Today’s Author Chat is a real delight for me, because we are back in one of my favourite historical times – Stuart England. Welcome, John Pilkington, along with your captivating actress come sleuth, Betsy Brand. Thanks for coming, and sharing the inspiration behind your writing. Now, to our chat!
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
No real literary pilgrimages as such, though I’ve visited a few famous writers’ homes (like Selma Lagerlöf’s beautiful house in Sweden). But in 2010 I went to Istanbul for 2 weeks – a fascinating city. I had an idea to write about the Elizabethan/Ottoman connection, inspired by a book called An Organ for the Sultan by Stanley Mayes, about Queen Elizabeth’s gift of a magnificent organ to Sultan Mehmet III, to boost trade. But in the end, I never wrote the book!
What is the first book that made you cry?
It may have been The Wild White Stallion, which was about a boy in the Camargue and a horse (I can’t remember the author’s name). In later life, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I’ve always been moved by the stories and suffering of the Native Americans.
What music do you listen to when you write (or don’t you)?
I never have music on when I work, too much of a distraction. I tend to listen to classical music (Beethoven, baroque, etc) for pleasure, which needs my undivided attention.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m not really a friend of any writer nowadays for some reason, though over the years I’ve known many and learned from some. I was privileged to know the late Nick Darke, Cornish playwright, who taught me a lot about dramatic writing, dialogue and so on. Nowadays I chat more on Twitter than anything else, mainly with other historical fiction authors.
Do you want each book you write to stand on its own, or are you building a body of work with connections or themes between each book?
I’ve done several historical fiction series. The longest is the Thomas the Falconer Mysteries, 7 books set in late Tudor times. The Marbeck spy series consisted of 4 books, as did my children’s series, the Elizabethan Mysteries. But my 2 standalone novels are still awaiting a publisher! So, I seem wedded to doing series, and am happy enough to be known for a body of work set in the 16th and 17th centuries, featuring regular main characters. Having said that, the story in each book can stand alone, though they all move forward chronologically.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Not to let anything, or anyone, put me off writing. To stick with it, be more patient, take my time and finish what I started – and generally keep it private. It’s often difficult to get people to take you seriously as a writer until you’re published, whereupon some will turn around and say they ‘always knew you could do it’!
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I learned a great deal from seeing my first book published. I had an agent by then, so a lot of it was about the commercial side – that I might actually make at least a part of my living from doing this. I learned about tighter editing and careful proof-reading. I realised I could embark on a series, and moved quite quickly on to book 2. I got better organised, though I don’t think my writing changed stylistically. I like to think I became more professional.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
If I’m honest, it was probably listening to my parents’ rows as a child. Along with witnessing the force of language, my vocabulary was enriched beyond my years, even though I was scared. It’s no surprise that the first things I wrote were plays, where the dialogue came first.
What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Two come to mind. One is Trask by American author Don Berry, set in Oregon in the 1840s. It has great power, a fantastic sense of place and is so well-written. The other is The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey. It’s about the invincible spirit of a born artist, Gulley Jimson, a rogue who just wants to paint. I can read it again and again. (Ignore the film version with Alec Guinness, the book is much better).
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Hah! At present I’ll own up to 3 unpublished novels. Why they’ve been turned down so far is a mystery, but I still have hopes. As for unfinished books, I rarely abandon writing one once I’ve started. The Elizabethan-Ottoman novel mentioned in Question 1 is an exception; I gave up after around 70 pages, realising it wasn’t working. I may have bitten off more than I could chew, making my main protagonist a Turk. But you learn from your mistakes.
My Newest Releases.
After the Fire and The Judas Blade, my two novels set in the Stuart/Restoration era, feature actress-cum-sleuth Betsy Brand, and are being republished by Joffe Books.
What kind of research did you do, and how long did it take?
I had already done a lot of research for the Tudor mysteries, the last ones set at the start of the 17th century, but it was a big leap to the second half of that century, to the time of Charles II. I always do a lot of background reading, and build up a file of notes. Each of my books is set in a specific year, and I research the events of that year so that my story could, just feasibly, have taken place then. Like most historical fiction authors, I visit places like old buildings, museums and so on. Handling period artefacts is wonderful, when you can. For the Thomas the Falconer books I went on a falconry course, flew some of those amazing birds myself and learned a lot about them from the falconers I met. I did some fencing at school, which has proved useful for writing sword-fighting scenes. For the Betsy Brand stories, I always knew my protagonist would be an actress, this being the first time (i.e. 1660 onwards) when women appeared on the English stage. I’d studied drama at university, so I did a lot of further work on Restoration Theatre practice, looking at portraits of leading players, pictures of theatres, set designs and costumes. I’ve also seen some of the plays in performance, which is good for atmosphere, attitudes and so on. I have a cork wall in my office where I pin up illustrations, charts, photos and anything else that might help. I’m obsessed with maps and like to know the topography of where my book is set (for example, maps of London ‘before and after’ the Great Fire of 1666).
Those first actresses had to be not only talented, but strong and courageous to survive in an exclusively male domain. I’m very fond of smart, shrewd Betsy and want to find more mysteries for her to solve.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I think names are very important, and I try to find ones that are not only memorable but have a ‘period feel’, an authenticity. I often scan the indexes of (non-fiction) histories for suitable names – a favourite is ‘Marmion’, not common nowadays but sounding very Tudor! The same goes for forenames: obviously it’s no use calling a character Wayne or Alex, let alone Poppy – or even Katie: Katherine in earlier times was always shortened to ‘Kat’. There were far fewer Christian names back then – half the male population were called Thomas, John, William or Henry. You need to find the right combination of forename and surname, to have a ring of truth about it. When I wrote plays (influenced at times by Shakespeare and others) I tried to find character names that reflected function: the most obvious one was ‘Cutter’ (he wasn’t a murderer, but he did ‘cut to the chase’!). I think for the writer, taking time and trouble over names pays off in the end.
What would you want readers to think when they reached ‘the end’?
‘I really enjoyed that – when’s his next one coming out?’
Quick Q and A
Tea or coffee: Coffee.
Dark or Milk Chocolate: Dark, every time.
When were you the happiest? Probably when I was around 21, playing guitar badly in an awful rock band, and loving it.
Favourite Children’s Book: Not sure – perhaps Treasure Island.
Favourite Adult Novel: So many, but I’ll settle for Cider with Rosie.
You can find John and his books at the following places:
John Pilkington Amazon Page