’. ‘Oh, yes, isn’t he lovely?’ was a fairly common response or, ‘Oh yes, I love him.’ I was mildly miffed at times. Something that I thought was a private obsession was, I quickly realised, shared with the world and her husband. I was not alone in my adoration of The Man with the Blue Sleeve. He was everyone else’s man as well. Of course he was, he was a masterpiece.
Why him? Well, partly I think it’s because I’ve always been rather better one to one than in groups. It’s not that I don’t play well with others but my instinct has always been to the tête à tête. Those huge paintings with large amounts of religious or mythological symbolism make me feel overwhelmed, as if I’ve walked into a room filled with strangers talking in tight groups and they are not going to move one inch to welcome me or let me in. It’s a sort of sensory overload. There’s too much to look at and I feel I need to read a great many books to work out the symbolism. I’m OK with the distorted skull in the front of The Ambassadors. Yes, yes, we’re all going to die. That’s not hard but some of the others …
There’s a simplicity to looking at a portrait that I like. There’s not so much I feel I need to know to enjoy it. The date: 1510. The painter: Titian. Titian’s age: 20. That’s enough and then you can just get on with looking at him. There’s not much to distract you. And what do you see? No, seriously what do you see? What sort of man do you think you are looking at? What do you think he’s like? Fill my comment box below lovely people! I’m really curious to know what you think. And then I will do another post on my lovely man which uses your lovely comments as my jumping off point.
P.S. The painting has had various titles over the years: The Man with the Blue Sleeve, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and finally Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, 1510. I eschew all those other than the one I’ve used above because that is what he was titled when I first encountered him and also I’ve never heard anyone call him anything other than The Man with the Blue Sleeve. I like the mystery and anonymity of it and it allows projection aplenty, always useful for a novelist.
I’m delighted to welcome Susan Grossey to the blog. She is the author of a crime series set in Regency London, figuring Constable Sam Plank’s investigation into financial fraud. Susan is herself an expert in anti-money laundering. Her most recent book, the fourth in the Sam Plank series is Portraits of Pretence. The books are beautifully researched and have wonderful descriptions of Regency London. If you read them you will also discover what it is to be jug-bitten!
Q. Why the Regency period? Can you remember what it was that made you first decide to set your books then?
A. The first Sam Plank book, “Fatal Forgery”, came about almost by accident. My day job is the prevention of financial crime, and to this end I was reading about bank crime, which of course has existed since banks began. And I came across the story of Henry Fauntleroy, a banker who stole from his own bank in the 1820s and was caught in 1824. He immediately admitted his guilt, even though this meant a fast-track to the scaffold, and I wondered why he would do that. A mere four years later, “Fatal Forgery” was finished! Along the way I had realised that the Regency period was very under-examined in every writing genre except romance. There are plenty of books set in the Georgian period, and more Victorian detectives than you can shake a stick at, but Regency? Not much at all. And from a London policing perspective this was a fascinating era – post-Bow Street Runners, pre-Metropolitan Police, with very little structure to the service beyond the savvy of the individual constables.
Q. Your books have a real charm to them that I think comes from the tenderness of the relationship between Sam and his wife Martha and Sam’s assistant Wilson. Sam is a protagonist enviably free of dysfunction and that’s very refreshing these days. In some ways it reminds me of the dynamic between Morse, Lewis and Lewis’s wife although in that case the older man is single. Could you tell me a little about the decision making process around your development and characterization of Sam, Martha and Wilson?
A. Sam is an amalgamation of several constables whose actual words I was able to read in the invaluable online transcripts of Old Bailey cases – in fact, the name Sam Plank came from one of those! And I liked the idea of a man who has been around a bit – Sam escaped a poor upbringing, was a barber for a while and then fell into law enforcement – but remains essentially decent. As you say, he is not dysfunctional – I was a bit tired of “the copper more damaged than the criminals” – but I have tried to show that he has human flaws (he’s rather vain). As the books are narrated by Sam, I needed to have discussions in them, rather than just interior thoughts (plus I enjoy writing dialogue), and I liked the idea of a man being brave on the outside only because he has support at home. At the same time, I have to remind myself constantly not to make Martha modern: she is no feminist, simply a woman who adores her husband and has a good brain. And as Sam is reaching the end of his career – he’s a good age, for a working man of his era – I wanted to give him a chance to pass on his knowledge, and sometimes to explain to the reader why he was doing certain things, and Wilson is the mechanism for that. But, as characters will, Wilson is starting to demand more attention.
Q. I was fascinated by the material in the book about miniatures, especially about the fact they were painted on ivory. Could you tell me a little about your research?
A. Some time ago I visited the Wallace Collection in London, a wonderful private collection open to the public, and they have a gorgeous display of miniatures. I stored the thought away… I have known for some time that there will be seven Sam Plank books and I have plotted the central crime for each, so I already knew that “Plank 4” – “Portraits of Pretence” – would be about art fraud of some kind. And when I thought more carefully, I realized that I wanted portable art – miniatures were perfect. So back I went to the Wallace, to look more closely, and then I started reading all the contemporary sale catalogues I could find for descriptions of miniatures and their frames. I am lucky enough to be a member of the University Library in Cambridge, and in their rare books collection they have several “how to” guides from the Regency era, written for amateur artists. Every accomplished young lady wanted to be able to paint miniatures, and careful instructions are given on how to select and prepare materials, and how to paint the picture.
Q. My feeling is you have certainly walked the walk when it comes to describing Constable Plank’s perambulations around Regency London. Could you tell me a little about how you researched that? Were crumbling maps involved! In particular I loved the descriptions of Custom House.
A. My husband calls this research “walking the Plank”! It’s actually quite simple: I walk around London. Although the street-level architecture and detail is all very modern, just raise your eyes and from the first floor upwards, most of it is original. I did consult a few crumbling maps – the University Library again – but the best of all is Greenwood’s 1827 map of London, thoughtfully put online by someone at Bath University. It’s particularly useful for checking street names; for instance, Sam lives in Norton Street, near Regent’s Park, but you won’t find that name today as it’s now Bolsover Street.
Q. Did you always want to be a writer or did you start writing as an adult?
A. Always, always, always. I am an only child and spent a huge amount of time reading and writing. My first success was a short story entitled “Bonkers the Witch”, for which I won a rosette from my headmistress when I was six.
Q. Influences as a writer and crime writer.
A. My absolute hero is CJ Sansom – if I can evoke an era a tenth as well as he can, I’ll be happy. I find that now that I am a writer myself, I am much more critical when I read: I will make notes along the lines of “make sure it’s always clear who’s speaking” and “don’t indulge yourself in reams of description”. I’m much less tolerant of poorly edited books, as I think it should be done properly – it’s rude to expect a reader to put up with your laziness.
Q. I see that you have three more to come in the series. Will that then definitely be the end? Or will you continue with Wilson?
A. I’m already a bit sad at the thought of being without Sam, so the smart money – i.e. my husband’s – is on Sam sticking around in a consultative capacity!
Q. Do you have all the others in the series planned out or are you operating on a one by one basis?
A. They are all planned. There’s a simple pattern to them, in that they take place in consecutive years: “Portraits of Pretence” is in 1827, so “Plank 5” will be 1828. The unifying feature of the series – apart from Sam himself – is financial crime, so we’ve had bank fraud, investment fraud, bribery, and art fraud. “Plank 5” will be about… oh no, I can’t reveal that too soon!
Q. Could you give a brief account of your path to publishing. Have you done courses, do you belong to writing groups etc?
A. Once I had the first (extremely rough) draft of “A Fraudster and a Gentleman” – the ghastly original title of “Fatal Forgery”, written from the point of view of the banker Fauntleroy – I hit a road-block: I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t see how to put it right. I didn’t like the idea of a writing group, because I wanted an expert to help – not other, albeit enthusiastic, amateurs. And then I read about Gold Dust, a writers’ mentoring scheme set up by a group of proper, professional, published authors. For about a thousand pounds, they offered a year of monthly meetings with an author, at which you would discuss your latest chapter – which meant writing the blasted thing. I asked for, and was given, Jill Dawson as my author: she’s local to me, and knows about writing historical fiction. And every month I had to take something to show her. What was most valuable – above and beyond the excellent writing and plotting advice she gave me – was her belief that, one day, this would be a book worthy of publication.
At the end of that year I had “Fatal Forgery” ready to go. I submitted it to five agents and four publishers, and they all turned it down “because no-one is interested in financial crime”. By then I had fallen in love with Sam, and I decided to rewrite the whole thing from his point of view. Once that was done, I couldn’t face the agent/publisher merry-go-round again, and self-publishing had come on in leaps and bounds, and I decided to go it alone.
Q. What advice would you give to a young writer starting out now?
A. Set a timetable and deadlines, and stick to them. If you wait for the muse to appear, for the “writing mood” to descend, you’ll never do anything. I write a book a year and in the first half of the year, I write a thousand words a week – perfectly manageable. In the second half of the year, I double that, and in the final month, I really go for it. Even if it’s rubbish, you can edit rubbish – but if you’ve written nothing because that sock drawer really, really, really needed tidying, you have nothing to edit.
Q. I see that you are an expert on anti-money laundering. How does your experience in that field filter through into your novel writing?
A. I am unashamedly fascinated by financial crime – why people do it, and why it keeps working. That’s what made me want to explore Regency financial crime, as it’s simply history repeating itself. In “Fatal Forgery”, Fauntleroy is able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – share certificates – to bamboozle his customers and steal from them. Recently, bankers were able to exploit the new financial instrument of the day – subprime mortgages – to bamboozle their customers and steal from them. Now we have Bitcoin, mobile payments, crowdfunding – on it goes. The same is true for the crimes in the other Sam Plank books – we still have investment fraud, bribery, art crime. We greedy and gullible humans never learn our lesson!
Q. I love the design of the covers. They are simple but very striking. Could you tell me a little about your design choices?
A. Aren’t they gorgeous? I take absolutely no credit for them: they are the work of Andrew and Rebecca at the company Design for Writers. It was the one area where I decided to treat myself to real talent, as I have the artistic capabilities of a roll-top desk – left to my own devices, I would have created a cover out of glitter and macaroni. For “Fatal Forgery” they asked me to fill out a long questionnaire about the book and its subject, the sorts of covers I liked and disliked, any fonts I admired, the colours I preferred and so on. At the end of that, they came up with the cover that you see now – complete with custom-designed “Plank font”. All I had to ask them to do was adjust the whiskers; the original gentleman they used had a moustache, but Sam has only side-whiskers, so they redrew them. The fine fellow you see is how Sam imagines himself – I fear the real Sam is a little less elegant. From then on, we have used that cover as the model for the other books, with the addition of the strapline across the top, indicating that the book is “A Sam Plank Mystery”.
Q. What will you write after the Sam Plank series? Will you stay in the Regency period or spread your wings?
A. I probably should move on, but, as I say, I like writing in a less popular era, and now I know so much about it, I’d hate to leave. Perhaps I could do the diary of a magistrate, or reminiscences of a prison keeper…
Q. I love the glossary at the back: puff guts, rum cull, square toes, jug-bitten. Is it fun discovering and using these words?
A. So much fun! There are several Regency lexicons and slang dictionaries that I consult. My own personal favourites are the ones for throwing up (a pretty common occurrence in Regency times, when almost everything you ate or drank was contaminated with something), such as “flashing the hash” and “casting up your account”. And if flashing the hash doesn’t purge you sufficiently, you might well end up “wearing a wooden surcoat”… lying in your coffin.
Thank you so much Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope your husband is forced to ‘walk the plank’ for many years to come! Lots of good luck with Portraits of Pretence and the rest of the series.
You will find all the links to Susan’s books in the purchase section of her blog here:
And Sam even has his own twitter account: @ConstablePlank
Today I’m very glad to welcome the writer, traveller and broadcaster, Colin Bisset to a Q&A on my blog. He’s written a wonderful book, Loving Le Corbusier, on Yvonne Gallis, wife of the world famous architect, Le Corbusier. I was eager to ask him some questions about writing in general and the process of writing this book in particular.
1. When did you first hear about the ‘secret wife’ Yvonne and how long was it between then and you deciding to write a book about her?
I had intended writing a novel with Le Corbusier as a peripheral figure and so I re-read some of my old books on him. Yvonne was always described as a model from Monaco, which sounds rather glamorous, but photos showed her to be perfectly ordinary. Gradually I began to realise that no one really knew much about her. One article I read suggested that she might have been a prostitute, which I don’t believe. A biography of Le Corbusier by Nicholas Fox Weber pointed me in the direction of the published correspondence and from there I began to form a fuller image of her. I thought she might be a good way of looking at him but gradually I realised she was the story.
2. Could you describe a bit about your research process? Did you have letters etc? Was there a moment when Yvonne jumped out and came alive for you? When was that?
I read everything I could get my hands on, not only about Le Corbusier but also histories of France and biographies of people like Cocteau. I watched old French films from the 1930s, too. But the chief source was always the personal correspondence. Le Corbusier and Yvonne are both adoring in their letters but once you read between the lines then you start to form a slightly different picture. After so much reading I knew I had to get to France so off I trotted and spent a fantastic time following in her footsteps. It was then that Yvonne really came to life for me.
3. Did you suffer at all from Stockholm syndrome – being taken hostage by her? I remember there was a moment when I was writing about Florence Maybrick, a Victorian arsenic poisoner, when I thought she’s got me, my sympathies have been won over. I’m on her side no matter what! I had to work very hard after that to present a balanced picture.
When I visited their apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt the place was empty apart from the person who let me in, so I was able to walk around, imagining their life there. When I went on to the roof terrace and saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and that you couldn’t get to the edge of the roof and look down into the street, that was when I really felt the pain that Yvonne must have felt being there, removed from the liveliness of the centre. It was hardly a grand literary moment but I said in my mind to Yvonne, “I’ll see you right”– a real Aussie phrase. Ever since then I wanted to champion her side of things. She was such an unpretentious person that I didn’t feel I had to sugar-coat anything about her.
4. Simon Schama talks about historians becoming so immersed in their research that they begin to ventriloquise the voices of the past. Did you experience anything as useful as that!
Yvonne was so much about unsaid things, her unspoken thoughts, her uncertainty. Can I say that I felt the power of her silences? Although of course there were moments when she was pretty vocal with her husband!
5. So if you have to chose between Rue Jacob (in St Germain where Yvonne started her life with Le Corbusier) and the apartment in Boulogne-Billancourt (24, Rue Nungesser et Coli – 24NC – where they moved to) which would it be? I have to say I’d never have moved from the cluttered attic!
Oh, the romance of a cluttered attic, especially in the 6th Arrondissement! Boulogne-Billancourt is an interesting area with some rather sumptuous 1930s buildings but it doesn’t compare to Rue Jacob. It was totally not Yvonne’s sort of place. Although of course now Rue Jacob is so fashionable that I don’t think Yvonne would recognise it, although the Petit Saint Benoit restaurant seems unchanged.
6. One of my favourite scenes is when she and Le Corbusier meet up with Picasso and his girlfriend Francoise towards the end of the book. There’s a conversation there between the two women in which you say a great deal about the situation of women who are ‘muses’ to ‘great’ men. Do you have a favourite scene?
Too many! I always grit my teeth at the tragi-comic scenes with Le Corbusier’s mother as Yvonne tries to do the right thing. I like the tiny scene in the Pyrenees when Yvonne and Ed (the name Le Corbusier was called by his family) are collecting kindling in the bitter cold and they suddenly erupt into uncontrollable laughter. It says something of their essential closeness, I think, despite everything.
7. Your love of France shines out of the book could you tell me a bit about that?
It’s almost an affliction, my love for France! I think I’ve always enjoyed its difference. As a child we often went to France for summer holidays, or passed through it on the way to Italy or Spain. I remember houses with balconies (always a sucker for a balcony), people eating at tables outside, and crumbling old towns (and fetid loos, in the 1960s). I was always sad returning to the UK. As an adult I often considered moving to France, and I did do a little bit of work there as an interior designer. Now I live in Australia, I love returning to France each year if I can. It feels like home – a certain old fashioned quality, the love of food and wine, the fantastic buildings and the natural beauty. I even watch the French news most mornings on the TV as we get that here.
8. Could you talk a bit about the technical choices you made in the book? Were you ever tempted to write the whole thing in the first person for example? You have two first person pieces at the beginning and end which are very vivid.
Good question. I started out writing in the 3rd person but abandoned it about halfway through because it felt too distant. Writing in the 1st person gave me a much stronger insight into who Yvonne really was, using her voice, but it had a certain clunkiness because I also wanted to convey certain information about what was happening around her, and I had to simplify the language as she was an uneducated sort. I missed writing descriptive passages and I often find that reading something in the 1st person can become a bit hectoring, like you’re sitting next to a bore who keeps talking about herself. So I put it back into the 3rd person and it felt much better, more spacious. The exercise of writing in the 1st person was a vital part of this process, though, and I think it’s a good exercise to get inside a character’s head. But I wanted to keep the sense that she was talking to the reader directly which is why I bookended it with 1st person scenes. I suppose going into the 3rd person at the beginning of the novel is rather like the traditional fuzzy screen in a film.
9. Was this a very different experience to writing your other book, Not Always to Plan? If so in what way?
‘Not Always to Plan’ was different in many ways, especially being set in modern day Australia, although I managed to slip in a bit of Le Corbusier. ‘Loving Le Corbusier’ required a different headspace in that I had to be factually responsible and didn’t have the freedom to invent so much. I wanted to follow the arc of Yvonne’s life and although I wrote in my first draft scenes when she was a girl in Monaco in the 1900s, I got rid of them because they were purely fictional. The essence of sitting down and writing was the same, though – becoming so absorbed in a character that the hours pass by unnoticed. I love that process.
10. Now then we’ve got to talk about what Le Corbusier did to the dog, Pinceau. I found that incredibly chilling. If he’d done that to your dog what would you have done?
It is chilling although it wasn’t that unusual at the time. Taxidermy was a huge thing in the late 19th century, too. But it does show the gulf between Ed and Yvonne at that stage. I’d struggle to like, let alone love someone who did that with my beloved pet.
11. “Artists, she thought, were like horses they needed space or you might get hurt” Excellent quote – it made me laugh and I have to say it rang a few personal bells – would you care to elaborate?
I’m glad you like that – I’m rather proud of it, although I’m not intentionally quoting anyone (to my knowledge). Don’t you think artists are like horses, rather wonderful to watch but temperamental and prone to galloping away? Ed was certainly someone who needed his own space. I’m not sure what my artist friends will make of it, though!
12. You’re given an unlimited budget to build a house anywhere in the world – where do you build it and which architect (living or dead) do you use?
The view from the area around the cemetery at Roquebrune where Yvonne is buried is simply breathtaking. I love that whole area – the sparkling sea, the wild mountains, and close enough to the Alps and Italy for the odd little sortie. So that’s the place. Architect? Of course I should say Le Corbusier but I won’t. I do love Frank Lloyd Wright’s horizontal lines and the Arts & Crafts use of wood and stone. But a building that was engineered to work with the climate would be the most important thing now, with lots of glass and a huge terrace overlooking the sea. Oh, and a fantastic writing room, of course!
13. Could you tell me a bit about books which influenced you or made you want to be a writer?
When I was a teenager I adored the novels of Iris Murdoch, the sense of civilised people behaving badly, and I used to scrawl terribly turgid pastiches of those. I suppose I’ve always been attracted to domestic dramas of some sort – Franzen’s The Corrections blew me away, and Mark Haddon’s lovely A Spot of Bother was a big influence on my style of writing. Alan Hollinghurst’s descriptive writing is so beautifully precise while seemingly effortless. And bringing humour into any novel is vital, I think – it releases the pressure sometimes. Kingsley Amis is the master of ambushing the reader with a seemingly innocuous phrase – a one-line description of people on a bus, for instance – that has you on your knees with laughter. I’d love to do that!
14. What’s the next thing you’re working on?
I used to do a radio series called Design Files, giving a potted history of a particular object, anything from a pepper mill to the paper clip. Often the design originated in France. I’d like to explore that more – a travel book of sorts, perhaps. For fiction, I’ve got the 1980s swirling around my head at the moment so I’m not sure where that’ll lead me.
Thank you Colin for a fascinating insight into the writing of this wonderful book and lots of good luck with it and your forthcoming projects.
Here is the link to Colin’s blog:
And the Amazon link for the book:
All photos are from Colin’s blog and used with his permission.
Loving Le Corbusier by Colin Bisset tells the story of Yvonne Gallis, a working class girl from Monaco, who came to Paris in 1918 at the age of twenty-six, looking for adventure and romance. Working at the salon, Jove, known for dressing the higher ranks of the ‘oldest profession’, she caught the eye of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, later to be known as Le Corbusier, the world famous architect.
This book, told from her point of view, traces the course of their relationship from the early, happy days in the Rue Jacob in St Germain, through to the end of her life in 1957. It is not simply the story of an archetypal ‘odd couple’ but also a beautiful depiction of France during a war-torn part of its history.
At the core of the book lies the mystery of human attraction. Which one of us hasn’t looked at a couple we know and wondered what on earth they see in each other and why they stay together? Down to earth and not particularly interested in art or ‘Ed’s’ (as he was called in his family) buildings or books, Yvonne was an unsophisticated working-class girl, who managed to capture the heart of a rich and sophisticated man. And what did Ed see in her? Maybe a woman who would accept that he did not want children, (“my career will always have to come first … I’ll be away so much researching and building.”), a woman who would tolerate his extremely long absences and a woman who would endure him doing pretty much exactly as he pleased – an affair with Josephine Baker is hinted at and one presumes there were others. He must also have been struck by her beauty and her spirit. At one point Le Corbusier rather chillingly comments:
“We are influenced by every object around us so it’s vital to make sure that we live with only beautiful things that function properly because only those items will bring us happiness.”
Yvonne however, although certainly beautiful, is a human being with human needs and eventually she does start to ‘malfunction’. First she is removed from Rue Jacob, which she adores, to an apartment in one of Le Corbusier’s buildings out in Porte Molitor in Boulogne-Billancourt. Then as war breaks out he parks her in Vézelay, while trying to get work with the Vichy government and travelling to Algeria. After the war is over, Le Corbusier stays away longer and longer, travelling to amongst other places, South America, the United States and India and the wire-haired schnauzer, Pinceau, although much loved, is no substitute for his presence. She misses her husband and turns to the bottle for comfort. Finally, he hires a man servant, Luan, to look after her and try to control her drinking during his absences. Arguments increase, plates are thrown but they stay together.
One of the clues as to why Yvonne accepts her situation is perhaps provided by two revealing scenes with their respective mothers, a fairly ghastly pair. When Yvonne finally gets to meet Ed’s snobby, chilly mother, Madame Jeanneret says:
“Edouard is very taken with you and of course you are a very lucky girl to have met a man like him.”
Later, when she takes Ed to meet her parents in Monaco, her own mother’s vicious disapproval and criticism of her, everyone and everything makes Yvonne’s sick to her stomach. In fact in the context of her family it seems amazing that she has emerged with her joie de vivre in tact and it makes her attachment to Le Corbusier very understandable. At least she knows that she is loved and she is materially looked after.
There is a lot of gentle humour here as well. When Ed shows her a sexually explicit sketch of a woman, she asks him why he’s been out buying pornography. On being told he’s been given the sketch by Picasso who “had heard he was in love with a voluptuous woman and he thought he’d appreciate it,” she sighs and says “Well, he’s really very famous these days so I suppose we can at least sell it.” Visiting the new apartment for the first time, she is bewildered by the bidet, which is out in the bedroom next to her dressing table and not particularly taken by a bed which has metal legs a meter high. Le Corbusier may be a visionary and ‘a god’ to some people but he never manages to sort out the leaking roof of the house he built for his parents.
In the end I was left wondering if Yvonne wouldn’t have been happier if she’d never met him and instead married a working class Parisian boy and had the large family she craved. At least then she wouldn’t have had to have a marble dining room table that was designed with the idea of a mortuary slab in mind. When, towards the end of her life, he builds her “a palace by the sea” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, it is a tiny shed with a narrow bed, the head of which is close to the toilet bowl.
You don’t have to be interested in Le Corbusier, architecture or the history of France to enjoy this beautifully written book, although if you are you’ll find a great deal to savour; Loving Le Corbusier is for anyone who has ever wondered about love and the strange workings of the human heart. At the end I was left thinking that if there is a moral to be drawn from the book it is perhaps that, if a man claims he is a visionary, it might be a good idea to give him as wide a berth as possible. However, I may be influenced by an inability to forgive Le Corbusier for what he did to Pinceau. No, I’m not going to tell you. Read the book to find out!
Below is the link to Colin’s website which has lots of fantastic photos and writing about Le Corbusier’s buildings.
Here’s the amazon link for the book:
And here is Colin on twitter:
Last year one of my favourite books was The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebank. I was surprised. It’s not that I’ve got anything against sheep, it’s just that before reading it I never would have thought I would become so fascinated by sheep and shepherds. The fact that I did is testament to the quality of James’s writing.
I was thinking about that book reading Luck Bringer by Nick Brown and I was thinking who knew I could become this interested in triremes and hoplites? But with writing this good why wouldn’t I?
“The smell of a trireme hits you, a mixture of sweat, urine, damp wood and salt. In rough weather this is augmented by vomit, and in battle by the effect of looseness of bowels as fear grips the heart.”
Luck Bringer is the story of Mandrocles, a teenage boy, who is handed over to the Greek renegade general, Miltiades, by his father to get him out of a bit of trouble he’s got into at home. In this case definitely a jump from frying pan to fire. The Persian army is on the prowl and Miltiades ends up fleeing to Athens, where he is viewed with suspicion both by the aristocrats, (the Alkmaionidai), and the demos. The boy gets his nickname “The Luck Bringer” because early on he deflects a blow intended for Miltiades and the device is a clever one because, as the bringer of luck, he becomes a talisman never allowed to stray too far from the general’s side and is therefore an observer of the politics, trickery and villainy which swirl around his master.
One of my favourite scenes is when a play “The Sack of Miletos” is being performed in Athens:
“The bloody slaughter scars our soil
Our young dead now, thrown from walls
Maidens ravaged, crones lamenting
Youths gelded in the blood pit …”
The performance causes a riot because the sack has taken place relatively recently and the populace is frightened that this is exactly what will happen to Athens soon at the hands of the Persians.
Characters you may have heard of (Themistocles, Aeschylus, Pythagoras) either appear or are referenced. Here’s an entertaining description of Pythagoras:
“I tend to think of him as a potentially decent military engineer gone astray. His notions of the soul and eating beans, his long windedness and lack of understanding of the affairs of men may have won him a reputation for wisdom … but to me he was a potentially good craftsman who became crazed.”
There are also some funny and scathing comments about the Spartans, who failed to turn up and help the Athenians at The Battle of Marathon, which is the climax of the book. This was the battle in which a ragtag army of 10,000 Athenian hoplites beat a professional army of 20,000 Persians.
“And where were the Spartans, the showy, heel dragging buggers then, when the whole world held its breath as the Persian Empire turned its full might on a small city?”
“Everything that’s good or makes sense about life is inverted in Sparta. A place that chooses a regime that keeps thousands down so that a small group can waste the richness of the land in this type of posturing vanity.”
Reading this book reminded me how much I enjoyed fiction set in the classical age and how little of it I have read since I devoured Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Robert Graves in my teens. At the beginning I became slightly confused by the politics but that ironed itself out soon enough.I loved the descriptions of the triremes and what it was like to be in one when it rammed another ship. The moment Mandrocles puts on his heavy helmet and his world narrows to the eye slits will stay with me for a long time. If you want to know what it was like to fight at the Battle of Marathon my guess is this is as close as you’ll get. Luck Bringer is an example of a vivid imagination fertilizing the seeds of detailed historical research. A great read. And I do love that cover. Below is the link to Nick’s website.
Recently I’ve been reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’d reached half way through and was wondering if perhaps I wouldn’t finish it. Although compelling in some ways, the book was beginning to irritate and frustrate me. I decided to take a break from it and began to read Susan Grossey’s book instead. I am very glad that I did because she makes writing historical fiction look easy and the reading of it a great pleasure. The Man in the Canary Waistcoat is set in 1825 in London (“this great, filthy, threatening, promising , thriving city …” – not much change there, then) and its protagonist is Samuel Plank, a magistrate’s constable. The story is about financial fraud concerning investments in the new energy of gas lighting. Sam Plank is helped out in his investigations by his engaging wife Martha and also his junior Constable Wilson. Here is a touching description of Martha.
“Despite having been married to a police officer for over twenty years, Martha retained her faith in the essential goodness of people – indeed I counted on it. On days when I had seen the very worst that someone can do to his fellow man I comforted myself that an evening by the fireside with my wife would convince me once again that although I moved in a world of shadows, I identified them as shadows only because of the lightness that Martha brought to my life.”
Grossey is particularly good at quick, vivid descriptions of people and place. Here is the man and his waistcoat:
“His fair hair was cut fashionably, and his clothes – from the bright yellow waistcoat to the artfully arranged cravat -suggested someone with altogether too close an acquaintance with his tailor and his looking glass.”
Here a young law clerk:
“The young man who answered my knock was wearing a coat clearly inherited from someone much larger; it hung from his shoulders, and he repeatedly and pointlessly pushed back the cuffs. The ink smudges on his fingers told me that he was a junior clerk, and his relegation to door duties told me that he was not much good at it.”
And here’s a lovely description of a nasty bit of weather:
“If it is true that the wind drives creatures and men mad, then that first week in August would have seen Bedlam bursting at the seams. It was a hot dry wind – coming all the way from southern France, they said – and it whipped and whistled through London for five days straight. The draymen’s horses whinnied and stamped their discomfort as the foetid gusts swirled around them, while the livestock being driven through the streets bleated and bellowed their unease and took every opportunity to break away from their herders.”
The plot leads to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison and also the ‘twisting alleyways of Wapping’ where Plank was brought up as a child due to his father being a lighterman. There is enough archaic language here to make you feel you are in a different era and a useful glossary at the back to check on unfamiliar words. This is the second in the Plank novels and I’m now going to go backwards and take a look at the first one Fatal Forgery. My only slight quibble is that I wouldn’t have minded if the book was longer. Plank and his associates are amiable company and I didn’t want the book to end. Of course, it may have been that in comparison with A Little Life (a long book) the next book I read was always going to seem short.
Here’s the link to Susan’s blog: https://susangrossey.wordpress.com/purchase/