Her new book (out today!) is set in an entirely different time period, and spans the globe from 1920s London to East Africa. I asked her some questions about her book and her process as a writer. Enjoy!
Tell us a little about yourself: How did you get started writing historical fiction?
I actually don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories—and in love with history! I knew I wanted to write historical fiction before I ever went to college, so I double majored in English and history. I wanted to have a thorough grounding in both before I tried my hand at writing a full novel.
I finally took the plunge when I was 23 and had just finished my first year of teaching. I re-read JANE EYRE and was moping around afterwards because I missed the characters, so I decided to create my own. I wrote 120,000 words in six weeks, but I had a novel. It now lives in a box in my attic, but it was a good start. I wrote another six or seven before I hit on SILENT IN THE GRAVE, thanks to some excellent advice from my agent. It took me fourteen years to get published, but within the first year, I was under contract for six books. I haven’t looked back since!
Your new novel, A Spear of Summer Grass, takes place during one of my favorite periods: the 1920s. Why did you choose this period, and how did you avoid the “roaring 20s” clichés?
My publisher wanted me to take a break from my Victorian series and the brief I got was, “Write anything you want. Literally.” So I started brainstorming based on the things I read about for pleasure. When I’m writing, I end up pretty submerged in my research, so I always make sure whatever I’m writing about is something I really enjoy reading about.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Happy Valley set in Kenya—a group of colonials who did some serious misbehaving. The set got started when it was still British East Africa and kept going until the 1940s. They got up to all sorts of mischief—drugs, adultery, murder. It made for fascinating reading and gave me a perfect starting point for creating my flapper heroine, Delilah Drummond. As far as clichés, I think they cease to be clichés when they are part of a fully realized character. If all Delilah did was bob her hair and do the Charleston, she wouldn’t be very interesting. But Delilah cuts her hair as a deliberate act of separating herself from her past when her husband is killed. Her flapper identity is part reinvention and part a natural progression for a willful woman who has decided to do exactly what she pleases and damn the consequences.
A wonderful twist is that your glamorous heroine ends up in Africa, in Kenya. What effect does this setting have on how you treat the period and on your heroine’s growth as a person?
It would have been impossible for Delilah to change materially if she were still making the rounds of the flesh-pots in Paris and London and Buenos Aires. She has to come face to face with something bigger than herself—in this case Africa—to finally confront all the baggage she’s been hauling around. It is the first time she’s able to stop running away from herself and figure out what really matters. There is nothing petty or silly about Africa; it’s raw and immediate and larger-than-life, just like Delilah, and something in her responds to the land in a way she hasn’t responded to anything or anyone in a very long time.
What’s your writing process: post-its, outline, pantser?
Both! I start with a synopsis that I write up for my publisher and which I subsequently ignore. I know the framework when I start—I know I’m starting at point A and will end up at Z, and I will know what D, L, and R look like, but the rest of it is a mystery. If I pantsed completely, the lack of organization would put me fetal under my desk with a cocktail, but plotting completely would make me equally mad. To me that takes all the spontaneous pleasure out of writing. So, a combination of the two works best for me.
What’s the funniest thing a fan has ever said to you?
I recently received a photo from a reader in Australia who got a tattoo of a line of code from SILENT IN THE GRAVE. Not exactly funny but certainly unexpected!
What is your biggest challenge in writing?
Knowing that I’m never going to have enough time to write all the books I want to write.
Name a few of your favorite books (I’d never ask for just one!)
Too difficult to narrow it down just to books—and I’m liable to change my mind by tomorrow!—so I’ll give you favorite writers instead: Jane Austen, Elizabeth Peters, Agatha Christie, E. M. Delafield, Daphne du Maurier, Monica Dickens, Baroness Orczy, Mary Stewart, Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith.
Thank you so much for your wonderful answers, Deanna! I can’t wait to read your new book :)!