What draws you to historical fiction?
My father taught history, and my mother taught art and is still an artist, so history and creativity have always been part of the fabric of my life. From discussing history with my father throughout my childhood, I learned to place myself into different historical eras and to imagine what living in those times would have felt like. As I became a writer, I wanted to use my knowledge and love of history to portray how the events of the wider world affect the course of individual lives.
Describe your writing schedule. Do you have any rituals or routines? Do you outline?
I work best in the morning. When my son was young, I’d get up early, at least an hour and a half before he got up for school, and begin work then. I felt a tremendous sense of peace and freedom during those early morning hours, when the house was quiet and the world itself seemed fresh. As he became older, I started the schedule I follow now: enjoying a quiet breakfast, looking through the newspaper, and then getting down to work – while fighting every second the constant pull to check email. I write for three or four hours, then break for lunch. I reserve the afternoons for research and visits to the library, for the gym, my piano lesson, and various appointments.
I always make an outline before I begin work – and then leave the outline behind after I start work. Once I’m deep into the minds of the characters, new ideas come to me about the plot and characters, better, more organic ideas, and in this sense, I let the characters “take over” the book.
What are your favorite books and why?
These are the classics that I reread over and over:
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, a thoroughly modern story about a woman struggling to find a path for herself.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Each time I read it, I feel the yearning for usefulness that draws Dorothea to Mr. Casaubon and the important work he appears to be doing. I understand her decision to marry him, could imagine myself doing the same, even though simultaneously I see this so clearly as the wrong decision (both for Dorothea and for me!).
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, for examining the complex combination of morality, courage, and cowardice involved in the choices we make.
The Aspern Papers, by Henry James, for showing the lengths that people will go to follow their obsessions.
Contemporary novels that I adore:
Atonement, by Ian McEwan, for its presentation of how fiction can be used to create redemption.
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood, again for its examination of the redemption that fiction can bring.
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, for its portrait of England after the Second World War, and for the vital questions it leaves unanswered, questions I’m still debating with my friends months after I read the book.
In reviewing this list, I see that what these novels have in common is the ability to draw me into a fully described yet distant world, and make that world completely alive and compelling, populated with individuals I feel I know.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
My main advice is to keep working and keep sending out your work. The first short story I ever had published was rejected 42 times before it found an editor who loved it. The second short story I had published was rejected 27 times before it found the right editor. If there’s one thing I know for certain, those stories would never have been published if I’d given up after the first five rejections or even after the first twenty rejections. Someone once said that “eighty percent of success is showing up.” I firmly believe that, and it’s true in everything we do. Writers are very vulnerable, of course, and it’s hard to keep sending out work that keeps getting rejected, but the acceptance is just as terrific on the fiftieth try as on the first try.
My second piece of advice is to write about what you don’t know but want to learn about. Often, aspiring writers are told to “write what you know.” What you know is the given, the background of everything you write, because it’s part of who you are. I believe that the urge to discover, to find out things you don’t know, gives a real push and passion to writing, and readers pick up on this energy and get caught up in the writer’s voyage of discovery.
My third piece of advice is to write the type of book you yourself enjoy reading most. If you love to read mysteries set in small English villages, then try writing one. If you prefer espionage thrillers set in Washington, D.C., well then, try writing one of those, and so on. You’ll always feel more motivated when you write within a framework that you enjoy. Which brings me to my final piece of advice: never stop reading.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. I started out by writing short stories about magical animals and also about princesses – but strong princesses who ruled their kingdoms and rode into battle on white horses. In high school, I began to write poetry, which I submitted to literary magazines. I received rejection letters from all the best places.
Once I was out of college, I still wanted to be a writer, but I had to earn a living at the same time. So I got up early, before going to work, and wrote for an hour or so. I worked in a variety of jobs: in the photo department of a newspaper, at an art gallery, as a paralegal at several law firms, as an associate producer on documentary films, even as a fact-checker at magazines. Having a wide variety of jobs is terrific for a fiction writer, because it teaches you about professions that you can give to your characters.